Sam Taylor, "Clean Is A Dirty Word"

The Observer, mid-1993


The Infotainment Scan

'HA HA - that's brilliant!' laughs Mark E. Smith, vocalist and mastermind behind The Fall, 'Maybe our luck's changing at last.'

John Peel, in his one-week stint as a daytime DJ, has just played their new single, 'Why Are People Grudgeful?'. It is something of a departure for The Fall to receive much mainstream exposure. After 16 years of buzzing around on pop's periphery, garnering almost constant critical acclaim, they have accrued a grand total of two Top 40 singles: not much of a reward for being, according to Peel, 'the band by which others must be judged'.

If such praise seems over-blown for a band still largely unknown to the general public, it does bear witness to The Fall's enduring influence on pop's alternative sector. Started in 1977 by Smith (then 18) and a bunch of younger friends in Manchester, they never comfortably fitted the mould of punk and have continued to escape categorisation ever since.

After their muddy but poppy second album, Dragnet, in 1979, Smith led his band into the dark experimental Grotesque and Hex Enduction Hour albums: reactions against the sanitised 'new romantic' pop of the early Eighties.

Things changed somewhat in 1983, when the line-up was bolstered by Smith's American wife Brix, a vivacious blonde guitarist who gave the band some much-needed freshness and glamour. 'Yeah, Brix was really good,' Smith acknowledges. 'I think it was a change we needed at the time. But I always feel the need to bring different people in, get rid of people who are getting stale.'

Chain-smoking, softly spoken, and prone to bursts of laughter, Smith is far removed from his aloof stage persona. If he looks like the quintessential Northern beer drinker, his openness to new ideas belies this stereotype. His willingness to experiment led to a seemingly bizarre but very successful collaboration with Britain's maverick ballet star Michael Clark, on the stage musical I Am Curious Orange. Clark's interest in The Fall was that of a fan, unlike Smith's on ballet. 'I always thought ballet was just an excuse for old people to look at young people,' he chuckles. Michael agrees -- that's why he's trying to make it more exciting.'

Brix departed from both marriage and band in 1989, but a year later The Fall re-emerged with a strong new album, Extricate, and a new record label, Fontana. Two Top 30 albums later, the label dropped them. It was a controversial decision, but hardly a terrific shock: as Smith admits, they have never exactly been record company darlings. 'We're no good to them 'cos we're never gonna be mega, but also we're not four bloody idiots who they can manipulate.'

Released on the Permanent label, the group's new album, The Infotainment Scan (their seventeenth), is a likeably odd mix of retro-satires (the Glitteresque 'Glam Racket' and a weirdly wonderful version of Sister Sledge's disco classic, 'Lost in Music'), tuneful pop ditties, traditional Fall rants, and further developments of the techno-influenced rock that dominated the previous album, Code: Selfish. In a pop world increasingly divided between Luddites and computer boffins who think rock is dead, Smith remains eclectic. 'There's nothing wrong with using and abusing machines, I don't think enough people do it.'

One should never forget the allure of Smith's lyrics. Hailed as works of poetic genius and slammed for being wilfully obscure, they are never less than fascinating. According to Smith, the book of his lyrics published bilingually a few years ago was a response to demands from Germany, where schoolchildren study his impenetrable outpourings in English class.'

Inevitably, The Fall's inventiveness has earned them their fair share of imitators, though perhaps not quite as many as Smith imagines. Does he not see it as a form of flattery: 'Not at all, no. I don't get bitter about it, though. I just think that's why The Fall were formed, you know. We never wanted to be like anyone else.' His voice, sarcastic by nature, becomes almost impassioned. 'The annoying thing about pop music is that people don't seem to realise that the options are endless. You can do anything with music. Why should everything be blanded out and cleaned up!'