Ian McCann, "Love, Love, Love, Love, Love Your Armani"
NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS, February 29, 1992, pp. 22-23, 48
Notebooks out plagiarists! Yes it's that man again, wizened wisecracker with the emphasis resolutely on the 'uh', and an opinion for all seasons, Mark E Smith out of The Fall, this week railing against Creation-led revivalists, pony-tailed parents and those bastards who keep going on about that Italian designer jumper.
The leader of the least influential band in the world steps out of the lift looking every inch the ordinary man he has always purported to be. Head tilted slightly to one side, he walks across the landing and thrusts out a hand, looking me up and down. He smells faintly of drink.
He's a living legend, an original that survived. He's the man that put 'uh' at the end of every sentence. He's the man that wrote a ballet and retained credibility. He wears jumpers and everyone mutters, as if wearing jumpers is as morally dodgy as underage sex. He's the man who launched a thousand impersonations - illiterate panic-uh, antique fire surround Italianite cynicism-uh but he has influenced no-one. He's Mark Smith. Very pleased to meet you Mark I say and I am.
You don't need to know the minute details of the afternoon: suffice to say it's cold and grey in Manchester as benefits a piece on Mark Smith. The Fall have a new single out called Free Range. The original idea was for me to dress as a chicken and pose by Mark Smith for pictures, something I've always dreamt of doing. But Free Range is not about chickens so we don't. "It's not about chickens," explains Mark. You get the impression that Mark cant be doing with the pop business. The chicken kit remains limp in my bag, and Mark takes me to the pub. Time for some history.
HISTORY LESSONS ALTERNATIVE-UH
THE FALL were formed in 1977. Mark, then calling himself Mark P, had previously been an insurance clerk and in his free time ran the punk fanzine Sniffin' Glue with Danny Kelly, now a presenter on AN. Before becoming The Fall, the group were known as London Weekend Television ... but, hey! We all know about that, don't we!
We're still walking to the pub, so here's a few more things you need to know about The Fall. All their records sound exactly the same to the uninitiated, of which I am one. Sure, I can hear the technical improvements between 'Rowche Rumble' and 'Free Range' but, like everyone else who knows nothing about The Fall, all I notice is Mark's howling, muttering voice-uh. It is this that gives the band their identity.
To their fans, each fall LP is wildly different, exciting and revelatory. To Mark Smith each album is nothing like the previous one. People who aren't fans of the band, but remember them from the Great Punk Wars often have an idea that Mark Smith is putting the world on. Everyone else has grown out of punky noise just look at old Sting, for example, why can't Mark Smith? They're certain that Smithy could make a real record with proper sounds on it just like Paul Young but he's just willfully noisy and petulent. They see the Fall as a deliberate anachronism, adults playing at yobboes when inside they're Wet Wet Wet just like everybody else. These people are mad and probably believe Mark E Smith has made a solo LP called "No Jumper Required" and is afraid to put it out.
INDUSTRIAL MURAL DEERMAT CONTENTION
WE WALK past a mural depicting Great Mancunians. Mark is not among them. No matter how industrious he might be, inventing The Fall does not compare with a new kind of steam engine in the eyes of the city fathers. Here's the pub. It's very small. "I'd forgotten how small this place is," says Mark in his unabashed Salford accent. The bar area is full of podgy journalists in suits. They're talking shite, so Mark leads me into the back bar, where I nurse my shandy and he knocks back beer and scotch.
It's clear Mark Smith notices everything. Bits of conversation, appearances, ideas. Fragments of them reappear in his songs. When he's not working he's working hardest, stockpiling material for later use. As he's talking to me, I've an idea that one ear is half-cocked towards the front bar. "People have asked me to write books but I don't want to do it," Mark claims. "There's too much padding out around an idea in a book. I could write a book on a beermat." Mark picks up a beermat but instead of a Fall book there's some bollocks about the traditional manufacture of beer printed on it. Mark looks disgusted. "You don't want to end up like advertising people, padding out an idea. They're fucking scum. We start off talking about the new album 'Code Selfish'. "I'm dead pleased with it. It sounds like the way I wanna. I'm pleased with the last two LPs, but I wanted to try and get it a bit harder. Something a bit more crunchy, because when it comes down to it everyone's on rhythm machines and mellowin' out. Which is why everybody makes a fuss about some group that has a bloody loud guitar or summat. I wanted to get away from that, I wanted to get it really hard like The Fall are live. Really heavy. It's a lot more of a" he pauses, "a jack off if you don't like it LP. We were getting quite melodic on the last couple of LPs and I wanted to get away from it".
Your detractors see you as Luddites, I say, but lately you've sounded a bit technological. The difference is, you don't see technology as anti-bollocks, you use digital stuff and still make a rough noise with it.
"Correct," says Mark crisply. There's a long silence, as if he's not going to say anything else. Then he says, "There's a way of using machines to make a lot of grunge. This LP's going for brute force. We've got a keyboard player, he can't play the keyboards, know what I mean?" Mark smirks conspiratorially. "He's an ex-roadie of ours but he sounds good. Vicious.
"These machines," he says dismissively, "I don't regard them. I don't look at them. But there is a way of using them. Like the dance people did before it all got smoothed out. But The Fall are still a good drummer and a good bass player basically, there's no two ways about that. Really, machines can sound harsher than any guitar, if you look at it. It's just keeping that balance between not lettin' 'em take over."
Do people think you've 'sold out' because of it?
"On the last dates we did we got loads of letters moaning that we've got a computer onstage. I'm a bit like that myself, don't follow the rules, don't follow the click-track. People say 'you stripped down the band' which I did; so you don't need this guy over on the side of the stage playing these computers. But we do, he can't play the keyboards he just makes a fucking noise. The band's good but you've got to go beyond that. On "Shiftwork" we had Robert from Sheffield with us and he's king of the blip (bleep) scene but he's cool. You can't make LP's like the last one all the time. This one's going for the throat."
You would think that all Fall LPs are going for the throat. Mark evidently doesn't think so. He's pared the band down to a raucous noise, although it's by degrees; to some, The Fall at their most melodic still sound like the Bedlam Home For Disturbed Hooligans on a day trip. On 'Code Selfish' you can hear The Fall's roots getting bored with being underground and coming up for air: 'Everything Hurtz' is the Stooges. 'Time Enough', a brilliant, meandering tune by any standards, has Mark as Lou Reed. If Mark is going for the throat, does that reflect how he feels about things at the moment, like an LP is a representation of how its maker views the world?
"That's the whole idea of it," he says, as if I'm an idiot. Tell that to the rest of the world. Pop no longer deals with a moment in time. It's more interested in marketing strategy, in reaching the people with ____ in their wallets. It doesn't matter whether Bryan Adams wrote Everything I Do` for his wife his mistress, for God, or for Boris Yeltsin's ____. By the time it's on record it's the theme for a bloody bows and arrows movie and part of a massive sales plan. How you feel when you write a song is no longer relevant. But Mark E Smith doesn't believe in that. If he feels like going for the throat in a song, his listeners must choke. Mark witters on about each LP being different: "People ask how come we're so prolific. To me that is not the point: this LP isn't good enough, same as the last LP wasn't good enough. I'm still tryna get there. If it was good enough, I'd give up. People think you keep going because of the business angle but I'm not there yet..." A man in his mid-50s who looks like a middle-ranking trade union official plants his arse down opposite us and pretends to be engrossed in the paper. The room is like someone's parlour yellowed by years of fag smoke but still kept cosy by an open fire. We must look a strange sight in here; a Cockney git in a Manc pub, interviewing a bloke who couldn't look less like a pop star.
CREATION BIG STAR CAR SERVICE-UH
We buy another drink and Mark says; "The thing about this business is that there's too many bloody guitar bands." The last two words twist out of Mark's mouth like he was a licensed taxi driver moaning that there's too many mini-cabs on the road. I tell him that too many guitar bands try to sound old when the groups they idolise were trying to sound like the most modern thing in the world.
"Ha ha! They're talkin' about Big Star and stuff that I outgrew when I was 18. They think going like this (Mark grimaces in the gestures of an orgasmic guitar solo) is cool. I blame Creation Records really. I get sick of criticising other groups but what is all this f--ing shite! Groups now are like cheap Sonic Youth imitators. What I got bottled for onstage in 1979 was tryna go against all that crap.
"I call it hippy children. They're the only generation that grew up exactly like their parents. I don't care what anyone says, that's what I believe. I get a bit of deja-vu, I go , 'Wait a minute', I remember when a kid with long hair was going Biewwebwehwchwelweh! on a guitar. And I wanted to kick his head in and now it's here again. Mark looks agog. "I saw Jellyfish on telly and they were crap, so I said to my drummer 'Let's go to their gig and have a laugh'. I went there and they were doing Badfinger and Beatles songs. And all the kids were going crazy. And I thought, well, am I in 1973 or not! Their parents have played them all this stuff and they don't realise that it's still there in the back of their heads. The next thing will be Pink Floyd. It's so predictable." Try The Orb, I say. Mark is aghast. "Don't even mention them." The people that say 'Listen to The Orb' are old hippies. I say No! don't wanna listen to that fucking crap. No thank you. And you get the Weddin' Present doing Neil Young covers. Welcome to the early `70s. People moan about Mark Smith fighting the punk war and remaining deliberately obtuse, but the young indie guns and the shoe-blazers are reactionary. And what's being tipped to blow away this retrogressive fad ! New Punk The Manics, Fabulous. Old stuff rehashed. "The kids in their audiences never saw The Clash or The Damned." Maybe they're settling for the next best thing. It's all showing off your influences. The bands are all going, I used to be into this. You get that in the music business a lot.
"That's why I keep The Fall at arm's length, on the other side of town. I've seen all this shit before. It's not just because I'm old, it's because it's no good. I'm into having a bit of taste, I've got taste, The Fall have got taste. That's why I formed the bloody group in the first place, so I could hear something I like." I grin. Mark says, "No, really, cock."
ARMANI JUMPER NUTHOUSE RETURNS
What do you think when people say you can't play, you're deliberately terrible? "They're jealous." But people do say . .. ". . . That I can't sing. I know."
No, it's that you could make a normal LP but you're being awkward.
"That's a daft thing to say. It's daft."
It may be daft but people say it.
"If you're making a record, you've got to try to achieve something. It's no use going 'We wanna be like Neil Young, we wanna be Genesis'. You've got to create your own roots music. We've done cover versions and they've been successful, but they don't sound anything like the originals because we can't do it (laughs). We used to try and do 'Louie Louie' and we couldn't do it so we said 'Fuck it. We might as well do what we can do'. Pissin' around like Neil Young and Genesis is a waste of fuckin' plastic. Gimme a Jamaican shoutin' down the mic in his bedroom any day of the week. It's more honest.
"Look at it this way. After a while, you're expected to become an adult, grown-up group. But you still sound like angry kids, not like Phil Collins. We are an adult, grown-up group. But we're not like I call it. 'Married Two Kids' (track from the next Fall LP). Got married got a mortgage, can't afford to take risks. I've seen it in the Manchester scene, groups trying to do what someone else has done because it's safer. 'Where do I get a guitar like Johnny Marr? I want a haircut like Morrissey. Where does Mark Smith get his shoes?' They're not musicians, they're bloody ponces."
People are still on about your jumpers. "Who cares about my jumpers! Aren't they listening? They're like bloody little girls, they're not interested in what you do, it's what you look like. You know what it's like, you're a working class lad, you do your best to look sharp but you don't bloody think about it all day. I'II tell you something, at Reading Festival I saw a Manchester group get changed FOUR TIMES before they went on! I couldn't believe that. I used to get shit in the press for the Armani jumper I used to wear years ago. It was 'If he's so scruffy why's he got an Armani jumper!' I bought it in a shop, saw it and liked it. The journalists that we're on about it knew (his voice softens conspiratorially) what Armani meant. I didn't. I just thought it was a marvelous jumper and I've still got it. What pisses me off is all these middle class guitar groups copying me haircut and my image. If I let it get to me I'd be in the nuthouse."
KARAOKE TRIAD REVOLUTION-UH
WE GO back to the fourth floor photo studio and Mark gets his chickenless photo taken. Mark shows me Manchester's Chinatown, full of steaming basement restaurants, and, Mark reckons, steaming Triad gangs. And we go to a karaoke pub. It's the least trendy place in the city which is maybe why Mark likes it. We sit down. Motown records playing in the background OK Mark we know 'Free Range' isn't about chickens because you didn't want your photo taken with a chicken. What's it about?
"It's me first thoughts on the breakdown of the Iron Curtain really. I don't want to go into it too much. We wrote 'Zagreb Day' for the A-side of `White Lightning' and three months later it all went off over there."
Fall precipitate revolution: knighthood for Mark E Smith! You seem more interested in the world than most people in groups.
"I think lyrics should be about something else than love and sex. I think that's why people like us ..." Mark is interrupted by a change of song on the piped music: the original version of 'There's A Ghost In My House'. "Bit weird, innit!" he says. "They're playing our tune." We talk about other Manchester bands and decide that it was a waste of time for James guitarist to go to America to get mugged when he could have done it here far cheaper. "I did a gig in Bradford with James about 18 months ago," recalls Mark.
"There was only one dressing room, and it was like a nine-band spectacle-uh. This guy comes in, says 'Can I use your toilet!' and he was in there about three hours. We were about to go on so I wait and wait and then kick the f--in door down and it's the singer of James! I said 'Oh, l'm sorry, I just want a piss ...' He seemed to enjoy it."
The Fall have yet to line up in a punk revival gig alongside Sham 92, Ex-Ray Spex and The New Lurkers. Fancy the job?
"All these bands reforming, I've gotta be on top of this because it's competition, y'know! (Grins) I understand it when young groups say they can't get any gigs, I'm totally behind them. Fuckin' old swines, there's times when you've gotta give a bit of room. I remember when we couldn't get any gigs. We haven't played Britain for about two years, but The Who have played Britain about ten times. There's a time to wait and a time to act. These people are just greedy bastards worrying about their mortgages."
What do you think about the Buzzcocks reforming! Pete Shelley must be able to do something better than that ...
"That's exactly what I said to him when they played with us. Daft, to me. They were doing Fall songs as well, songs I've forgotten from '79."
KARAOKE POLIO NAPPY FIASCO
THE SUBJECT drifts from punk jukebox bands to karaoke. "I get barmen saying 'We had karaoke in here last night, they could show you a thing or two'. Anyway, I went to Glasgow and I'm in this karaoke pub and some joker who recognised me put me name up to go up to do 'Jingle Bell Rock'." Mark gives a brief rendition of the Max Bygraves hit. "I thought, I can't back down here, I was announced as 'Mr Mark E Smith, who is the singer in a group'. It was half-eight, I wasn't even drunk. And I went up and there's this video with a cartoon Santa playing. So the bloody music starts playing and it's at half the speed I'm used to and I'm all over the place. I couldn't follow it at all so I was improvising, saying 'I don't know why Santa is in the bed, what is this cartoon doing in front of me ...' I was the worst one on the whole night. Everyone else got all this applause, and after me there was silence. I just ran down the stairs and vanished!"
We talk more about his new songs: 'Birmingham' is about someone who fiddled money out of The Fall. There's a tie-in with 'Married Two Kids': Mark says the guy only started conning him once he'd had two kids.
"I hate these New English Dads. I was brought up, you see your dad in the morning and at tea-time if you're lucky. I've had people in the band who are like, 'l'm not going on the road with yer, I've got to bring up my kid'. What are they doing all day! They're like, 'Oh the kid did this, did that' and l'm like, 'Give 'em a f----in' clout!'
They're going 'It's cos you ain't got kids', but I probably have got kids I don't know about. But when a bloke has kids, he goes right down the f----in' shaft. They start fiddling, they don't concentrate on their work. I come from a family of six, I never saw my dad. But these guys with their pony-tails, they're just hanging around their kids all day. It's cruel to the kids. When you first go to school or your first job, you miss your mam. But if you have to miss your mam and your dad ... people go on about child abuse but that's child abuse.
I mention the newspaper reports on two blokes who have contracted polio by changing their babies' nappies after the nippers had had polio jabs. This cheers him up. "Really! Nappy polio! I'II have to write that down!" The mood doesn't last. "The English are up the bleedin' spout, had it. I've lived in Scotland, Ireland and America. I've seen it happening in America and it's happening here. It's a poor f----in' show when you can't leave your car anywhere and the coppers are like social workers. That's how fascism gets started. People get too soft. But you can't tell 'em, because then you're a fascist and they're always smarter than you." Mark doesn't say who you can't tell, but I've an idea who he means.
Predictably, Mark views the current gun and drug troubles in Manchester as a part of the Americanisation of Britain. "I've seen it in Chicago," he rambles. "All the rich people live on one side of town and all the poor on another and there's a great barbed wire fence down the middle. The police can't even go where the poor live. On one side everyone's in mansions, on the other no-one's got windows in their flats and no shoes on their feet. People blame Thatcher and all these people and that's nonesense. It's just Americanisation. You can't sleep safe in your beds. England's like a satellite of America ... aw, I'm not bothered, I just write what I feel. Half of it comes to me and I don't even know where it comes from ...
The last sentence is said dismissively Mark's been drinking steadily for a couple of hours. "I feel quite pissed," he says, although there's little visible difference between him at the start of the afternoon and now. We finish our drinks with Mark talking about playing a serial killer on Gerry Sadowitz's show he ____ that he was typecast -- and how The Fall turned down Vic Reeves because "the band didn't want to make a comedy LP."
Finally, I ask him if The Fall really are the least influential group in the world, and Mark seems surprised. "What about this lot?" he demands. Happy Mondays are on the jukebox. The Mondays! "I think so," he nods, sagely.
WHO WAS THAT ELASTIC MAN?
WE WALK out into the sodium lamps and rush hour traffic, and the last great English eccentric pop bastard alive wanders off towards a dinner in Salford with his girlfriend. On the way to the station, I suddenly realise that I never found out something I've always wanted to know: how did he write 'Elastic Man'? With a pen, or a typewriter?