ME AND the Fall go back a long way but there are times when Mark E Smith’s grüppe have just been too heavy and noisy for me, when they’ve been too slickly produced, when they simply played too many guitars for my wildly oscillating tastes (this was, of course, during the rave era and I was a touch confused, a lot of the time).
No offence to our colonial cousins, but I’m not right keen on the current line-up of bearded Americans, it has to be said.
Not to worry. There’ll be another one along in a minute.
The fact that, sooner or later, I generally realise that I’m just being daft, and they were – he was – right all along, is neither here nor there.
Mark E Smith gets under your skin. He’s like a rash that won’t go away. Writing from his own unique and inimitable perspective, his insights into the northern, white working class mindset often have an eerily consistent relevance to those of us who have followed his work for a while – although I‘m sure they have as much relevance in New Zealand or Holland or Brazil.
Weirdly prophetic, darkly sardonic, accusatory, mystical, cynical, nonsensical, just plain odd – sometimes all at the same time – Smith can seem like he’s talking about your life just as much as he is his own, God help us all.
He gets in your head. And I think this is why fans often seem to think they have a uniquely personal relationship with the Fall – which in essence means Mark E Smith. Maybe we do have a connection with him – as the album title has it, 50,000 Fall fans can’t be wrong – but it’s not really a two-way thing.
People who like to pretend their pets have any kind of emotional response to them beyond ‘you feed me, you do’ follow the same kind of self-deluding non-thinking. It gets on my nerves. They’re animals, you’re human, there’s a basic communication problem.
They tell you their barking, baying, mewling animal is ‘talking to you‘, but all you really get from the ‘conversation’ is the knowledge that a) the animal needs to tighten up its oral hygiene regime, and b) their owner needs to get a grip.
Very much like the cat that sleeps in the same house as me, at the moment (all things are transient, you furry fucker), Smith has only the vaguest inkling of our very existence, and you often get the impression that he tries to ignore it as much as he can. Even if MES could understand us, he just can’t be arsed to listen to what we have to say.
We’re not something that concerns him. We hang around the same places, sometimes. We feed him. Big deal. So what? If we didn’t do it, someone else would. He’d go out there, hunt down and kill stuff himself if need be. He owes us fuck all.
It’s all complicated by the fact that I’ve actually met the man himself on a number of occasions.
Our paths first crossed, after a fashion, 20 years ago, in the days before the clammy hand of PR started choking the life out of the industry, when it was still possible for fanzine writers to simply walk backstage and ask bands if they wanted to do interviews.
Of course, with the Fall, you didn’t just march through the dressing room door unannounced, mainly because you knew that the band’s formidable front man was on the other side of it. You didn’t want to antagonise him.
I eventually plucked up the courage to ask the tour manager to put my request in to MES at Leeds Polytechnic in December 1988, just after the release of I Am Kurious Oranj.
In the event, Brix Smith, the band’s guitarist (she was also the singer’s wife at the time) and statuesque keyboard player Marcia Schofield wander out of the dressing room, get me drunk and provide a unique and incredibly insightful female perspective on the inner workings of the Fall and its iconoclastic lynchpin.
Goodtime American gals on tour and authentic rock chicks to boot, they’re absolutely hilarious, utterly fascinating and sexy as hell. I think I’m in love with the pair of them. The problem was, when I listened to the tape of our conversation – recorded on the shittest tape recorder in the world – I couldn’t make out a single word of it. Not a fucking word.
So I made it up. I pretended I’d interviewed Smith and had him completely ignoring all my questions to indignantly spout unrelated, random nonsense about vegetarians, national service, smoking beagles and the like. It seemed quite funny at the time. I’ve actually interviewed Smith a few times since then and, as it turns out, that’s what he actually does: if he doesn’t want to answer a question he simply ignores it and answers another of his own choosing.
It’s almost always been work though. Generally, I’m only talking to him because he’s got an album or a gig to promote. We get on pretty well, believe it or not. He seems to remember me and I like to believe he thinks I’m kind of alright really, for a journalist. I know my stuff. I’m not an arse-licker. I answer back.
Of course, I could just be kidding myself.
I remember one Tuesday afternoon when I was in the office, tapping away at my computer behind a big plate glass window looking out onto Oldham Street in Manchester‘s famous Northern Quarter.
I look up and see MES waving and smiling at me from the street, miming his own grotesque parody of me typing, cackling away to himself like so many other men of a certain age on Oldham Street. It’s an image that will stay with me until the day I die – although, to be honest, I still don‘t know whether he knew it was me or whether he was just randomly making faces at the amusing office drone.
Apart from that one incident, every time I’ve seen him outside of a work context, he just blanks me, or makes the ‘get this guy the fuck away from me’ face. Now I just say hello and leave it at that. I think he gets embarrassed by it all. I could be wrong. Maybe he thinks he’s off-duty and doesn’t want to be bothered by people who think they know him but don’t. Maybe he just doesn’t recognise me.
I’m not one of those Fall ‘fans’ who believe the group’s best days have been and gone. I’ve no time for the idea that Grotesque, or Totale’s Turns, or Perverted By Language, or This Nation’s Saving Grace, or whatever ‘classic’ Fall album you care to mention, represents some kind of artistic highpoint – anyone who heard any of the last three albums will know the Fall are as relevant as they ever were. The fact is though, many of my favourite Fall songs can be found on I Am Kurious Oranj.
Arriving in the wake of the Fall’s biggest chart successes (There’s A Ghost In My House, Hit The North and Victoria), the album was recorded by one of many, many ‘classic’ Fall line-ups, with Smith backed up by Craig Scanlon, Steve Hanley and Simon Wolstencroft, as well as Schofield and his missus.
The songs on it were originally written for a ballet, I Am Curious Orange (named in a punning homage to I Am Curious Yellow, a late Sixties Swedish art-house movie which was notable for its real life sex scenes and not much else), which was created by the Michael Clarke Company and premiered at the Edinburgh festival.
The Fall played live on a stage graced by the considerable presence of fashion designer-cum-fashion terrorist Leigh Bowery of Taboo fame, as well as Clarke and the rest of his company. It must’ve been something to see.
“It wasn’t meant to be high art or low art,” remembers MES in his eminently readable autobiography, Renegade: The Lives And Tales Of Mark E Smith. “I don’t know what those terms mean, to be honest. It was fuck-all like anything else. That’s good enough in itself, if you ask me.”
There aren’t many rock’n’roll bands who could collaborate with a modern ballet choreographer to produce a work about William of Orange’s accession to the throne 300 years after the event – what Smith believes is the origin of modern Britain – and emerge with their musical and intellectual credibility intact.
You’d dismiss most bands who attempted any kind of engagement with such complex political arguments as getting ideas above their station; even if they managed to avoid completely embarrassing themselves, they’re complicated subjects which are too big to be properly tackled within the verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus constraints of traditional rock’n’roll.
Complex, heavy-duty stuff like this needs to be explored in complex, heavy-duty books, surely?
Thing is, it’s not quite as simple as that. Not by a long chalk. As if.
“I was trying to make the point that we all share some kind of common knowledge that’s within ourselves; that comes out in all sorts of things. Some people call it a gene pool,” says Smith in his book. “It’s as if you already know subconsciously about historical incidents.
“You don’t have to be taught it. It’s in-built. At the time I wanted to put this across, basically as a loose explanation of what was happening in Belfast: it’s in the head and the bones and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
I bought I Am Kurious Oranj when it came out, loved it, lost it, somehow, sometime, somewhere (I’m betting it was the vinyl black hole that is Leeds, probably around the time that gosh-darned acid house grabbed me by the soul) and got it again from Vinyl Exchange a couple of years ago for the princely sum of just eight English pounds. Listening to it again was like a reunion with a long lost, much missed old friend.
The album opens with the stomping, blustering New Big Prinz (“Check the guy’s record, check the guy’s track record,” barks Smith. “He. Is. Not …” “Appreciated!” chip in the group), before going into the delicate, melodic, rather beautiful and maybe even slightly folksie Overture From I Am Curious Orange, with MES’s strangled tones listing a series of keywords from the album.
Dog Is Life/Jerusalem begins with what sounds like a live excerpt from the Clarke production, a rambling poem about the failings of dog owners (Smith, naturally enough, is a cat person), before a bassline picks out the familiar refrain from a familiar Church of England favourite and the band slams into the Fallification of Jerusalem, in all its repetitive, droning, banging, thudding glory. Adapting some of Milton’s stirring words to his own purposes, Smith characteristically omits the bit about dark satanic mills. That’d be too easy. It’s rousing stuff.
“It was the fault of the government,“ says Smith. “I was very let down with the budget, I was expecting a one million quid handout …”.
The curious mutant cod-reggae repetition of Kurious Oranj comes next, loping, lopsided and, at times, utterly out of tune, with a Sixties beat-group bah bah bah bah-bah chorus. It’s like a locked groove that seems to keep on going forever.
Side one ends with Wrong Place, Right Time, which sounds like another live excerpt from the theatrical production. There’s very little to it – that is, apart from a solid, insistent bass and drum groove. “I keep on knocking but there’s no bugger in,” sings Smith before deciding: “Can’t dance, can’t sing, Cursed forever is William of Orange …”.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say that Win Fall CD 2088 is the Fall doing house music but MES wouldn’t have even known about the existence of house music in 1988, would he? Actually, I’m not too sure about that.
Yes, O Yes, is a pensive, Link Wray-style workout with a surfing guitar line that, again, sounds like it was recorded live. “And that’s what you get when you join the M Clarke School of Soccer Coaching School: Enraged and enflamed with torment,” says Smith at the end.
Everything I love about the Fall’s music can be found in the winsome, repetitious, sleek and powerful Van Plague? It sounds like the musicians are just playing the same simple riff, over and over again – and to a certain extent, they are – but there’s something utterly compelling and, dare I say it, life-affirming in duplication that is very nearly but not quite exact.
It might sound daft, but just listen to it. And if trying to decipher the lyrics of Mark E Smith is your bag, there’s plenty to go at here.
“I laughed at chicks with frustration, Fear of plague has sent us home, For love at least of our dear mum, Father takes it in his stride, Says ‘back in the closet, son’, Was it ocean brought the plague? Over the ocean came plague …”
Fuck me. We’re breathing the same air as this guy. We’re not worthy.
Bad News Girl dials it down a touch and, as a result, hits the spot with clinical precision. It starts lush and slow but halfway through, its – within the context of the Fall – rather soppy, romantic sentiments (“I’d appreciate, Not his stuff, Hot stuff girl, Hot stuff girl, After troubled place, Is talking to you, But I’m acclimatised, To your mind …”), it suddenly bursts into a bubblegum pop coda that, somehow, makes the lyrical sentiment seem a good deal less positive.
Cab It Up! just rocks the fucking world, my friend. From Wolstencroft’s clipped, precise rhythm and Schofield’s Enola Gay electro-pop keyboard motif to Hanley’s grinding, unstoppable dirty, dirty, dirty bassline and Smith’s inspired lyric (“But you’re cabbing it uptown, You’re moving up south now, You’re moving it uptown, uptown. Sideways! Sideways! Main strips! Main strips!”), it really doesn’t get much better than this.
Excuse me while I kiss the sky.
After that, there’s merely a brief, uncredited reprise of The Frenz Experiment’s Bremen Nacht in the shape of Last Nacht, and that’s your lot.
I Am Kurious Oranj is a fucking great album, it really is. Most bands produce an album like this just once in their careers. The Fall knock them out once every two or three years.
I think we might hear a lot more from them in the future.