Alastair Mabbott, "Fall Guy"
The Scotsman, March 15, 1995
"Leader of Britain's best - and most productive - indie band Mark E Smith tells Alastair Mabbott about the secrets of staying at the top."
In his 35th year year (his 18th year at the helm of The Fall), Mark E Smith is in a unique position. A man who can by no stretch of the imagination actually sing, he can, however, justifiably claim to lead the greatest band in Britain. To emerging indie bands, he's an elder statesman figure, regarded with roughly equal measures of fear and reverence. To the music press he's a living legend, reknowned for his single-minded musical vision and contrary opinions - the Curmudgeon it's ok to like.
His extraordinary lyrics (samples: "Stomachs gnawed as Trak of fame debuted on KGB pantomime TV show one Friday," or the pithier "buffalo lips on toast, smiling" may have won praise from high-culture mandarins, but even this does not do justice to Smith's service to music. Using garage, punk, primal rockabilly and avant-garde rock as raw material Smith fashioned music of intelligence and wit, inventing a new genre - Country and Northern - along the way. A mischevious slogan went with it; "prole art threat". The Fall's intimidating stance and articulate social commentary were a lot less easily digestible than The Clash singing about white riots. Few supposed these uppity northerners would outlive almost everyone else of their generation as a vital creative unit.
Taking compilations in account, the newly released Cerebral Caustic is The Fall's 28th album. Some - such as Slates, This Nation's Saving Grace and Extricate - are masterpieces and not even the lowliest are without their moments of inspiration. Live, with the longstanding core team of drummer Simon Wolstencroft, bassist Stephen Hanley and guitarist Craig Scanlon, The Fall are one of the more compelling units around.
The secret of staying a force to be reckoned with after 17 years, it would appear, is to never look back. By casting a selective eye over his back catalogue, Smith could put together a staggering set-list, from early singles Totally Wired and Fiery Jack through Eighties peaks such as Cruiser's Creek and US 80s-90s to latter day chart hits Free Range, Glam Racket and Behind The Counter.
Instead, Smith keeps his steely gaze on the future, dropping songs as soon as band and audience get too comfortable with them. Big New Prinz, a rousing number from 1988, is as far back as they will go, and then only occasionally.
Gigs around the time of their last album but one The Infotainment Scan, were heavy with cover versions. This was not, according to Smith, a creative drought but an attempt to 'kick the band into a different angle. You've got to work with these musicians. A lot of musicians would gladly do Totally Wired every night. You just can't have it. Even if it falls flat on it's face I think it's better.'
Nor is he afraid to sack band members as soon as they incur his displeasure - even if that happens to be in the middle of an Australian tour - but there's no bar to them returning to the fold. Brix Smith, Mark's ex-wife, who added a dash of glamour to The Fall's image, and more than a hint of radio-friendliness to their music plays on the album, as does Karl Burns, back for a third stint with the band. 'He's professional', notes Smith approvingly.
'I feel a lot better than I have for a couple of years about the group actually,' he says. 'I think the possibilities are getting endless again. We've got a bit more jump to it. You do get hidebound to certain things like The Fall sound. I want to get away from that. I always do. I always try to.' Typically rumbustious, riffy and rough-edged, Cerebral Caustic has The Fall sound.
'Always different, always the same,' as their champion in radio land, John Peel, described them - but there is plenty of room for variation within that. Brix has brought her sense of melody back with her, even if it is sabotage by her ex on the albums wierdest track, Bonkers In Phoenix, in which her part is speeded up and dive bombed by volleys of ugly synthesizer. The song is about rock festivals and Smith just wanted to get across, 'what it's actually like at them for someone like me anyway. It's always bands playing at half-pace with people shouting'. Already, and perhaps this could only happen in the wonderful and frightening world of The Fall, a folk group has asked permission to do an a cappella version.
'To be honest' says Smith of the new album, 'it was very diaryish, and it wasn't a nice time for me personally. I'm OK now but I thought it would be nice to get it down really fast.' Whereas Middle Class Revolt was more a comment on society - people moaning about how they can't be solicitors anymore, they have to queue up with everyone else.'
This 'topical' album was pushed through the manufacturing process and into the shops at top speed so that The Fall can move on to pastures new.
Their three-year-old association with independent label Permanent (The Fall have passed through the hands of nine record companies) is proving satisfactory on that score. Smith is talking of getting back to the old ways of releasing two albums a year.
'That's what I don't like about a lot of record labels: they want you to take two years nowadays to make records. Theoretically, you can turn around an LP, apart from recording it, in six weeks. Artwork and everything. They want the band to spend at least nine months recording it, then they want six months to work out a recording strategy, then they want six months to sit down about everything else. Meanwhile you've got a six or seven piece band hanging around for virtually two years'. It sounds like Smith's vision of hell.
Cerebral Caustic. And with a Trojan work ethic to boot. No doubt about it: there's another 28 albums in this man for sure.
THE FALL IN FOCUS
1. Totally Wired. Possibly the greatest amphetamine song ever written apart from Frightened by eerrrr The Fall.
2. How I Wrote 'Elastic Man'. Rockabilly era Fall in finest fettle.
3. Hip Priest. Most durable cut from the sprawling Hex Enduction Hour. So successful it even spawned a sequel, Big New Prinz.
4. Cruiser's Creek/ L.A.. The Fall at their most straightforwardly rocking on one side and most eerily hypnotic on the other.
5. Bill Is Dead. Smith's well hidden sensitive side came to the fore on this. Was it a wind-up?
6. Free Range. Opening with a clarion call of a synth intro, the track
crackles with such vitality that it's hard to believe the band had already
been going 15 years.