From The Wire - issue 151 September 1996
by Tony Herrington

His clothes are near-as-dammit immaculate: pale green trousers with plumb-line creases; a white dress shirt, black Oxford shoes. But he holds a large white plastic carrier bag grubby and bulging with items of unknown provenance. It is mid afternoon, yet he appears drunk. And on the back of his pristine black jacket there is pinned a dry-cleaning ticket

"It's like I drunk myself sober/I get better as I get older" - "Spectre Vs Rector", 1979

"His constant love-battle with his goblin-muse always leaves him stronger" Mark Sinker, The Wire, August 1986

Mark E Smith's face is a chunk of elephant hide which periodically contorts into impressions of temperance, hilarity, contempt, grave contemplation. Its owner slouches into the red plastic bench seat that runs around the perimeter of this particular corner - a regular corner, apparently - of this particular pub in Cheetham Hill, North Manchester; leans forward in anticipation of further conversation; examines again the two sheets of A4 paper which I handed to him an hour ago; lets a cigarette burn down in an ashtray; lights another; looks me in the eye.

"I used to be psychic," he says "But I drank my way out of it"

This statement, delivered deadpan but disconcerting enough in itself, perhaps, is the postscript to a strange and perplexing tale which Mark relates in tones that veer between morbid glee and utter bewilderment.

"I've got a funny story to tell you," he begins, "about the song "Powder Keg" on the last LP [The Light User Syndrome] It was about the Manchester bombing and all that The Sun kept ringing me up going, 'It's really weird this song of yours: "Manchester's a powder keg"'. It's typical Sun stuff, they don't get off the bleeding phone I'm going, 'Well, it's a song I wrote' And they go, 'Well, it's funny that a bomb in Manchester went off last week and you actually said Manchester is a powder keg. How did you know about i t?' It's 10 o'clock in the morning 'And also you wrote this song about Terry Waite years ago ' And I'm going, 'Yeah, you know ' And I didn't realise this, but they started insinuating that I had inside information 'It's funny that you knew about Terry Waite's kidnapping, in this song "Terry Waite Sez" in 1986, and then you wrote this song called "Powder Keg" about the Manchester bombing ' And I'm thinking that I'm talking to people like you, but I'm talking to some slime, you know. And I'm going, 'Well, yeah, I don't know why it happened, maybe I'm prophetic, you know, because I was a psychic when I was a teenager ' they say, 'So you were psychic about Terry Waite, now you're psychic about the Manchester bomb.' I'm going, 'Yeah, yeah, get off the phone, I've got things to do, I've got my life to lead I don't want to talk to you ' So then the fucking Daily Star gets in on the act- 'Oh, you're the man who knew about Terry Waite and the Manchester bomb. . .' I just said, 'Well, I'm a fucking psychic, fuck off '

For the record, an extract from the Iyrics of "Powder Keg": "You better listen/You better listen to me/It's a powder keg//Retreat from Enniskillen/I had a dream/Bruised and coloured/Manchester city centre/it's a powder keg/Sickening in its infection/Bad luck/Confined to the university and the town/Retreat from Enniskillen/l don't want to go/Take me home/Take me back to the safe/l can't get the bus/You better listen to me/Don't you know, Mark, don't you know? Town is a powder keg!"

"Pre-cog is a Fall word," wrote Mark Sinker all those years ago

The first sheet of paper I hand to Mark contains a riddle in the form of a text entitled "The Fall Song Title Story" Set in Croatia, the anonymous hero is an altAmerican abroad, and the story has had certain key words removed. These have been replaced by asterixes. The asterixes equate to song titles by The Fall Insert the correct song titles and the narrative will fully reveal itself. The story originates in the US and is signed: 'Chief Saddo.' "Unbelievable," muses Mark. "But at least he knows what he is" Then he adds: "This one will be going in the file."

The Fall begins and ends with a great sound surging and reverberating inside the skull of Mark Smith. He once described it, with blunt economy, as "raw music with really weird vocals over the top". Every Fall record, from the "Bingo-Master's Breakout" EP in 1978 to the new album The Light User Syndrome-a brilliant, dense, hilarious, quizzical monster of a record-has been an attempt to transport this sound, this garbled ghost transmission, out into our own world. And as each Fall record is replaced by yet another, not so rapidly now as they once were, but still in relatively quick succession, we must assume that each attempt has been a 'failure', at least on Mark's terms. Otherwise, why bother to release any more?

"I'm just never getting there," he tells me, his words punctuated by vast, aching pauses. "I'm getting round to it. I'm beginning to understand it a bit more."

Where does this sound come from? Is it an as-yet-unheard alchemical amalgam of all the music that leaks into Mark's head - The Velvet Underground, Can, Captain Beefheart, Peter Hammill, Big Youth, Lee Perry, relics from the original texts of 50s American white trash rock 'n' roll and 60s American white trash R&B? Or does it approximate to the inchoate scratchings of 'organic' non-musicians forging audio revelations from kazoos, violins, cheap guitars and organs? Or does it emerge from a stranger place still? "Clairaudience, the hearing of non-physical reality, is used to inform the mind of psychic information,' explains Craig Junjulas in his guide to the rogue and vaporous realm of psychic tarot "When inspired thoughts pass through the mind, they register their higher vibrations as tonal qualities" Inevitably, "the more spiritual the source of information, the more beautiful and subtle the auditory experience" But, "if you are tuned into a negative vibration, you will be picking up on those frequencies." The process of clairaudience, suggests Junjulas, "is analogous to playing a recorded tape through a tape player. In both cases it helps if the speaker system is on, or the headphones plugged in."

"The problem I have at the moment is that technology has changed," explains Mark Smith. "I've been through six tape recorders in six months They keep breaking, exploding on me. Because they're all assimilated into this computer rubbish. I've got a really good one that plays things about ten times faster than they should be.

"When I was a kid," he continues, "I used to have watches explode on me. The watches used to blow up and break It's very disturbing. They'd get water in the middle, and they couldn't work out how the water got in it But the thing about psychics is that they always have bad luck, if you study them. One thing I noticed with psychics, and I used to hang around with them when I was on the docks and before, they're all psychic and clever, and their watches explode, and they can say he's going to die over there, but they can't back a horse, can they? I was saying to my mam, because my mam is really into all this shit, I go, 'Look, mam, they can tell you [and at this point the cassette in the tape player I am using to record our conversation starts rattling about noisily. Temporarily spooked, I switch the machine off and then on again, but Mark has carried on talking] but who wants to know that? You're better off not knowing "

Halfway through the journey he had to instruct the taxi driver, who was ferrying him to the designated meeting point, to double back to his house so he could change his shirt. He brought a cup of tea out to the taxi driver while he waited, but the taxi driver refused it, claiming the tea had been poisoned. He still had the cup, tea bag and all, in the large white plastic bag that he carried with him.
"Notebooks out plagiarists"-one of two subtitles for Shift-Work, 1991

The cover of The Light User Syndrome is free of all but the most mundane information: two photographs of the current line-up of The Fall, track titles; a personnel listing; publishing details; a perfunctory note by John Peel. But track back five, ten, 15 years. Fall album sleeves crawl with garbled messages, conundrums, rebus-like snapshots, biro hieroglyphs, heraldic retentions, poison pen letters shards torn from the squalid recesses of the demented city.

"People were plagiarising it so much, I just stopped," explains Mark, when I ask him about this shift in the packaging of The Fall's music "My idea was just to get people's heads going, because they don't fucking read. But also, with computer graphics coming in, it became quite impossible to do that. If you're on a major label you can't do this [he arranges the contents of our table-notebooks, scraps of paper, fag packets, beermats-into a hasty collage], you can't do that and say: that's the back cover. The computer graphics and the art department can't handle it, because it doesn't fit on the bloody computer, does it? That was half of it; the other half was why bleeding bother anyway, because people are going to pinch ideas. I remember one guy from Liverpool, this fanzine guy, once said to me, 'There are more ideas on one of your inside covers than there are on three entire Echo & The Bunnymen albums' I though that was cool, you know, it made me think."

The dilution of original subject matter via the processes of appropriation and plagiarism is something which causes Mark considerable upset, and not only when applied to his own work. As an example, and in the midst of a discussion about writers and novelists who might have impacted on his own ferocious and unique Iyric imagination, Mark offers: "Stephen King, who ripped all his stuff off HP Lovecraft who ripped all his stuff off MR James [the mysterious Victorian ghost story writer and antiquarian]. It's a very British scenario really. People pay money to watch Stephen King films but when you look back a bit, they're just like MR James stories. Arthur Machin as well, a Welsh guy; all Stephen King's stuff is ripped off from them I mean completely: whole pages, entire chapters, just watered down.

"There are a lot of American writers who are a lot better than British writers," he continues in very measured tones. "It's like anything else: why are the Germans better at football? Because they care about it. They're not in it for the money Britain and England is going to pay for all this, I think. Does that sound too esoteric? England is going to pay for that. They've always had the inventors and the creators, and they just don't fucking appreciate them. Jim Thompson worshipped Raymond Chandler, who was English. But he was treated like scum here and had to go to bleeding America. One of the best writers I like is Malcolm Lowry, who was from bleeding Warrington, or somewhere. He's one of the best bloody writers, he wrote the best books: Under The Volcano. But some bratpack idiot writes a bloody book that is some complete rip-off of Under The Volcano, about a guy who goes to Mexico and gets fucked up, and he makes a million dollars.

"It's just like music when you reckon it up. It's like listening to Pavement: it's just The Fall in 1985, isn't it? They haven't got an original idea in their heads."

The Fall used to be signed to the same label as Pavement in America. They left when Mark discovered that one particular executive was having e-mail discussions regarding the group's contract and Mark's "personal habits". "He told me I didn't understand, that we were from the bleak industrial wastes of North England, or something, and that we didn't understand the Internet. I told him: Fall fans invented the Internet. They were on there in 1982."

The Fall are now signed to Jet, a subsidiary of the reggae reissue specialists Trojan, and Mark seems happy enough with this unlikely relationship. "They produce these really thick, lacquered acetates, like they did for Augustus [Pablo] and Lee Perry I love Trojan, all that old reggae stuff, don't you? Big Youth and all that. Brilliant."

The second sheet of paper I hand to Mark contains an article published in the April 1995 issue of the Manchester listings magazine City Life. It is a ham-fisted and derivative riff on the commodification of culture which references Roland Barthes's theories of 'jouissance' and radical texts, as well as the films of Serge Eisenstein. But in the midst of the article, inserted like a whoopy cushion, there are a couple of paragraphs about cheese: Camembert, Cheshire, Stilton. Perplexingly, the article is signed: 'Mark E Smith'. "It was written by this mature student who worked in the [Cog Sinister] office for a bit," says Mark. "He was always writing dissertations and theses" Did you write any of it? "Yeah," he smiles "The bits about cheese" "Blue cheese contains natural amphetamines," wrote Mark "Why are students not informed about this?"

"I 've cut down on them a lot," Mark says when I ask him if he enjoys the interview process. "You wouldn't believe it, the stuff that's asked. I'll do Wire and that, but I won't talk to them a lot of the time, I get a bit upset. You get people like Mark Radcliffe [the Manchester-based presenter of Channel 4's White Room, whose Radio 1 show is co-hosted by ex-Fall guitarist Marc Riley], who want to find out what you wear. It's always the same thing, no matter how academic. You'll get annoyed at this, but I miss people like [former Wire editor] Richard Cook, who used to ask: why do you have two drummers? Or, why is the bass always out of tune? I'm not a muso, but Ireally miss talking about things like that."

But later, when I ask Mark about these things which are never discussed, he says, "The thing with me, I can't talk about my work. I find it very difficult." So we end up talking about tangential episodes, which might anyway amount to the same thing for a writer whose work coheres fragments of a stilted life into an arching vision of withering complexity; a cantankerous soothsayer spinning tawdry metaphors for a present gone mad.

"I find it all unreadable," is how Mark refers to the current UK music press "It reminds me of The Daily Mail. You see, I hoard things. If you pick up an issue of The Daily Mail from 1981, it's totally the same as an issue of The Daily Mail from 1996 You pick up an NME from 1982, you're clearing your house out, I've done my spring cleaning, you pick up an NME, if it didn't have the date on the bleeding top, apart from the print is different and the photos are a bit different, you wouldn't actually know that it was a different issue. Which always upset me very much, do you know what I'm saying?"

The fact that it hasn't changed?

"Well, they still get things wrong."

We talk about the streamlining process that seems to have occurred across a broad spectrum of the music media - press, radio, TV - in recent years.

"Do you not reckon that at the end that is bad business?" Mark asks "Do you not think that is a really bad way to approach business? I'll repeat this and I'll repeat it: people aren't as stupid as people think, as the middle class think. It's like middle class revolt, it's going on at the moment, I think I know this. The Fall will always do all right; people always come and see us, they always pay their money. And you talk to 18 year old people, they haven't had any education, but they do know. They don't buy the NME anymore because they can read their mam's Sun and it's the same crap. It's my job to think about these things."

Mark has lived in the same area of North Manchester all his life, excepting a two year stretch when he relocated to Edinburgh.

"I'd just had enough of it round here I was just so fed up with Manchester. It was brilliant. Trainspotting was like my life. I haven't seen Trainspotting the film, but it was like that. If a place is really nice, you can't really work. You just want to have a good time. There's a lot to be said for London in that respect, because you can't have any pleasure in London. [Laughs] We did the last LP there, in Brixton, The Dairy, off Coldharbour Lane."

This Heat used to have a studio in Brixton.

"Did they? I used to love This Heat, they were great. Miles ahead of their time. This is what we were talking about before. You get The Chemical Brothers, something like that, it's like third rate This Heat. If some US group had come out with what This Heat were doing. You're always ignored on your own doorstep."

The Wire did an Invisible Jukebox feature with Peter Hammill (issue 138), and we played him one of your tracks: "Paranoia Man In Cheap Shit Room". He said you used to correspond with him, and that there was even talk of doing some recordings together.

"The collaboration never happened. It would have been good, wouldn't it?"

Do you like studios?

"No, fucking hate them."

Why? Mark pauses, shifts uneasily along the bench seat to the far end of our table.

"The thing with me. I can't stick musicians. I've thought about this. I can't stand them, and being stuck in a studio with them I think that's my strength: I can hear what they can't.

"Say you get together with the group, and we're all trying to be friends with each other, they'll all put like Pavement, Sebadoh, REM on; I'll put bloody Bo Diddley on, or an old rockabilly track that is completely out of tune. They go: 'It's out of tune' 'So fucking what? Chuck Berry is out of tune. And if Chuck Berry didn't do that, you wouldn't be in a job.' This is how far I go. But musicians don't actually see that. Not out of malice or sloth, they really don't see it. They don't have an objective eye. All they see is that Pavement have sold a million records in America. Their heads are in a different dimension

"You talk about Pete Hammill. What I love about Pete Hammill, Pete Hammill never had a guitanst in his group. That's what I loved about Van Der Graf: they didn't have a guitarist. And there were a lot of Manchester guys who worked in the post office and the docks who thought the same thing. They didn't have bloody degrees in fucking music. Van Der Graf were fucking brilliant. They just knew that.

"There are too many groups, there are too many musicians," he says later. "And they're all in it for the wrong reasons. I'm sorry Tony, but they are. I saw this documentary on BBC2 about Pulp or Blur. They're going, 'We're in it because of women or drugs' What you fucking talking about?"' They're saying, 'We always wanted to be like The Beatles: get women' Imagine saying that to This Heat [Mark laughs, hysterical] It's always: 'Jarvis Cocker would never get a woman unless he was in a group' So who cares? Good for you boy. Well done. I got more women before I was in The Fall. I had more money before I was in The Fall."

But you don't want to go back to working on Salford docks?

"No, because it's shut down. It doesn't exist. It's not there anymore, Tony" And Mark laughs once again.

On the night that Germany knock England out of Euro 96, The Fall play live in London. The support act is Coldcut, who invited Mark to contribute vocals to the track "(I'm) In Deep" on their 1989 album Ahead Of Our Time. If Mark is driven to distraction by the inability of groups such as Pavement to see beyond the seductive surface detail that describes a Fall record, Coldcut offer a more creative line of descent "British rappers could learn a lot from listening to Mark E Smith," Matt Black once said, and the deathless riddles and ciphers which accompany the releases on Coldcut's Ninja Tune label represent splinters of Smith's afflatus reborn in another distant corner of the caustic city.

On stage, Mark brushes into a monitor speaker, eyes it disdainfully, runs a hand across a keyboard to produce a sudden, startling cacophony of notes, coughs, head cocked to one side, meanders off stage halfway through one song, reappears halfway through the next, slurs words into the mix from the wings, and all the while a great roar, detuned and distorted, emerges from the barely perceptible motions of the remaining members of The Fall. The atmosphere is electric.

"They've got three different types of currency in Brazil," Mark tells me. "They have I like a scumbag currency, ie people who work in shops. And they have a currency for people who are like lecturers, journalists. And then they have a rich man's currency."

It sounds like a strange way to run an economy.

"Yeah, but maybe it's honest. Maybe that's the way Britain is going. We're like India now, a part of the Third World"

Do you like travelling?

"I wouldn't go [to Brazil] again. It broke my heart. You're having breakfast in the hotel, bacon and eggs. You look out of the window, and there's five kids, black kids, all different colours, one's got one arm, one's got one leg, and they're all crying, looking at you eating your eggs and bacon. I said to the tour manager, 'I want to get out of here, quick.' But the weirdest thing was, on the plane there were all these hippy types with corduroys on going, 'I really like Brazil, because . .' In Brazil, for five pounds . All these hippy types were going to Brazil to help the people in the shacks. It's like India, same racket: for five pounds fifty, you can live with a guy, shag his wife, get all the drugs you want, but think you're helping them out. It's imperialism, but you feel good about it because you're helping them out."

I tell Mark that I used to believe The Fall would make no sense unless you grew up in the mid- to late 70s in some God forsaken corner of Central Lancashire. Except it emerges that there are all these far-flung outposts of Fall fanatics, in Arizona, Texas, New Zealand, Brazil. What does he think they get out of his music?

"You'd be surprised, Tony. The people in Texas, they're a bit more on the ball than the people you meet in Manchester. There are 16 year old lads in Texas who know things it would take a music journalist 20 years to find out. You get girls with buck teeth who have been living on farms, they know exactly where I'm from. They understand every word I say. Here, it's all: 'Incomprehensible lyrics.' There are Mexicans in Santa Fe: they know exactly what I'm saying. Mexicans who can hardly speak English, and Belgians who know my lyrics backwards, they know them better than I do. There are guys from Preston who know lyrics I've forgot. I talk to Jon Savage or [Loaded's] James Brown, and it's: "What's this? Can't quite understand this' Go away."

But it was never meant to be about them.

"No, I don't think rock 'n' roll, or music, was ever meant to be about people with specs on or bald heads. I don't think it was meant to be about that."

"I was having an argument last night with the group," says Mark: the group which once again includes Brix Smith, his (notoriously) ex-wife, but not Craig Scanlon, the guitarist who was a part of The Fall for over 15 years and who Mark once referred to as being "more indispensable than me in a way". "And I said, 'Remember Brazil?' They had a poll: we are the most popular group in Brazil. Their equivalent of The Sun had a poll and The Fall are number one. Number two was their Take That. Number three was like a jaz drummer. Number four was Brazilia 68, or something. Number 29 was U2 Number like 59 was New Order. Number fucking 110 was whoever was big here. You get me? We played Brazil, and this place had like 10,000 people there, but they locked The Fall fans, 5000 of them, in a cage at the back, with machine gun guards. In the middle of the hall were all the journalists, guys with specs on, NME-types. At the front - it was just like a caste - all these guys with grandee beards, and their families, and they're all dining with bodyguards. I was talking to some guys outside, and a ticket for the gig was like two months wages for a clerk or a bus conductor And these are the people who are in the cage, and it's got chains on it and everything. But on the second night they broke the fucking cage down and came pouring down for the encore. They weren't being violent. They went right through the journalists, so they cleared off, and they ran right through all the grandees, not bad guys, but rich, you know, old Spanish, sitting at the front, with their wives, with these Spanish bonnets, they ran right through them. It was so great. That was about two years back."

But you haven't been back since?

"No, I don't think they want us back."

He was negotiating the chiselling geography of the North Manchester streets when some scrawny kids spotted his apparent perplexity, ran towards him, pointing, yelling: 'You don't know where you are, do you? You don't know where you're going, do you?' He grabs onto my arm as we walk through the municipal car park, and laughs, uncontrollable, as he recalls this encounter 'You don't know where you are, do you?' he repeats 'You don't know where you're going, do you?' The Light User Syndrome is out now on Jet (through Trojan).

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