Penny Anderson, "Still Angry After All These Years (but is he getting better?)"
Manchester Evening News, May 27, 1994
Despite having 18 albums with The Fall behind him, Mark E Smith keeps telling it like it is. Still angry after all these years (but he is getting better).
Where do I begin to tell the story of The Fall? For the past 16 years their leader Mark E Smith has been composing lyrics which sound like the lost poems of Edward Lear's angry young brother.
What's more he can't sing - well he may not have a proper voice, but he makes a proper noise, spitting out the words like he's answering at a fool, surprisingly soft as he rejects the notion of key and scale, then ending each phrase with a traditional - and much imitated - "Uh!".
In cold print this might seem unappealing but he has fans more besotted than the most ardent Morrissey-saddo, and his band have lasted longer than any of their punk contemporaries (many line-up changes notwithstanding). This is one of Manchester's greatest bands. The Fall had several Top 20 hits, and while they might not sell as many records as Simply Red, they are a million times more influential.
I met up with Mark E. Smith in an old-fashioned, empty pub, one afternoon in Collyhurst. We talked about "Middle Class Revolt" (the band's eighteenth album) credibility, snobbery and the docks. First of all I suggested that The Fall are as much of a grand Mancunian tradition as dirty canals and losing Olympic bids, not glamorous but they give us character. He doesn't really agree.
"You can't really harp on about that - we were on and off when we first started. We only ever played for two months a year", a touch tetchily. "We couldn't get any work. We weren't that popular when we first started out. It didn't really get going until '81-'82."
And when it wasn't so good ?
"We had to go back to work. I used to do a bit of plumbing with me dad. You could always go back to the docks at the time."
Mark E Smith ponders over every answer, collecting his thoughts and then cataloguing them, sometimes pausing for so long, that you can't tell that he has said his piece. He gives the fans with some credit with helping to hold the band together. "You always had that core there, yeah."
Mark has a better sense of humour than he's generally given credit for, and manages a wry smile at his old 'alternative' beliefs. ("We were very young then. Determined not to sell out, like the rest of all the punk groups then, you know.")
"But in the old days the enemy was identifiable. They used tons of dry ice, they wore cloaks and sang songs about dwarfs." However the wheel of change has completed another ghastly turn.
"You have these crusty bands who are worse than Barclay James Harvest - they have more dry ice and lights than they ever had," he laughs, lighting another cigarette. "These groups make Emerson, Lake & Palmer look sparse."
Soon after the Sex Pistols split The Clash did sell out (they had all the integrity of Vivien from The Young Ones). Few bands from that era stuck around. The Fall are here today because the stay in control. Mark has a deserved reputation as the Most Formidable Man In Music. He manages the band - to put it simply - if he doesn't like the label then he leaves it. So far at least have captured his signature, only to have him walk.
It's an unwritten rule that if you are serious about music you have to like The Fall. Like James Joyce, Mark (E for Edward) became a benchmark for all other intellectual rebels.
He now seems to occupy an unlikely position as the wise old man of indie. Do young bands look up to him? "A lot of people do. Depeche Mode and people like that. People that you don't expect."
When asked what he thinks of a band like that, Mr Smith squirms slightly, lights another cigarette and pauses, I await the now traditional rant, only he's noncommital and says he doesn't follow music anymore, which is odd, because he's portrayed as Mr Mouth-Off, in real-life, he's Mr Respectful.
"Them rave groups are really good, they keep it really simple. There's two of them. They have one on keyboards and one of them sings, and they have an attitude to sound that is very Fall-like, too."
"They don't want all this engineering doing on it," continues Mr Enthusiastic. "They try something that hits hard. That's why Dave in the band is so good. He knows all about techno. You say to him 'Make a cracking noise' and he'll just do it."
It's just that some things still make him angry.
"Then you get all them groups who sound like sped-up or slowed-down Led Zeppelin," he means these groups from Seattle like Soundgarden. "All these punk bands are going in big studios and it's coming out sounding like flattened crap. People go on that The Fall just go in and bang it out. We don't. We work to get it direct, down the middle. You've got to fight the machinery.
I nearly interrupt his flow with another question but he's on a roll and ready with a startling confession.
"I'm completely tone deaf in a lot of ways, I know what's good though. These long haired bands, these new ones, they think if they spend like three weeks in the studio then it's going to be good and it just doesn't work like that. Then you'll go and see them in a club and it'll be dynamite."
There's more than a touch of "youngsters these days" about his views but it is not the jaded whining of a sad cynic, more the wisdom of one who knows. Many a young and ill-informed journalist has suffered something of a tongue-lashing.
"I'm a bit short with a lot of journalists, they all go on about the Velvet Underground. And talk down to you", he says with undisguisable resentment. "They'll be pushing the Velvet underground and I've known about them since I was 16, I know who the bass player was on the third album."
It seems Mark has become more tolerant of the press, which can be of some comfort to the cub journalists assigned to interview him in anticipation of baptism by fiery words.
"No, I don't play games with them. I'm very straightforward with them. I enjoy a lot of stuff written about me, even the bad stuff I don't mind. If you take it really seriously you'd end up poring over it all the time. I draw the line when it's really personal or really wrong."
Mark has recently worked with Inspiral carpets on their single I Want You, and appeared on Top Of The Pops complete with traditional lyric sheet in hand. Can he really not remember the words ?
"No, I just put that in for effect. I like to make it very pliable, that sort of stuff. I don't out the lyrics in the same place. I try to change them. I did that on Top Of The Pops - it was a better version."
He used to run a label (Cog Sinister) but gave up in despair at the attitude of some young bands.
"But what are these kids like? They do classes at college, and then you get an eight page essay on how they want their publishing. You get all these failed bass players who taught them at college, and you get the drummer ringing you up. It's bad enough having my own drummer ringing me up."
Just when you thought they'd mellowed out the new Fall album is dead hard and dead good.
"I don't set out to do anything, I try not to be influenced by anything around me. That's very important."
Perhaps it's the best testament to Mark E Smith that so many new bands don't just admire The Fall, they want to really be The Fall. Long may he rant.