Bill Dunn, "Old Peculiar"
ESQUIRE, December 1997, p. 68, 70.
Mark E Smith takes an awayday to London to celebrate 20 years of The Fall.
Mark E Smith has never been a pop star. Even if he wanted to be one (and he never has), his mother would probably have had something to say about it. A while back, slightly fraught, he answered the door to her with his hair sticking up. He takes up the story: "She said, 'That's how they get, these pop stars, they get off on the marry-joanna and then they get on to the cocaine. That's how it starts - they split up with their wives and start on the marry-joanna. They think it's all right at first...'
"I said, 'Look, Mam, I haven't had a joint in 15 years.'
"'That's what they all say: it turns them into liars. Look at you - just like Sting. His wife left him, and he was answering the door with his hair stuck up. Just like you were today.'
"My sister said, 'Mum, that's just his image.'
"'No - he's shouting mad, his wife's left him, and he's walking round shouting, just like Mark."'
Mark E Smith has never even dressed like a pop star. "When we first started, I used to wear a parka. It was just 'cos I was working in the docks and couldn't give a fuck about getting a Union Jack T-shirt and spiky hair. Now people are actually wearing parkas as a fashion statement, and these horrible V-necks. It's like Pulp and the stuff he wears. He pays loads of money for crap my mam bought me second-hand for 10p."
We're sitting in a pub, talking about how his group The Fall are, in their own, uncompromising way, still getting on with being one of the most influential groups in British music (they recently featured in The Times's greatest ever makers of music: "They boast more ideas in a verse than most other bands contrive for an LP," wrote John Peel). About how, after 20 years in the business, Fall Iyrics are today studied by German schoolchildren on the poetry syllabus. "I wonder what they make of 'Jew on a Motorbike'," wonders Smith. About how a pre-Bunnymen lan McCulloch used to be their roadie. About how American "progressive punk" outfit Pavement ripped them off: "They're filled with this guilt, which is really amusing. They're still trying to do Code: Selfish" [Fall circa 1992]. About how Elastica were "heavily influenced" by Pavement, who were ripping off The Fall. Ironic, really.
A small, dark-haired girl self-consciously sidles over.
"Excuse me, are you Mark E Smith?"
"Yes, love," he says. Politely.
Turns out she's the bass player with Elastica, who are recording their new album in a studio nearby. Really ironic.
After a while, she goes off. But not very far. We can hear her nattering into a mobile: "I'm in the pub. Mark Smith's here... yes, in the pub. Mark E Smith... from The Fall"
"They've got no shame, these people," Smith mutters.
Soon, there are two Elastica girls, Donna and Sheila, at our table. To keep up superiority of numbers, Julia Nagle, The Fall's keyboard player of two years, joins us.
"We're recording our new album," say the Elastica gurrrls.
"Oh really?" says Julia, chattily, like a nice aunt asking what you've done at school. "We've got a new album out."
"Ooh, can you send us one?" asks Donna.
"Why? Have you run out of ideas?" barks Smith.
(Later, Smith visited Elastica's studio. Of course they treated him reverentially, getting the beers in and eventually persuading him to sing on two tracks. On "We Want You" he dragged in his publicist, Koulla Constantinou, to sing a duet which he'd hastily written about Gary Numan, who made =A34 million in two years. It goes: "Instead of going to Montserrat, a la Simon Le Bon, I bought a caravan in Weymouth and nearly shot my mum." When Elastica's Justine Frischmann heard it, she wanted Smith to re-record the duet with her. Alas, Ms Frischmann couldn't sing the part as well as the classically trained Koulla, so Smith declined. "You've been sitting in this studio for a year with your fingers up your arses," he commented helpfully "and this girl's better than the four of you put together.")
Numerologists might find it portentous that The Fall (with many personnel changes) have - now been in existence for 20 years, that Levitate (the Fall's new LP) is their 30th album, and that Mark E Smith is now 40 years old.
Numerologists might also venture to suggest that this explains why odd things keep happening to The Fall.
Like the Elastica thing.
Like the fact that Mark E Smith (from North Manchester) gets a lot of letters from American Indians. "They only had three albums on their reservation," he muses, "one by Dean Martin, one by someone else, and Grotesque [Fall circa 1980]. Their chief thought that 'The North Will Rise Again' spoke to them through the music. When we played the West coast, they came and chanted backstage while we were playing."
Like the mad New Zealand fan. "About 10 years ago, this bloke strapped a load of dynamite to his back and blew himself to bits in the foyer of the New Zealand Nuclear Energy centre. When they went back to his house, they found his record collection was just Fall albums - nothing else. All over the house. They wanted to make a documentary I had to put the clampers on the script. Imagine that getting out: 'SERIAL KILLER INSPIRED BY THE FALL'.
"It's a tap you find in people's heads," says Smith, trying to explain The Fall's wide-ranging appeal. Well, it's certainly not the Nineties way of selling records. No advertising, little in the way of promotional work, and a loathing of the music press, for which Smith fosters a curmudgeonly menace. "Irritating little bastards," he mutters "They don't like me and I don't like them." Once he threw a fawning NME reporter's notebook into a lake.
The Fall are to the music industry what Ronseal is to flat roofs - it does exactly what it says on the tin. Tour and record, tour and record. It's a job. And with Smith's prodigious work-rate, there are always more words to wrap around songs.
"People seem to need The Fall more than I do," says Smith. "I've noticed the mail has been getting more and more desperate." Fans got used to the band's production rate - the antithesis of the Stone Roses's five-year hiatus while they produced that "difficult" second album.
Because I fucked off all my record labels, The Fall - for once - hadn't had an album out in nine months. So I left it for a bit - starve the bastards. It was getting really bad. I'd go into pubs in North Manchester and some barman would go, 'What are you doing sat in this pub drinking? It's been 16 fuckin' months!' In the street, it's always odd people you'd never think, like coppers and train guards, who come up and say: 'Get in the studio! GIVE US ANOTHER ALBUM.'
"Funny thing is," he adds, "the more I've left it, the more fuckin' lame other groups have become."
The Fall have existed in a parallel universe, utilising the sound of the time, but always sounding like, well - like The Fall, unswayed by the vagaries of music. "We're always two years ahead of the time - it's just pre-cog, isn't it?" says Smith. In the late Seventies, they didn't even fit into punk. "I felt betrayed by punk," says Smith. "I just wanted to combine primitive music with intelligent Iyrics." Thus few embarrassments in The Fall's backcatalogue, no "Laughing Gnome" lurking in the cupboard: "Whenever I hear old stuff on the radio, I'm always pleasantly surprised."
The only constant has been Smith's voice; a nasal Northern sneer lambasting everything he detests, from estate agents to East-Enders, students to container drivers. It is relatively unsurprising that one of his favourite words is "prurient".
The new LP was recorded in Edwyn Collins's studio, then produced by the techno outfit DOSE ("i got rid of them after a week") and then the hi-tech PWL (Pete Waterman Limited) boys ("they think The Smiths are some relation to us"). It gives the band a new sound - fuller, more techno, less guitar-led. "I've pruned a lot," he says. "l never liked British guitar music. I think it's redundant. Not commercially but musical,." Smith admits that his new one, Levitate, is "one of of the few LPs I can listen to all the way through".
In spite of constant evolution, there's always a danger that, through sheer longevity, they'll get cast as an old 1977 retro outfit. Smith hates retro ("Vimto and Spangles were always crap, regardless of the lookback buzz," he sings on "It's a Curse", 1993) and, unsurprisingly, wants to stamp this out. He has just pulled The Fall out of a lucrative US tour "because I found out that Stiff Little Fingers and Pere Ubu were on the bill."
Trouble is, diehard Fall fans will insist on droning on about the good old days. "It's such a shame. We did a show in Berlin last Christmas, and 19-year-old East German kids are really into it for the technical and Iyrical aspects. And then you get some fuckin' drip my age coming over and saying [irate German accent]:'I bought your 'How I Wrote Elastic Man' in 1981. Now I verk in computers...' Fuckin' saddo. I wouldn't go back now. You talk to people and they say the best times of their life were when they were 18 to 21. I fuckin' hated it, me.
"It's gone full circle," says Smith. "In the beginning, it was really hard for us to get shows, because we had longish hair but weren't heavy metal, and weren't punk, and no fucker liked us.
"We were banned from all festivals last year because we don't play the old stuff, because I walk offstage. Look at Johnny Cash - he walks offstage after half an hour. I just want to get the band moving. People don't want to hear some fucker shouting through songs like fuckin' Mick Jagger; they can go and see Oasis if they want to hear that."
Smith is dubious of being categorised as a "British sound". "I always liked Country and Western and rockabilly - it's more English than people think. All the white trash from the south of America are from the North of England; three-quarters of the blokes at the Alamo were from North Manchester. History gets distorted. Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones were just watered-down blues. England took Elvis Presley and got Cliff Richard. Paul McCartney had a nerve calling Oasis derivative - The Beatles never wrote a fuckin' original song in their lives..."
Smith is a font of opinions, spewing them out like Liam Gallagher spews out, erm, spew. He even has opinions on opinions. "Have you noticed that these days ordinary people think they have a right to say things? It's been shoved down people's throats that they have a viewpoint. I get in a lot of fights - people think they have a right to come up to you in a pub and say they think The Smiths are better than The Fall, and I get up and hit them in the fuckin' face because that's the way I was brought up."
Smith has little love for his hometown, although he'd hate to live anywhere else. "They don't like me where I live. People say, 'This isn't the wastelands you were writing about at 19', but it is. It's just casinos instead of factories. It's just cosmetic changes there's still a load of pissed-off people, it's just that the air's cleaner. I preferred the old Manchester when you couldn't see how horrible it was.
"Now it's cultural festivals and all that - everything I fuckin' hate. You still get Peter Hook [ex-New Order bassist] walking round like he's bigger than Mick Jagger. I try to tell him: people in Dallas, Texas don't like Monaco [Hook's new band]. People in Nebraska have heard of The Fall. Manchester has an inflated opinion of itself."
Like Marc Riley perhaps. Riley was The Fall's ex-guitarist who went on to become the Lard in Mark and Lard, ex-breakfast-show, now afternoon-show Radio I DJs. "It's almost exactly as I forecast. I said he'd get into astrology and the runes and end up as some floppy mong on TV." When they first got the Radio 1 job, Smith was cabbing it up through Manchester to a recording studio: "I was really sick - you know when you're feeling so ill you think you're going to die and everything looks really big? We came over a hill and saw this big poster of Marc Riley and Mark Radcliffe this big fuckin' head on a wall, like 1984. I thought I was going to die and all the people I'd ever known were flashing before my eyes. It was fuckin' scary."
A recent hagiographic Guardian interview described Mark E Smith as "God-like". It might be more judicious to use words like "funny" "clever" "professional", and "prolific". So he must be happy that Fall concert tickets are hard to get hold of these days? He smiles and sparks up a B&H: "Well, that's the general idea".
The Fall are currently on tour in the UK until 9 December. Their 30th album, Levitate, is out now.