John Robinson recalls the playful, elusive genius of the leader of The Fall
It is some point in the autumn of 1997, and my interview with Mark E Smith seems to be veering off track. This meeting has been arranged so the NME can discuss with Mark The Fall’s new single but also – covertly – to cue him up, if anyone didn’t already know him as such, as a person of Godlike Genius – a title which he will shortly be awarded at an NME awards ceremony.
After some introductory chat about the new record, I clearly feel emboldened enough to try and steer Mark to speak about some of his classic work, and his reputation. He drills his bands hard, records prolifically, and tours relentlessly. I therefore put it to him that he is the hardest working man in showbusiness, which is not as it turns out, the smartest move.
“Don’t think you’re talking to Paul Weller or somebody,” he says suddenly. “You’re not talking to…” He looks for the correct pejorative. “…Paul Heaton.” He also makes a couple of remarks about what I look like and what I’m wearing, which at the time possibly obscures for me the point he’s trying to make.
Namely, that it would be a grave mistake to consider him a caricature, someone who – as he sees it, like Weller and Heaton – is imprisoned by how they are perceived.
At that time, it would possibly have been easier to try and report on the received opinion of Mark Smith. The one who would without fail ask you if you were “courting” at present. That, though, would have been to miss the point completely. His leadership of The Fall created genuinely visionary music, the work of someone going completely their own way. Mark E Smith and The Fall were always moving on – the past had less interest for him even than it did for David Bowie.
Their work yielded intermittent moments of genius afterwards, but for ten years between 1980 and 1990 The Fall reliably delivered everything from psychedelic sound art to shiny social reportage, recognizable as the work of one group solely because of the unifying power of Smith’s vernacular prose.
That day I asked him for an exegesis of “My New House”, a Fall number from their mighty 1985 album This Nation’s Saving Grace. Mark touched his nose conspiratorially – that was something he would be keeping to himself.
That vaguely enigmatic fog somehow felt key to what Smith and The Fall did. His best work didn’t deal in fantasies, but effortlessly processed the world to leave it with the magic of an espionage story – codes and aliases, locked doors, missing pieces.
He encouraged the same curiosity in his listeners that he had for the world around him. You uncovered meanings and references, and entered a multi-layered world of altered perceptions. Drugs at one time were involved, but so equally were ghosts, music concrete, soul and German rock.
Talking with fellow NME people about The Fall at the time, it proved tough to pinpoint the definitive Fall album, but there was some consensus on how you could encapsulate the genius of Smith and the Fall in one verse. If you needed to make a point, you could direct someone to innocent, disorientating delight of this, from 1983’s “Wings”: “Purchased a pair of flabby wings/Took to doing some hovering/This is a list of incorrect things…”
I don’t think that the mission to extract thoughts and reminiscences on the genius of The Fall went especially well that afternoon, the interview not so much ending as blurring into a more informal chat as other Fall members came and went.
What emerged instead was a picture of someone who, whether out of wit, perversity, erudition, politeness or boredom simply effortlessly evaded every format. Mark didn’t talk about the past, but mentioned that he wrote short stories in the vein of Edgar Allen Poe. When the photographer apologized for turning up late due to problems at Waterloo, he slyly asked, “What? In Belgium?”. When after this chat we met in a pub weeks later, he remembered my name.
I spoke with Mark on a few other occasions, and little about this capacity to surprise had changed. The last time we met was for an Uncut interview where he was set to answer reader/celebrity questions. We met in the bar of a swanky hotel in the centre of Manchester. After answering a question from Peter Hook, he went briefly missing.
When he turned up, he signed a record for my friend, and we went to a nearby pub for an hour before my train left. Unlike any other person I’ve ever interviewed, he asked me questions about myself, as if he were not Mark E Smith at all, and was happier to shift the focus.
As we finished our drinks, a couple of 30something locals approached our table and introduced themselves. They thanked him for all the music.
Mark stood up and changed the subject. “All right then, lads,” he said, shaking hands with them. “Where are you off to, then?”
The March 2018 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – with My Bloody Valentine and Rock’s 50 Most Extreme Albums on the cover. Elsewhere in the issue, there are new interviews with Joan Baez, Stick In The Wheel, Gary Numan, Jethro Tull and many more and we also look back on the rise of progressive country in 70s’ Austin, Texas. Our free 15 track-CD features 15 classic tracks from the edge of sound, including My Bloody Valentine, Cabaret Voltaire, Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band, Flying Saucer Attack and Mogwai.
Uncut: the past, present and future of great music.