Roger Morton, "Time and a half gentleman please"
NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS, April 20, 1991, pp. 18-19.
Mr Niggly Of The North is back! MARK E SMITH, revelling in the glow of THE FALL's brilliant new 'Shiftwork' LP, postulates that the working class have been shafted again and rants about those Manchester bands in full. ROGER MORTON hails The Greatest Mitherer In Pop. Shutter working overtime: STEFAN DE BATSELIER.
In the plush bar of the L107-a-night Kensington Hilton Hotel, Mark E Smith sups on the pint he's just had brought over by a waitress who he addresses as 'luv', and begins to tell me about 'ordinary people'. What a bastard.
"I wanted songs that were a bit more relevant to ordinary people," he says. "I think ordinary people are getting a bit fed up of it, music. You see it all the time. I feel it."
If it was any other thirtysomething rock singer sitting in a polished marble oasis of comfort and servitude, pontificating about what the average Joe or Jane wanted, and suggesting that his new album 'Shiftwork' was just the thing, you might be forced to conclude that the drugs or the sun bed sessions or the syphilis had addled their sense of irony. With Smith, however, it all seems somehow natural.
Mr Niggly Of The North is at it again, spraying contradiction, obfuscation, perverse humour and sheer bullshit around him like an epileptic graffiti artist on roller-skates. Mark Smith has been confounding his reputation for so long now that nobody knows what it is anymore. Not even him.
Imagine The South Bank Show on The Fall ... "Since the late '70s Mark E Smith has been the foremost anti-establishment reactionary, working class conceptual poet, and ballet loving hater of 'ponces' and pretension in rock, or in fact outside rock, since Smith's presence in rock was always more as a sarcastic glam puritan hip fogey .. ." And at that point you'd have to put on a video of The Hit Man And Her.
What Smith really is, of course, is The Greatest Mitherer in Pop. The Fall's 'Shiftwork' album confirms it. It nags brilliantly. There is not a duff track out of 12 pieces of prime Smith sloganeering and needle. The vocals are more 'howling', and the whole album boils with mangled, distorted, off-kilter noise and sabotaged dance technology. Two songs -- 'The Mixer' and 'So What About It' -- are produced by Sheffield's FON man-of-bleeps Robert Gordon, marking a return to 'Hit The North' style use of machinery, the rest is taken care of by 'Extricate' producer Craig Leon.
'Shiftwork' is certainly as good as, if not better than the lauded 'Extricate' and Smith, who has now stripped The Fall to the trio plus one of Craig Scanlon, Stephen Hanley, Simon Wolstencroft and vocalist, is mightily pleased with his handiwork.
"It's like I'm in a state of shock at the moment that it's a fucking good LP and it didn't sound like a replica of 'Extricate'," he says.
For the first 20 minutes of our Hilton meeting, Smith certainly appears to be in a shocked state of mind. The man who sits fiddling with his packet of B&H, mumbling about what a "really great rhythm section" The Fall has, and earnestly explaining how much more direct it is to work with a trio instead of a "six-piece", hardly seems recognisable as nail-bomb orator Numero Uno.
Drummer Simon Wolstencroft joins in for a while to assist Smith's explanations of The Fall's musical proficiency, but although it might be true that recognition is seldom given to the sound of The Fall as opposed to Smith's gob it is, frankly, dull to hear about. The Fall are dead talented. Now let's hear a Mark Smith anecdote.
LAST YEAR The Fall spent much of their time "slogging 'Extricate' to death around the world", as Smith puts it. On returning from a shortish trip out of the country, Smith got back to his Manchester home to find that while he was away someone had knocked down an entire row of houses next to his. Where once stood a street there was now a pile of rubble and on top of the rubble hordes of 'scallies' were swarming, trying to look in through Mark's windows, to see the famous pop star. The neighbours advised him to get a burglar alarm fitted. It was like an MES nightmare come true.
There we have, in micro-anecdote, Smith's world-view as partially represented on 'Shiftwork.' England is going to the dogs, and the pop youth are turning into them. Whether 'Shiftwork' is what 'ordinary people' want is highly debatable. But it does address our failing nation's disgrace in at least three areas.
'A Lot Of Wind' is a funny, caustic attack on trash television posing as serious debate; 'The War Against Intelligence' is a slogan piece expressing Smith's disgruntlement with what he sees as a British trend to reward idiocy and incompetence. But by far the most acerbic and detailed bellyaching comes in 'Idiot Joy Showland'. It starts like this: "Idiot groups with no shape or form/Out of their heads on a quid of blow/ Their shapeless kecks flapping on the storm/Looking what they are/ A pack of worms/in Idiot Joy Showland."
It then goes on to mention Freddie And The Dreamers, "youth imitators", the shafting of the "working class", "Disneyland", "showbands" and "locusts". But it doesn't actually mention Manchester. You wouldn't expect Mark Smith to be jumping for joy at the proliferation of post-Roses and Mondays pop, but this does sound a bit like Mr Niggley blowing his top.
In an ideal world, do you think all bands should be like The Fall?
"No, I don't."
Yet you've always maintained that yours was the only 'correct' way for a band to be.
"Yeah, you're right. You don't get a lot of original groups. That's a fact of life."
So can we assume 'Idiot Joy Showland' is an attack on bands like The Stone Roses or Happy Mondays?
"Yeah. It's like a routine. It's like a cycle you see every two or three years. I don't think those bands are bad, it's just it seems to get worse. It's like people are happy now to see any f--ker who plays a guitar. It's also about the area, Manchester, the whole thing around the bands and the mentality it produces."
Once you get something like that you get hundreds of other bands trying to be like it, who are pinching off other bands who are pinching off others. You just end up with a really diluted situation, which is really typical of British Industry, where you finally put yourself out of business, 'cos you're not producing anything.
"The whole thing there is just like easy buzz. It's easy buzz ... Aerobatics on stage, dancing, throwing your body about. Which is good, but it's not good. It's stimulus. It's BSB ... It's Sky as music."
Erm, you mean you object to...
"People think it's a clever combination of dance and rock. I don't think it particularly is."
So it is much more than a minor objection to the way the music has gone?
"Yeah, well that's what I'm saying. I think that's a lot of why people resent musicians. There's going to be a big backlash against music, I'm positive of it."
Are you sure it isn't just your age showing?
"Me age? No it's not me age. No, 'cos all these groups pinch tunes off us anyway. They're always in the front line of our bloody gigs."
Are you sure that you're not just jealous?
"MAAHAHAHAHAHA!... HA! It's very good that. Very good. I knew people were going to say that about 'Idiot Joy Showland'. Are you saying to me I can't write an objective observation of a scene I am in the corner of, and can join any time I want? I mean that's ridiculous. I'm trying to observe it."
It just seems strange that you should be motivated to write a song about it, and it is unusually explicit for you.
"Well it's good to do parody. I mean that was a really heavy rock song. I mean we had the clicked skip drums, and we had the old nyaaaaarnyaaarnaaa. ..We had the whole caboodle in there. It's not just the lyrics. I think it's pretty funny, actually."
I still find it odd that you should be so concerned about it all.
"Well you can't help it in Manchester. You get it shoved down your bloody throat. You do. It's nowhere down here. Up there it's 24 hours a day. The TV ... Even the local news programme .. .blaaahraaaarraaaaar raaaaaaar. .."
Simon: "And you get Piccadilly Radio throwing it down your throat."
Mark: "The best station in Manchester is Sunset. They play reggae, really bad toasting, and daft groups."
IN THE background, the hotel piped music plays 'Pomp And Circumstance' military marches. Mark Smith orders strong tea and more cigarettes from the waitress, luv, and curls his lip into his habitual sneer. His insectoid eyes sink into black folds of skin. It is time for the obligatory searching analysis of the man's political stance.
Looking at it one way, Smith is pretty much a John Major kind of guy. Smart dresser, selfmade man, opposed to a class-ridden society. Shaves regularly. So the question that has to be asked is, does he steal the towels when he's staying at The Hilton?
Mark: "I wouldn't steal the towels from here ... They stink. Or they did last time I was here. You've been on about 'the working class' again."
'Idiot Joy Showland' talks about how the working class have been "shafted".
"Yeah well, they've been shafted up their arse by f----ing stupid videos, and cheap pop videos as TV. And films are on late."
"Good films are on at four in the morning, after The Hit Man And Her. So being the working class, being brought up not like they are in America, but to watch TV as a form of culture almost, they take it."
Do you see yourself as standing up for authentic working class values?
"No I don't, it doesn't exist anymore does it? Well, it won't soon. There's an underclass and a leisure working class, which is what we're part of."
So that's all a misconception about you?
"Yeah, but then you run the risk of sounding like an old fogey don't you. But yeah, I look to those values ... I carry me own bags in the hotel and all that... Hahahahahaha... Impressive, huh? ... Ha ha ha heurgh! ... I stop the cab ten yards before the front door ... Hahahahaha!"
Mark Smith may be a bastard, but he is a funny bastard with it. That's one of the three reasons why he's been able to spend all these years loudly maintaining that his world, his background, his music and his dress sense are the only ones that count, without looking like an egocentric dork. The second reason is that half the time, nobody knows what he's on about ... Least of all Mark.
Do people understand you?
"I don't know. It changes doesn't it?"
When you call a song something like 'War Against Intelligence' it implies that you think you're working on some 'higher plain'.
"I had a vague title for the LP actually, called 'The War Against Intelligence', and then the Gulf War broke out ... But, there is a war of intelligence going on at the moment. I do genuinely think that, and it's not because I'm particularly intelligent, I just think there is. Intelligence is actively discouraged in all walks of life, the media and all of it.
You think it's getting worse?
"You talk to somebody, a bricklayer for instance. They're simply told to build badly, as opposed to making a f--in proper job out of it. And the blokes that they tell these things to either have to do it or they're out of work. Same with groups, same with everything.
You mean there's a conspiracy going on to downgrade everything?
"It's like an undercurrent, innit? It's like a mental thought. Nobody's doing my work. Nobody likes to have a craft for anything. Nobody likes getting out of bed in the morning. I don't, but sometimes you have to. Nobody likes going to school. Nobody likes reading books. I find books very hard ... Hahahaha... But I read a lot of them ... No I don't actually. Sometimes for weeks on end I just watch telly, and after a bit you go 'What the f-- am I doing here?' Everybody does it."
Erm, you know how you always present yourself as being this completely confident person who's always sure they're right? Well, do you ever have doubts?
"Yeah, all the time. I have doubts about half the stuff I said to you earlier."
Do you do things that you're embarrassed by?
"Not in The Fall's work, but personally maybe. It's things you regret on the spot isn't it? Like we should have done this interview at the Epsom races, shouldn't we?''
I'm quite happy with the Kensington Hilton.
"Yeah well, it's more representative of the LP, really."
The third reason Smith gets away with it, is that The Fall make records which pop the cork on rationality. So make that five stars for 'Shiftwork' and don't forget to tip the waitress, luv. Smith did.