Jason Cohen, "Mark E. Smith's wrath & roll"
Rolling Stone, September 16, 1993, p. 20.
Mark E. Smith is one of Britain's great misanthropes. On the 1980 live album Totale's Turns, only the third record by his band the Fall, Smith tells the audience: "The difference between us and you is that we have brains." In the ensuing decade plus, he has become known as the ranting enemy of all that is shallow and ephemeral in music. Delivering his social commentary over a muscular avant-cacophony of dingy guitars and primal beats, Smith is something like a working-class Martin Amis armed with Link Wray's rumble.
Earlier this summer the Fall released their 17th LP, The Infotainment Scan, the initial fruit of the much-ballyhooed partnership between Atlantic Records and cutting-edge indie Matador. It's also the first Fall album to come out on these shores since 1990's Extricate. As such, Smith is about to be (re)discovered by America. It only took 15 years, 13 different members, a dozen record companies and an endless assortment of Fall fanatics (such as Sonic Youth and Pavement) eclipsing Smith's own success.
Now Smith gives interviews in Atlantic's sleek conference room, the video for "The League of Bald-Headed Men" is on 120 Minutes, and the band is touring here for the first time since '88. Smith even did an in-store at Manhattan's Kim's Underground though the management warned patrons not to expect an autograph session - a flier advertising the appearance read: "He probably won't like you." Smith can stifle an impertinent journalist or overeager fan with a single withering word.
That's Mark E. Smith the image. Mark E. Smith, the man, can be an altogether more amiable personage, a coarse but prodigiously clever Manchester native whose accent seems to fizz out the corners of his mouth. Perennially garbed in a blade suit, with ale and cigarettes always nearby, Smith is quick to hold forth - at hilarious and meandering length - on politics, '70s nostalgia, fashion, bureaucratic record company bastards, the royal family and why his dentist started overcharging him "We've got this recession and it's really bad", Smith whines sarcastically. "Get the violins out! It's only talk. It's hit the professional classes, so you hear about it. Manchester's been in recession since the end of America's Civil War."
All these subjects are fair game on The Infotainment Scan, which sends the band's trademark spoken vocals and obstreperous guitar reeling in a grid of dancey technobabble. Smith's scabrous lyrics channel-surf through a retrogressive, empty-headed culture consumed with consumption. Songs like 'A Past Gone Mad' and 'Glam-Racket' mock shallow trend hoppers with nothing to live for but their demographic group, though the latter song, with its lyric, "You are bequeathed in suede," has been interpreted as a dig at London's "best new band" (Smith claims he's referring to the fabric). Some publications misprint the title as The Infotainment Scam, which would be equally appropriate. "A bit deliberate, that," Smith says with a smirk, adding ominously, "I spend a lot of time on my titles, more than I do on recording."
Smith was a dockworker who loved rockabilly, the Velvet Underground and German experimentalists Can when he formed the Fall in 1977. Less than skilled instrumentally, the band fell back on creativity, that old DIY hallmark, inventing a bruising, unfashionable noise of their own, with Smith scowling and howling above the racket in his thick monotone. "I really wanted to toast in a reggae way," Smith says. "Then the accent comes into it. Delivery's the important thing, isn't it? It's just microphone technique." Yes, like Dylan and Lou Reed, Smith is a pioneer of white rap.
Smith claims to be even less musically proficient now. "I used to know what A, E and D were," he says. "Now I know what A is." He manages to thrash out riffs playing one-finger piano but his current band mates - keyboardist Dave Bush, drummer Simon Wolstencroft and stalwarts Craig Scanlon and Stephen Hanley on guitar and bass respectively - know their way around the instruments and have become more active as co-songwriters. 'The Infotainment Scan' finds more than a few pop moments in covers, particularly a surprising deconstruction of Sister Sledge's 'Lost in Music.' Since Smith's lyrics touch on disco, media and technology, it was only logical to bring those things to the mix. "I've always wanted to abuse machinery," Smith says. "We get mixed up with Morrissey, like 'We will never use synthesizers' and all that shit. I've never been like that." Even with computer rhythms and techno keyboards the Fall still sound - indubitably, even monolithically - like the Fall.
"Yeah, it keeps us going, bad music," Smith says, as if he's just realised it. "It does actually."