Initially you don’t realise the needles that puncture you are herald to the most significant threads about to be sewn through the fabric of your life. But why would you?
I hated The Fall when I first heard them. “Rowche Rumble” and “The Man Whose Head Expanded” blasted rudely out of my mate’s elder brother’s bedroom in the outskirts of Liverpool in the early 80s. What a bleeding racket! Not a patch on Heaven 17, Human League or ABC! But what a difference 12 months makes when you’re only 13. I tuned into John Peel one night in 1984, finger paused over play and record hoping to tape the debut single from the Jesus And Mary Chain. I never got to hear “Upside Down” that night but I did get what I count as my first proper introduction to the world’s greatest rock band, The Fall.
“Tempo House” remains my favourite track by the Prestwich post-punk outfit to this day. It’s a live track, recorded at the Hacienda in Manchester, rudely cut and shunted into the middle of 1983’s Perverted By Language. It may be my favourite track now but I didn’t care for it when I first heard it. It’s not a proper song! All of the instruments are out of tune! The guy can’t sing! And what the hell are these lyrics about? “God damn the pedantic Welsh… the Dutch are weeping in four languages at least… Winston Churchill had a speech impediment.” What the hell is he going on about?
And yet, I couldn’t stop playing the cassette on my Walkman. I took to listening to it on the way to school every day. And on the way home. And then I took to playing it to people and telling them it was my band caught live in the practice room. And they would say to me: “Jesus. Your band’s awful.” But by this time I knew The Fall weren’t awful but in fact – whisper it gently now – touched with genius.
By the time I became a music journalist in 2003 I was a fully paid up… appreciator of The Fall. (It’s important that I don’t call myself a Fall fan. Rock writer Everett True’s memorable observation goes something like this: “I’m not a real Fall fan because I’ve only got 17 of their albums.” I’ve just been to my own shelves, taken a brief inventory and I’ve actually got 43 CDs, 20 bits of vinyl and 5 box sets. But I don’t even own a copy of Are You Are Missing Winner or “Cruisers Creek” on 12”. I’m genuinely mortified that writing this piece has fallen to such a fair weather friend of the band.)
Music is a way for me to throw markers down into the murk and the damage of the retreating past and to shore myself up against the abject blankness of the advancing future. Music by The Fall has become an aide memoire for the (mainly fun) times that would otherwise be lost to amnesia. This music is the diary I never kept. Not long after meeting writer Luke Turner we went to watch The Fall play live at ATP in 2004. Afterwards at a discotheque in a seaside pub, now standing on the verge of becoming firm friends, pockets bulging with zesty pingers, heads discombobulated with ale, we flung ourselves around wildly to “Hit The North.” The next day I was heading back into the same concert hall and nearly ran straight into Mark E Smith as he was coming out. He put his hand on my shoulder and said: “I wouldn’t go in there if I were you, cock. The music’s terrible. Really fucking terrible.” I came rocketing back up on my pill and had to immediately sit on the ground for fear of falling over. It was quite a while before I could stand up again.
Later there was more ale and The Fall on the jukebox of The Mucky Pup pub as Luke and I planned our website The Quietus together. And even later, in 2008, when we got our first office, every day was the same. Arrive at work, take ibuprofen, get the coffee on, put the new Fall LP ( Reformation! Post TLC) on the stereo very loud and then get to work. We dug the repetition. It was ceaseless until we had the website that we still own and run together a decade later. To this day, The Fall are the only band who have their own section on the site.
I arrived in Manchester for my first face-to-face interview with Smith in 2006 surfing a cresting wave of anxiety. My hands were shaking so much as the train slid into Piccadilly that I spilled a cup of black coffee down the freshly laundered white shirt and tie I’d put on for the occasion. For all that he obviously could be mean-spirited, dyspeptic and even downright violent to some writers, I never saw this side of him and neither did most of the people I’ve talked to since. He chose the bar of Mick Hucknall’s Piccadilly-proximate hotel, The Malmaison, as the venue for our chat because he was concerned about the ability of London-based writers to find some backstreet boozer in Prestwich or some working men’s club in Salford. Or indeed what would happen to a London-based writer even if they did manage to find such a hostelry.
In conversation he was often polite, asking if I was courting, where I grew up, how my parents were. Still, I understood from the get-go that Smith seemed to exist in a bubble of weirdness that moved with him wherever he went. To be weird is to be out of place or to not belong. The weirdness of surrealist art comes from the juxtaposition of images that do not naturally belong together. But in most senses, nothing could have been more Greater Manchester than Mark Smith; no one could have been more suited to their surroundings. So where did the weirdness come from? My intuition is that he had a sense of clarity that most lacked. (In early interviews, and in fact once to me, he referred to himself as having been psychic when younger but I took this to be code for ‘extremely good at reading people and situations’.) And it was his complete normalcy which was key to this – you don’t need to be weird to be wired in to what’s directly under your nose. But when you were with him you could see things through his eyes; perhaps your vision became temporarily refreshed as your glass got refilled.
After three hours of drinking large quantities of pilsner from half-pint glasses with him, I felt like the bubble was expanding to include me. Everything about The Fall made 4 percent more sense. He received a phone call and ended the interview abruptly: “A freak gust of wind has blown all of my mate’s amplifiers off the pub roof in Salford. I need to go and sort it all out. There’ll be hell to pay if I don’t get there quickly.” He scrawled down the pub address and his mobile number onto a beer mat and vanished through the doors so rapidly it was almost like he hadn’t been there in the first place.
I interviewed him several times over the years, most recently (and most enjoyably, personally) on camera for Noisey as part of my British Masters series. The conversation for me was like a hyper-condensed version of being a Fall appreciator – hilarious, frightening, frustrating, offensive, mind-expanding, tense, full of misunderstanding, full of missed opportunity, warm, weird (naturally) and even though it stretched to about 75 minutes, still over far too soon.
Sometimes people I don’t know stop me for a chat, and what they always want to know (if they’re not interested in Liam Gallagher) is this: what is Mark E Smith actually like? I’ll tell you what I always tell them: I can’t answer that question. I wasn’t his friend or even an acquaintance and I won’t pretend otherwise. I don’t think Mark had many friends – “My friends don’t add up to one hand”. I think friendship, good health, romantic relationships, family life, peace of mind and perhaps even happiness were secondary concerns and maybe even victims to his need to protect, fuel and steer The Fall.
I don’t want to police anyone’s grief but I do have some concerns about writers and other public figures rushing with unseemly haste to include themselves in the narrative as soon as someone notable dies. The only real reason why anyone should be doing what I’m doing now is if they feel they have some kind of insight afforded by whatever proximity they had.
There are, I feel, a million and one things to be said about The Fall but most of them, thankfully, are already being said elsewhere by smarter writers than me. The other things… well, I don’t really have the heart for it at the moment, but maybe I’ll come back to this subject at some point in the future. One thing I’d like to say for the record now, however, is this: no matter what it looked like, Smith always knew what he was doing.
When I met him on that morning upstairs at the Old Blue Last pub in east London for British Masters he was very friendly (asking after my health and my girlfriend again), he offered me a cigarette (which I accepted) and a glass of champagne (which I declined), we talked like normal people do until the cameras started rolling when Mark Smith suddenly became “Mark E Smith” and unfurled like a cackling imp of mischief and chaos whose USP was to resist all questions about The Fall and to answer all questions about reality TV. After the interview I confessed to Alex, my producer, that I felt like I’d just returned from a “particularly nerve wracking space mission” such was my adrenaline overload. My mic was still recording and my panicky confession was added to the closing seconds of the film. But my final meeting with MES wasn’t quite over yet.
As the Noisey crew packed down the cameras I went to say goodbye. Smith was relaxed again, the slur that made him near incomprehensible when asked about The Fall seemed to have mysteriously vanished, and suddenly now that he was no longer being recorded he was very forthcoming about the band’s plans. (“The new album’s done, just got one or two more tracks to finish. Don’t know exactly when it’s coming out because we’re having problems with the label but hopefully before next summer.”) He didn’t seem drunk anymore… but then again, why would he? He may have started the day at 10AM with a bottle of pilsner but that and two fingers of champagne out of a half-pint glass were all he drank during the shoot and it was now fast approaching 1PM.
I asked him where he was off: “I’ve got to do an interview with this bunch of dickheads from [fashion magazine, name redacted]. Should be good fun. Come and meet us down there in an hour.” He wrote the address down for me on a beermat and scribbled his mobile number on it as well. He shook me by the hand, put on his gloves and walked briskly out of the Old Blue Last on his way to his next appointment to be “Mark E Smith”. Once there he would no doubt leave in his wake some young writer thinking afterwards, ‘Arrrghh! I’ve got the best job in the world!’ Or maybe the exact opposite. But either way, the air around them would have buzzed in a bubble of weirdness, now temporarily in tune to previously unnoticed or ignored things.
Rest well Mark and thank you.
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