Stephen Dalton, "Not Falling, Soaring"
VOX, June 1991, pp. 24-25
Mark E smith will have nowt of Madchester and rarely leaves his spiritual home. Edinburgh. Where at least he knows how to organize a piss up in a brewery. STEPHEN DALTON pops up for a dram. Or three.
Mark E Smith's reputation precedes him like massed stormtroopers on the horizon. Fourteen years on, the Fall frontman still sets everyone on edge, either in the flesh or through his music. Since 1977, Manchesters most durable outsider has left grubby thumbprints on the pristine paintwork of English pop without concession to fashion or accessibility.
Those craggy, charismatic features chronicle 33 years of yelping and scowling. but the one-time extra-terrestrial oik half street urchin and half sea urchin -- who boldly sported flares and tank-tops during punk's fashion blitz, today models conservative Man At C&A clobber. A mellower thirtysomething Marky for the '90s? The streamlined confidence of latest Fall album Shiftwork certainly suggests as much. with the new four-piece line-up meshing tightly together. In its grooves, grumpy old Mark can be heard laughing, joking and crooning lovingly.
Extricating ourselves from Glasgow's grim science-fiction housing projects in a hired car, Mark mocks the former City Of Culture's -- 'Milan Of The North' reputation ('Zagreb Of The North! Stockport Of The North!"). Having had a few bevvies at the airport, he decides we should have some more at the Glengoyne Distillery, home of the most southerly Highland malt whisky. Over samples of the local brew, he reveals his membership of Scotland's exclusive Malt Whisky Society.
It's all in a day's work for cult pop guru. Mark, who hasn't seen the inside of an office since he was sacked from his clerk's post at Manchester Docks in 1977. Smith always talks about The Fall as his trade, his day job, his way of making an honest crust. Should we take statements like the title track of Shiftwork seriously -- "I think I work much harder at it than I would do a job," muses Mark. 'I do all the fucking work. The other three need pushing. They're very modest Jesuit-trained lads, whereas I'm a bit pushy.
After a high turnover of personnel, with 14 band members leaving The Fall ("one a year, ha ha!'), sole remaining founder Smith claims to have found the perfect four-piece formula. For now. 'It's working brilliant. It's a lot more improvisational. Also, Craig was so modest and he's a fucking genius. There is no guitarist like Craig Scanlon in the world. He needs to be brought out and the only way I could do it was to strip the band down.'
The 15th Fall album and the second licensed through Fontana from Smith's own Cog Sinister label, Shiftwork is a corker, surpassing last year's masterly Extricate with brute force and epic sentiment. Centrepiece of the collection is 'Edinburgh Man', an achingly heartfelt paean to Mark's second home which took 18 months to assemble. The rest were hammered together over several weeks of recording in Sheffield. Hard, solid graft -- no fannying about on tropical islands for foreman Smith.
'People say you're mad, but you look at all these other groups and they're either bone idle, they're art students or they really are raving mad. I'm son of a rockabilly guy, I've got something to say and I'm going to say it simply. Whereas a lot of them are just into it because they can't get a job. A bunch of phonies. Personally, I don't know how a lot of groups get away with what they bring out. I don't think we're the bee's knees, but what people get away with is shocking. It just makes me laugh when I'm the madman because I've nurtured a group and I've got fucking original songs. If they say you're mad, you know you're sane.'
This is the obligatory Marky rant, born of the luxury of being always allowed to speak his mind.
'People don't like to hear the bloody truth. I find that in life in general; it's nothing to do with being in a group. If you're honest with people. they think something's up. People would rather hear anything nice. It's alright for me to say that because I'm in a lucky position but people have always said, 'shut your mouth and you'll get on alright'. I don't believe in that.'
It's strange how Smith advocates ferocious honesty but is extremely cagey about his imminent divorce from Brix, his recreational use of drugs, his current earning power.. 'I don't think it's anybody's business. I hate it when you pick up a magazine and see these groups from Manchester...'we got a new BMW this week, we've got a house like Johnny Marr and we dress in Armani'. I find it very boring. It's the sign of a small mind. It's like when me and the wife got divorced.., it's not fucking John and Yoko here!"
'I'm glad she's got somebody and glad somebody's looking after her. Brix is a bit insecure, but she's really talented and a really good composer. People go 'your wife ran off with Nigel Kennedy, let me buy you a drink, and I say it wasn't like that. I'm happy for her. But people are very media-orientated and believe everything they bloody they read. Me and Brix split up. Then nine months later she met him.'
Mark is disturbed how some hardcore Fall fans view his ex-wife's residency in the group as a creative decline. 'I'm not having people slag off Brix. Her contribution was amazing -- she took the band by the neck and fucking organised it. What I hated with the Brix thing was they blamed it all on her lust because she's a bloody woman but it was my decision. I rule The Fall.'
Jawohl, mein Kommandant. But Brix's 1983 arrival coincided with a huge swing towards melody and pop. Nicht wahr!
"In other words, she could sing and play guitar, whereas we couldn't! Huh huh huh! It was a good period but we got better I can't be objective about it. I hate bloody analysis. That's where bands fuck up. I write lyrics, I've got tunes in me head, and that's it. I'm always trying to make a statement opposite to the trend."
A contrary old bugger is Mark E Smith. Hurtling across country to Edinburgh for a quick snifter, he curls up asleep on the back seat of the car like a still-born whippet. Awake, his face is elastic and animated, wide open with lopsided laughter. But when Mark has to pose for photos beneath the Forth rail bridge out comes that famous pout-eyes extending invisible tendrils of contempt, the bastard offspring of Natasha Kinski and an irate squid.
In pub, Mark brings today's alcohol intake up to six pints and four whiskies. 'Do you find that offensive ?" he snaps. "If you can hold your drink and you're civilised, there's newt wrong with it. I've got nothing to hide. I drink beer all day and I always have. The problem is when you start getting ashamed of it -- secret drinking. The thing is never to drink when you've got problems. Compared to Scottish people, I drink fuck-all."
For some reason, this last sentence is whispered. Despite his defensiveness, Mark is a witty and approachable interviewee. His reputation as the rottweiler of rock is, according to one of his friends, merely 'the tension between a middle-class media and working-class artist'. By frequently referring to his humble Salford roots, does he intend to guilt-trip people!
'I would never do that and I hate people who do', he protests. 'I don't care if your dad was a millionaire or a dustbin man. Just because people don't understand what you're saying doesn't mean you are necessarily proletarian. It's nowt to do with behaving like the Happy Mondays. That's not working-class culture to me, that's bloody hooliganism.'
The Fall have always distanced themselves from Madchester scenes, but do they qualify as genuine prole culture? 'I wouldn't say so. The working class don't buy it. They're so bloody daft they're watching videos all the time. The working class are bloody stupid and that's what a lot of the songs are about. That's what annoys me -- everybody goes on about Prole Art Threat and that, but those songs are bloody satire!'
Mark's talent for winding up liberals by side-stepping bourgeois morality is well documented. He peppers monologues with terms like "faggot" and "nigger", reserving a particular contempt for "socialism". The Fall are still banned in Czechoslovakia after submitting lyrics like 'socialist git' for approval. A situation not eased by the songs being scribbled on beer mats and old shopping lists.
At 16, Smith wore swastika armbands to nightclubs -- an obsession that runs through his songs from 'Who Makes The Nazis' to last year's 'High Tension Line' video, which saw the group decked out in SS uniforms. 'I just thought it would be a good crack. All these bands into shocking people are as tame as fuck". I made everybody cover up the SS symbols and swastikas. I'm very anti-Nazi, actually. 'What they did was criminal. They put German art back about 100 years.
But it's not just bloody-mindedness that drives Mark to slaughter sacred cows: he defends his right to speak freely in everyday language. "I'm not anti-gay. If you hang around with gays, they use words like faggot' and 'fairy' more than anyone. Anyway, we're all homosexuals deep down, aren't we, Steve?"
Aaaaaargh! Mark Smith touched my knee. Will no taboo hold him back? It's wrong to think like that if you're an artist. With most of my stuff, I just filter what I bloody hear. That's the trouble with rock musicians. They all sit down and go 'mmm, let's write something about the Brazilian bloody rainforests'. That's not culture. Anybody can do that!"
Half journalism and half poetry. The Fall are woven into this blighted nation's social fabric like no other rock band. Rap and reggae provide the closest comparisons with Smith's amoral outsider/ observer stance, perverting and subverting language with sneered slang. He is an obsessive reader and student of writing.
Naming his band after Camus' classic novel of guilt and betrayal. His songs pay homage to Lovecraft, Burgess, Reinhardt, Twain and Whitman, while our conversation covers Hardy, Chandler, Burroughs. Neitzche, Gogol and Wolfe.
But has the man whose music closely mirrors Kafka's urban paranoia ever thought about writing seriously!
'As opposed to me lyrics, huh huh huh. I would do it, but I think a novel's bloody hard work. It's got to be hard work to be good. I'd love to work on a bloody paper or something. I'd love to be Geoffrey Barnard' he chuckles, supping another pint.
Shadows fill as Edinburgh embraces us. Pundits suggest it was Mark's 18 months in the Caledonian capital -- along with Brix leaving and his father's death in 1989 -- that mellowed him into his current elder statesman status. Although family and financial reasons forced him back to Manchester, he still waxes warmly about the Athens of the North.
'People are smart here -- better educated in Edinburgh, when the bloody gas man comes round you an have a fucking rap with him about Nietzche. People round Manchester, you can't get a bloody word of sense out of them.'
Of course not, Mark. Fawning critics have let Marky get away with such absurd generalisations for years, presenting his reactionary drivel as radical cheek.
But, skirting Edinburgh with the insipid piffle of Radio 1's Round Table dribbling into the car, it becomes shockingly clear how much we need angular eccentrics like Smith. Warts and all.
'We have to look after these people in the British music industry, because we haven't got many,' agrees Fall manager Trevor Long. Trevor views the band's progress as soaring rather than mellowing -- 'onwards and upwards with more force and intrigue than ever before.'
Mark will only admit 'I know meself better these days, that's all'. He now tries to avoid the fights he regularly used to have at Fall gigs, and no longer blames others for his frequent depressions. A kind of contentment? 'You never get to where you want to go. That's why the band keeps going.'
Slipping into the Edinburgh night, Mark looks at home among the city's grotesque Gormenghast gargoyles. "Back to civilisation," he sighs.