The Independent, December 7, 2002

"Tell your mates to take a photograph of me and my mates," the guy at the bar is hissing at Mark E Smith as he orders his third Holstein Pils in as many minutes. Back at our table, the photographer starts to squirm and hurriedly packs his cameras away out of sight. The curmudgeonly Fall frontman takes a moment to sip from his bottle of beer before turning to confront the Manc hardman with his legendary mad-boy stare. This is typical. I leave Smith alone (safe on his own turf at the station pub in Manchester's down-at-heel Victoria station) for five minutes to relieve my straining bladder, and he's already started a fight. He's 44 and the size of my gran, for God's sake. And I'm not even there to take notes. "Damn my beer-battered insides," I curse as I head back to the action. This is what we came for. Conclusive proof that Smith could start a fight in an empty afternoon bar.

Then something quite unexpected happens. Smith breaks his traditionally lemon-sucking demeanour into a wide-mouthed grin and walks away, calling out over his shoulder: "Sorry mate, we're leaving." He returns to our table, never even breaking stride as he drains his latest bottle, and whispers urgently: "It's time to leave." And that is exactly what we do.

Time was when the working-class hero and godfather of British independent music would rather have snogged Margaret Thatcher than walk away from a fight. But then, this is Smith's jubilee year - it's 25 years since he founded the band - and he can do whatever he wants. With the first Fall single in about two years, "The Fall Vs 2003", out this week and a new album in the pipeline ("I've got the songs like, but it's all very hush-hush at the moment"), Smith has reason to be pleased with himself. Even so, it comes as quite a surprise. During the past 25 battle-scarred years and more than 30 line-up changes, the Fall have released an average of two combative albums a year and numerous singles, creating such an unwieldy body of work that even his devoted website fan club can't definitively catalogue it.

The only certainty is that Smith's influence profoundly changed the face of contemporary music. Without the Fall, there would have been no Smiths, Pixies or even Nirvana. Even after Smith had routinely fired yet another line-up of his much put-upon band, including girlfriends and even a former wife, the Fall's often challenging output has been always fresh with invective, while Smith's trademark sneer adds a vowel-soaked echo of contempt to every acid-covered consonant he delivers. Eat your heart out, Liam Gallagher. They are, according to veteran indie warhorse, John Peel, the band by which all others should be judged. A dissonant social conscience documenting an ever-changing Britain. And everyone has an anecdote to tell about them.

A straw poll of Smith stories from music journalists turns up countless incidents of bad-tempered behaviour and fisticuffs. Like the time he (laughingly) pulled a knife on an interviewer, or spent two nights in a New York jail for attacking the rest of his band with a microphone stand. Then there was the journalist he bottled from the stage at Reading after an on-stage band meeting had left him with a bloody nose and the time he left his false teeth in the glove box of Damon Gough's (aka Badly Drawn Boy) car. It was Gough's fault, obviously "I left a 110-quid jacket there an' all," he said at the time. "Haven't had them back yet from the fat get."

Even the fans have never had it easy from Smith. On one famous occasion at a signing event, a young Fall aficionado approached the sour-faced Manc with a T-shirt to be autographed. "Go on, Mark," the teenage fan importuned "write something witty on it." Without even looking up, Smith grabbed the shirt and scrawled on it in giant letters "I Am A Mong". All of which begs the question, just what did the public ever see in Mark E Smith? But take him to their hearts they have and Smith was recently voted Greatest Ever Mancunian by readers of the Manchester Evening News.

It must have something to do with Smith's iconoclastic sarcasm and his sharp sense of humour. Although never easy listening, Fall albums have always been shot through with a dazzling lyrical content that you'd never expect from an ex-docker from Salford. And he' clearly well-read. Who else could write songs about Terry Waite ("Terry Waite Sez") or Doctor Faustus ("DKTR Faustus") and get away with it? Somehow Smith has always had the ability to walk a thin between appalling pretension and parody. Take the seminal "How I Wrote Elastic Man". On the one hand, it's a treatise on the fleeting nature of fame and how it can ruin your life but it's also funny. Not just funny, peculiar; or funny, strange but laugh-out-loud funny. That's Smith's gift.

Unless, of course, you are the kind of die-hard Fall fan who believes that Smith is a prophet with the power of second sight. The evidence, they will tell you, is in his lyric. Like when he released "Terry Waite Sez" in 1986, just before Waite was kidnapped, or 1996's "Powder Keg", which so clearly predicts the Manchester bombing by the IRA. Or the real clincher, 1997's "Spencer Must Die", released just one month before the death of Diana, the Princess of Wales. But really, it has to do with the punchy, punky riffs and Smith's demonic delivery, which allow his songs to leach into the subconscious, almost unnoticed. Like the rendition of "Hip Priest", which accompanies Clarice Starling;s search through Jame Gumb's house at the end of Silence of the Lambs or this year's Vauxhall Corsair advert where the playful little car plays hide-and-seek to the sound of "Touch Sensitive". He's simultaneously combative and kind. And that's why we love him.

So why has Smith chosen today to decide on discretion as the better part of his traditionally chippy valour? Surely he can't be mellowing with age? Not after all this time.

"He's certainly mellowed since I first met him," the Fall's latest bass player, Jim Watts, tells me soon after their most recent London gig at the Electric Ballroom in Camden. The gig itself is a standard Fall affair although Smith remains uncharacteristically sober throughout. Even managing to get all the trademark "aaahs" in the right places, he prowls the stage with only a fraction less vigour than he did 20 years ago. And he still refuses to acknowledge that the crowd is there at all. Even so, Watts is in high spirits and is looking forward to getting back into the studio next month to record the much-vaunted new album, scheduled for release in March. "When I first met him he could be really intimidating. Really fierce," Watts says. "Now, he picks his moments. And he's cut down on his drinking, too. I think he knew it was time for a change."

When I put this to Smith, however, he goes ballistic. "How does Jim know if I've fucking mellowed?" he rants, furious. "He's only known me two or three years. I just don't want to become a cliché, that's all. It can easily happen. I just went to the shops and there were these three builders going "What you doing?" so I told them I was in the Post Office and they were like, "'I bet you've been shouting at them in there. But I hadn't. I'm still not that fond of people, though. Never have been."

Even so, Smith is all charm this afternoon, asking as many questions as he answers. He even compliments me on my suit. "I've always liked a good suit and shirt," he says, showing me the YSL tag on the incongruously pressed shirt that he's hidden under an old Army and Navy pullover. "I got this one from Oxfam," he admits conspiratorially. "In the band, I would always have this rule about no jeans and T-shirts onstage. And no groupies afterwards, either. It would annoy other musicians that I was so meticulous. It gets on people's tits after a while."

By now, trying to keep pace with this strange Mark-a-like across the table, consuming booze at a remarkable rate on The Independent's bar tab, I am becoming totally confused and even start to suspect that I have collected the wrong man from Victoria station. As the paranoia takes hold, Smith's features start to slip and suddenly he doesn't even look like the young, angry punker any more. Instead, he has become a wizened, alcohol-soaked gnome with the cigarette-stained fingers of an ancient French polisher. As he gets into a long, involved rant about his hatred of celebrity chefs and what he'd like to do to them (such as the painful insertion of a drum kit into Jamie Oliver's best non-kitchen tool), I suddenly wonder aloud what the 18-year-old Mark E Smith would think of himself if he walked in now. Smith laughs.

"I reckon the 18-year-old me would think I was all right. I don't really think I've changed since I was 18. If anything, I'm worse. But now I have to hold myself back. Then, I would just have smashed some fucker's head in, because there are a lot of twats around. And I don't like them. Like those idiots in the bar earlier. Ten years ago, I would have bottled them. Honestly I'm not showing off. But now, I just walk out."

In reality, Smith has always been a mass of contradictions. As well as the Greatest Manc accolade, NME once famously dubbed him The Grumpiest Man in Pop and despite the dirty edge of the band's prodigious output, they are probably still best known for their painfully sensitive cover versions of songs like the Kinks' "Victoria" and "Lost in Music" by Sister Sledge. Even their greatest hit, "There's a Ghost in My House", which reached a dizzying number 30 in 1987, was a Dean Taylor cover. In fact, the best summation of Smith comes from his former wife Brix, who co-helmed the Fall during its most accessible period, in the mid-Eighties, before leaving Smith - and the band - for a fling with Nigel Kennedy, of all people. "The thing about Mark," she tells me, "is that he's just an old-fashioned Northern boy and that can be very attractive. He's a hard task-master, but you shouldn't be scared of him. He's just a pussycat underneath it all."

When I ask Smith what he thinks of this, he loses his cool for the only time in our drunken afternoon. "Mind your own fucking business," he barks, reaching over to grab my cigarettes. Then taking a big hit on the latest of a long line of large Scotches, he sighs, and says, "You know, I'm turning into my dad. He died recently and it takes a long time for that to sink in." He pauses to light another cigarette. "Right before my dad died, he was always going on about this shit. Like did I do you wrong? All that." He continues quietly, "He never gave me any problems. That's the other thing that annoys me about men these days. They're always crying about their dads. I can understand it in women, but what is all that Tony Parsons Boy-and-New-Man shit about, or whatever it's called? And the other one, Nick Hornby. It's frightening. What my dad would have said was, "God help us if we have a war." Which is what I have started saying. But I always take his advice about these things. He'd always say, "If you're feeling too sexy have a glass of water and a run round the backyard."

Then Smith actually hugs me and grins. "You don't have to go back to London tonight, do you?" he says. "Come on, let's take your car to Scarborough and start some trouble."

There's life in the old get yet.

"The Fall Vs 2003" is out now on Action Records.