Author?, "Lyricists: Mark E. Smith"

Q, date? (1991?), pp. 65-66

"Few people alive today can remember a time when there wasn't Mark E. Smith, fronting his band The Fall, and snarling harsh, cryptic couplets at anyone who cared to listen."


Writing lyrics is what I got into rock music for," says Mark E. Smith. However, purchasers of The Fall's umpteen albums have never been offered benefit of an enclosed lyric sheet and a request to his publisher reveals that he has always refused to write his words down, even for them. They are immortalised, it transpires, only in so far as they can be decoded from The Fall's records, which is to say with extreme difficulty, given Smith's slurry diction and the band's unbridled noisiness.

"To me, a song's never finished and it's never good enough, that's why I don't write lyrics down," he explains, lighting a fag (his presence has brought the pleasant aroma of a pub outside business hours to the record company interview room). "Once they're down on paper, you can't change 'em, and I like to change 'em, even just before I'm going on stage. That's the beauty of the music being so simple and tight, I love writing, It's me only pleasure, I'm compulsive, my problem's knowing when to shut up on a song, I can't put that bleeding pen down, So I hone it, try to get it as simple as possible.

"You can get intelligent lyrics in rock music, no matter what they say. Ray Davies did it, Lou Reed is classic, timeless, Hank Williams is excellent, a moral parable in 90 seconds. We've done a song of his called Just Waiting on our new album. The point is you don't have to be flowery like Genesis and Marillion or pretentious like Voice Of The Beehive or go on and on like Dylan. He can't write for toffee. Eighteen bloody verses! It's not fair on the band."

Still, despite his stricture, he has agreed to talk about five pre-selected lyrics, as hesitantly transcribed by your correspondent. His first selection, Stephen Song (from The Wonderful And Frightening World Of The Full, 1984) is a bit of a poser:

"There was a song, the song we're lookin' for / I always have to say to myself/ It has nothing to do with me/ He has nothing/ He is not me/ His vendetta, a parchment/ Clothed in grey abundance"

And then several lines of question marks, frankly.

"I like it 'cos it was right off the wall," he says. "The tune was there and I just made it up as I went along, it's about competitiveness, people getting at you, imitating you and your habits, plagiarism really obsesses me, that's why I don't like giving secrets away about how I write. And this... no, I can't remember, 'Clothed in grey abundance' is wrong, but I don't know what it should be.

"It's like a counselling session, talking about your lyrics, int'it? A lot of writing is psychic, really. I used to be a bit of a psychic when I was a teenager, but since then I've tried to divert it into me work, so I'll often write a song and I don't know what it means till six months later. There again, I don't want to listen to the words of my old songs because I want to move on. That's a lot of the trouble I've had within the group, why there's been so many changes in the line-up. People who always want to do Totally Wired (single, 1980) whereas my only pleasure is pushing on."

Happily, compared to Stephen Song's scattered verbal wreckage, And Therein (from Extricate, 1990), offers a fairly buoyant liferaft of coherence to the drowning lyric fan, at least to begin with. Homelessness and guilt feelings are the themes:

"When you see that man outside in the bucketing rain/ And you picture it in your cosy home/ You think you've blown a fuse/ Don't know how to react"

"Martin Bramah wrote a good tune and it conjured up the Salvation Army to me," he says. "It was quasi-religious and country and western, which I'd always wanted to do. (Sings) 'Roo-ooby, don't take your love to town.' I love the way they give a message over those stories. Get to the beat of it, that's what I wanted to do: great guitars and a bit of sixth form poetry thrown together."

Idiot Joy Showland (from Shift-Work, 1991) may imply that the angrier he gets the more lucidly he writes. It's a candid "pisstake of the Manchester scene" from Mark E. Smith, aged 33: "Idiot groups with no shape or form/ Out of their heads on a quid of blow/ Their shapeless kecks flapping on the storm"...

You really hate these people then?

"No, it's objective," he claims. "Sam (sic), our drummer, was doing all these Madchester beats so I thought, Let's go the whole hog. But the song's about attitudes that go beyond Manchester too. Competition, again, a promoter said to me recently, They're just a bunch of fuckin' little girls nowadays. It's true. All they talk about is clothes and chart positions. It started about 1987, I can't figure it out, but it fits in with the sampling stuff. Young bands come into the studio when you're mixing and they'll ask -- they're blatant about it -- Oh, what bpm's that in? I go, What the fuck's it got to do with you! Get out!"

You Haven't Found It Yet (also from Shift-Work) is something of a boggler: "Impulses crowd your head/ Too much to be absorbed/ You enter the saw-down mental of your head/ Which implies the simple facts." Eh?

"I was dead pleased with it," he says, unrepentantly, "It's about driving round London. But you have to admit, the last few gigs we did before Christmas I got the record out to check the lyrics and I couldn't fuckin' work 'em out, 'Mental saw-down of your head"! I dunno, it looked good in me notes, I must have been thinking of one of those diagrams of a skull sawn in half."

And the third verse, it doesn't really say "It's dark but your legs are dead/ Your pen is entombed in mattress" -- does it?)

"Correct," he chortles. "It's about how you've been lying in bed and your brain's going 20 to the dozen but your body just wants to lie there. Lyrics don't have to be dead easy, you know. I'm aiming to stimulate people, get their heads kicked off."

That said, you don't seem to be overconcerned with the technical aspects of writing, fine points of scansion, rhyme and such.

"I do craft my songs, but not in terms of worrying about details like that, it stops you writing if you get into that. The funny thing is I think in rhyme all the time and a lot of the time when I'm cutting and honing lyrics what I have to do is unrhyme them. Dostoevsky's a brilliant writer, Gogol, and none of their stuff rhymes but it's pure poetry to me. It's sweet, hard it buzzes with words."

The last lyric Smith suggested is Gentleman's Agreement from The Fall's new album. Code: Selfish (incredibly, their 23rd since 1979's Live At The Witch Trials). It's about a trust broken: "I thought we had some kind of agreement/ But with you it was just prurience/ You're addicted to excitements/ And my energy is right down there."

"It's very much of today," he says. "The short concentration span. Which connects with sex. I've become a recluse again at the moment but over the last year I've been out and about a lot and met a lot of people who suffer with that. It took me fucking ages to write, really pissed off because the band had written this great tune and I just couldn't get the lyric. It came bit by bit through the two months we were in the studio. I go in to record with a big box of lyrics and the band have their tunes ready, but we'd be in there forever if we stuck to trying to fit one to the other. So in the end I lock the box and start writing on spec. Don't force it, that's the secret."

But, yet again, it's often still very difficult to catch the lyrics that you've put so much effort and emotion into.

"I know. I cut that track onto the master last night and I couldn't hear the vocals either. Bleeding computers. Sing slightly off-mike and they cut you right out."

You do want your audience to understand what you're singing about then?

"It's half the fun if they don't. But I don't want them to think the lyrics aren't saying anything. They're saying more than I could possibly articulate otherwise."

But surely this is pretty damn contradictory, isn't it ?

"Yeah, it's weird, int'it ? I think about it a lot myself. When I started buying records, the ones I liked were the ones I could only half-understand. What I don't like about a lot of records today is that they're too clear. There's really no fascination or mystery left."