Mark E Smith
Musician, philosopher, historian, writer, wit and fly-in-the-ointment: Michael Bracewell and Jon Wilde talk to the founder and lead of The Fall
‘Yer got sixty hour weeks, and stone toilet back-gardens
Peter Cook's jokes, bad dope, check shirts, lousy groups
Point their finger at America
Down pokey quaint streets in Cambridge
Cycles our distant spastic heritage
It's a gay red, roundhead, army career, grim head
If we were smart we'd emigrate.’
(Mark E Smith, The English Scheme, 1980)
As with Joyce, Beuys, and Wyndham Lewis, the historians will be arguing about Mark E (for Edward) Smith until the kingdom comes. 20th century culture has been kept alive by the irritants which work their way under its skin. In this much, Wilde's late-Victorian aphorism, 'To be great, one must be misunderstood,' required a new century to prove its accuracy. Mark E Smith, who could so easily be the subject of a myriad Sunday supplement profiles, has remained a shadowy and mistrusted figure, silhouetted on the banks of the cultural mainstream. As our times appear to demand art terrorist outsiders, Smith has called the era's bluff by refusing easy routes to fashionable and commercially lucrative acceptance. Whilst Damien Hirst prepares to suspend his Turner prize in a vat of formaldehyde, Mark E Smith – unknown to many – continues to ply his trade as an independent musician, philosopher, historian, writer, wit and fly-in-the-ointment.
Smith formed the group, The Fall (after the Camus novel), in Manchester in 1977. At the time, he was working in Manchester Docks as a customs clerk. This was a time when the metropolitan impetus of punk rock was being challenged by the provinces. The deliquescing anarchy of the Sex Pistols and The Clash was giving way to the studied neurosis of Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire. But The Fall had no place – nor wanted one – in either camp. From their inception, Smith's Fall were bloody-minded-outsiders, possessing an extraordinary ability to get up noses. At a time when post-punk fashionablilty was about to disgrace itself with the saccharine posturing of new romanticism, The Fall looked like a cross between a class outing from Please Sir! and a crew of chagrined pipe-fitters on their afternoon off. In 1980, pop music was re-inventing itself as a kaleidoscope of carefully stylized factions; The Fall, immovable in their determination to remain aloof from the posturing of their peers, quickly earned not only incomprehension but also hostility. In their early performances, they brought the volatility of a bad night in a Wakefield Working Men's Club to a scene which believed itself both to be self-contained and selfpoliced. The rhetoric of The Fall was similar to suddenly finding oneself in a slanging match with a vituperative Mancunian lorry-driver. For this invective, The Fall have never been forgiven. Challenged with the notion that The Fall drew their menace from the twilight of punk rock, Smith replied with a dismissive sniff, 'Punk? fate that stuff. I wouldn't have it in the 'ouse!'
Like Public Image's Metal Box, The Fall's debut LP, Live At The Witch Trials, was regarded as the death rattle of the ’70s; this was music which seemed to deal with personal and political dissatisfaction in a manner which was both sinister and confrontational. By 1981, Public Image resembled a self-parodic cabaret turn fit only for the chicken-in-the-basket circuit. The Fall, on the other hand, had made their sense of alienation a vital part of their art, laying the foundations for a creative process which has seen them through 15 LPs in as many years.
For Mark E Smith, even irrelevance could be put to work for The Fall. As a teenager, he would ride around Manchester on the top deck of a bus, shouting random words in a pointed manner at bewildered passers-by. 'Leper', 'Penguin' or, 'Grand mother!’ when delivered with the correct mixture of urgency and forethought, could obtain an effect that bordered on the sinister.
It was only a short step, aesthetically, from confusing Mancunian pedestrians with ordinary language to offending the music cognoscenti by challenging their self-satisfaction. Live At The Witch Trials was jarring and disjointed, making a virtue of its Northern bloody-mindedness:'We are The Fall! Northern white crap that talks back; we are not Black; tall; no boxes for us/do not fuck us ...'
Already, Smith's campaign bore marked similarities to the BLAST phase of Wyndham Lewis and the vorticist assault on inter-war Bloomsbury. Lewis was a Renaissance man without a culture vital enough to support the fulfilment of his talents. Similarly, Smith is locked in a position of trench warfare, blasting and bombardiering against a fashion-driven society which is indurate to all attitudes save its own conservative 'non-conformity'. Thus, Smith is cast (again like Lewis) as a cat amongst pigeons, stalking the effete by saying the unspeakable. lnterviewed in 1979, Smith said: 'Nuking Russia might not be a bad idea as far as the bleedin' world is concerned. They've plunged a lot of people into miserable lives. You've only got to be in East Germany to see it. It's a horrible way to live. It's like Middlesborough.' Again, in 1985: 'Live Aid? I smell a lot of Victorian bloody do-gooding about the whole thing. There are people in Hulme (Manchester) who are half starved, so why not send the aid to them? Never in a million years. And any country that can be invaded by the Italians must be a load of crap. Am I right?'
Whilst Smith's polemic continues to affront every notion of political correctness, his audience recognize that his contrariness is merely a facet of a far more complex, and engaging, world vision. The ability to provoke and doubt, simultaneously, has often been cited as being fundamental to great art. Smith himself went some way to acknowledging this in 1988: 'Whenever l say anything, I often think that the opposite is true as well. Sometimes I think the truth is too fucking obvious for people to take. The possibilities are endless and people don't like that. They go for the average every time. Well, that doesn't interest me in the slightest.'
From the very beginning, The Fall has been Mark E Smith's medium for expressing his unique world view: everything outside The Fall is meat for his stew. Within the chaos of The Fall, and within the oblique, humourous code of Smith's writing, there are precise patterns and a finely focused lucidity. He assembles his lyrics in such a manner that found language, narrative, slang, double-talk, trigger phrases and rapid juxtapositions are combined to create a discourse which describes as it commentates. The style is not artless, as it may look, but the product of careful design.
'It's just precog,' says Smith. 'You write things down and you don't know what they mean but you know they're true and they come true later. It's not prophecy as such. It makes me laugh actually. I see things happening and I think, "Oh, that reminds me of something." Turns out it's something I wrote five years ago. I wrote a song called Zagreb Daylight two years ago. We were playing in Zagreb and l could feel this horrible, murderous shit in the air. l had a feeling that yobs were going to rule the earth. I'm half one myself you see. Anyway, I wrote this thing about a man in a shop with a dwarf behind the counter. It didn't go down well at all. If it came out a month from now, people would say it's topical.
Like Wyndham Lewis, Mark E Smith will suggest the existence of a conspiracy behind most manifestations of modern culture. In songs like Oswald Defence Lawyer, Kicker Conspiracy, Bug Day The War Against Intelligence, Rowche Rumble and Riddler!, Smith appears to endorse what Lewis meant by, 'the immense false-bottom underlying every seemingly solid surface.' Interviewed in 1990, Smith stated: 'It's natural to gripe at things like British Telecom. One time I was using the phone a lot and I dialled a number, and I could hear people munching sandwiches and talking about my last phone call. I actually rang the operator and said, 'Look, I'm trying to dial a fucking number here and I can't get through because your people are talking about my phone calls. Have you got a bloody license to do this?'And she slammed the phone down on me!'
If The Fall are both Smith's vision of the world and his means of describing it, then the strange and frightening world of The Fall is peopled with grotesque characters whom Smith has invented. These would include Joe Totale, J.Temperance, Wireless Enthusiast, Fiery Jack, The Man Whose Head Expanded, Hip Priest, Man With Chip, Carry Bag Man and Slang King. One gets the impression that Smith's livid imagination was incubating this cast since before The Fall began. In many ways, his writing for The Fall has served to fill in the biographies of these characters; at the same time, Smith will write pseudonymously under their names. On the sleeve of 1980's Totale's Turns, R.Totale XVIII pens a note entitled, 'Call Yourselves Bloody Professionals?' and concludes with the comment, 'This is probably the most accurate document of The Fall ever released, even though they'll have a hard time convincing their mams and dads about that, ha ha.' Interestingly enough, the remains of R. Totale's ancestor are described elsewhere as being found buried on a Welsh hillside complete with instructions to unleash the content of certain tapes upon the world.
When asked to clarify this assessment of these characters, Smith cautiously sips his beer before replying, 'Man With Chip still going strong on the chat show. Cheap TV stance, yeah. Oprah Winfrey. Heh! Heh! Magnus fucking Pyke!'
'We've got repetition in our music and we're never gonna lose it,' Smith announced in 1978. Whilst critics have yet to agree whether The Fall, musically, are a din or a sublime symphony, the roots of The Fall's mesmeric intensity lie in the practice of repetition. In the most compelling Fall songs the group merely provide an open structure through which Smith roams like a suspicious caretaker, flashing his torch from one empty dark room to another. This is best illustrated in 1988's Dog Is Life/Jerusalem, a lyric which featured the unique songwriting credit of William Blake/Mark E Smith. As the song approaches a narrative passage, the music is pared down to an unflinching pulse over which Smith declaims: 'I was walking down the street when I tripped up on a discarded banana skin / and on the way down I caught the side of my head on a protruding brick, chip / it was the government's fault / I was very let down with the Budget / I was expecting a one million quid handout / I was very disappointed / it was the government's fault.' As Smith explains, the idea of The Fall has always been to write intelligent lyrics over a raw, basic beat. 'That's never changed really. One thing we always get is, "this is their most commercial album for ages". In fact, the LPs have become less and less commercial over the years and I'm quite proud of that. The problem with that is people get this idea that we're determined not to do well. Which isn't the case at all. So we get Top 30 singles and they won't even consider us for Top of the Pops. lt's the last thing they want. I think there's a fear of The Fall in that respect. If people heard us, they'd find us entertaining and stimulating. lntelligence is actively discouraged these days though isn't it?'
Initially, the received idea of The Fall's audience was that of pale, spotty, adolescent males – bedroom misfits and train-spotters who wore anoraks with elasticated cuffs and lived off white bread sandwiches. The obscurity of The Fall appeared to demand supporters who were socially dysfunctional – the weird cousins of Clash fans. In time, however, The Fall have achieved a massive European following which covers all social groups from art world fashion victims to pot-bellied middle-aged rockers.
'Fall audiences have always been a bit weird,' says Smith. 'Well, not weird actually. I think they're the salt of the earth. I get letters from kids in Wales. Their lives have been transformed by The Fall. I suppose, if you're on the dole in Wales, there's nowt else to do unless you're out burgling.’
‘These guys in Wakefield, miners and all that, they've all grown up with wives and kids, and they've been with us since 1978. They don't buy records anymore but they're still into The Fall. It means a lot to me. They read interviews I've done and write me postcards saying, "Reel 'em in, cock – the lads in the Wakefield Pit." Actually, we've always caught the individuals. In Germany, we played this gig and the oldest man in the world was there. He must have been about 90. Had grey hair down to his arse. He looked like God with a Fall LP under his arm.’
'It always annoys me when I hear other bands going on about how they're not a student group like The Fall. Studentgroup? You must be fucking joking! I don't mean to sound prejudiced but, if you go to university, you're a bit daft anyway. I've nothing against students, mind. We play student places quite a lot. You walk into the disco and there's all these kids on the dancefloor jigging around to Lynyrd Skynyrd records. When Slates (1981) came out, we lost our student audience overnight. I was fucking glad about that.
'I feel a bit sorry for kids these days. They're obsessed with animals and all that. That's quite nice I suppose. I've got two cats myself. But they're putting the frighteners on kids these days. Giving them anxieties they don't need. I saw something yesterday. It was horrible. These kids in tears about elephants. I blame the fucking teachers.'
But, despite their position as a 'difficult' group already at odds with shifting musical fashions, The Fall's Luddite tendencies have brought them into the focus of serious debate about contemporary art. 'Some of our stuff is art and some of it isn't,' Smith shrugs. 'We get it and we lose it. I like that as it happens. I think a lot of my writing is art but I'm a bit shy about it and that's why it's not printed. I couldn't be so precious to force it on the public. I've seen too many rock bands go out and pretend they're art. You get classed with them. I've always been careful to keep away from all that.’
'I'd like to be considered as an artist. But I don't want to get into David Byrne territory. I'm not knocking the guy, but he was never any good to begin with. They go for him in a big way out in America. He's not an artist like John Waters is an artist. I suppose Waters is a bit like me really; he takes trash, puts it together with what he thinks and does it very well. But, basically, my attitude to life is to live. It's more important to be a man than an artist. I don't believe in the artist syndrome. I think I stimulate people's brains by saying what l think. Always have done. But, when we tour America, we get people coming up to us saying, "If only you could be a bit more like Talking Heads." Well, we always had better backdrops than Talking Heads.'
Mark E Smith's writing anticipates and rejects academic criticism. Also, he has famously avoided offering analyses of either his records or his collaborative projects in theatre and dance. Of his play, Hey! Luciani (1986) Smith says, concisely: 'It's like a cross between The Prisoner and Shakespeare. There's even bits that rhyme and stuff.' The more ambitious I Am Curious Orange (1986), a ballet with Michael Clark, dealing with the ascendancy of William of Orange to the British throne, was summarized by Smith as, ‘The English get pissed off with their king, kick him out and get some Dutch bloke in.' As an historian, Mark E Smith possesses the self-assurance of AJP Taylor: 'You don't hear much about Cromwell these days, despite the fact that he built England up to what it was. There used to be this statue of Cromwell outside Victoria Station, in Manchester, but they moved it and put it in some fucking park in Wythenshawe, behind some bush. Nobody knows about it!'
Smith, spokesman of the 'prole art threat', maintains a similar single-mindedness towards the traditionally sensitive topic of money. 'Fear is relative to how much you're earning and what kind of threat you're under. But I can live on a fucking quid a week, me. And I have done. But, if I suddenly made a load of it, I'd buy a house. I don't like shopping and all that. I like nice clothes. A good pair of trousers when you can. You usually find in Britain that the scruffiest people are the richest. Have you noticed that?'
But would Smith invest, seriously, in art? 'Course I would. Italian stuff mainly. Chairs and stuff like that. lf I had an awful lot of money, I'd buy some of that Catholic stuff – Tinteretto, El Greco ... I like the colour in those paintings. But what would I do with it all? I've got the books and that anyway. I'm well into Venetian art. They always had a bit of humour about them. Like, they'd put a German soldier in the middle of The Last Supper. Stuff like that.’
'I look at some of the things in frieze, like the stuff with the tin cans. l did all that in the fifth year at school. You'd get these sixth formers with Pink Floyd sleeves under their arms doing this stuff with green blobs and brown blobs. They'd be going, "Oh, it's about the economy and the Third World debt" Then they'd tell me that my stuff wasn't art but it were miles better than their fucking horrible blobs. Ten years later, they're doing it for themselves down in Chelsea. That's the tragedy of being a self-taught artist.'
Inevitably, Mark E Smith is faced with the danger of becoming as marginalized as Wyndham Lewis became is his later and most prolific years. As yet, however, The Fall remain a question mark in the history of art. But Smith continues to blast.
'Manchester council had this "Bring Art To The People" Day,' he concludes. 'They're all raving socialists that lot. There were five exhibitions in bars around the city. It was a kind of art pub crawl. They wanted me to kick it off, snip the ribbon and all that. I thought our fame was going down last year so I decided to do my bit. You've got to keep a high profile. It's that kind of business. Anyway, we were dragged around these bars and showed all this art. There was all this Factory stuff done by some bloke who won't get our of bed for less than £5,000. These sub-Warhol drawings of Carry On characters. I'm thinking, "This is crap!" but you don't want to be rude aboutit 'cus it's all middle-aged people. They're saying, "Oh Mark, I never knew you were into art." I was going,"Oh yeah, l love a bit of art, me. I'm into Tinzeretto and all that," and their mouths dropped.
'So, we got to the third bar. By this time, the band were dropping off one by one and going home for a bit to eat. I stuck around and I was trying to make an effort 'cus there were all these art writers from the famous papers. I was talking to one woman about Wyndham Lewis and she went into this rant for about 20 minutes about how he was a fascist and all that. I was saying, "Alright luv, we all know that. But at least he apologized for his mistakes." Then they were asking me which ones I liked. So I pointed to this painting on the wall – a black and white thing with bar men wearing leather coats and all these grotesque characters hanging about. It looked a lot like an Otto Dix. Then this bloke from the Council ambles over and says, "Actually Mark, that's not part of the exhibition". Turns out it's just part of the wall. Heh! Heh! It was easily the best though.'
First published in Issue 6