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Mark E. Smith and Me

Turns out the Fall frontman likes being compared to the Kinks' Ray Davies

Andrew Mueller's latest book, "It's Too Late To Die Young Now", published by Foruli, is a chronicle of a youth gleefully mis-spent in the music press, at what turned out to be its valedictory hurrah before someone turned the internet on and ruined everything. In this extract, he braves - and largely fails - one of the sterner tests of nerve awaiting any aspiring rock hack: the interview with The Fall's Mark E. Smith.

Whether or not it was someone’s idea of a prank to pack me off to meet The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, I never discovered. If this was the case, whoever it was could only have been more pleased with the jape if Smith had actually chinned me – which, at a couple of points during our meeting, seemed a proximate possibility.

Smith wasn’t present when I reported to the designated rendezvous in the lobby of the Kensington Hilton. Instead, waiting for me was a pleasant enough chap called Simon, who introduced himself as The Fall’s drummer. I was prepared to extend Simon the benefit of any doubt about this – he was over 25 and had a Mancunian accent, so even by April 1991, the chances that he had not, at some point, been The Fall’s drummer, were statistically remote (by my admittedly unscientific calculations, a completely inclusive reunion of The Fall would now necessitate booking Old Trafford; Dave Simpson, Melody Maker’s Leeds-based correspondent for much of my tenure, later wrote a very good book called “The Fallen”, in which he sought to track down Smith’s discarded minions.)

Simon explained that his boss would be along directly. My fervent hope that this was indeed the case was no reflection upon Simon, who was entirely agreeable company. I was worried enough about meeting the legendarily cantankerous Smith. The prospect of returning to Melody Maker’s office trying to sell the insights of his drummer as something worth a page and a half did little to settle my nerves.

Smith eventually sauntered into view and dismissed Simon with a nod. Even before I switched on my tape recorder, I realised that I’d made two irrecoverable mistakes. One was to have shown up wearing shorts, only excusable in retrospect by noting that it was a warmish spring day, and that in 1991 I still had the legs for it. The other was to address Smith with an obviously Antipodean accent. It was instantly clear that Smith was caught between amused disdain for his interlocutor, and mortified disgust that Melody Maker had apparently dispatched some exchange programme intern to interview him. He observed, in the tone of someone describing recent hernia surgery, that he had recently visited Australia. I asked if he’d had a good time.

“As good a time as you can have, yeah,” he spat.

Perhaps, I offered, his view of my homeland was somewhat clouded by the internecine squabbling which had led him to fire two members of The Fall while he was out there.

"It’s just such a wonderful place,” he sneered, maintaining a baleful monotone. “The sun, the beaches. And I know so many people who want to go there, too. Poor kids. A year’s savings, just to get on a plane. Bloody hell.”

The reason for our meeting was “Shiftwork”, The Fall’s umpty-eighth album, and one of their very finest: a chrestomathy of vicious and hilarious vignettes, incongruously leavened by the most straightforwardly pretty song in The Fall’s canon (“Edinburgh Man”) and one of the most peculiar cover versions ever recorded by anybody (a bleary boogie through the Big Bopper-penned country standard “White Lightning”). My interview plan, already in an advanced state of unravel, had been to work backwards from “Shiftwork” in order to illuminate the place occupied by The Fall in the lineage of specifically, definitively English rock artists – alongside The Kinks, The Smiths, The Sex Pistols, among many others for whom dissatisfaction was the ends as well as the means. Certainly, I suggested, perhaps impudently, it was impossible to imagine The Fall hailing from any other country but England. Smith responded to this tack with an expression of reptilian ennui.

“I don’t really see any point in this line you’re taking, Andrew,” he sighs. “What are you trying to get at?”

I repeated my potted thesis, suggesting that The Fall, whether Smith liked it or not, were as English as abandoned test matches. A lengthy silence ensued, during which Smith’s sickly, greenish visage arranged itself slowly into the expression of someone wondering whether he can really be bothered thumping the person opposite. Though already starting to think that I might be better off presenting myself to my editors with a black eye than with the interview as it stood, I pushed on, remarking on comparisons made elsewhere between Smith and Ray Davies. To my surprise and inexpressible relief, Smith brightened somewhat.

“I find that a big compliment, yeah,” he enthused. “The thing with The Kinks was that they didn’t really appeal to the English, though. The English don’t like being told things like that. But a lot of my stuff is pretty obscure. I’m not as disciplined as Ray Davies.”

I seized gratefully on this outbreak of humility, and tossed Smith the stock question of what he perceived as his own strengths as a writer.

“Well,” he replied, “What do you think they are? This is a pretty one-sided interview, this, isn’t it? So why, so where, so what? Let’s have some opinions, man.”

I struggled to banish all thought of John Wayne’s "You want that gun? Pick it up" moment from Rio Bravo. I told Smith that my favourite Fall songs were the ones that made me laugh. “Lucifer Over Lancashire”. “Shoulder Pads #1”. “Australians In Europe” (inevitably). And, on “Shiftwork”, Smith’s gleeful j’accuse of television, “A Lot Of Wind”.

“Ah,” brightened Smith, unexpectedly. “That’s good, that you like that one. It wouldn’t be any good, see, if it wasn’t delivered right. It’s got to be done like that.”

Asked to elaborate, Smith chuntered cheerful contumely about the programmes that inspired it – chiefly the daytime bearpits in which aggrieved peasants were goaded by a sanctimonious host and a studio audience of screeching yahoos in tracksuits into inflicting unnecessary intimacies upon the viewer, an American invention which had recently washed up on British shores. Almost as if concerned at appearing untowardly affable, Smith caught himself, narrowed his eyes, and declared “Australian telly’s worse.”

I disputed this, as far as I dared. And then asked Smith what he made of the then-popular David Lynch serial, “Twin Peaks”. Smith said nothing. Filling the silence, concerned that he was about to fall asleep or start hurling furniture, I opined that it was rubbish. “It is!” whooped Smith, absolutely banging a fist on the table. “It’s crap! And no one will own up to it, will they? It’s not as a good as ‘Dallas’, is it? Do you want a drink?”

This was more like it. Smith was off, a sudden gust of anecdote culminating in the verbatim recitation of a recent, ill-advised appearance by Jason Donovan on Dame Edna Everage’s chat show. He confessed to the habit of videotaping the hapless Neighbours star’s television appearances: clearly, there was at least one Australian who amused him.

It took me years and years longer to figure it out properly, but the crucial attribute of the English is their anger. Their great modern artists, especially their great songwriters, are all disappointed misanthropes – it is impossible to imagine English people even attempting to make music approximating the optimistic joy of Bruce Springsteen or the purehearted passion of U2, and even more difficult to imagine how ridiculous they’d appear if they tried. The English may try to sublimate this intense and animating rage in layers of irony and wit, and sometimes they may even succeed, but the truth is that at twitching heart they’re furious – with each other, themselves and almost everybody else.

I asked Mark E. Smith what he’d broadcast if given airtime and a blank cheque by some audacious or insane channel controller.

“One hour of blank space,” he replied, without hesitation.

There was a curious postscript to our encounter. Eight months later, Melody Maker sent its annual end-of-year questionnaire to assorted luminaries from the world of alternative rock. Among the queries on this census was ‘what was your highlight of 1991?’. In a possible bid for inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records, establishing a new category for Most Sarcastic Retort, Smith answered “Meeting that Australian journalist from Melody Maker.” Back at you, Mark. Right back at you.

Click here to buy It's Too Late To Die Young Now

Andrew Mueller is a Contributing Editor at Monocle, and broadcasts regularly on its radio arm, Monocle 24. He also writes for The Guardian, Uncut and New Humanist, among other titles, and has reported from more than 80 countries. He is the author of three books of arguably somewhat self-aggrandising non-fiction: "Rock & Hard Places”, "I Wouldn't Start From Here” and “It’s Too Late To Die Young Now”. He was also partially responsible, in cahoots with Luke Haines and Cathal Coughlan, for the acclaimed musical historiography "The North Sea Scrolls". His country band, The Blazing Zoos, will release their second album in 2015. (image (C) Andy Vella / Foruli Ltd 2012. All rights reserved)