He's still the Fall guy

I came late to the Fall party (who knows why, but I didn't really listen to them until recently), but there is an ineffable quality to their best music. Maybe this documentary will show up as a bittorent file, or get shown on the BBCAmerica channel. I'll have to look for it.

He's still the Fall guy:

Pop: Notoriously punchy Mark E Smith has spent nearly three decades on the periphery of British culture with the Fall. So what does the most awkward man in Manchester think of the BBC's new film about him?

Mark E Smith shuffles into the unlikely surroundings of Manchester's designery Malmaison Hotel a good hour-and-a-half late. Squinting in the half-light, he is about to walk straight past my table when I hail him. He looks momentarily startled. His smart, black-woollen jacket and white shirt only accentuate his scarecrow-thin frame; his face is that of a man 20 years his senior. There are few people who, even on a bad day, can make Shane MacGowan look healthy, but Mark E Smith is one of them.

He apologises for being late, orders a pint of lager, sinks half of it, declares it 'piss poor', and replaces it with two bottles of cider. 'Four fuckin' quid a pint,' he mutters, adding, 'Mick Hucknall owns this place', as if that explains everything, which maybe it does. He asks me straightaway what I think of the BBC4 documentary on his group, the Fall, which will be broadcast this week. I say I liked it, but it made me feel uneasy and a bit sad. His life, I venture, has been lived at a considerable cost. 'I thought the whole programme were an advert for the BBC,' he asserts, lighting the first of several fags. 'There's more of Marc Riley [ex-Fall member, now BBC radio DJ] in there than anyone. He left in nineteen-fucking-eighty-two. It's people looking for John Peel's job, Sean, that's what it is.' Age may have withered him physically but it has not blunted his blunt Mancunian sarcasm.

The Fall were John Peel's favourite group, the lumpen-rock racket he loved more than all other lumpen-rock rackets. 'They are always different, they are always the same,' he once famously remarked of the group, though he could just as easily have been talking about himself. Constants both, but Peel is gone and Mark E does not look in the best of shape.

“50,000 Fall Fans Can't Be Wrong: 39 Golden Greats” (Fall, The Fall)

I tell him he came across as slightly deranged. He seems to find this strangely comforting. 'Oh, that's good,' he says, cackling, then coughing like a consumptive. 'The thing is, I was in a different studio and I couldn't see who I was talking to. I mistook the presenter, Gavin Whatsisname, for the Undertones guy. So when I said to Gavin Thingy, “Who do you think you are? Are you looking for Peel's job, then?”, I thought I was talking to the Undertones bloke.' He cackles some more at the memory then adds, quite seriously: 'I mean, they've both got the same sort of accent, haven't they?' I find myself nodding in agreement, while at the same time wondering what kind of skewed interior logic could possibly equate broad Bogside with clipped Oxbridge.

Smith has always been an unpredictable and effortlessly opinionated interviewee, but remains fiercely protective of his creative secrets. One of the best moments in the BBC4 documentary occurs when he is asked about his singular songwriting style. 'I don't want to give my secrets away to these idiots from the BBC,' he replies, scornfully but with deadly seriousness.

...The programme marks 28 years of the Fall, the group Smith has led since he was a scowling 16-year-old with a head full of garage-rock riffs and an obsession with Edgar Allan Poe and Philip K Dick. His influence remains strong and he is lauded in the film by contemporary hipsters Franz Ferdinand. The Fall's wayward career has included moments of high camp - their collaboration with the dancer Michael Clark, on the ballet I Am Curious Orange - and one or two personal dramas worthy of a soap opera - his first wife, Brix, an American punkette, left him for a short-lived dalliance with violinist Nigel Kennedy.

Incredibly, more than 40 different members have now passed through the ranks, many of them having been sacked by Smith whose boredom threshold seems to have decreased with the years. 'You could never be seen to be enjoying yourself on stage,' as one of them puts it. Is he a hard taskmaster?

'My grandfather used to stand outside the local prison and hire lads who were coming out to work in his mill,' he replies. 'That's kind of how I recruit musicians. It's like, “You're on bass, so get cracking.” Seems to work, mind,' he muses, lighting another fag and taking a long swig of cider. The combination of the fag and the cackle produces a rattling cough, which he deals with by hawking up and gobbing in the ashtray. 'The thing about most musicians,' he continues, oblivious to the aghast looks of our fellow drinkers, 'is that they are not very interesting company. Don't tend to read much. I like to make sure they know from the start that the Fall is a job of work like any other. It's the same deal whether you're playing to 20 or 20,000. Discipline, that's what counts.'


There's too much going on in a Mark E Smith song, though, for it ever to be just anything. He once described his mission as 'delivering complex things in a very straightforward way', and that remains the case. Having listened again to 'Kicker Conspiracy', 'Totale's Turn' and 'Grotesque', it struck me that the nearest equivalent to Smith's songs in terms of style and subject matter would be the early works of Thomas Pynchon: all those strange character names, the convoluted narratives, the abiding sense of paranoia, and the feeling of the whole barely being held together by an overriding, but fragile and fractured, authorial voice.

He nods and smiles when I mention Pynchon, but remains as secretive as ever. 'I have some Irish mates who are trying to contact him,' he says, leaning in close and winking. Later, he says: 'I'm plagued with graduates reading things into the songs. There's a glut of graduates in the world.'

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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on January 17, 2005 9:49 AM.

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