No other group is like The Fall. Not one. To me, they were once an unconquerable mountain that I looked at enviably from afar. No matter how many times I stood at the foot of The Fall’s gargantuan incline, ready to pounce and climb my way up, I would always soon stumble, finding myself crumpled in a heap at the bottom once more. For years I simply didn’t ‘get’ The Fall, as much as I wanted to. Sure, ‘Totally Wired’ and ‘Mr Pharmacist’ would play out in the indie disco’s of my younger days and I’d love hearing them, but the 6CD Peel Sessions box-set I got for my twenty-first birthday took until I was about twenty-four before it really made sense.
As a fan, The Fall make you work. To devour their entire back-catalogue is to sweat. It is at times unadulterated adulation, littered with revelatory explosions and knock-you-sideways, head-fuck moments, yet it can also be tiring, frustrating and a grinding, crushing disappointment. And still it is always, always unpredictable.
For a group once synonymous with the exclamation of the three R’s (‘Repetition, Repetition, Repetition’) they have – for now nearly forty years – done a rather remarkable job of never repeating themselves. Even a failure in the hands of the Fall is a triumph against the banality of comfort and predictability. And at the helm of this mighty outfit, its one and only constant member is of course Mark E. Smith. Like the music that he conducts with autodidactic, anti-conventional venom, he too is completely unpredictable. In interviews over the years he has been accommodating and helpful one day, and difficult and vicious the next.
I arrive in the bar we are due to meet at, located in central Manchester (Piccadilly Gardens). The pristine interior and young professional post-work vibes are a long way from the grotty, smoke-imbued Salford boozer I had expected to find myself in today, where hardened ale-drinkers greet the regular Smith. “I love coming here because it’s a complete freak out,” he tells me later. “Who are these people in here? Do you know? They’re fucking weird. Who the fuck are they? I always meet the group in here. Who the fuck are they!?”
My plan to arrive twenty minutes early to get a drink, get sat down and mentally prepare are completely shot when I realised that Smith is already here, sat down with a beer and a whiskey in front of him. He’s characteristically well turned out; a crisp shirt sits under a suit jacket, one with dark brown elbow patches. A pack of ten Benson & Hedges sits in front of him and in the chair next to him he has a solitary carrier bag, which prior to our meeting would have been full of money as he’s just been doing the rounds, paying cash wages to roadies and working associates of The Fall. Of course Mark E. Smith doesn’t do Internet banking.
We get on well and speak at length; the first two hours are a joyous blast with much gargled laughter and encouraged involvement coming from across the table. As the booze kicks in (for both of us) and we head towards hours three and four, things get a little darker in subject matter as we gradually sink headlong into incoherent ramblings and inconclusive statements (some completely libellous about a music icon who’ll remain nameless), but most of this is (thankfully) never recorded because my battery died about 2.5 hours into the interview.
Smith then bundles me into a taxi to Salford but not before calmly strutting across a road of oncoming traffic without looking once in the direction of the horn-blasting cars. There is a knowing swagger to his dangerous stroll that somehow knows they would stop, either that or he doesn’t care if they don’t. In Salford we enter a recording studio, the gentleman who runs the place cracks me a beer open and Mark disappears next door. “We’ve got some business to discuss.” Within ten minutes he comes back out. “Here’s what’s going to happen, Daniel. I’m a bit drunk so you’re going to get in a taxi and leave.” “Okay,” I say. We shake hands and I leave.
“It’s called ‘Location, Location, Winter Sun’. Or summat like that.”
It’s a live LP. It’s from all over the joint. Nah, it’s good. I selected it but it was really horrible trying to fucking compile a live LP. Anyway, it’s done and its good. I’ve never listened to the live recordings before, it’s fucking horrible. It’s finally done, which is a load off my chest. The new LP is coming along though; the last one was our first top 20 LP in years. You wouldn’t know it though.
“There is a new sort of youth who do like The Fall. Good for me.”
A lot of them are nineteen, twenty. You hear a lot of shit from The Fall people on the net but from looking at it when I play – and it might be because of the… whatever it is [types fingers mimicking keyboard strokes] – but there’s a lot of eighteen to twenty year olds. The group’s young now though – they’re under thirty, do you know what I mean? Nostalgia – it’s depressing isn’t it? I’ve never liked that at all. It’s sad. The Fall’s always had that thing [of looking forward]. My group are so good, they don’t even know who Sonic Youth are. We’ve played festivals and they are right next to you and I don’t even fucking acknowledge them either, so they don’t know. They don’t want to know. The Fall is The Fall, I don’t see it as a group like everybody else. It’s weird but I don’t. When people go ‘oh, you’re not as good as…’ I’ve had it for years. Like, ‘this group’s very big and you’re not’. It’s just goes through me, it’s like a psychotic thing. I’m a big Fall fan and I don’t see us as relevant to anything else.
“Even when we were getting in the top 20 in the 80’s and people were getting their champagne out, to me it was just nothing.”
But people don’t like that, do they? But you’d head down to the Hacienda and there would be a five-day party because the Happy Mondays got in at number fifteen or something. I never understood it. That’s not what I set out to do.
“I’ve been banned from Glastonbury for years.”
I went back and did it with the Gorillaz. Fucking Snoop Doggy Dog’s walking around, fucking smoking dope with women all wearing nothing. [Backstage] is full of all the newsreader’s daughters and politician’s daughters who have spent a thousand pounds to get there. I never liked Glastonbury. When it started out I said I didn’t agree with dismantling nuclear weapons and all that. This is before your time, but I got hauled before the court of Glasto. They said: ‘you said in the Melody Maker that nuclear weapons were a good idea,’ and I did. Well, I did think that then. I said to him, mister fucking big head and Genesis, Pete fucking Collins, five generations of your family hasn’t fought and died in wars like mine has. I said: ‘this is good, it’s a good thing.’
“I call it the two and a half year gap.”
People who get fired or leave The Fall saying, ‘oh, I didn’t realise how great it was. That music we were doing at the time…’ and I go, ‘ohh, that’s lovely,’ but when I think back, the fucking grief they gave me, the grief the guitarist and the drummer gave me going, ‘you’ve got to do it like this,’ saying things like, ‘oh, it’s not commercial’ or ‘oh, it makes no sense’. Then two or three years later you hear, ‘I wish I was back in The Fall again’ – well it’s too fucking late.
“When the NME gives you an award like that it’s time to fucking change.”
It’s like the Grammy awards, whatever that is, it’s like the kiss of death isn’t it? I was very uncomfortable with it – it sounds ludicrous now. That was the start of the war but it did us good. Do you know when I fucking had a go at her (Jo Wiley – Mark told her to “Fuck off” during a television interview at the awards ceremony where he was awarded ‘Godlike Genius’ by NME in 1998) she wrote a letter to everybody, to all record companies… I’ve never told anyone this before. An A&R man I was working with had it framed on his wall. A lot of A&R men and journalists in London had it framed. It was something like ‘Dear A&R man…’ ‘Dear Record Company man..’ etc I am starting a new radio show and I am looking for new exciting bands on the indie scene like Pulp and Shaun Ryder and also black and upcoming groups and all this. Blah blah, basically she says everyone in the fucking universe, indie bands who can’t sing, indie bands with no fucking legs, she even mentions wanting unconventional singers but in brackets she put ‘but definitely not Mark E. Smith’. Yours, Jo Wiley. It’s fucking great, boosted my career no end. Wish I had a copy of that.
“I hate Mark Radcliffe by the way… and that fucking Maconie.”
I did an interview with radio 6Music. I had to bring in ten records to play, so I brought five. But then they tell me they can’t play vinyl. No record player. The phone calls that were coming in from the listeners, you only hear half of them when you listen to the show. It’ll be Albert whose wife’s left him and he’s painting the fucking house. I thought it would be Fall fans but it was so sad, the calls that come in, it’s like ninety year-old women but I really enjoyed it, being sat there in this super Dr Who studio that doesn’t even have a record player.
I’ve never liked Maconie even when he used to work for NME. It reminded me of being in an Army interrogation centre. I’ve got a very long memory. I remember doing a session for Mark Radcliffe and he thought he was going to depose John Peel. He came along to a session once and I told him to get out because Peel never used to come to a John Peel session and I said to him, ‘what you doing here? Fuck off.’ He’s one of those that have tried to be everything and he’s ended up being fucking nothing. Did you ever watch those TV programmes? The ones were they catch people fiddling the dole? It’s him writing them for the BBC. Since Peel we’re never going to be played on the BBC again anyway. I was offered that Iggy Pop show you know? The fucking cheek of it – stand in for Jarvis Cocker while he goes for a year’s holiday to France?!
“Vic Reeves said, ‘I’ve bought all your LPs’”
I said: “Fuck off and don’t ever say that again in public.”
“There’s like three people on Facebook who pretend to be me.”
There are a lot of people out there who pretend to be me for some strange reason. The weird thing about it is that you have no rights, no rights at all. It sounds daft but if it was a sixteen year-old girl being harassed you’d have the coppers turning up. I got someone to ring the Facebook boss in California, they said they could do nothing, they aren’t bothered. One of them, it got a bit out of hand in Ireland for instance, where they have very serious laws. He was getting like 12,000 Likes. Anyway I’ve had one, I’ve had his head kicked in. I’ve got Salford mates, do you know what I mean? They tracked him down and he got his fucking head kicked in. There’s one of them, he talks like me in 1982 and he has like 15,000 whatever it is and half of them are in Ireland. I thought it was really horrible because in Ireland out in the countryside they think they’re talking to me. We’re going to get him too. You could get a bit obsessed with it, I’ve got one of them to say ‘I am not Mark E. Smith’ – that took about a year. I’ve had the Times getting stuff wrong because of that, the Guardian came up here and asked me, ‘have you had a sandwich of lard this morning?’ They don’t say they read it on Facebook but they’re sloppy, they’re doing their research on the train.
“I’m sorry to interrupt. You’re one of my musical heroes, can I buy you a drink?”
“I’ll just get you an ale in, like”
“I wouldn’t mind a whiskey, please”
“Mark, for what it’s worth, ‘Hilary’, ‘L.A’ and…oh god, my mind’s gone blank, I’m overwhelmed, I’m a big Fall fan…‘Industrial Estate’. I love The Fall, I always have done, I’ve seen you a few times. A whiskey was it?”
“Who likes ‘Industrial Estate’? It’s a great song, I fucking love that song.”
There’s only you, him and me that like that song. The three of us. I thought he was going to ask for a fucking selfie.
“Shift Work changed my life, you’re a great man Mark.”
He’s the one [the guy who has just bought Mark a drink]. “Shift Work changed my life”? –‘ Shift Work’ changed my life too, it got me kicked off a record label! ‘Shift Work’ was like ‘your career is over’. It got us thrown off Phonogram. He’s the sort of person who should be picking greatest hits. There’s all these wankers on the Internet going on about ‘my favourite Fall song’ they’re all rubbish. They ought to get someone like him.
“I had to listen to fucking ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’ because Beggar’s Banquet want to fucking reissue the thing again.”
They’re retarded. They’re fucking retarded; it’s that south London thing. But what do you do? Generally what happens is I have to try and stop them reissuing it. I must have signed LP’s off to every fucking label going. No, really. Ten years ago I would have been like, ‘oh, you like ‘This Year’s Saving Grace’ [mimics signature] two grand, cheers. Sign here. They think they’ve got them but what’s wrong with that? It’s my property. The shit’s going to hit the fan though, Daniel, I tell you. When everybody thinks they own the same recordings. People forget, when that Fall documentary came out [BBC – 2004] you couldn’t give a Fall LP away for a quid, do you know what I mean? You could buy ten Fall LP’s for a fiver.
“Nobody can cover a Fall song. They can’t do it.”
They try to do it and have a nervous breakdown. There was this fucking group connected to Nirvana, they tried to do ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’ live [the entire album] for three nights in Seattle. It fucking broke down I think. I mean, I couldn’t even do that. Although they had it note for note, apparently. God bless ‘em, they thought they’d get to it. It’s impossible.
“Getting Shane McGowan home and trying to get Nick Cave back to wherever he was, you get no fucking thanks.”
[Talking about a three-way NME interview – 1989]. They both took about eight Es. I’m from Manchester, I know what Es can do and you don’t take about eight, Shane. I was screaming at him, “where do you live? where do you live? Nick, do you live near fucking Shane?” James Brown [interviewer] has fucked off by now of course, the smart arse, and I’m left with them going, “where do you live, Shane?” I last thing I wanted was them all dead. Shane was [starts gargling and mumbling, impersonating him] taking fucking twenty at a time, you don’t do that. Them two, they thought they were indestructible.
“Smith is a man who believes the pen is mightier than the sword but has not always had a pen to hand” – Robert Chalmer The Independent
What’s that supposed to mean? I always carry a pen. A pen is better than a knife. A pen is more than a weapon. It is actually; I always carry a pen with me. A biro is better than a knife, physically, up the nose. It’s better than a switchblade.
[Mark E. Smith then, quick as a flash, pulls a biro out of his jacket pocket and thrusts it at my face towards my nostril.]
Don’t get fucking funny with me! It’s good innit? It’s good for when you’re carrying money. People move. They do.