Anthony Noguera, "The Great Infotainer"
Indiecator, ?? 1993, pp. 54-56.
THE acerbic wit and wisdom of Mark E Smith is something which must really be experienced in person. The enigmatic Fall frontman who's trodden the battle lines of British pop for over 15 years now is in great spirits today; he'll be filming the new Fall vid later this afternoon and he's already complaining about the video crew messing up his house.
Mark E Smith. What do those words conjure up in your mind? Bleakness? Despair? A little guy with a crap haircut who can't sing for toffee? The crowned poet of Manc angst? The most talented avant garde pop writer of his generation? Let's face it, the man's a legend. But isn't he meant to be a miserable Manc git who only sticks his head up out of his self-imposed exile every year or so to take voluble and acidic potshots at whatever young dandy he decides is trying to usurp The Fall throne?
You really expect him to go banging on about some inconsequential point of order, thus compounding his reputation for being a consummate and professional miserabilist and a dour Northern git to boot. He doesn't, of course. I mean sure, he's ready to stick the proverbial knife in, and he does make a point of telling you where he thinks The Fall have been ripped off ("We are the originals," he states, although the original what is never quite explained), but at least he's honest in his beliefs. Bullshit is bullshit whatever you choose to dress it up as and Smith is quite willing to let you know that. He's also surprisingly good company, able to talk on any subject under the sun (with varying degrees of authority) and possessed of a gem of a sense of humour. I start with the sucker punch: I think 'The Infotainment Scan' is the most attractive thing The Fall have done.
"I'm glad about that," he says. "Thank you. I think that it's the clearest thing we've done. You can hear everything, you know? I was pleased because we walked out of Phonogram and I thought, 'Sod it. I'll do it myself, pay for it myself'. So we ended up doing it in Rochdale at New Order's studio. It was just great. It took about two months."
'The Infotainment Scan" is the first fruits after The Fall's much publicised fracas with Phonogram, which resulted in the band picking up sticks and waving adieu to the corporate moneybank.
"I just walked out really," he remembers.
"It was just the same old thing; they made a load of bands redundant and then they told us we were one of the bands they were going to keep on. They said they'd review the situation in April and I thought, 'fuck that!'. We had the money, so we did it ourselves. You can end up twiddling your thumbs forever if you're on a major and we're a working band. If you've got songs, by the time you've recorded them, you don't want to wait for other people to make a decision about whether or not they're going to release the LP! They have to have about two hundred meetings before they do anything. But it's not the first record company that I've walked out of. They take you for granted, guarantee you a certain amount of money and then forget about you. The Fall need constant attention. It's not that they're tight or anything, it's not as if they don't give you any money - which was the problem I had with indie labels; bands hanging around starving to death - but with the majors it's like "here's the money, so go away and shut up and we'll review your situation in April". It's not very conducive to the creative process, know what I mean? Ha ha ha!"
So today the band are signed to Permanent Records, a cottage label run by one of The Fall's former managers. It's a situation that obviously pleases the ever-stoic Smith. Needful of the importance of actually getting records onto the shelves if the band are ever to translate their immense creative aplomb into tangible sales figures, Permanent and The Fall have inked up a distribution deal with BMG/RCA to lend weight to the band's chances in '93.
"I hear they have quite a bit of clout," he says nonchalantly, obviously not one to make a fuss about these things.
'The Infotainment Scan', as well as being a 'theme' album to some extent, is also The Fall's most lucid moment to date. It sees the deliberate muddle of Smith and Co's earlier albums discarded in favour of a style that, whilst never approaching chart pop mentality, is the most commercial thing the band have ever recorded. The current single, 'Why Are People Grudgeful?' is positively ebullient, whilst the cover of 'Lost In Music' and the brilliant 'The League Of Bald Headed Men' are slices of pure Smith-sian wit. Musically, the stripped down Fall is punchy, compact and stunningly inventive.
"It's very instant this one, it's good," declares Smith of the new record in his straight-to-the-point manner that's never so much brusque as brutally succinct. If something has to be said, then Mark E Smith says it, and he doesn't care to dress it up in fancy talk either. No... it's straight to the point so folk know what he means.
"There's no fussing about on it, you know?" he continues in his lazy, Mancunian drawl. "We didn't have people coming in going 'oh, the guitar should be louder there' and stuff. I didn't even listen to the mixes or anything. I thought 'it's all there, why do I need to listen to it?'. If everything's right, you shouldn't tamper with it," he adds. "I just wanted to get the album out because last November I thought we'd all be on the dole by now. So I wanted to get this album out. That's just the way we work.
"I thought that our last three LPs were the best we'd done for a long time. I don't stop and think about bettering the last record. It's pointless, isn't it? I've seen too many groups on that track talking about re-mixes and all that bloody stuff; it's not what The Fall want."
So what are The Fall in 1993?
"Well, we've always been in the present, and that's what pisses me off about the present. Ten years ago I could tell the record company that I wanted three singles and two LPs out in a year and you can't do that anymore. They have to have conferences about it for about a year! I blame the so-called 'artistic controllers' - they're all skiving off on holiday in the fucking Bahamas!"
But it doesn't affect the fact that, to a lot of people, The Fall are a resolutely 'Eighties band'. You know the thing, 'grey' and 'dull'?
"Correct. In the Eighties. Though we were a Seventies band so I don't think about it much. If you stop and analyse everything you'd never work, you know?"
Most musicians do nothing but analyse everything that they do.
"Exactly!" he laughs. "That's why I don't have any musicians in my band, ha ha ha! I'm very anti-musos and pondering on how you look and how it sounds and what producer you've got."
In that respect The Fall have remained resolutely unfashionable whilst still being exceptionally cool, haven't they?
"All I know is that there are a lot more young people into the group than ever before."
But aren't you the man that once said that today's youth were 'fucking useless?'
"Well, I don't think that any more," he says quickly and not altogether convincingly. "I did for a while, but I don't any more actually. I just think that everyone's always looking at the past with rose-coloured glasses. That's what a lot of the album's about actually. It's like 'Sounds Of The Seventies' and all that stuff. I remember the Seventies and it was crap! It was crap! I was a teenager then and it was rubbish! Everybody goes on about The Sweet and stuff but, at the time, you were lucky if you got Gary Glitter. It was a big deal if you saw him, you know? He was bad news. Do you get my drift? It was a nightmare! You can't keep thinking about the past, it's mad. It's the people who run the magazines and the TV... they're all the same age as me and they're just getting nostalgic about when they went to see Slade in 1973! It's bollocks. It's like when you get those adverts with The Steve Miller Band songs on them! What's with that crap? It's like, 'let's watch Dad's Army'!"
Which brings us neatly to 'Glam Racket No.3', the song that Suede are apparently honoured to believe is aimed at their carefully coiffeured Seventies demeanour. Mark explains that the lyrical reference is to 'suede' and not 'Suede'. Yeah, sure.
"The group came up with this tune and I told them it sounded like glam shite."
One swift re-working later and 'Glam Racket' was born.
"I was a bit stuck for lyrics," he recalls, "so I ended up writing some aphorisms. I just sang them over the tune. It's nothing to do with Denim or Suede, believe it or not."
Rumour has it that Suede took it as... er, something of a compliment.
"Well I think that's really big-headed of them. If they looked deeper into the lyrics they'd be quite insulted!" he adds with a throaty guffaw thrown in for good measure. "It's not about them at all. I think they're flattering themselves to be quite frank."
Smith does actually like Suede though. For ages they used to send him demos and he's always been impressed with their grasp of pop sensibilities.
And then the conversation drifts. We talk about the amount of times The Fall have popped in and out of fashion ("...we used to be on the front cover of the papers, but we didn't have anything to fucking eat in the fridge!"); the appalling drug/gun problems in Manchester (for which Smith puts the blame squarely at the door of the Manc scene of a couple of years back for "glorifying crime and making it seem okay to break into old ladies' houses and steal their life savings") and the fact that Mark is in the best of spirits, even though The Fall are penniless.
There's one final thing I have to ask him, and that's whether crap ex-Radio One DJ Tommy 'The Friday Rock Show' Vance really once said of The Fall singer's much-debated 'technique', "If that's singing, I'll show you my arse"?
"Yeah, I think he did," Mark laughs, a little nonplussed.
And do you think you can sing?
"Um," he ums, "sometimes I can sing... but other times I can't sing for shit. I don't care though, I'm just interested in getting my lyrics heard."