After over twenty five years in the British Entertainment Industry, Popular Music Division, Manchester’s punk scene survivors The Fall still haven’t developed what record company fat cats might call a Signature Sound. Sometimes they could be a 60’s garage punk relic, at others an over-amplified, over-amphetamined 50’s rockabilly group. Some songs suggest 70’s German experimental bands, or Italian House records, or cut and paste efforts by bearded post-war beatniks. Why would anyone make this music? Why would anyone listen to it? Over forty musicians, including the Radio 1 DJ Lard, have served sentences of varying lengths in The Fall, usually departing in acrimony. Scientists estimate that most living rock drummers have at some time played in the group, though many choose to deny it. But no matter how many former Fall members tumble to the wayside, like the skeletons in Jason In The Argonauts, still more spring up from the barren soil to take their places. The Fall has only one constant, lead singer and lyricist Mark E Smith.
Music journalists, if they cover The Fall at all, reduce Smith’s quarter century of genius to an ongoing soap opera of cancelled gigs, heavy drinking and needlessly threatening behaviour. We Fall followers the world over hang on his every recorded utterance, lions led by a donkey. But today’s young people probably know Smith best as the man shouting “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” on the Vauxhall Corsair advert. For me, Mark E Smith’s work is one of life’s few constant pleasures, yet to say I admire him would be an exaggeration. One may as well admire sleet. Your admiration is not a necessary element of the conditions required for wet ice to fall from the sky. Mark E Smith will continue regardless, with or without anyone’s approval.
Today, Smith is forty-six years old and still has many of his own teeth. Even in a bra and pants, he would not be Esquire Magazine cover material. His group played their first gig in Manchester in 1977 in between an experimental piece involving birdsong and a brass band. A DVD interview on the latest in a long line of bewilderingly sequenced Fall compilations, Rebellious Jukebox, reveals that initially the group planned to go out as Flyman And The Fall. Smith was to dress as a fly and end every sentence with ‘bzzzz.’ “It was very ahead of its time.”, he laughs. Today Smith is the band’s only remaining original member. But, as he explained when one of the group’s more stable line-ups collapsed sometime after an on-stage fight in New York in 1998, “if it’s me and your granny on bongos it’s The Fall.”
Above and beyond the reputation of his band, Smith’s eccentric behaviour is legendary. Un-confirmed sources supply the following unsubstantiated rumours, both trivial and significant. It is written that Smith once tried to stub out a cigarette in the eye of a Loaded correspondent and explained, correctly, that none of his fans would read the magazine anyway. It is whispered that Smith was seen vomiting on a step outside a Jerry Sadowitz gig in Edinburgh in 1989. It is recorded that Smith mistook Badly Drawn Boy for a mini cab driver and left his false teeth in his car. It has been intimated that Smith was a confidante of a former head of the CIA. By his own admission, Smith believes he is psychic and was investigated by private detectives for predicting the kidnapping of the corpulent holy man Terry Waite. It is regretted that Smith attacked his wife on-stage in New York and his own band conspired to have him arrested. It was implied that the script of Smith’s 1987 play, Hey Luciani, was written on beer mats and delivered to its director in a shoe box. And it was once imagined that Smith saw a small girl crying on the streets of Salford and, discovering that she had lost her toy bear, explained the stuffed effigy had gone on a world tour, and still writes weekly to her, even though she is now 28 years old, in the persona of Mark Edward Bear, from a variety of fictional holiday destinations.
Try too hard anatomise the attraction of Mark E Smith and you will destroy something magical, but not necessarily something benign. In interviews Smith always smacks down middle class journalists, either physically or at least with the trump card of his working class credentials. Though he attended grammar school, he describes himself as largely self-educated and left at sixteen to work as a clerk in the docks. Then a chance encounter with The Sex Pistols showed him his true calling. Smith is a self-confessed non-musician. He entertains the idea that he has a layman’s ear, which he considers an asset in his chosen field. Yet Smith is blessed with the same perfect sense of timing, and of when to spew forth and when to be silent, that characterises Miles Davis’ records. Few would make a case for Smith being a singer, but he is one of the greatest vocalists ever, and knows exactly how best to deploy his splenetic, whining, staccato, growls for maximum effect. His ‘Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!’’s are amongst the best ‘Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!’’s in rock. A track on his latest album, The New Real Fall LP, repeats the line ‘I hate the countryside so much’ sixteen times in succession with minimal variation in tone. It’s brilliant. By the end of Contraflow we are in no doubt of the extent to which its narrator hates the countryside. He hates it so much-ah!
Non-Fall-fans, who are legion, wrongly assume Smith’s lyrics are the reason we tolerate the cacophony that surrounds them. His mere presence is enough to energise a track. But those barked collisions of choice phrases, stream of consciousness narrative and withering social critique can appear to mean nothing and everything simultaneously. In the introduction to his excellent study of Smith, Hip Priest (Quartet), Simon Ford explains how Smith’s words become ‘the very language you think through …. an inexhaustible stream of neologisms and buzz words, trigger phrases you can’t shake off: ‘eat yourself fitter’, ‘totally wired’, ‘just step sideways’, ‘Jew on a motorbike’.” In the early to mid stages of Smith fandom one wishes Smith would write a novel or a short story collection, so as this unique aesthetic could be mainlined directly into the brain. But eventually you accept that, like Bob Dylan’s, Smith’s words are written to be declaimed. Try shouting the phrase, “On TV today someone claimed their dog had been molested by a textile chemist”. I guarantee you’ll enjoy it. And anyway, the notion that writing a novel would be some kind of cultural upgrade for the renegade rock and roller comes with an inherent notion of snobbery. Dylan’s Tarantula book is terrible. Smith’s lexicon enjoys the perfect symbiotic relationship with whatever bunch of hired hands currently approximate his notion of The Fall.
The above information begins to make a convincing case for Smith’s talent, but that talent comes packaged in such a bizarre way as to explain, to some extent, his continuing obscurity. Even when Smith’s group enjoyed a strange flirtation with the charts in the late 80’s, with covers like R Dean Taylor’s There’s A Ghost In My House and The Kinks’ Victoria temporarily making them pop stars, he always looked wrong. Smith’s fashion sense is that of a middle-aged, lower middle class alcoholic who dresses up as smartly as possible before sinking six pints at the bar, so as to maintain an illusion of non-dependence. I recognise it from the drinking schools of unsteady relatives in suburban Birmingham boozers. Whenever I see Smith live I am struck, initially, with a miserable nostalgia and a sense of loss. A correspondent on the Fall website, called Elderford, described Smith’s appearance at a show last December, thus; “Who is this man? He was alternately fascinating and non-descript. Black school shoes with light coloured trousers, no arse, tight blue pullover revealing his slackening midriff, and atop of slightly hunched shoulders this incredible old man’s face fringed with a do it yourself haircut, blowing his nose on the corner of the back drop, generally wandering around as though making mental lists and fiddling.” Yet despite this, Elderford concludes, “I did feel blessed to have been in his presence … it was good to know that Mark E Smith was still doing what he does.”
In more generous moments, one might charitably assume that the snug bar regular persona is one Smith has consciously adopted. Today the spectacle of a tightly drilled young band being fronted by this wizened, sensibly clad cult figure becomes more fascinating yearly. The 1979 single Fiery Jack describes a hardcore hardened drinker in heroic terms; “I sat and drank for three decades. I’m 45. My face is slack. And I think think think. I just drink drink drink. Too fast to work. Too fast to write. I just burn burn burn. I eat hot dogs. I live on pies. I’m 45.” In candid moments, Smith’s ex-wives express concern for his notoriously poor diet, and today he could pass for the once fictionalised Fiery Jack character, railing at the world from a barstool. Beyond beer, Smith’s apparent drug of choice always was, and perhaps still is, speed, – a good honest drug, joyless and practical, free of any elitist cultural connotations. If Smith enjoys other stimulants they are rarely spoken of or alluded to. Psychedelics, one assumes, are for pansies and dandies, while opiates suggest bohemian decadence. A late 70’s encounter in the NME offices with the coke snorting socialists Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons seems to have imprinted the drug with an inescapable whiff of hypocrisy.
In the early stages of The Fall Smith made the decision to distance himself from prevailing trends. The band sported shaggy hair and taunted pogo-ing punks with slow and lugubrious songs. Now he has been out of step for so long it seems Smith’s work can never date, but what appears like a sound career move may in fact be just a result of a genuine bewilderment with most of what passes for popular culture, made explicit in Smith’s songs. “Ted Rogers’ brains burn in hell.”, Smith declared in 1982, whilst ten years later A Past Gone Mad pleaded, “If I ever end up like Ian McShane slit my throat with a kitchen tool. And if I ever end up like U2 slit my throat with a garden vegetable”. Smith had no time for the credo of ultra short term nostalgia that defines vast swathes of contemporary publishing and television. He probably does not remember 1987 and would not enjoy BBC 2 shows that asked him to do so, instantly recycling the immediate past for late night comic amusement. “Balti and Vimto and Spangles were always crap, regardless of the look back bores.”, he explains on It’s A Curse, whilst his second spoken word album contains the rather unfair observation; “Harry Hill encapsulates everything wrong with British society. What signals is he sending out to his big white shirt and large NHS spectacles? Fooling about, a qualified doctor needed by everybody.” Instead of a rotating roster of bands and writers that fall in and out of fashion, Smith has maintained a watertight list of acceptable influences that does not seem to have altered much since the early 80’s. Alongside his musical heroes he admires a canon of literary figures that unselfconsciously crosses highbrow and lowbrow barriers in a quest for visionary outsiders; Camus, Wyndham Lewis, HP Lovecraft, Phillip Dick and the Welsh mystic Arthur Machen.
So Fall fans have Smith to thank for their own impeccable taste, and, if nothing else, we learn from him a useful sense of independence, or at the very least, studied contrariness. Smith’s devotees have the same relationship with him as one might have with a League Division Three football team. Being a Smith fan has gone beyond being an issue of choice. We will be there to support him whatever. During the late 90’s, when the majority of his performances were confused and awful, there was even some pleasure to be had in having our worst expectations confirmed. “See, I told you he was passed it.”, someone would say, as plastic pint pots flew at Smith’s shrinking head. But last November’s tour was brilliant. We knew, all along, that he would not let us down. There is nothing dignified or brave about supporting Arsenal FC. They will probably come to rest at or near the top of the table each season. But following Mark E Smith requires virtues. It demands optimism, courage and faith.
The American writer Camden Joy and the Welsh cartoonist Colin Morton collaborated on Pan (Highwater books), a novel set on the night of the Fall’s legendarily bad 1998 New York performance, when Smith allegedly struck his wife and was arrested. The story follows the fortunes of various gig-goers, from devotees to the merely curious, all of whom project their own hopes, desires and needs onto the blank slate of Mark E Smith. “Don’t you ever take me to see a band like that again”, shouts a thin redhead, leaving the gig. Joy has warm feelings towards his novel’s non-protagonist. “I come to admire Mark Smith more and more,” he writes, “as one admires a caged cat, its determined air, strong eyes, and cruel mouth, a beast of brains and savage certainties. There is something so alluring about that famous lack of forgiveness. Looking on, from a safe distance, the fiery paradoxes of Smith’s nature appear oddly inspiring.” Barbara Manning, once of the Californian psychedelic band 28th Day, wrote a song about observing Smith in the street and her admiration for him is similarly cautious. “I get the feeling he would not like me much and probably could easily make me cry,”, she says, “so its better that I never meet him in person.”
The song New Big Prinz has become a traditional Fall encore, and the way it is received now constitutes an act of genuine absurdity. Originally released in 1988 as part of The Fall’s soundtrack to Michael Clarke’s ballet, I Am Kurious Oranj, New Big Prinz is a reworking of Hip Priest from the band’s best album, 1982’s Hex Enduction Hour. The Hip Priest is a legendary cult figure, respected and admired, but trapped in poverty stricken obscurity. “Check the record. Check the record. Check the guy’s track record,” runs the refrain, “He is not appreciated.” During the band’s last two London dates, microphones find their way into the crowd as usual. Smith directs the audience from the stage with unusually animated gestures. “He is not fucking appreciated” is sung back at him by a thousand fans. Clearly, they do fucking appreciate him. “I’m not a mega-rock star. My thing is just to keep working and developing. Otherwise it’s pointless.”, says Smith, on the Rebellious Jukebox DVD, “The smart idea is to get a load of money and retire, and all that shit which is what every body does, but that’s not why I started it.”
1) Leave The Capitol – Slates – 1981.
A propulsive, paranoid meditation on the big city. “Hotel maids smile in unison, then you know in your brain, you must leave the capitol, exit this Roman shell.”
2) Iceland – Hex Enduction Hour – 1982
“ The spawn of the volcano is thick and impatient like the people around it.” Smith taped the wind whistling past his Reykavik Hotel window, went to the rock walled studio and told the band to play a Dylan-esque vamp. The result is this one take only, never performed since masterpiece of controlled tension. I’d been listening to this song for seventeen years before I finally made it to Iceland, where I too witnessed the last of the dark men, a green goblin redhead and the pipes of aluminium, and was humbled in Iceland.
3) Jerusalem – I Am Kurious Oranj – 1988
Like William Blake, whose words are hijacked here, Smith is will only be appreciated after his death. This comes from the soundtrack The Fall performed to a Michael Clark ballet, nominally about William of Orange, and reminds us that Blake should sound like a contrary bastard too, not a Sunday School singalong.
4) The Birmingham School Of Business School – Code Selfish – 1993
I believe it was I who wrote, ‘it is typical of Smith’s genius to realise that using the word school twice in this title points out the absurdity of the continuing existence of Birmingham. Threshing machine rhythms and flickering sequencers destroy all obstacles. “Laughing stock of Europe. Olympic bidding again and again.”
5) Theme From Sparta F.C. – The Real New Fall LP – 2003
A glam rock stomp, with football terrace backing vocals, describes the annihilation of English teams at the hands of mythical Europeans. “English Chelsea fan this is your last game. We’re not Galatasary We’re Sparta F.C.”