As mentioned in this Slog post, I interviewed the late Fall’s voluble, venomous frontman Mark E. Smith in 1988 for a fanzine I co-ran called You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever. The piece’s title is “Hip Priest in Motown.” Some people have expressed an interest in reading it, so I’ve excerpted some highlights below. To set the scene: We did the interview in the Fall’s van while it was parked outside the Detroit venue the scathing British rock group were going to play that night. During our chat, Smith chain-smoked, downed more cans of cheap beer than I could keep count, and spoke profusely in a thick Mancunian accent about his art, Brix Smith, lyric-writing, punk fucking rock, meeting Damo Suzuki, and other topics.
DS: When you started the Fall in 1977, did you ever think you’d be around 10 or 11 years later? [The Fall actually started in late 1976.]
MES: No, definitely not. The ironical thing about the Fall’s longevity is I never plan more than four months ahead. Mainly because I was always very guarded against getting in a rut from working. I worked the docks for about three years and I was determined not to do the same thing over a long period of time.
Why do you think that the Fall, of all the bands that originated around that time, have survived and even thrived long after most have split or embarrassed themselves?
MES: I’m very bloody-minded. I got a lot of hard knocks when we started out. We used to get attacked onstage by punks.
Why did they attack you?
MES: I do dislike it a lot when people nowadays go, “You’re one of the survivors of the punk movement.” But we weren’t even a part of that. We used to play with the Buzzcocks and all that, but we always were different. We were from the other side of Manchester, north Manchester. All those other groups came from the south part. The second gig we did was a Stuff the Jubilee concert with the Drones and the Nosebleeds. All these people were walking around in black stockings and torn Union Jacks and spiky hair. We weren’t into that at all. I think the Sex Pistols made it into a fashion thing.
To get back to your question, when we started playing London, people were throwing bottles and it wasn’t because we were shit, but because we weren’t punk. That was really annoying because I considered us as a part of the start of it. That made us quite cynical of punk from the start.
After 11 years, do you find it difficult to think of fresh ideas?
MES: No. The only problem I have is what to leave out.
Do you have certain songwriting methods or is it pretty random?
MES: No. I use all different methods. I like not to use a method at all. I sort of prune my lyrics form the writing I do. Some of it’s prose, some of it’s just snatches. If I think it’s a particularly good piece of writing, I’ll assign it to the band to write music for it.
What are your impressions of America and Americans, and has marrying Brix altered your view of them?
MES: I always have time for Americans. I was never anti-American. A lot of my rock and roll influences are American. As a country, I think it’s getting homogenized like all the West. I think America’s suffering from a danger complex at the moment. One thing that excited me about America was this sort of omnipresent danger, a creativity. Even the guys who have furniture shops are creative. I remember when we first came to America and it was a very exciting place. It seems to be a lot tamer now.
Do you think the Fall would be a lot different now had Brix not joined the group?
MES: When we got married, I didn’t even know she could play the guitar. That sounds ridiculous, but it’s the truth. I thought she was a bass player. And of course the last thing the Fall needed was a bass player. Listening to her mess around on the guitar, I was very impressed so I asked her to join. She didn’t want to but I said it would great if you did. Then she became more enthusiastic about it than I was. When we got married, it was a particularly low point in the band.
Was it around the time of Perverted by Language?
MES: Just before that. We were having a lot of trouble with [Kamera Records, which was about to dissolve]. We foresaw that, so we left. It was a bastard going back to Rough Trade. It’s a shame about Perverted by Language. It could’ve been 10 times better. Although the songs live sound dynamite. Because it was Rough Trade, they put us in some crap studio for like four days. Some of the tapes were actually recorded too slow; things kept breaking down.
Do you think Brix set the Fall on a totally different course?
MES: When I met Brix, people say it was a very exciting time for the Fall. We were touring America, we were doing completely new material. That band inspired all those what I call “Fall rip-offs, like Sonic Youth. We did the Speed Trials and all that. It spawned a whole movement. I’m only realizing this now. You talk to people like Live Skull, a band I admire a lot. They said, “Where can we get your tape?”
I was shocked at how many groups were following us from New York. About 10 of the groups at the Speed Trials were really into the Fall. But for the previous year or two, nobody was talking about us much. In England the thing was Latin cocktail music. The thing that got the band back on its feet was Beggars Banquet. Me and [drummer] Paul Hanley had written this song called “CREEP,” which was sort of shoved around. So I was very mad when “CREEP” came out and Brix was attacked for it. so we went around flogging this song in our usual way, not actually selling ourselves too heavy. Tamla Motown were going to sign us. We were gonna be the first white British band on the label. But that fell through and Beggars Banquet got wind of us, so they signed us.
[After a rant about being ignored by Rolling Stone while their imitators received coverage, I asked Smith…] Rolling Stone still really hasn’t acknowledged punk yet, so you can’t expect them to know much about the Fall. They’re still in a time warp. What were your motivations for covering “Mr. Pharmacist,” “There’s a Ghost in My House,” and “Victoria”? Was irony involved?
MES: With “Mr. Pharmacist,” yeah, because there was a hysterical anti-drug campaign going on in Britain at the time. “Mr. Pharmacist” was a big favorite of mine. We still couldn’t track down the guy who wrote the song. [It’s a 1966 garage-rock song by the Other Half.] It’s pretty different form the original, as are all our covers. “Ghost,” we were just pissing around in the studio. “Victoria,” I wanted something a bit short for this LP and I liked the lyrics to that song a lot. Also, I wanted to rearrange it ’cause I thought the Kinks’ music, which is very rapid on the original, was pretty dopey. That was one challenge, something I don’t usually do. I usually give the band the riff and the words and that’s it. the biggest kick with “Victoria” was rearranging it, making it very punchy.
By not including lyrics sheets, do you intend to keep meaning obscure or to encourage misinterpretation?
MES: I just don’t think it should be separated from the music. If that were the case, I’d write poetry. Also, I’m very into the sound of the language. I don’t think I should have to commit meself on meanings. Also, I’m changing. If I don’t agree with a viewpoint, I’ve got a right to change it. I don’t like to be pinned down on certain things. I also think it’s boring, bourgeois thing to put lyrics sheets in records. I find that most people who print lyrics are arrogant and stupid. It’s hilarious to read these lyrics that they think are good.
[We talk about “I Am Damo Suzuki,” which led to Smith reminiscing about meeting the former CAN singer, whom he ‘d met a month earlier at a Fall gig in Köln, Germany.]
MES: [Damo] doesn’t believe in making records anymore. He still performs, but he improvises it all. He was exactly as I thought he would be. He’s smashing. He works with some computer mega-Jap company in Germany. He’s quite happy. He said CAN have reformed. We got on very well. He thought the song was really brilliant. It reminded him of the period when he was in CAN.
You have so many distinct periods in the Fall’s career, and it’s really rich and diverse. That’s what’s unusual. There’s a restless energy and little stagnation. There are a few moments when the inspiration is not as high, but overall it’s really good.
MES: Obviously, I can’t be objective about it. It’s funny what people is think is good and what I think is good. They’re quite different. If Brix has helped me in any one way, it’s to see things like that. She always puts a counterpoint to anything I do. The reason we do get on very well is we can give each other advice very frankly, ’cause we’re very opposite people. She can always tell me how somebody else would look at it. Not that I always follow the advice; I don’t. But it helps me to appreciate things.