Caroline Sullivan, "By gum, it's Mr Grumpy"
The Guardian, September 22, 1997
He's getting old and his teeth are falling out, but The Fall's Mark E.Smith is as fresh as ever, says Caroline Sullivan.
Mark E Smith could grump for England, but he has his lighter moments. Take the time two weeks ago, when he was visiting the Notting Hill office of his publicist. He was in customarily dour spirits until he spoffed a crane parked next to the building, its operator at the top repairing its scaffolding. He entered the empty cab and spent the next few minutes gleefully raising and lowering the hapless operator. Mark E Smith is 39.
Last week, he recalled the incident with the faintest shadow of a smile. "I don't like this new breed of modern workman. Always strutting around with their cranes, going up and down like that," he propounds, slumped in a Manchester pub.
Since forming The Fall - the band that arguably launched indie music - Smith has been pop's voice of Northern bile. This year the group celebrate their 20th anniversary, and he's more cantankerous than ever. He is not appeased by the fact that the Fall are DJ John Peel's all-time favourite band, or that they are passionately admired by anyone who was at university in the eighties. He's still disgusted of Salford, much keener to rail at his bugbears than discuss the band's new album.
Levitate is their 27th release, and falls into the same stylistic parameters as its many predecessors. The one constant has been Smith's aggrieved shouting, as he vents his spleen about love, injustice and the price of cauliflower. The music has veered from classic indie-guitar in the early days, to a light industrial, middle period, and, in recently, to the dance-inspired. The versatility reflects not only the number of people who've passed through the band - well into double figures - but also Smith's febrile creativity.
"Levitate is a good one for devotees to pick over," says Peel. "It's full of weird gurglings, and some songs are just him repeating the title over and over." It also contains the band's first stab at surf music in the track I Am A Mummy and, as ever, Smith's sly wit and considerable intelligence.
Congratulate him on it, though, and he mumbles, "We want to break away from the typical perception of The Fall. I want a cleaner, sparser sound with no guitars, but the people who book you want the classic Fall - with-guitars. That was the problem when Brix left." Brix, his guitarist ex-wife, left him and the group for Nigel Kennedy years ago, but Smith is referring to their most recent tour; having rejoined the Fall temporarily, Brix left midway through, enraging Smith.
Out-stare the blankness that accompanies this fact and Smith finally, almost, breaks into a smile. He reveals grey-brown teeth studded with gaps. Then you find he carries in his pocket a false tooth - which he can slip in to one of the holes. It doesn't make an appreciable difference. Both teeth and face are worn for a man not yet 40, but then, Mark E (it stands for Edward) is a champion drinker, smoker and carnivore.
"I don't eat vegetables," he proudly claims. "Vegetarians are why music is so wimpy today. And I have a lot of problems with them. You can smell vegetarians." (A few hours later he puts his money where his mouth is, bolting down spare ribs and sweet and sour chicken with utter disregard for cutlery. He stops only to breathe and curse record firms that release substandard Fall compilations.)
Smith's features embody his personality, every Jack Duckworthesque crevice conjuring up a North that hardly exists today even on Coronation Street. He looks like Morrissey and the Gallaghers would have if they'd stayed in Manchester rather than gone to Spain and London. It can only be a matter of time before the city council - which, mysteriously, he loathes - gives him landmark status.
Nonetheless, he hates ingratiation. When an NME writer recently tried to compliment him, he responded by throwing the hack's notebook in a lake. With Peel, though, there's mutual respect. "The few times our paths have crossed, we've said hello and punched each other in a manly fashion," says Peel.
So, given their unremarkable record sales (their biggest hit, a cover version of R Dean Taylor's There's A Ghost In My House, reached 30), to what does Smith ascribe The Fall's longevity? "We can play anywhere, any time," he says. "We can lock in to the prevailing feeling anywhere, and we don't do all our hits, either, which is why we don't get to do festivals."
We've now moved on - Smith, keyboardist Julia Nagle, the press officer; me - to a sleek theme pub near Chinatown. Smith strikes a light and a waitress cruises up. "This is a no-smoking area, but you can smoke over there," she says politely. His face curdles. "It's all right, we're leaving."
Later he says: "You should be able to do anything you like onstage. Gorilla noises...it's no one's business."
Th BBC recently roused his ire by asking him to do a retrospective documentary. "I hate all that retro shit, especially when you reach our age. We got asked to do this three-day punk festival in Blackpool." You can probably imagine his face as he speaks. "Those nostalgia bands, those X-Ray Spex bands, they're putting people out of work." Well, that's a unique perspective. "It's cheaper to hire old people for 50 quid a time than young bands," he emphasises.
The Fall were never really punk anyway, sharing with that movement only a desire to release records without going through traditional channels. He'd have little to say to fellow Mancunians The Buzzcocks, who now make a living on the revival circuit. That said, he'd have even less to say to his former keyboardist Marc "Lard" Riley, who's become far more famous in a few months on Radio 1 than Smith has done in his entire life. Is he amused by Riley's renowned northern wit? "He only made me laugh when he played. I used to hope he'd become successful so he'd go away."
We're interrupted as an elderly drunk slides into the spare chair. "Is this Manchester?" he pleads. Smith's reply is just as compassionate as you'd expect. "Of course it's fooking Manchester. Are you daft?" Godlike.