This article originally appeared in issue Q348, July 2015.
Mark E Smith formed The Fall as a teenager in 1976 with the explicit goal of tethering primitive music to intelligent lyrics. By 2015, thirty albums and countless band members later, he remained unusually faithful to that mission. But at what cost? In Smith’s last Q interview, Ted Kessler met him in the boozer to find out.
The bar that Mark E Smith of The Fall prefers to conduct his business in, the Kro, in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens, has recently closed down. It’s been converted into a Byron Burger restaurant (crack of thunder, demonic cackle).
So instead we meet at noon outside Gullivers, in the Northern Quarter, a pub he hasn’t visited for many years. “I used to know Manchester by its pubs,” he says ruefully, shaking hands outside, the remains of a recently crunched mint wedged disconcertingly in the pockets of his smile.
“I didn’t know any streets, I just knew the boozers.” That’s all changed since the city centre’s pubs started morphing into chain-run burger bars and coffee shops. Now, he never knows where to meet people. “I wasn’t even sure Gullivers was going to be open.”
Luckily, it’s open. We step in, the day’s first customers. Smith takes a quick tour of the empty bar looking for a suitable location to sit while discussing his life’s work, eventually stopping outside a side room guarded by an enormous Great Dane sleeping across its entrance. “I fucking hate dogs,” he says, weighing up the options before gingerly stepping over the hound. Smith has a particular problem with people – one of a number, it must be said – approaching him in pubs whenever he ventures beyond his regular north Manchester haunts. Strangers everywhere feel the need to tell him what they think of him. Often, that’s a positive thing. Just now for example, outside Gullivers, a young woman approached him pointing. “You’re a fucking genius, you are,” she shouted, jabbing her finger approvingly. He didn’t mind that.
“It’s very nice,” he says. “I’ve noticed that it’s particularly young girls and boys who are into The Fall who come up to me.” They have a different attitude to older fans, he explains. “It’s The Fall that they’re into, rather than that Smith nutter. I go out on my own a lot. I’ll be in a normal pub and a fella will be in there with his son and he’ll say, ‘You’re that Mark Smith, aren’t you?’ He’ll point to his son: ‘He really likes you. But I think you’re bloody rubbish.’ The dad will be some Jam fan from the 1970s, but his kid will get it. He only knows The Fall’s work since 2000. Very gratifying.”
Nobody understands the need for Fall fans to proclaim their love for the group more than Mark Edward Smith. “I’m a very big fan of The Fall,” he says. “So’s the wife [his third, keyboardist Elena Poulou: “very good in the office”]. It’s one of the things we have in common. There’s not been a better band since we started. There’s lot of idiots out there, so it’s not for everyone. But I’m never surprised to hear other people feel that way too.”
He’ll be safe in here, though, tucked away from the well-wishers and rubber-neckers, what with the door closed and the now roused Great Dane intermittently barking at us through the glass. But first, a drink?
“I’ll have a bottle of Peroni, please,” he decides. A pause.
“And a whisky. A Glenfiddich. A double.”
We place the first of the afternoon’s orders with the bar. And then cautiously we slip the key into the engine, turn it over and prepare to explore the wonderful and frightening world of The Fall.
Mark E Smith is looking very well. Not conventionally so, of course. Conventionally, for a man of 58, he looks fairly unwell. His eyes and skin sag, his pupils are a vague yellowy-brown, and he walks with an uncomfortable-looking stoop, as if his vertebra needs realignment. It probably needs more than that, considering he spent several months in a wheelchair after breaking his hip following a collision with a wall in 2004, and then again even more painfully after a fall in 2009. Consequently he appears a little shorter than he once did, less than his 5’9”.
He suffers, too, from a chest complaint he’s had since his youth, something that his doctors attribute forcefully to his prodigious smoking and drinking habits but that he says is a geographical, seasonal and occupational hazard. Often when he speaks, the sentence will set off in crystal-clear Salfordian and then towards the end of the anecdote tumble into gargled turbulence, as if the punchline is being shredded inside his voicebox.
But Smith’s seemingly precarious health needs context. Not with consideration to his nicotine addiction, nor his habit of lunchtime whisky chasers, nor his former fondness for hallucinogens and particularly amphetamines. It needs instead to be assessed in light of his enormous volume of work. If he looks a bit knackered, it’s because he’s been hard at it for nearly 40 years. While you were sleeping, he was working.
He’s turned out 30 studio albums since The Fall’s debut, Live At The Witch Trials, in 1979. That’s a new one every 14 months on average, with intense, psyche-sapping, band-breaking international tours in between. Of those albums, one third are very good and at least one third are seminal works of singular genius. It’s instructive to compare these statistics alongside those of the groups Smith hoped to emulate when he formed The Fall in Prestwich with four friends 39 years ago. The Velvet Underground released five albums, Can made 11 and The Stooges five. Now let’s consider the other great Mancunian band formed from the punk explosion in ’76, Joy Division: two albums, before delivering nine as New Order. Mark E Smith’s output matches them collectively. No wonder he looks a little worn out. He’d take a holiday, if only he believed in them. “You always bring yourself,” he notes.
“Perhaps,” he ruminates, “if I’d copped it, died in the ’80s, The Fall would be a much bigger band. Being dead seems to help. But then, there’d be a lot less good Fall albums. So that’s an irony.”
“A good Fall album”: those four words are like a snake-charmer’s flute to anyone who’s ever fallen under the group’s spell. Their great supporter, the late DJ John Peel, coined a cliché about The Fall being “always different, always the same”, but what he probably meant was that Mark E Smith was always in the band. Dozens of seemingly pivotal members have come and gone, and on several occasions it’s appeared that an irreplaceable foundation has been removed from the sound. But a new recruit is always swiftly located, normally half the age of those replaced and always charged with the same precise musical role.
The music is repetitive, it is disciplined. It’s rhythmic, bombastic, granite-hard with shards of melody there only to shade, not to distract. Improvisation is strictly forbidden.
For a man who professes to hate musicians, it demonstrates remarkable tolerance that Smith’s worked with so many for so long. “They always seem to see The Fall as a stepping stone to something better,” he reflects. “When in fact they never do anything good afterwards. It’s
why they all hate me.”
The Fall’s music is not there to gouch out or groove to. It’s simply the best delivery method he has for his writing, a barked street-level poetry with which he’s coined a new musical lexicon that is misanthropic, insightful on a borderline psychic level, confrontational, and bone-dry hilarious. Songs about gremlins. Songs about the Football Association. Songs about Oprah Winfrey, Walt Disney and Cary Grant.
About pharmaceutical giants, about men of the cloth, about minute details of class, corruption and small-time stupidity. About British people in hot weather, Australians in Europe, and the very business of analysing a song’s meaning. About anything other than the normal subjects people traditionally have written songs about. Mark E Smith has remained unerringly true to his original impulse for forming a group all those years ago when he was working as a clerk on the docks at Salford, on the same site the BBC have now built their Media City (an irony not lost on Smith when he sits in reception there awaiting radio interviews while watching “the lines of Chloes and Lukes march by in matching jumpers”).
“It wasn’t about me getting my picture in a magazine,” he explains. “It was about making something that combined primitive music with intelligent lyrics.”
“Mark Smith really is that guy you hoped you could be,” the American singer Henry Rollins told a Danish documentary in 2014. “If you’re in a band you don’t want to care what anyone thinks, but you do. You really want to crank out a record every nine months, but you can’t. And you’d love to keep surprising people and baffling critics by every three albums churning out your best album.”
On cue, The Fall are about to release another one of their better albums, Sub-Lingual Tablet, after a slightly patchy couple. Smith agrees with Rollins’s assessment. “The Fall are cyclical. And I’m going through a good cycle right now, I feel.”
He casts an eye at the beer web on my pint glass and lifts his empty whisky tumbler. “Would you like a snifter to go with the rest of that lager?”
Who’s in The Fall nowadays? Who cares, as long as Smith is. But let’s note that it’s the same five who’ve made the previous three Fall albums. A record for the band in terms of line-up stability. What’s the secret? Mark E Smith isn’t sure.
“We don’t socialise a lot,” he suggests. “That’s good. Everyone is very modest. The rhythm section is the best I’ve had. They used to play working men’s clubs when they were 16. So they appreciate a dressing room.”
He stops himself. “Not saying I exploit them, mind.”
There are some song titles on Sub-Lingual Tablet of reassuring excellence. A rockabilly stomp called Stout Man (“a big fat man pushing a little pram!”). Venice With The Girls, inspired by Smith seeing a TV advert for travel insurance – he acts it out, swirling his bottle over his shoulder: “He’s away on his golf holiday. Me? I’m off to Venice with the girls!” There’s Quit iPhone, during which Smith seems possessed of an apocalyptic rage about people being unable to “just leave it fucking alone”. In fact, he was shouting at a studio engineer and liked the result so much he left it in. Despite having spent so much of his life in recording studios, the process is increasingly nightmarish.
“It gets harder for me every LP,” he insists. “Every desk is computerised so I can’t do what I used to do. With studios, there’s this presumption that everybody can do it in their bedroom on computers now. Don’t you dare ask for a CD or a cassette. I have to wait for the… files.”
He opens his mouth so wide gagging that I can see the back of his throat.
“The files! Some tiny plastic plug that has all your work. If I put it in my pocket, it’s lost. Go down the boozer, it’s gone. To them it’s in space, a satellite. And they look at you as if you’re the Luddite. Luckily I’ve got a very good master guy in London now. He does shit like Rory Gallagher. You give him a CD and he can make anything sound brilliant.”
The most interesting song on the album is Facebook Troll, which has Smith demanding over a sinister electro-funk that he be delivered a Facebook troll. Turns out, it’s a true story.
“I had these fellas saying they were me,” he explains. “Three on Facebook, two on the Twitter. My Irish mates said there was one getting 14,000 hits a day.”
This, he says, played out badly with his Irish fanbase. “In Ireland there are kids on farms who are really into The Fall and they think they’re talking to me. So I started talking to my computer mates… I mean, I used to smoke dope with the bloke who invented this shit in the ’80s…”
Before this statement can be properly interrogated, Smith is unveiling the plan he came up with to ensnare his impersonators.
“I said, ‘Let’s use your computer and say that I am Michelle aged five – would you like to meet?’”
His friends said this was a bad idea.
“‘OK then, say I am the real Mark E Smith and I am going to rip your fucking head off.’ They were, like, ‘No, Mark.’”
He shakes his head in a what-is-the-world-coming-to fashion. He didn’t want to start up his own Facebook page, nor did he want to issue a statement in case “people mistake me for Morrissey.” When he contacted Google they asked for a copy of his passport. No chance. Salvation came in surprising form: Richard Madeley.
“No joke. This guy at Granada reckons that Richard Madeley had invented something that could track anybody on Twitter.”
Using Richard Madeley’s technology, Smith says he called one of his impersonators and left a message for him. “I said, ‘I am Mark E Smith and every day I awake weeping over this intrusion. Please stop.’ Worked, but on the Fall websites everybody was saying what a bastard I was.”
What social media teaches us, concludes Smith, is that “people really are as daft as you thought.” Suddenly, Dropout Boogie by Captain Beefheart is piped through the pub. Smith is transfixed. “That’s weird, I was thinking of covering this just this morning,” he reveals. “It must be a sign.”
A sign to leave, perhaps? The main bar is now a throng of students and office workers knocking off for the weekend. Every now and then a face appears at the door, covetously. Nah, says Smith. One for the road. “Nobody’s getting past that bastard,” he says, throwing a thumb at the dog.
Mark E Smith has often claimed to be possessed of psychic and supernatural powers. As a young man, he said he could see the ghostly energy in places where many had died, such as US Civil War fields or certain German towns. He would also read Tarot cards for friends and was said to have gained a reputation as skilled at it. As his health declined, however, so did his gift.
Even today, though, he displays one remaining supernatural power. During a four-pint, one-bottle and six-shot session he does not leave the table for the urinal once. As a yardstick, I visit it four times during that same period. Even as we leave Gullivers and step into the late-afternoon shade, he does not turn towards it. What sorcery is this?
“I took this orange speed,” he begins, unbelievably, but the detail of the story is lost within the whirlpool of his voicebox. The gist is: the orange speed, taken some time ago, slowed his urinary function. Amazing. One of his new songs, Dedication Not Medication, deals with the reverse of this condition, accusing “Pierce Brosnan” of prescribing “bedwetting pills.” It’s about Smith’s doctor.
“I’ve always thought the most dangerous drugs are prescribed antidepressants,” he says. “They tried to prescribe me some, for my chest, to stop smoking. That was the final straw. Luckily, I’ve mates who know about pharmacology, as you can imagine…”
Outside, the sun is setting and the buildings are swaying. Smith unwraps a pack of 10 Marlboro reds and sticks one in his mouth. How is he?
“I’m alright,” he decides, quietly. “Compared to what I have been, I’m good. I feel this record, this is the start of something.”
He throws out a hand and, with a smile, heads off through the rush-hour crowd, his head bouncing from side to side and a small bald patch visible in the distance. Carefree, wherever he may be, he is the famous Mark E…
A few nights later, a text arrives from Elena Poulou (I had been assured throughout arrangements to meet M.E.S that “Elena has your number”). Dealing with a very minor personal issue of no interest to anyone beyond Smith, it reads:
Hi Ted. Sending you this message on behalf of Mark, who doesn’t use mobile phones. Best, el:
Re: last Friday
Constant repeating of stories due, probably, to [redacted]. Sorry to bore you. Talking of [redacted], can’t mention. See ya soon for M.E.S Age 1-12. Yr pal, Mark E.
In Gullivers, he’d considered his legacy. “I’ve already got posterity. There’s always some cunt who wants to ask me about a masterpiece I made in 1982,” he said. “I humour them. But I’m making better records now. If I didn’t believe that, I’d have retired in 1982.”
By God, we’ll miss him when he’s gone.