Andrew Mueller, "Worker's Playtime"
MELODY MAKER, April 10, 1991, pp. 94-95.
When Andrew Mueller went to interview Mark E Smith about The Fall's new "Shiftwork" LP, he thought he knew what to expect -- the usual tirade, that is, of abuse, sarcasm and cantankerous opinion. Seems, though, that the great man is growing tired of his reputation as one of rock's great rent-a-quotes. Which doesn't mean, however, that our man still didn't get an absolute earful on everything from Australian beaches to "Twin Peaks".
WHY "SHIFTWORK", MARK?
"I wanted to write an everyday sort of song, you know. About people."
About the grindingly ordinary, you mean?
"I'll have you know that 15 per cent of the working population of this country are on shifts. It's deliberate commercial anticipation on our part.
So what are the other 85 per cent going to buy it for?
"Well, they..." Mark E Smith pauses, ponders, and dissolves into giggles. He is, today, on frustratingly obtuse form. Responses are quiet and a long time in coming. Conversation is an avalanche of non-sequiturs. Now there's a deceptively clever metaphor, kids.
WE MEET THE DRUMMER, PROBABLY A GOOD TIME FOR A POPCORN RUN
While I was waiting for Mark to descend from his hotel room, I sat amid the inelegant prefab decor of the Kensington Hilton's lobby and talked to The Fall's drummer of five years, a professionally unassuming chap called Simon. He was at pains to assure me as to the ultimate benevolence of his notoriously cantankerous employer.
"He's a good boss, he really is. Always looks after us. But he does get the final say, though, if he doesn't like something musically."
It was made quietly clear that The Fall are an item, an entity of singular purpose, suffering little friction between management and labour.
"I mean, it can be like that, on stage. He does tend to have his own peculiar habits, the way he walks around and likes to twiddle the knobs on the amps and all that business. Which can be very frustrating, you know. But the rest of the time he's fine. Just like one of us."
A regular guy. One of the chaps.
SURE, and Lee Harvey Oswald didn't know it was loaded. Mark E Smith has over a consistently fascinating recording career spanning 13-odd years, umpteen albums and as many line-up changes in the band behind him, firmly established himself as one of rock's most driven mavericks. And unlike certain of his contemporaries, Julian Cope pogo-sticks to mind with a chicken on his head and a sign around his neck saying "EVERYONE PAY ATTENTION TO ME", he's a character of so many quasi-iconic eccentricities that he's never had to resort to making great play of them. There have been plenty of writers only too happy to do that for him.
And why not? He is, as the phrase goes, great copy, reliably unpredictable, a walking talking rent-a-quote doll. Wind him up and he winds you up. Witty, articulate, you remember the sort of thing.
Today, however, you get the definite feeling he's getting fed up with it. Wisdom teeth have been more easily extracted. So, Mark, do you ever worry much about yourself, as a character or persona or whatever, becoming more prominent or important than the band and its output?
"Yeah," he snaps. "I think its fucking daft."
AH, HERE HE IS
WITHIN seconds, Mark E Smith has noted the reporter's Australian accent, entirely foiled to disguise a patronising smirk, lit a cigarette and embarked upon a rigorous examination of my Walkman.
"You're sure you don't need a microphone attached to this thing?"
It usually works okay.
(Expression of zen reptilian ennui.)
So, um (conversationally like), did you have a good time in Australia last year?
"As good a time as you can have, yeah."
Is that anything to do with the fact that you fired two people in the middle of the tour, or ...
"Oh, it's just such a wonderful place, isn't it. The sun, the beaches...."
Okay, so it rained and the beaches are hepatitis traps. Aside from that...
". .. And I know so many people who want to go there, too. Poor kids. A year's savings, just to get on a plane. Bloody hell."
Okay, enough of Australia. You give the English a bit of a hard time, too, don't you?
Is this motivated by like or dislike?
"I like some of them, yeah. Though they terrify me sometimes."
"Like now, ha ha ha."
What do you mean by that?
"I don't know," he shrugs, not altogether helpfully. "It's all on the LP, isn't it? I don't really see any point in this line you're taking, Andrew. What are you trying to get at?"
Something like this, though he flatly denies being a "specifically English artist", The Fall seem the closest thing extant to a quintessentially English rock'n'roll band. What better adjective to encapsulate his bleakly absurd sense of humour, his legendarily corduroy notions about image, his occasional wistful longing for other countries (an uncharacteristically lovely pean to Edinburgh appears on the new album), his frequently expressed affectionate contempt for these drizzle-kissed isles and the patent fact that he'll complain, scorn and mock until the cows come home but will rarely show any inclination to actually do anything about it. You're as English as mushy peas and abandoned cricket matches, mate.
Well, do you agree with comparisons to Ray Davies, then?
"I find it a big compliment, yeah. But I think Davies was much more up front about it. The thing with The Kinks was that they didn't really appeal to the English, though. The English don't like being told things like that."
Is that what you've found?
"In a way, but not that bad. Because a lot of my stuff is pretty obscure anyway. There are other bits in it. I'm not as disciplined as Ray Davies is."
What do you like to think your strengths as a writer are, then?
"Well, what do you think they are? This is a pretty one-sided interview this, isn't it? So why, so where, and why and what? Let's have some opinions, man."
I tell him that I think he's funny. I tell him that I like Fall songs that make me laugh. "Rollin' Dany," "Mr Pharmacist", "Shoulder Pads #1B", "Lucifer Over Lancashire", "Australians In Europe", bitterly hilarious, each. He seems not displeased with this response.
THE MAIN FEATURE
As it happens, there are several eminently giggleworthy moments on the new album. Notable among these is "A Lot Of Wind", Mark's critique of television, the "tragic lantern", the relentless inanity of which drives him to hugely entertaining heights of monotonic distraction.
"Yeah, I like 'A Lot Of Wind'," he beams, eventually, "that's good, that you like that. It wouldn't be any good, see, if it wasn't delivered right. It's got to be done like that."
Which programmes in particular inspired it?
"There's one or two that I switch off automatically. That one that's really offensive ... 'Kilroy', that's it. Really offensive. Have you seen that? 'If you've ever been a child molester, ring "Kilroy"'... Bloody hell."
There should be laws, don't you think, against the general public from appearing on TV.
"No, the general public are all right. It's the people behind it, who're the worry. My argument is, if the telly's just going to be....
[page cut on my copy sorry, lose only 2 words but cannae work 'em out fer the life of me - stve]
...how about some fucking comedy shows now and again? Instead of some outfit going out to bloody China to look at dogs locked up in cages. Bloody phoney."
Almost as if he feels this is all getting a bit congenial, he narrows his eyes and informs me,
"Australian TV's worse."
Bollocks. It's better than English TV.
"Well yeah," he grins, "it's more amusing, I must admit. You never come away feeling depressed and worse than when you turned it on, ha ha."
Ha ha. So how about the currently accepted benchmark of elevated viewing then, "Twin Peaks".
It's crap isn't it.
"It is!" he whoops. Banging a fist onto the table. "It's crap! And no one will own up to it, will they? It's not as good as 'Dallas', is it? Do you want a drink?"
I decline. Mark orders an orange juice and tells me that the funniest thing that he's ever seen on TV was the time Jason Donovan made an ill-advised appearance on Dame Edna's chat show. He recites the entire agonizing exchange, the best punchlines twice, before brushing aside a few tears and telling me he videotapes the ingeniously inept Jason whenever possible.
Quite right too.
So suppose some munificent soul was to give you a bunch of money and tell you to go and make your own programme, what would it be like?
"One hour of blank space," he says without hesitation. "Though I'd quite like to make films one day.
THE ALBUM, YES, THERE IS ONE
SHIFTWORK is another great Fall album. Like all the other great Fall albums, it showcases the band's determined devotion to its own vision, as unique and impervious to outside influences as moon rock. Or The Cocteau Twins, someone like that. Do you reckon The Fall exist in a vacuum, Mark?
"No, I wouldn't see it like that at all," he mutters, shaking his head. "There's a definite band of sound going through The Cocteau Twins' stuff, isn't there? Ours is more ... more of a strained sound. I mean, yeah, I know what you mean, but I don't think we're like that. I think they're much more a closeted unit. I'm a lot more forward, I have a lot of attack. I'm trying to chop off all the esoteric bits, the unnecessary bits, all the time.
Is that what last year's sackings were about ?
"Yeah ..." he nods, trailing off. "Yeah. Pick out the unique bits and keep them."
With that, Mark E Smith announces that he'd like to wind things up, having had, as always, the last word. A national treasure. Make room at Westminster Abbey now.