‘Of what went on, we only have this excerpt’: Flashes of a life with Mark E. Smith and The Fall (by Andy Wood)
‘I create the drama.’
So states Mark E. Smith on ’Victoria Train Station Massacre’ on The Fall’s final studio album, New Facts Emerge released a few months prior to Smith’s death in January this year. It’s a pretty accurate summation of a long, diverse, often magical, sometimes unpredictable and, at times, chaotic creative and performative journey over some forty odd years. Even if you weren’t a massive fan of The Fall (I know it’s hard to believe that there are people who aren’t) you were more than likely aware of some of the music, the frequent personnel changes, the onstage and offstage drama and the unpredictable nature of performances. Mark E. Smith seemed to thrive at times on instability and uncertainty, at other times he seemed to be willfully destroying any sense of stability or success.
The Fall are/were anti-nostalgia, always pushing against attempts to pigeonhole or categorise them. Fiercely working-class Smith was ‘the white crap that speaks back.’ A fiery auto-didact, writer and performer I found him easy to admire if occasionally hard to like. In interviews he could be hilarious, wise and scathing but equally he could come across vindictive and obnoxious. I know people who have personally experienced his kindness, generosity and counsel yet also witnessed a harsher side to him.
And now the genius / curmudgeon has passed away. For the first time in my adult life there will be no more Fall gigs, new albums or words from Smith. And it has really been a struggle for me take in and comprehend. And yet, for all the drama, what remains are a large number of amazing records that make up a body of work that very few other artists have came close to achieving. For sure, over such a lengthy oeuvre there are a handful of Fall records that I feel no great urge to hear again voluntarily. There are however, many more that I don’t imagine ever experiencing as less than vital.
There is a school of though oft expressed that The Fall hadn’t made a great record since, well pick a period. And yet, as the comedian Stewart Lee expertly and enthusiastically shows in a recent article for Record Collector there is a strong case to clearly be made that the last two decades should not be written off or ignored. New Facts Emerge was one of my favourite albums of last year and it wasn’t chosen out of misguided loyalty or because 2017 was a particularly fallow year for good records (it wasn’t). I’m probably not an advocate of truisms but I’d probably agree that the period of The Fall that you became a fan in has an effect on your favourite Fall stuff and that’s certainly the case with myself although my introduction was slightly schizophrenic with a clash of futures and past sometime in the mid-1980s.
Longevity can be a curse and a blessing. How many music fans go to see old favourites excitedly looking forward to new songs? Does anyone give a damn if Ian Brown and John Squire have written a new album of future classics or is the thrill purely in a trip back in time? Smith and The Fall seemed unsentimental about even the present. Tours supporting the current record could just as easily be promoting the new, as yet unrecorded album. If you stood still, you missed a trick and The Fall were always shifting and moving, mutating, fluid and hard to pin down. And bloody difficult to shake off.
And yet I digress. To use a favoured Smith word, I’m mithering wildly all over the place. Both in his lifetime and, rather movingly, after his death was announced, a lot of words have been said and written about Mark E. Smith and The Fall. And the two are inseparable despite my past utterances that Mark E. Smith and ‘yer granny on bongos’ was not phenomena that I ever wished to hear or see. The Fall, to me, were always the sum part of those involved at the time but without the ringleader and circus master involved it would not be The Fall.
There are screeds of words out there on Smith and The Fall, some by me and some written by much more articulate and wiser heads than myself. I don’t plan to give a potted history or a blow-by-blow analysis of the records (though if you must know my all-time favourite long-player by The Fall is This Nations Saving Grace) but rather talk about Mark E. Smith in a more personal way. Music did change my life. For good or bad, sometimes the jury is out on that, but it did. And Mark E. Smith and The Fall were a huge part of that.
So, let us go back to the start. Not the start of The Fall, I’m not that old, but to my own entry point into a swirling vortex emitting from North Manchester.
‘Futures and Past’
Someone once said, never meet your heroes, they will only disappoint you. To be honest, I’ve never really gone in for hero (or heroine) worship. There are people that I really admire, respect or have been influenced by, but, as a flawed human being myself, I accept that no one should be put on a pedestal or be seen as somehow perfect. It hasn’t stopped me meeting, talking to, working with and interviewing a range of people I admire. However, I never met Mark E. Smith, never exchanged even a few words or a greeting in passing. Despite being in close proximity on a number of occasions I never really felt the need to talk. What would I have had to say anyway?
I can’t remember clearly my first encounter with The Fall though I know I first heard them in my mid-teens. Probably either directly through late night listening to John Peel or second hand via tapes a friend would pass me full of stuff taped largely from Peel. I don’t remember them having an immediate impact on me. Rather it was a slow burn kind of thing, an insidious influence worming its way into my brain. Like an initially dormant virus, an inert piece of code lying in wait of a trigger before taking hold. The song ‘Cruisers Creek’ and tracks from the albums The Wonderful and Frightening World Of and This Nations Saving Grace were definitely triggers. Unlike most of the bands I liked at the time, The Fall had more history than most. A TV show compiled from Tony Wilson’s So It Goes was shown as part of a ten years since Punk and there was The Fall, all feral energy and stares. Different certainly from the mid 80s incarnation but also the same, rattling and howling through ‘Industrial Estate’ and ‘Psychomafia’. There was also ‘Bingo Masters Breakout’ on an NME compilation, Pogo-A-Go-Go, which was another revelation with its taut, eerie narrative.
Age 17, two friends and I decided to go and see The Fall live. Not any old show but in Manchester no less. With little money and even less common sense we obtained tickets and with no idea what we were going to do in Manchester or with any accommodation got on a coach. I phoned my Y.T.S. training place from a callbox to advise them I was too ill to attend for the next couple of days and we got on the coach. With limited funds I hesitantly asked for three child returns to Manchester. The Conductress accepted my ‘We’re 15. We’re going to visit my Aunt and Uncle in Manchester’ and issued the child tickets.
Arriving in Manchester in the early afternoon we had hours to kill and had no idea that England still held on to archaic laws that saw pubs closing for a period in the afternoon. A bottle of vodka was purchased and drank. Having finished that and found The Ritz we were grateful to find an open pub nearby. Well, when I say open, I mean opening. The staff were literally lifting up the shutters and unlocking the door. The bar staff at Archies was probably slightly taken aback to literally have us champing at the bit to get in before they’d even finished opening up but welcomed us in. The bar, under railway arches, was full of cool band posters – I remember being amazed to be in a pub adorned by a huge poster of The Ramones Rocket to Russia cover. The day got quite hazy in that way that afternoon drinking does but soon it was time to head into The Ritz which seemed huge to us.
Once inside the venue I managed to lose both friends, Alan and Tom. I ended up speaking to two Mancunian girls, Belinda and Zeeba, who were in the process of putting together their own fanzine. I was an old hand with two tatty publications under my belt. I can’t recall much about the two supports but enjoyed the company. Speaking to two strangers, let alone two strangers of the opposite sex was something that I’d never have done at home at the time, sober or drunk, normally being far too shy and self-conscious.
By the time The Fall took to the stage I’d more or less given up on finding my travelling companions. The Fall were absolutely stunning. Brooding and epic. All of a sudden I spotted a familiar figure on the stage weaving between the band with a VG convenience store plastic bag in his hand. I’d love to be able to say that the band were thundering through ‘Carry Bag Man’ at this point but that would (probably) be a lie. They did play it that night. ‘That’s my friend’ I announced to my new gig friends as Alan was unceremoniously directed back into the crowd with Smith glowering at him with a look of both bemusement and contempt.
After the gig ended I was totally buzzing despite having sobered up some time ago. I turned down the opportunity to go backstage for an attempted interview and went off to locate my friends. I found Alan easily enough but Tom was nowhere to be seen. We eventually located him in the foyer. Walking in as we were walking out. He had wandered off hours earlier for fresh air, got lost and eventually found his way back to find out that he had missed The Fall completely.
Accommodation for the night was in the stairwell of a multi-storey carpark beside the Arndale shopping centre on a chilly March night. The next day was spent wandering aimlessly around Manchester hungover as hell and trying to keep warm and entertained before our bus at 3 o’ clock. I had a few quid left which stretched to three mugs of tea and bacon rolls in a greasy spoon café. The only other highlight of the day involved finding a shop with a window covered in old NME’s. I wanted a specific back issue that was in the window and we marched in to procure it. Uhm. What the hell is this place? Turns out that we’d walked into our first ever porn shop complete with dirty old men in regulation raincoats. We were speedily chased back out again. I never did replace that copy of NME with The June Brides on the cover.
By the time we got on the coach home we must have looked and smelt like the proverbial shit. The Conductress was the same one as the day before and I definitely feared that we were going to end up stranded in Manchester. The conductress smiled and ushered us on the bus much to our relief. We did get briefly quizzed about the collection of empty beer cans that had been left on the bus yesterday but we were able to answer honestly that, on this occasion at least, we were innocent. I’m not sure to this day that she truly believed us when we told her they were they property of the little old lady who had got on the coach in Glasgow with her two grandchildren. It was however the truth. After settling the two wee ones down with sweeties in the seat in front of her she had got stuck in about a healthy stash of beers.
Over the years I would see many more gigs by The Fall, some amazing, some less so. I was lucky enough never to witness a truly awful Fall show, of which multiple stories confirm there were.
Don’t give a toss about private wealth
And history just repeats itself.
Keep me away from the Festival
And just give me a warm quarter-gill.
They say you project yourself
But I’m an Edinburgh man myself
Edinburgh. Possibly 1988. Mark E. Smith, never one to do the orthodox or expected thing has written a play, I Am Kurious Oranj with music by The Fall and choreography by Leigh Bowery. I’m standing in a crowded bar next door to the theatre where the play is being performed as part of the Edinburgh Festival when my companion excitedly informs me that he can see Mark E. Smith in the busy pub. Eventually he decides that he will speak to the man himself. I hang back a little and the dialogue went a little something like this.
Hi Mark. I’m a huge fan of The Fall. You’re my hero.
I’ve got loadsa speed me.
Oh cool. My favourite album is…
I’ve got loadsa speed me.
Can’t wait to see you perform tonight. You’re my absolute hero.
I’ve got loadsa speed me.
Uhm, yeah. Well, uhm… I’m not looking for any speed.
I weren’t sellin to yer, only tellin’ yer.
I’d loved to have cleverly introduced the dialogue with a reference to the opening lines of ‘Cruisers Creek’. ‘What really went on there, we only have this excerpt’ but that was the dialogue in its entirety. You’d have thought that we might have been a bit crestfallen at this failed attempt at conversation but we were delighted and, over the years, repeated it verbatim to anyone who would listen.
The play by the way was utterly incomprehensible and utterly wonderful.
Salford, May 2007. Two academics at the University of Salford decide that what the world of academia requires is a conference on Mark E. Smith and The Fall. And why not? I submit a proposal to present a paper and am accepted. I will be joining a heady list of people presenting their thoughts, analysis, interpretations and experiences of Mr. Smith. These include sometime Fall producer, Grant Showbiz, Mark Fisher, a former Glaxo Baby (band member not laboratory creation) and one Alan Wise. Alan Wise is a strange but entertaining man who, over the years, has booked numerous Fall gigs and will regale us with strange (and at times implausible) tales of Mark’s domestic life, his occult powers and fear of the Dundee Mafia. To be honest, the only Dundee Mafia I am really aware of is a clubby band better known for entertaining the crowds in pubs and social clubs with their extensive set of hit cover versions. Yes there is no typo there. Each to their own and all that.
To say I’m nervous as I repeat my coach trip of two decades ago – adult fare this time – is definitely not an understatement. I am utterly shitting myself as I head of to present my ramblings on Mark E. Smith and The Fall. This time around I have no travelling companions other than a strange young guy who decides to converse with me for a chunk of the journey, makes a call on my mobile at the coach station and heads off into Manchester. I am convinced, a few years later, that I recognise him on a missing persons poster but can’t be sure.
‘Hovered mid-air outside a study.
An academic kneaded his chin,
sent in the dust of some cheap magazines.
His academic rust, could not burn them up.’
As you can imagine, the veritable message boards on The Fall website were full of chatter about the upcoming conference and not much of it was kind. Most of the criticism ran along the lines of how much Mark E. Smith would be appalled and irritated by such goings on. I had a quiet feeling that while he would never publicly approve of the event, secretly he would love it. A bunch of people discussing his art and words as a serious body of work that deserved respect and attention. While he may never have strolled the halls of academia other than as a member of a constantly touring musician playing various student unions he was a serious and committed auto-didact, a working-class man of words and literature. On the other hand, he may have simply turned up and lobbed a hand grenade, metaphorically or literally, into the proceedings in a burst of outrage.
The day was pretty enjoyable. While the papers were thoughtful and engaging they were also presented by fans of the work, something not always apparent at academic conferences. There were also, as mentioned earlier, talks by Grant Showbiz on producing and engineering The Fall and Alan Wise on the perils of booking and managing the band, of visits to Mark’s house where bowls of soup were offered but mysteriously failed to appear.
The event moved from the former Salford Fire Station to The Kings Arms, a pub where Mark had once had an office. There had been rumours that the man himself might turn up announced but there were no sightings. Just the ghost of Mark E. Smith looming in the gloomy upstairs room of a Salford boozer. Mick Middles talked about co-writing a book with Mark, The Fall. Towards the end of Mick’s chat, a woman, accompanied by an elderly lady, stepped forward to accuse Mick of ripping off Mark and stealing family photographs belonging to the Smith family.
The woman making the accusations turned out to be Caroline, one of Mark’s two sisters. Caroline was in a fury and no placating from Mick or pleas to calm down from the lady with her seemed to have much effect. Things had definitely got a little ugly in the room. Mick Middles tried to explain that the publisher had failed to return the photographs.
At this point I slipped out for a cigarette as did the older lady. Outside, she introduced herself as Mark’s mum and we had a lovely blether. I recall that she was retired and since stopping working she had taken the chance to attend a number of Fall gigs and was genuinely proud of her son. Leaning in conspiratorially she advised me ‘He wouldn’t admit it but he’s very pleased this happened, the conference.’ It was a lovely thing to hear, especially after reading so many voices purporting to ‘know Mark’s mind’ and stating the opposite.
Sometime later I rewrote my paper for publication, ‘‘Rebellious Jukebox’ : The Fall and the War against Conformity’, and it appeared in the rather fine, if rather drearily titled, collection, Mark E. Smith and The Fall: Art, Music and Politics. It’s a fine read. With anything I ever do, I always feel that I could have done better but I was also quite proud of how it came out in the end. I wrote about the joys and perils of standing-out as a working-class, opinionated and articulate person, of how Mark E. Smith railed against popular portrayals of the working-classes as the happy fools of a lot of middle-class narratives, and the power of language and music. For all my short-comings, I wrote it with love.
I apologise if this is all about me. Actually, I don’t. I deliberately set-out to celebrate the influence and inspiration that Mark E. Smith had on my life. To try and show that there were many facets and aspects to the man and his work. Mark E. Smith created a dissonant voice and art that survived and transcended a number of scenes and popular cultural epochs. He created something that was both unique but also a part of the culture The Fall participated in, helped to create and often critiqued. The records remain, the words still resonate. So much history and joy that I can’t convey it all.
The last time I saw The Fall was in Glasgow in 2016. Mark E. Smith looked utterly fucked, at least physically. However, that power, that mischief was still alive and The Fall were in fine fettle. Now all I keep thinking is that after 30 years of attending gigs by The Fall there won’t be any more. And that grieves me.
The slang king is dead. Long live the slang king. All salute the prole art threat.
Mark E. Smith, 5 March 1957 – 24 January 2018. Rest in peace.
Andy’s Fall Playlist