Date: Wed, 8 Sep 93 16:02:27 -0400 From: chris mohr
[This is from _Volume_, September 14, 1992. It's part of the US promo package for 'Infotainment Scan'.] "THE FALL," Mark E. Smith once said phlegmatically through a blue cloud of cigarette smoke into a nearby tape recorder, "have always been a cool group." The FALL: Mark E Smith: vocals Craig Scanlon: guitar Stephen Hanley: bass Dave Bush: keyboards Simon Wolstencroft: drums Credits: Feature: David Cavanagh Photos: Louise Rhodes (seated) Stefan De Batselier (other) LP heritage (selective): Jon Wilde [Actually the LP comments didn't show up on the scanner... Maybe I can type them up, if I have time - unlikely. cm] That was a good decade ago. The words got printed, the sentiments became memorable, The Fall got cooler still. Nowadays they are so cool they can get albums like 'Shiftwork' and 'Code: Selfish' released by a huge off-shore business concern like Phonogram, and still point justifiably to the Fall motto, which reads, now as ever: "No sell-out, man". The dignity and vision of the band, and of Mark Smith, never cease to amaze; their intuitive understanding of what constitutes a totally wired, totally weird and totally worthwhile four minutes of visceral rock 'n' roll defies belief; their refusal even to contemplate what could be construed as any kind of nefarious external - "Are you gonna get the beers in, cock, or are you just gonna fuckin' talk all day?" Mark E Smith sits hunched tensely over a dead pint in a pub in what he refers to, with scathing economy of metaphor, as "the student area" of Manchester. He's just been having his photograph taken, which he really hates. You can tell this by the way he shields his face with his jacket sleeve when a camera is pointed his way, even dragging passers-by into the shot to cover the scowling Smith features. Normally it's the photographer's prerogative to call an end to the photo shoot, and inform the subject when they've got enough stuff. Mark Smith doesn't think much of this system. "Right love, that's three rolls," he says brusquely. "You've got enough there." Pinning the man down on The Fall's past is an equally tricky endeavour. Doesn't like looking back. Doesn't see the point. Keep moving, keep doing it. That's what The Fall have always been about, he'll tell you perfunctorily. As soon as one fag burns down, light another one. As soon as your glass is empty, get it filled. As soon as an album comes out, make another one. It's the only way. "Otherwise," he says dramatically, "you're dead." It's this logic that has repeatedly seen Smith hail whatever new Fall album is out that week as being "fives times better" than its predecessor, while condemning some latest luckless Peel-sponsored crew as being blatant Fall rip-off merchants. He can be really unforgiving. Toss him some casual inquiry like what kind of band The Fall were in 1979 and he'll look at you as if you were faintly deranged and say: "Same as now." And yet here he is, tugging stoically on his lager and getting down to it, and talking of hopelessly bleak days at the outset of The Fall when cult stardom, or whatever it is they've achieved these days, was just some hollow joke of the future and all they received was hatred. IT'S difficult to imagine Mark Smith being a teenager. He seems to be the sort of bloke who was born with a fag in his hand and a large Glenmorangie not too far away. But they say he was 18 once, way back in 1977. He worked on the docks in Manchester. He liked music, especially the Velvets and Can. He'd had a few auditions for local heavy metal bands, all of which he had failed in spectacular fashion. He was tone-deaf and they all hated him anyway. But he had a sound in his head - a stark, muddy, primitive, uncommercial sound - that he got some people together to explore in 1977. They were The Fall, and the resulting EP was called 'Bingo Master's Breakout'. It came out a full year after they made it, thanks (unbelievably now) to the help of good old Danny Baker, whose adrenaline fanzine auspices persuaded bigshot CIA man's son and Police drummer's brother Miles Copeland to whack it out belatedly on his Step Forward punk label. Smith had typed all the Iyrics out in his lunch hour at the docks, on the works typewriter. There was, however, a problem with the EP. "Nobody liked it," says Smith, not sounding too worried. "Everywhere we went, nobody wanted to know. They wanted to make it New Wave. We went to Virgin, we went to Martin Hannett, we went round to Rabid. The Buzzcocks' label (New Hormones) actually paid for the recording, which was great of them. It was very rough and all that. Out of tune and that. It was good. Stark, sort of." The Fall were way out of sync with - and Smith in particular appalled by - the dogmatic fashions of New Wave. He spits out the words as he recalls what he and The Fall came up against. "I mean, you're talking about a time when Elvis Costello was considered really weird. You're talkingabout a time when fuckin' I'm turning fuckin' Japanese was considered a decent tune. In them days if you didn't have a skinny tie you were fuckin'... otherwise you had to have a symphony orchestra behind you. We were dead against it. And we used to get hit from all sides. Intellectuals didn't like us because we weren't, like, college. Longhairs didn't like us cos we didn't sound like heavy rock. Punks didn't like us cos we didn't have safety pins." The doctrine of The Fall - quite apart from their garb, which was invariably a farrago of wide-collared shirts, Desmond Lynam sweaters and even flares - was, as Smith saw it, "to have raw music with really weird vocals over it". By weird, he meant weird. He meant totally unheard of. He wasn't impressed by the London punks at all. I always thought punk was heavy metal dressed up," he says. "The Pistols in the space of one single went from being great to being fuckin' AC/DC. I didn't think it was about doing T Rex covers. I didn't think it was about being bad." Not that he had what you'd call a band of true believers behind him. Martin Bramah, the guitarist, had his shit reasonably together, as Smith would say - he liked Television and so on. Bramah had actually started out as The Fall's singer, with Smith playing a peculiar picking form of guitar behind him. Firmly believing that "on any instrument, you get worse before you get any good", Smith packed the guitar in before the first EP was made. He's maintained a similarly cavalier attitude to instruments ever since; the keyboards lasted a while and he even tinkered memorably with the violin in the 1 980s on 'Hotel Bloedel' and 'Living Too Late', before binning the old Stradivarius around '86. "You've got to unlearn," he'll say. "Most avant-garde composers'll tell you that, you know. You've got to unlearn." So with Smith singing, self-consciously trying to originate a new form of vocals that would reflect "where I came from", the first lineup of The Fall flailed away. It was not a happy union. "I didn't like any of them," says Smith. "I never thought the line-up would last. Thev were all into different...like, Tony Friel wanted to be like Weather Report. He used to want to do bass solos and all that. Martin was into Television. Karl (Burns, drums) was into Rush. I was into Can, more into sound than music - noise, you know. I saw Karl the other day actually. He's given up music now. I went for a drink with him. I said, you're fuckin' better off out of it and he agreed. Got a fuckin' big motorbike and that. I'm really happy for him. He didn't have much luck the last few years after he left the band." The Fall sounded wired, scratchy and intense in 1978. They regaled at the state of music on 'Repetition' (on the 'Bingo Master' EP) and 'Music Scene' (the endless epic that closed the 1979 debut LP 'Live At The Witch Trials'. That voice calling out the time on 'Music Scene' ~"six minutes!" "six forty!") was the band's driver - the son of the actor who played Len Fairclough in Coronation Street. By this time Smith had already booted out two members - Friel and organist Una Baines. Teenage school-leavers Marc Riley and Yvonne Pawlett came in on bass and keyboards. Smith's reputation as a totalitarian hirer and firer was already formed, although he'll protest that it was he who was considered the liability by the others ("I was just the guy who couldn't sing") and that it was a constant battle to resist their attempts to make the band more New Wave, more palatable - something like The Blue Orchids, who were put together by Bramah with ex-Fall organist Una Baines in 1980. "So I said, right - walk," he cackles. "We were doing cabaret circuits at the time, just to earn money," he grins at the memory. "Workingmen's clubs and all that. Fuckin' godawful! Fuckin' terrible! Good though. It toughened you up. They'd be throwing glasses - proper glasses, like - and spitting at you. I see a lot of groups today, and they don't know they're born. But touch wood nobody ever walks out of a Fall concert. You've got to keep the fuckers in there. That's how we got half our following. You fuckin' win them over and get their respect. They still come now. Miners from Wakefield and Newcastle." Faced with this display of blanket hostility, The Fall found London, whither they ventured in 1978, to be a piece of piss. But, although the Londoners didn't as a rule throw things, they didn't exactly go out of their way to embrace these sullen Mancunians. Conceding that the yawnsomely hipster capital dwellers weren't, as a rule, really up for an hour of premier division garage bile from "a bunch of fuckin' scruffs" like The Fall, Smith heads anecdotally into the dark ages: this was phase one of The Fall's struggle. He was the only one working, aside from Una Baines, who was a nurse in a mental hospital, and it was principally his money that kept the band afloat. They were poor, God were they poor. The odd member of the band slept rough; the others crashed on spare mattresses. They went days without eating. Say what you like about The Fall in 1979, they looked terribly thin in photos. Smith rejigged the 'Witch Trials' line-up, hardly suspecting as he did so that the new guitarist and bassist, Craig Scanlon and Steve Hanley, would still be there in 1992, backing him to the hilt. They'd been The Fall's sound men for a while and joined, along with drummer Mike Leigh (no relation to the playwright), in time to make 'Dragnet', the band's impossibly dark and forbidding second album. The studio hated the sound so much they didn't want the album released, in case it reflected badly on them. A bizarre, unspoken bond was formed between Smith, Scanlon and Hanley that survives to this day. He recalls explaining to them that he couldn't pay them until things looked up, and wondering how they'd react. They said that was fine. Even today, Smith explains with an incredulous look, they'll refuse any offer of a wage increase, insisting he plough it all straight back into the band. No wonder he says seriously that "Craig and Steve are more indispensible than me in a lot of ways". Time passes, slowly. Money is slow to come in. The Fall leave Step Forward and sign to Rough Trade, where some great, timeless defiantly northern English folk classic records are made. The singles 'How I Wrote Elastic Man' and 'Totally Wired' (Smith and The Fall were by now committed amphetamine sulphate vampires); the album 'Grotesque (After the Gramme)', which introduced Smith's heroic, insurrectional alter-ego Roman Totale - as well as Marc Riley's whacked-out use of the kazoo - and ended in the ten-minute masterpiece 'The North Will Rise Again'. A whole new genre had been created: Country & Northern, as first heard on the late '70's Fall singles 'Fiery Jack' and 'Rowche Rumble' and now rollicking away on teh back of Riley's primitive organ and kazoo and the drums of new recruit Paul Hanley (15-year- old brother of Steve). A Fall LP pattern had taken shape: stark, dark photography of the band, strange spidery diagrams, scrawled half-sentences and the shadowiest of info from the pen of Smith. By the time you got the record out of its sleeve (vinyl we're talking about here, and LPs costing less than four quid) you were already unnerved, spooked and impossibly curious. The former teenage psychic Smith (he claims) was now freaked out personality-wise to the point where his insights on human behaviour were invariably outright 24-carat genius, as on 'How I Wrote Elastic Man' - a dazzlingly ambitious dissection of an imaginary society's attitudes to a burnt-out one-book author, right down to mishearing the title of his 'book' as "Plastic Man". One of the furthest-out pop singles ever, it weaved riddles Smith can still smile at now. "Yeah, it's got mystery. That's half the fun of it. Come one, man, you've got to have some fuckin' fun in your life. You don't want everything on a plate. That's the trouble with rock music, it's all made for the palate. The only thing that keeps me going is I want to put things in rock music that aren't there. I don't think a guitar's even been explored yet. Or a bass, or a drumkit. Or vocals. Everybody seems to play it safe. I fuckin' went into it blind, man, I'm telling you." And his powers of observation became something fierce, something almost legendary. "I've found this with life in general with me. Being a Smith, you tend to get confused with everybody else. It's the greatest strength you can have. People don't take you seriously and people never fuckin' rate you, and I like that. You're always observing. I like to be anonymous. I don't like the limelight, never have." Nineteen eighty-one was the year of the brilliant 'Hex Enduction Hour' LP and the 'Slates' 10-inch. 'Hex', Smith was convinced, would be the last Fall album. He'd had enough of the business, of explaining The Fall's position to morons, of sharing sod all money around six musicians (Karl Burns was back in the band as second drummer). He decided to put everything he felt and thought into this last album - as long as it took - which why 'Hex Enduction Hour' lasts a then-unheard-of 60 mintues and has almost as many words as the bible. It was a monumental way of saying fuck you and goodbye. It started with an insanely groovy shower of abuse called 'The Classical' and ended with the cacophonous valedictory bombardment of 'And This Day', a two drumkit headfuck not unlike The Velvet Underground's 'Sister Ray' played by The Glitter Band, which Smith edited randomly down to 10 minutes from 25. Epic hell. But life was unbearable, and the best band in the country were starving away on the tiny Kamera label, which soon went bust. It looked as though the game was up. Help came from the most ridiculous of sources. "We were just fuckin' around," recalls Smith. "Then fuckin' Tamla Motown steam in! You know... about time we had another white act, ha ha! Dead funny. But they were pretty serious. I went to see them and everything. They had a pretty good lad in London who was well behind us. So they offered us a contract and this bloke in London goes, Have you got any LPs? So I said, I'll get a copy of 'Hex Enduction Hour' to you." He creases up. 'The Classical', first track of 'Hex Enduction Hour', boasts the couplet: "Where are the obligatory niggers?/Hey there fuck face! Hey there fuck face!". The label that brought the world Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops and The Supremes listened no further, and the deal was off. Smith still has the letter somewhere. Apparently its tone of frostiness is something to marvel at. Not that they were getting much joy out of Rough Trade. The 'Slates' mini-album was the latest in a series of running battles with the label, and Smith still seethes in retrospect at Rough Trade's intransigence. "Rough Trade were soft, boring hippies. They'd go, Er, the tea boy doesn't like the fact that you've slagged off Wah! Heat on this number. And fuckin'...the girl who cooks the fuckin' rice in the canteen doesn't like the fact that you've used the word 'slags'. They had a whole meeting over the fact that we mentioned guns in one song. Y'know...it is not the policy of Rough Trade to be supporting fuckin'... And I'd go, What the fuck has it got to do with you? Just fuckin' sell the record you fuckin' hippy." Around this time, far far away from the trials of Smith, living a life of sunshine and affluence a million hemispheres from The Fall, a tiny Californian bass player called Brix was making plans to check out a Fall gig in Chicago with her friend. She wasn't that huge a fan, but her friend was. "We met in a restaurant in Chicago," recalls Smith evenly on the subject of his ex-wife. Talking about the former Mrs Smith is not something that embarrasses him, although you inevitably tread care- fully. "It wasn't my idea to have her in the band. She was a bass player. So we got married and I said, Well, look, we're sort of short of two guitarists, you know, cos Craig was still very shy in them days, unusually so, kept wanting to be turned down. So she said no to playing lead, but she came on tour with us. The group were more into it than I was. I wasn't into having my wife in the group, but she really took them by the scruff of the neck." Brix started playing with The Fall in 1983, doing a few numbers with the band at the end of gigs, including the new, surprisingly t unef ul 'C.R.E.E.P.', in time a single. In due course her shiny red Rickenbacker became a regular Fall feature. She was The Fall's arranger, key melodic song writer and (undeniably) visual attraction. That year's album, the monstrous, driving 'Perverted By Language' had tracks like 'Eat Y'Self Fitter', 'Tempo House' and 'Smile'. It was heavy and primitive. "Do you like it?" pipes up Smith suddenly. "I'm glad to hear you say that actually, cos I think it's really good. But the general consensus was that it's really shit. It's weird and it's sparse. Craig comes out of himself a bit, and Steve. What's this for, a book? It's a bit fuckin' extensive, isn't it?" The Fall make it on to The Tube, introduced in a thoroughly satisfying dream scenario by John Peel, who'd always said he wanted to cue in The Fall live on national TV. With their new, ace, spirally logo, designed by the enviably-named Claus Castenskiold, the band make 'The Wonderful And Frightening World Of The Fall' in 1984, and hook up with emigre Scots iconoclastic buttock-baring ballet renegade Michael Clark. There's a memorable Whistle Test appearance from the time with The Fall belting through 'Lay Of The Land', Smith grasping the microphone in meaty fist, while Clark and his friends arse around with a pantomime cow. Pretty soon Clark and Smith were collaborating on a ballet, the critic-dividing _Kurious Oranj_, with The Fall providing the libretto. "He was a fan," shrugs Smith. "And I liked his work. And it was good, Kurious Oranj, the whole concept of it. Knocked it together in about six months, marvellous. I really enjoyed it. I'd just mail him lyrics - we were touring at the time - and he'd write back telling me what he was going to wear. It was good." Gradually a ballet was conceived through the Royal Mail. It opened in Amsterdam, with The Fall effectively appearing as Clark's backing group. It then proceeded to Edinburgh, and finally did a fortnight in London. Smith feels it should have continued: "It was just starting to develop when it stopped. Have you heard anything of Clark lately then?" 'The Wonderful And Frightening World', that vicious classic of late '84, also has arguably The Fall's loveliest song, 'Disney's Dream Debased'. Nobody really mentions things like beauty and tunefulness when discussing The Fall, but they should. Smith nods emphatically, and goes off on a typically rhetorical bender. "Thing about The Fall, you're asking me all about the past and shit, and I never stop and think about it, cos I don't think it's worth it. But a thing like 'Disney's Dream Debased' is marvellous, you're dead right. I mean, it is marvellous. You just become a bit... blunt towards it. That's the tragedy of it. I can see what's happening here actually. You're obviously one of those mid-'80s Fall fans. It's alright, don't worry about it. Yeah. 'Disney'. Marvellous." Mark and Brix were by now writing together, turning out singles like 'No Bulbs', 'Couldn't Get Ahead' and the top-drawer swag- ger-powered 'Cruiser's Creek'. It was a bit of a new scene for Smith - choruses and structures and middle eights. Into this rather unbalanced, experimental Fall milieu in 1985 in came (of all things) a classically trained musician, Simon Rogers. He could play anything. He knew what a key was. He knew how to tune a guitar. He'd met Smith through the Michael Clark connection - Clark had wanted to do a version of 'The Classical' with classical musicians, but the orchestra they got in couldn't work out their parts because the song only had one chord running all the way through it. Simon Rogers, who was a friend of Clark's, worked it out for them and subsequently, when Steve Hanley had to leave for six months to look after his sick baby, played bass for The Fall. When Hanley returned, the multi-talented Rogers simply moved over to keyboards, and that was the line-up that made the acclaimed 'This Nation's Saving Grace', released in late September 1985. 'Nation's' contained Smith's long-overdue tribute to Can's famous Japanese vocalist, 'I Am Damo Suzuki'. Suzuki and Smith remain good pals to this day. Rogers would eventually secede from The Fall after 1986's 'Bend Sinister', but remain close to Smith and reappear as co-producer of 'The Frenz Experiment' and this year's 'Code: Selfish'. His tour de force remains the utterly wonderful 'Hit The North' single - one of those intermittent Fall releases where Smith's vocal takes a back seat to the band's incredible musical canvas - which blasted The Fall forward as an unexpectedly menacing dance proposition in 1987. At this stage The Fall's line-up was no more finite than it had been in 1978, but whereas in olden days Smith had sniped at transient Fall members by waspishly including a 'Where Are They Now?' file on the back cover of the 'Early Years' compilation, the complex line-up changes of the mid-'80s were detailed painstakingly on a helpful personnel chart on the inner sleeve of '458489 A-Sides', Beggars Banquet's impressively VFM compilation of the band's singles from 1984-89. The contributors' Fall-lives are measured in straight lines; the most telling is inevitably that of Brix - from 1983 to June 1989. At that point, her line simply stops. "Thing about Brix, not to call her or anything," says Smith, "but she always used to take credit for more than she actually did. She was very good at arranging things. She was a good guitarist. Good singer. You're really into the mid-'80s Fall, aren't you? One of the things that used to fuckin' piss me off about the wife was everything was always her idea, and it wasn't at all. Very American. I mean, I still think she's a great kid. Very talented you know." The Fall entered what Smith calls "another low point". He doesn't rate the 'Bend Sinister' album. It wasn't the end of the world - they had a semi-sized hit with 'Mr Pharmacist', a cover of an old '60s garage number by The Other Half - but Smith can't find much to say about 'Bend Sinister', other than that it was "too sluggish, self-satisfied... too much Brix and too much perfection of music. He's also rueful to this day about the song 'Terry Waite Sez', a sceptical song about Waite's position on mid-'80s world affairs, which had only been out a short while before the man himself was kidnapped. "I was really sorry I did that. We brought it out and he was fuckin' kidnapped. Weird. I couldn't believe it. We've got a lot of stuff, haven't we? I'm thinking of going home in a minute actually. You couldn't speed this up a bit, could you?" 'Bend Sinister' had a second title, 'Domesday Pay-Off'. Smith was unwilling to choose between the two. "The titles are always im- portant. I try to get the titles to reflect what's on the LP. I don't do it as a joke. People are always trying to rip off our titles, but I don't think they understand that a title should reflect what's on the LP, like a cover should. It seems beyond most people." And the cover of 'Bend Sinister' was saying... what? "Here's this smart-arse band playing live. Hah! That was the whole idea of it. The '90s are next, aren't they?" The Fall line-up has changed yet again. Rogers is out, and Paul Hanley has gone. In come Simon Wolstencroft on drums, and Marcia Schofield on keyboards. She had played in a North London band called Khmer Rouge, who'd supported The Fall in the past. "Yeah. Marcia. Good. Keyboards. Looked good." The undervalued 'The Frenz Experiment' came out with that line-up, and The Fall had a surprise hit single with a reworking of The Kinks' 'Victoria'. It was all looking pretty good. Then: internal combustion, and the whole shape of the band was blown apart. Smith's marriage with Brix collapsed and she left the band. Martin Bramah, with whom Smith's relations had remained "pretty good", returned on guitar. The across-the-board rave reviews for the excellent 'Extricate' album didn't ease Smith's nagging worry, however, that something drastic needed doing to The Fall, and fast. Amid a shower of publicity, he sacked Bramah and Schofield during an Australian tour. "I wanted to make the band more sparse," he says. "We were a six-piece, almost a seven-piece with Kenny (Brady), the fiddle player - and we had a flute player as well. We were ending up like fuckin' Ian Dury And The Blockheads. Martin took it well. Marcia didn't take it too well. But we were losing that organic feel. Craig and Steve, you know, they're very organic. They play different every night. Get a good drummer in, you can do anything with that, man." Nobody has a bad word to say about 'Extricate' ("that's when you've got to start fuckin' worrying") but special attention was given to the poignant 'Bill Is Dead', a marvellously unexpected piece of emotional Smithness. Phonogram loved it; they wanted to put it out as a single. Smith vetoed it. But even the emotion of 'Bill' would be gazumped a year later by the outright heart-on-sleeve pathos of 'Edinburgh Man', from 'Shift-Work', one of Smith's bravest statements. The marriage had failed, and here was Smith picking gingerly though the fallout. Yet again he fell back on Scanlon and Hanley. They provide the backbone of 'Shift-Work', a stripped-down, primitive sorrow-drowner par excellence. "They're fuckin' hard as nails,actually, them two," Smith enthuses. "They're really far out. Freaks me out, you know. Very super- intelligent fellows, but they're really reticent. Reticent isn't even fuckin' in it, I'll tell you. They're perfect." Do they ask him what the lyrics are about? "They don't ask me about the lyrics, they don't ask me about anything. I just love them to death. Jesuit lads, you know. I've had people in the group and they go on about money, and give me this and give me that and I wrote half of this. What's this song about and fuckin'... Steve and Craig are brilliant." WHICH just about takes the plot up to 'Code: Selfish' (Smith reaches theatrically for his jacket), and a moral that even a knackered, history-sodden Smith gets vehemently, brilliantly quotable once again: "I have a big problem, you know. I've got too much. I don't like saying that, I don't want to sound too precious. But I don't un- derstand people who spend years making an LP. I get really frustrated, I've just got fuckin' too much stuff. And I think that's why The Fall's taken a bit for granted. I'm not even there yet. I was in Germany and fuckin' MTV are going, Aren't you getting bored yet, you've been doing it for 15 fuckin' years? And I'm going, I don't know what you're talking about. "I don't relate to that. I just relate to what I've got to say. The only thing that keeps me going is doing more stuff. And I've still got a sound in my head that I want to get. Believe it or not. Fancy getting summat to eat?"