I CAN honestly say that (with the possible exception of my beautiful and clever friend Clare’s novel The Dying Of Delight), I’ve never looked forward to the publication of a book like I’m looking forward to the publication of Mark E Smith’s autobiography Renegade: The Lives And Tales Of Mark E Smith.
It probably says a lot about my cultural priorities, but there you go. I’m gagging for it.
I’ve got a couple of Fall-related Hip Replacements in the pipeline but for now, here’s the first interview I did with him.
It was a couple of months after I’d started work on Swan Street and I was just about to leave Leeds to live in Manchester. My opposite number at the London Big Issue, the very wonderful Tina, passed on the interview to me as a kind of ‘welcome to the organisation’ gift. It was my first big, nationally syndicated piece. It was all very exciting.
I might be wrong, but I think that the IRA’s explosive redesign of Manchester city centre occured at some point between interview and publication, because it doesn’t come up in the conversation and I’m sure it’s the kind of thing I would’ve mentioned.
One sunny weekday afternoon, I left the office, walked down to a boozer at the bottom of Oldham Road and met up with Mark and Julia Nagle. He pressured me into getting a load of cans in.
I didn’t mind.
* * *
LAUDED by John Peel as “Always different, always the same, they are the reason I listen to pop music”, The Fall have just released their 33rd album, The Light User Syndrome. Lead singer Mark E Smith talks about Manchester, yob culture and songs that you can’t get out of your head.
The Fall have been knocking around for almost 20 years now, although most people in the UK are still blissfully ignorant of the band’s existence. Despite this, The Fall are one of the exciting acts to have emerged from the cultural melee that was Punk Rock in Britain in the late seventies. In an age where Sting is considered some sort of music biz intellectual, lead singer and prime mover Mark E Smith is the real deal.
He’s a genuine snot-nosed proletarian visionary from the arse end of Manchester with a headful of dangerous ideas and a sarky but pertinent comment for every occasion – the living, breathing personification of The Fall’s spiky, awkward, innovative, life-affirming music. His band (and make no mistake, The Fall is his band) are as tight as a gnat’s chuff and over the years have produced an alarming amount of truly memorable songs.
I meet up with the singer. It’s a sunny day so we adjourn to a nearby park bench to chew the fat, our conversation punctuated by blaring car alarms, police sirens and trains rattling over the nearby viaduct.
Over the course of the next hour he polishes off all the beer I’ve bought, takes the piss out of me mercilessly and lays into various Manchester icons with varying degrees of success. I learn, to my surprise, that Shaun Ryder is merely “a dancing monkey”, Factory Records is one big Situationist joke to make the working classes look stupid, and that if Smith wasn’t in The Fall, he’d probably be selling this very magazine.
One of the tracks on the new album is called Cheetham Hill, which for the benefit of readers further afield, is an inner-city area of north Manchester. The song contains the puzzling couplet, “There’s no need to go berserk, if you don’t scratch my nice blue Merc”. I’m new to all this so tell me about Cheetham Hill, Mark. Do you spend a lot of time there?
“Not if I can help it, no,” he replies. “You see these middle class drivers going up and down Cheetham Hill Road in their big cars. They’re just slumming it. You can see it has a reputation, but it’s a lot safer than…” he peers at me intently, ‘where do you live?”
Leeds, but I’m moving over. I was planning to live in Cheetham Hill.
“See the thing about Lancashire and Yorkshire is that you’ve got to remember, cock, they’re like chalk and cheese. It’s a different mentality. For a start in Yorkshire, it’s the men who rule the roost and in Lancashire women rule the roost.”
Smith bases this informed opinion not only on his wide experience of Yorkshire dressing rooms and concert halls, but also on some sort of young miners drinking club he knew in Wakefield back in the early eighties.
“You’d go back to their houses and they’d talk to their women like …they were insects.”
I pause to ponder this Kafkaesque scenario. I give up.
What? So that’s just a Yorkshire thing is it?
“Yeah. In Lancashire it’s completely the opposite. It’s the women who tell you to take your shoes off when you walk into the house. These guys who used to be miners in Wakefield write to me. They’re in the middle of the Australian outback because they can’t get work in Yorkshire. That’s the tragedy of it. It’s the braindrain of the working classes.
“When all my mates were made redundant, it was really strange for them, but God bless ’em, they got up and went to find work. They didn’t just sit there moaning about it. Get my drift?”
Smith obviously has mixed feelings about his home town, having gone on record in the past as saying that “Manchester is a cheap, friendly, violent, unsexy, two-bit city. I can’t leave the place. I need the rain”.
There’s a track on the album called Powder Keg, which is presumably about Manchester. Does he think it’s a volatile city?
“Only because there’s loads of fucking outsiders coming here,” he says sourly. “Like yourself.”
“I thought it was really good about that Oasis thing at Maine Road,” he decides. “Oasis go on about how they used to be car thieves or whatever, but if you want to romanticise crime, you have to expect some sort of comeback. They glorify yob culture. Well, Maine Road is the reality. Oasis go on about how they support Man City, they don’t even come from Manchester. They come from Cheshire.
“I prefer Yorkies to professional Mancs. Manchester’s a shit-hole, man. That’s what all my songs are about, about how crap the place is. I’m trying to warn people, if you think about it.”
I drag the conversation back to the really important stuff. Does he ever feel like playing a more active role in making the Fall’s music rather than just directing it?
“No, I’d hate to be a musician. I don’t like musicians”.
But you’ve got a band full of them.
It transpires that Smith is being a little coy and can in fact hold his own on bass and guitar and has even been known to tickle the ivories when the occasion demands it. Doesn’t he want to play on Fall records?
“No. The whole point of the thing is that it’s rock ‘n’ roll. That’s what people seem to forget.” He looks at me accusingly. “Working with American producers on the new album was very interesting, because they get a sound that makes people listen to the songs. It’s like a subliminal tone.”
What are you on about?
“Take a heavy metal hit – the song’s crap, what the guy’s saying is shit, what the group is playing is rudimentary heavy metal crap, but what they do is put a little thing in the middle of the sound, like a little click, so you can’t forget it. It used to be illegal. The Ministry of Defence invented it.”
Are you making this up?
The poker face relaxes into a smile.
“No, I’m not making it up. Why do you think people buy Def Leppard records then? They’re from your way aren’t they?”
It’s at this point that I realise that Smith is really quite drunk. I’m desperate to find a way out of the conversational cul-de-sac we seem to be in. Smith has his own solution and stands up and wanders behind the bench.
I hear a fly being unzipped and the steady trickle of liquid under pressure hitting the grass behind me. I decide not to turn around.
Whether all this is a not-so-subtle comment on my interview technique, or he just wanted a piss, I’m not sure. He sits down and I make a mental note not to shake his hand at the end of the interview.
“Am I boring you?” says Smith, looking at his watch. I get the point.
A lot of people cite you as an influence, I tell him, but what influences Mark E Smith these days? You’ve written songs about everything from old episodes of The Twilight Zone to the singer from Can. What are you into now?
“I’m always trying to start some kind of new sound off, to my detriment. I’m not really interested in trying to sound like 1989, like all the other bands around now.”
You must have a favourite record at the moment.
“No. That’s why I keep doing it. I don’t really like a lot of other stuff.”
[This interview first appeared in The Big Issue In The North in August 1996]
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A middle aged guy ahead of me looks like he’s brought his kid down. There’s an older guy further down the queue I’d swear is Hunter Davies. There are even a few women. A hundred people, I’d guess, all told.
A well-spoken young man from Xfm asks if I want to go on a mailing list.
“No thanks,” I tell him. “But I’ll have one of them lighters if they’re going spare.”
Do I look like I listen to fucking Xfm? I end up giving the lighter to some lighterless Xfm-listener later that night. It seems to make him happy.
It’s only when we’ve all been allowed into the shop itself, and I’ve been in the queue – that particular queue – for another 20 minutes, that I realise that I need to buy a book before I get it signed. So I leave that queue, join another, buy the bloody book (“Anything else today, mate?” “Not unless you’ve got any petrol bombs ..”) and go to the back of the original queue.
I speed-read the first half of the book before, eventually, one of the Zavvi people asks me if I just want it signing or whether I want Mark to write my name too and if I do, how do I spell it? I’ve met him loads of times over the years, we always seem to get on alright, he‘s going to know who I am, surely?
I ask her to write my name out on a yellow post-it note.
There are loads of Zavvi security people standing around, somebody is taking photographs over the barrier surrounding the Smith enclave, but it‘s all very much, get in, get it signed, fuck off. It’s artificial. Sterile, commercial and corporate – as far from the usual MES experience as it‘s possible to get. I suddenly feel a bit weird and self-conscious.
He takes a can from under the desk, takes a quick pull and puts it back down as I walk up.
“Y’alright, Mark?” I ask, grinning like an idiot.
He looks up. Not a flicker.
“Yeah. You alright?”
“Yeah, I am, ta.”
He pauses for a moment, looks at the page and writes “ALL THE BEST MARK E SMITH”.
I take the book off him. “Cheers. See you later,” I say. He’s already looking up to see who’s next.
It’s a very funny book.