David Cavanagh, "I Didn't Get Where I Am Today"
Q, March/April 1994, pp. 66-73
Seventeen years. Twenty line-ups. Nine labels. Twenty-seven LPs. Some fans. Mark E. Smith (poet, philosopher, curmudgeon, snappy dresser) and his band, The Fall, are unique British institutions. Sackings, turmoil, romance, revenge, nearly signing to Motown and even a few hits -- this is their story. David Cavanagh has his ear bent by an expert.
"A LOT OF GROUPS NOWADAYS, THEY DON'T seem to get to the tune till about the fourth or fifth minute. I did this sort of Round Table scenario a week and a half ago in London. Heard all this stuff like Ride and that. It was all very good, you know, but it was like, they don't crack off till about three and a half minutes."
Who's this, then? Bernard Levin? Paul Johnson? Lord Rothermere? No, this is a typical, everyday sort of utterance by Mark E. Smith, poet, sage, man of ale and firm-but-cruel overseer of the great British musical institution that is The Fall. And The Fall - sir, madam - are like no other band.
After 17 years, their opaque mystery and magical, menacing language - full of Dickensian grotesques, hobgoblins, hexes, strife knots, sinister bends and whatever it is that "yarbles" are - is no nearer to being decoded. For the secret lies in the mind of the extraordinary Mark E. Smith, and he won't tell.
But he does give clues. And this he does with his titles. The titles of Fall songs are, in some places of learning and/or bibulousness, as legendary and as oft-quoted as Python sketches, or Dorothy Parker insults, or riotous examples of Barry Davies' football commentary, or indeed anything that shows intellect, wit, poetry or a weird and wonderful attitude towards the English language.
For there is the nub of The Fall. The English language. Like it, and you'll love The Fall. Like The Velvet Underground, too, and you'll adore them. And what's more, you'll have 17 UK albums' worth of their beauty to listen to.
Mark E. Smith (it stands for Edward) is not just a writer without peer, he's a vocalist of repute. Tone-deaf, harshly Mancunian, occasionally employing a loudhailer, he barks and slurs his mysterious phrases and stanzas in unique, unforgettable style, always ending each line with his famous flourish, "-ah".
To illustrate: "Operation mindfuck-ah/ do not like your tone/It has ephemeral, whingeing aspects-ah/it's a curse-ah." (It's A Curse, 1993).
The Fall march on, regularly changing band members and record companies, but always keeping the nucleus of Smith, who's been there since the beginning, in 1977 and Craig Scanlon (guitar) and Steve Hanley (bass). The loyalty of Scanlon and Hanley is a thing of wonder to Fall fans, as is the fact that Scanlon doesn't seem to have got any worse or better on guitar since 1979. Hanley's brother Paul was in the band for a while, too, joining on drums as a 15-year old.
Smith talks seldom of his lads, while always giving the impression that messing with them would not be a good idea. Anyone can mess with me," says Smith, unconvincingly, "and I'll sort of forgive them. But nobody messes with The Fall." In Fall folklore, Scanlon and Hanley regularly refuse wage increases and operate a bizarre, super-loyal code. "They're smashing lads, actually," Smith will say, adding cryptically, "Jesuits, like."
Some people don't think The Fall capable of beauty. True, the band themselves prefer power, but when they find a rare desolate space, on songs like Bill Is Dead, Disney's Dream Debased or Edinburgh Man, they are sensationally moving.
Fall songs can be about anything. For example, at the kernel of the new album, Middle Class Revolt (let's just say it again, their 17th), one can find a rockabilly song slagging off students (Hey! Student), a pretty tune with whistling, called 15 Ways, that sends up the features in women's magazines showing you 15 Ways To Leave Your Man; an old Groundhogs song called Junk Man; an obscure song by The Monks, a largely uncelebrated band of American GIs who cut a rug or two in Germany in the mid-'60s; a song called City Dweller about Manchester's ill-fated bid to host the Olympic Games; a Slapp Happy cover sung by Smith entirely from memory; a song called The Reckoning, berating a girl for sleeping with someone who thinks he's Mark E. Smith; and a track ominously entitled Symbol Of Mordgan that consists of a telephone conversation between Craig Scanlon and John Peel about a Manchester City match that Scanlon has just seen. The Scanlon/Peel track is particularly exciting for long-time Fall fans, since the elusive Scanlon was not previously known as a public speaker.
Each new Fall album - and Middle Class Revolt is one of the best - furthers Smith's unswerving determination to "put things in music that aren't there". They groove like bug-eyed primitive maniacs. They make people laugh aloud. Each one gets great reviews. Many of these reviews have a subtext that reads: "Another year, another Fall album."
"Always taken for granted," Smith nods. "It's like this new single (15 Ways). It's selling like hot cakes. People can't buy it anywhere. It's all sold out already and it's not even on the playlist."
It is in the nature of things. The Fall exist, persevere and excel. And so it goes.
THE SAGA BEGINS IN THE MID-70S, IN Manchester, when Smith, an unpromising sort who had been top of the class in English but bottom in everything else, leaves college about six weeks into his "A" Levels. "What I didn't like about History 'A' Level," recalls the cantankerous hero, "was it was all about the South Sea Bubble. Wasn't History in my book. But before that it was very interesting. It was all about purges."
Turning to music, he fails a series of auditions as singer for local heavy rock groups (inability to hold a tune often cited) and instead looks for likeminded Can 'n' Krautrock fanatics interested in forging brave new autobahns via urban poetry and musical starkness. He winds up in a band called The Outsiders, named after Camus, a bit of a oneliner merchant himself.
Soon re-named The Fall, these souls mistrust and fear Smith, who is prone to _____ and isn't even the singer. The first Fall line-up is actually fronted by Martin Bramah. Smith plays a controversial, country-inflected rhythm guitar.
Then, in 1977, seizing the microphone, Smith issues a first spiky narrative, Bingo Masters Breakout, written on his works typewriter at the docks, and drags the band around the working men's clubs of the North.
The Fall's line-up is a tense collective, frankly low on team-spirit. There is Weather Report fan, a Rush fan, a Television fan, a girl and Smith, whom the others keep trying to remove, sensing lucrative New Wave opportunities without his off-putting Mancunian speak-singing voice, which seems to encourage bottles to be thrown from the audience. Smith invites his dissenters to "walk".
On the label front early fan Danny Baker puts in a good word for them at Miles Copeland's Step Forward label.
"I had nothing against Miles, he was all right," recalls Smith, not generally given to largesse.
Was he a Fall fan?
(Baker refers to this period later in the NME, claiming to have "invented" The Fall. He receives 10p from Smith in the post.)
With 1979's debut album, Live At The Witch Trials. The Fall deliver the great paranoid classic Frightened and introduce the first of many, many Smith catchphrases: "Taxi for Mr Nelson! Taxi for Mr Nelson!" (Rebellious Jukebox), "Oh aye, you're a good lad/Oh, here is a pound note" (the epic finale, Music Scene, repeatedly interrupted by someone in the control booth who sounds anxious for it to stop). The line-up has already changed. Bramah and organist Una Baines are jettisoned. They go off to form The Blue Orchids. Smith brings in guitarist Scanlon and bassist Hanley. Times of poverty and hardship toughen The Fall up.
Dragnet follows, recorded so amateurishly by Smith that the studio attempt to suppress the tapes, for fear of discouraging other bands. The live album, Totale's Turns (It's Now Or Never) trial by working men's club - sees Smith calling last orders from the stage. He writes in the sleevenotes of this lo-fi ordeal: 'I don't particularly like the person singing on this LP. That said, I marvel at his guts."
Then, with Grotesque (After The Gramme) in 1980 and the single How I Wrote Elastic Man, The Fall touch genius. Smith, now doing phenomenal amounts of amphetamine sulphate, freaks out into areas of psychic understanding and scary prescience, talents that would later serve him in good stead on Kicker Conspiracy (Smith predicts downfall of Football League in 1983), Terry Waite Sez (released just prior to his kidnapping in 1986) and Zagreb Day (Smith predicts war in Yugoslavia).
Grotesque peaks with a nine-minute classic. The N.W.R.A. (The North Will Rise Again), a revolt instigated by Smith's revolutionary alter-ego Roman Totale. The Fall's music is a unique, compelling Manchester folk, dominated by Marc Riley's organ and kazoo and 16-year-old Paul Hanley's bin-lid drums.
Mark Smith is now the most brilliant and bewildering lyricist in the country. But his seemingly endless battle with record companies has begun. Rough Trade object to the lyrics (use of "slags" uppermost) to the Slates mini-album. "It was none of their business," he says fierily. "So I walked."
The Fall move to a small indie called Kamera. whose staff include Saul Galpern, later the MD of Suede's label, Nude. As it happens. Smith has already had enough. Their sixth album. Hex Enduction Hour, a monstrous one-hour bombardment of ideas reeling beneath a two-drummer onslaught, is intended as their last statement. All in-roads to the album, from cover art to enervating first eight bars, suggest chaos.
Many years later in 1991, its third track Hip Priest, will spin languidly in the distance in the movie The Silence Of The Lambs. In 1993 Pavement wilI rip off Smith's oblique sleevenotes on Hex for their Crooked Rain Crooked Rain album, causing Smith to groan softly and observe. -'lt`s fuckin` sad, man."
Back in 1983, The Fall face a turbulent year. We had to leave Kamera because we knew it was going down," Smith recalls. "It broke my heart. Kamera were like, Here y'are mate, what you're saying is fantastic. Hex Enduction Hour is brilliant, you're brilliant, here's a cheque. Ha ha. You play Hex to them, they go, Fuckin' brilliant, mate! Uriah Heep at its best! Ha ha. Only label I was upset to leave ...''
Scarcely believably, they very nearly sign to Motown. One of the people at Motown's London office is a big Fall fan. The way Smith tells it, after letters of agreement have been exchanged, the decision is eventually vetoed, purely for economic reasons. But he admits that the top brass at the Los Angeles HQ of history's most successful black label do ask at one stage to hear some of the band's back catalogue. Smith sends them Hex Enduction Hour. Forgetting in his excitement that the very first song, The Classical, has the lines: ..Where are the obligatory niggers? Hey there fuck-face! Hey there fuck-face!" Unsurprisingly, the deal collapses.
"It was all signed, sealed and delivered, says Smith. with ironic turn of phrase. "I could have actually got them for millions. I just didn't want to put the guys in London in the shit."
BACK IN MANCHESTER. SMITH UPGRADES from a typewriter to a word processor and writes Perverted By Language. The Fall, skint troop back to Rough Trade. It is no better for them.
"They were trying to get commercialised," he laments -getting all wimpy and that. Everything But The Girl-type stuff. Trying to get professional." Smith who has always taught his musicians the value of primitivism (..You've got to unlearn"), summarily jacks the word processor.
In the Spring of 1983, The Fall take on Smith's new wife, Brix, a blonde vivacious Californian guitarist visually at odds with their austere standoffishness. The Fall soon have choruses and greatlooking hair. To celebrate, they change labels again, to Beggars Banquet. With Brix on Rickenbacker, The Fall make three excellent albums. The Wonderful And Frightening World Of The Fall (1984), This Nation's Saving Grace (1985) and Bend Sinister (1986).
"..Beggars were cool." concedes Smith. "They let us do what we wanted. That was probably the problem. Not so much us, but they let Brix do what she wanted."
Smith, always courted by the arts, gets sidetracked by dancer Michael Clark into collaborating on a ballet. I Am Curious, Orange, for which The Fall provide the rock music. Smith also writes Hey! Luciani, a poorly-received play about sinister cover-ups in the Vatican. The Fall bounce back with the superb Hit The North single, a cacophonous dance track which presages their '90s sound. They even start having hit singles with choice cover versions: R. Dean Taylor's There's A Ghost In My House (1987) and The Kinks' Victoria (1988). Smith falls out with Beggars Banquet. "Same old thing, you know. They were trying to get professional. So I walked."
As Madchester bubbles and explodes, the most explosive Mancunians of them all sign a major label deal with Phonogram, and deliver a first class album, Extricate. The six-piece Fall, augmented live by violinist Kenny Brady, make a stunningly powerful noise. Never has a Fall album been as critically acclaimed as Extricate. At last, musically and visually, The Fall seem complete. Fame, success and reward are forecast.
Then, Smith's marriage to Brix collapses, and she leaves to go solo. Smith's long dark night of the soul takes him to Edinburgh for a while, inspiring the poignant Edinburgh Man on 1991's (again) excellent Shiftwork album. Unbelievably even for him, he sacks two of the band in the middle of an Australian tour. "We were ending up like fuckin' Ian Dury & The Blockheads," he shrugs. Coincidentally, his dealings with Phonogram plummet swiftly downhill. "They must be the only people in London who'd never heard of The Fall," he says incredulously. "That's why they bring out Tears For Fears remixes every fuckin' six weeks. They're the sort of people who give you cheques to go away. Very Major-ite. They don't want to do any work. They want you to bring out an album every two years - The Fall are a working band. It was a total pain in the arse. They're all either on holiday, pregnant or they've got the 'flu." So he walks.
Moving to Permanent, a mainly folk-based independent label set up by their ex-manager John Lennard, The Fall release 1993's The Infotainment Scan. Yet another great album, it delights everybody by entering the charts at Number 9. Smith feels strangely vindicated. "I was going to throw a brick through Phonogram's window," he says. "With '9' written on it.
At time of writing, The Fall are reasonably content on Permanent, and could stay for a while. "They seem alright. Obviously, I sounded out a few labels. Didn't like the look of Nude. He (Galpern) hasn't got any chairs in his office apart from his own, if you want the reason. Permanent's a good set-up. You go in the office and there isn't loads of wanky groups hanging around."
Why have there been so many people in The Fall?
"Nah, that's a stock question." he says, shaking his head. "If you look at it, there haven't been that many. We outgrow each other, really."
Is it always you who decides when it's time to lose someone?
"Yeah, most of the time."
Do you always act immediately?
"Yeah. Sometimes too quickly. Some people I fired are tailing about selling their story to The Sun! Like, how much are you going to get for it, about 14 quid? Not Brix, no. No. Brix wouldn't do that. Ex-members of the band. But can you really imagine The Sun being interested in that? 'He Smoked 40 Cigarettes A Day And Shouted At His Band'. Ha ha... Good luck to you, you know?"
Rex Sargeant has done a great job of producing the last two Fall albums.
Smith looks a bit rueful, "Err... I just fired him yesterday."
MARK E. SMITH IS HARD AND HAS NEEDED to be. He is a riddle of various fierce, overlapping contrasts. A bluff, hard drinker who is a poet for a living. A leader of men who values his anonymity. A proud, dedicated writer who wouldn't dream of ever including a lyric sheet. An interviewee whose courtesy a unparalleled - he remembers your name and uses it constantly - yet who underlines certain points by tensing all facial muscles. staring menacingly al you and saving, "Get my drift?"
In 1992, he sacked the support band, Levitation, from a Fall tour, calling them "a bunch of fucking crusty poofs". On the same tour, he sacked his manager, who was also his wife, and his sound man, whom he punched in the face.
But Mark E. Smith can write lines like: "I just left the Hotel Amnesia/I had to go there/Where it is I can't remember" (The Classical, 1982), and so he is forgiven.
BACK AT THE FALL'S OFFICE. A SMALL, NARROW room in a large building in an industrial area of Manchester. Smith's administrative helper, John. is posting the upcoming tour dates to the people on The Fall's mailing list.
"You can, er. cross out Newcastle, cock," Smith says airily. 'I've blown that out this morning. l'm not fuckin' playing that dump."
On the far wall is a poster of the Inspiral Carpets, whose song I Want You, sung with Smith, recently put him on Top Of The Pops for the first time. He probably won't get another chance. But that's fine.
"You've got to remember that what The Fall is doing is not accessible,'' says Smith, "so you've got to try a lot harder. It's not like being an ordinary pop group. On the opposite wall, as if to prove his point, is a page cut out of Music Week showing the singles charts for the week of December 25 last year. At Number 1 is Mr Blobby. Right at the other end of the charts, entering at Number 75 is Behind The Counter by The Fall. It has not been highlighted in day-glo yellow or orange. It is just there, as a reminder of things.
THEY HAD TO GO
Ex-Fall members XI.
Where are they now ?
Four-string flourishes on the Bingo Masters Breakout 45 betrayed skilled musicianship. Liked Weather Report. "He went to play jazz music. He wasn't into The Fall. Notoriously unphotographed.
guitar, 1977-79, 1989-91. Originally The Fall's singer then guitarist. Left to form The Blue Orchids. Returned in 1989 to replace Brix Smith. Sacked on Australian tour in 1991. Re-formed The Blue Orchids. 'Good record as well", notes Smith.
keyboards, 1977-78. Bramah's girlfriend and left before the first album. Formed The Blue Orchids with Bramah - responsible for one of the great New Wave songs Work 1981 and Bad Education 1982, later sung by Aztec Camera. They now have a child.
keyboards 78-79. Played on Witch Trials as a teenager ('tentative', "hesitant", just two of the words used to describe her technique. Leaving before Dragnet, having survived potential harassment of working men's club days. Now works for a radio station in Poland.
drums, 77-78, 82-86, 93-present. Flashy drummer on Witch Trials. Left before Dragnet. Rejoined for two-drummer line-up on Hex Enduction Hour: credited on sleeve as KK Burns Babe. Also played bass on stage. Left to pursue own direction. Gave up music. Smith: "I told him, I said, you're better off out of it." Tempted back by Smith after 1993's The Infotainment Scan.
bass, guitar, organ, kazoo, 1978-82. Bassist turned versatile exponent of Smith's turn-of-the-80's sub-genre Country & Northern. Left violently. Formed Marc Riley & The Creepers. Joined the BBC in Manchester. Smith: I don't remember hitting him. He hit me. He's got an 11-year-old chip on his shoulder. He started a show called Hit The North. He's a sad lad'.
drums 1977-78. Not the playwright, although there was a resemblance facially. Older than the others. Smith remembers: "Mike Leigh was a rockabilly drummer. He was on Dragnet. But there was no money. He's doing very well. He's in insurance. Still keeps in touch. Still a teddy boy, you know.
drums, keyboards 1979-84. Brother of bass player, Steve. Joined as 15-year-old. Left briefly: "He had to do his exams and stuff like that". Rejoined for two-drummer line-up "He stayed for quite a while." Left to pursue own music direction.
guitar, vocals, 1983-89. Smith: 'She left to pursue to solo career.' Her band The Adult Net now dropped by Phonogram. Lived with Nigel Kennedy for a while. Moved to LA. 'I saw her about a year ago. She's forming a band with Susannah Hoffs (of The Bangles). She's acting as well."
bass, guitar keyboards, 1985-86. Intermittently in late 80's. Some Fall production work in 90's. The Fall's most learned musician. Joined in 1985 when Steve Hanley took time off to attend to his sick baby. "He's a producer, he does all the rave stuff. Everything begins with an E and stuff with Boy George. He's doing alright."
keyboards 1987-91. Had supported the Fall in own band Khmer Rouge. Fantastically glamourous. Sacked in same purge as Bramah. Left to make own way back to the UK. "I got a couple of tickets for them,' notes Smith. Took it badly. Now studying medicine at Cambridge.