‘Mein Kampf for the Hollyoaks generation’
The autobiography of Mark E Smith, leader of Manchester band The Fall and working-class autodidact, reveals a man not afraid to offend people in order to attack modern taboos and liberal hypocrisy.
An autobiography of Mark E Smith, lead singer of The Fall for 31 years, seems almost like an oxymoron. Elusive and abusive by turns, it’s not exactly clear that Smith himself has any interest in defining who he is, let alone be prepared to reveal this to the world.
A grand total of 27 studio albums have introduced us to at least as many different versions of Mark E Smith/MES. He has variously appeared as: Dice Man; Roman Totale; Fiery Jack; The Man Whose Head Expanded; Elastic Man; Hip Priest (He’s not appreciated); Slang King; Carry Bag Man; Edinburgh Man; Paranoia Man (in Cheap Sh*t Room); Junk Man; Post-Nearly Man; Ibis-Afro Man; Green Eyed Loco-Man; Wolf Kidult Man; and, most recently, as life and lyric coincide, he is now 50 Year Old Man.
The Fall itself have been through more line-ups than even Smith can or cares to remember; The Fall Online (the unofficial/official website of the band) currently counts 40 core, full-time band members since 1977 (1). Like the Cheshire Cat – or a grinning Mancunian ferret – only a gurn and a sneer remain. That and a certain constancy in his very cussedness, his anti-Anti stance, his hard work, belligerence and genuine anger, his love of liberty.
The Fall were born out of the famous Sex Pistols gig at Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976 – a night that also spawned Joy Division, The Buzzcocks and The Smiths. And an element of punk spirit has always been very much in evidence with MES: ‘I’ve always wanted The Fall to be the group that represents people who are sick of being dicked around; those that have a bit of fight in them.’ (2) Ian McCulloch – lead singer with Echo and the Bunnymen – said of Smith: ‘The most well-balanced person in the world – he’s got a chip on both shoulders.’ (3)
Smith sees himself as ‘northern white crap that talks back’ and has few heroes; being reliably different is his game. ‘The only people I ever really looked up to were Link Wray and Iggy Pop … And Harry Dowd of course … [Manchester] City’s goalkeeper in the Championship-winning team in 1968.’ (4) Football’s influence was also acknowledged in The Fall’s first ever video: a grimy effort shot in Burnley’s Turf Moor ground in 1983 featuring most of the band’s key members (5) and still a perfect introduction to the band’s unique sound, lyrics, charm and fashion sense.
But The Fall have always distanced themselves from punk: ‘I’ve never aligned myself to the whole punk thing. To me, punk is and was a quick statement … I wanted something with a bit more longevity.’ (6) MES always tries to capitalise on this difference, looking down on those bands – like the Pistols and the Buzzcocks, New Order and the Damned – who have reformed to cash in on contemporary fortysomething nostalgia. As it goes, The Fall have cashed in a bit too – the studio output has declined, but the live albums have filled the void. But that’s a far cry from their contemporaries, coming back like elderly cover bands to rehash decades-old material.
The Fall have rarely troubled the compilers of the pop charts. The Fall came as close as they could in the 1980s to chart success with a line-up that included Mark’s then wife, Brix Smith, and hits like Victoria and Hit the North. They imploded in the 1990s – drunk and left on the musical sidelines – to reinvent themselves yet again in the past decade as the unreformed face of belligerent independence.
Ironically, despite the ever-changing line-up and Mark’s hatred of what he might call nostalgia shit revisionism, The Fall are the only band left that you can feel an ‘authentic’ nostalgia for, that you can really say have never sold out. Such authenticity is at a premium in these days of Pop Idol/X-Factor creations, and it is no surprise that people are trying to bottle it. Academic conferences explore ‘The Fall and antagonism both within the group and with the wider musical and cultural field’. Television interviews with comedian Frank Skinner (8) are followed up by BBC3 drama cameos as a foul-mouthed Jesus (9) and South Bank talks as part of the London Literature Festival (10).
Renegade is by no means the first stab at capturing this uniqueness and out-thereness. We already have Simon Ford’s unauthorized biography/history, Hip Priest, from 2002 (11). Main weakness? It talked to everyone in The Fall apart from Smith. Then there was the authorised biography in 2003 from Mick Middles, The Fall (12). Upside: Mark and his mum were available for comment. Downside: you have to hear about muso-journo Mick Middles and his diet too, only emphasising that music journalists are, all too often, pointless hangers on who can’t write. And this September, we will be treated to The Fallen by David Simpson, which interviews everyone ever who has been in The Fall. Apart from Smith, of course, for whom the whole aim of his project has been one of pointing out the futility of such attempts to grasp his identity.
So, pity the ghostwriter – Austin Collings – who had to try and wrestle this Proteus from Salford into an authorized autobiographical hold-down. The project was doomed from the start. His title – just one word shy of ‘Renegade Genius’ – evokes the imagined autobiography that MES dictates to his biographer on the track ‘Twister’ from 1988’s The Frenz Experiment. The subtitle – Lives and Tales – scoffs at autobiographical conventions like identity and factuality.
The back cover blurb – ‘Reams of stuff has been written about me in the past but never in my own words: this is the proper one’ – wasn’t even believable for the four days it took MES to distance himself from it after it was published. In an interview with Mark Lawson on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, Mark questioned Mark about his hopes that the book would turn out ‘like Mein Kampf for the Hollyoaks generation’ (13). MES replied that he had never said that, would never say that; it must have been the ghostwriter. Heh, heh, cough.
If so, it must be a writer that knows MES very well because it sounds like just the kind of thing he would say. In fact, I can’t really imagine anyone else with the nerve and the sheer indifference to the outrage he might cause to compare his autobiography to Mein Kampf; MES as führer to the post-political, couch-potato generation.
Smith has always been prepared to challenge orthodoxy and get up the noses of liberal Britain. An example is his support for the army during Britain’s early-Eighties war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands (he comes from an army background) and the reaction his stance caused in the music industry. Attacked for failing to toe the accepted left-wing line, he retaliates: ‘I can’t abide all that forced liberalism. In a strange way, they’re like fascists: walled off in their own little groups, not listening to people if they’re slightly right-wing. How closeted is that?’ (14) He has his very contemporary finger on it there – exposing the intolerance of many of those who pay lip service to tolerance, but only so long as it does not offend anyone or cross the line. But if there is one constant in the story of MES, it is one of dogged cussedness and fearless libertarianism. And he has an unerring ability to keep putting his finger on it.
Smith hasn’t always ignored left-wing issues, but he has always hated the hypocrisy of left-wingers. In their early days, 30 years ago, The Fall did play a number of Rock Against Racism gigs, even the ‘world music’ festival, WOMAD. But Smith resisted an offer of an NME front cover – under the headline ‘The band that stands against the National Front’. He saw it as a bribe offered by Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill, describing the latter as ‘a hysterical woman. She was going on about the working class, and I was trying to catch her out, saying what about these National Front skinheads that are working-class. She’s going… “You fucking liberal … you fucking liberal.” It was crazy, we just got on the coach and went home.’ (15)
Smith’s problem with these benefit gigs was that they were pandering to the working class, to an assumed spontaneous level of class-consciousness. Nothing mattered ‘as long as the proletariat was there. Which is not what our fuckin’ attitude is’. Instead ‘if you’re going to have a revolution against racism, you want revolutionary music, which didn’t HAPPEN.’ (16) MES feels he was the real deal, unlike, say, Siouxsie and the Banshees: ‘They’re all art students. They come from nice families, and they put on this fucking rebellious, fucking socialist, fucking, you know, con, and they all pretend they are working-class and it’s all real funny.’ (17)
Smith has never been afraid to stand apart, was never taken in by the idea that hair colour or safety pins would change the world. ‘I don’t dress weird ‘cos people won’t talk to you when you dress weird. I have this suspicion that only people who are very, very straight dress weird.’ (18) In the same way, he remained aloof from the unthinking endorsement of the left that marked so many of his contemporaries. ‘There are more taboos in their world than there are in that of the fucking Tories they purport to despise.’ (19) MES would only ban the banners: this is not a man who has swallowed the fashionable respect agenda of today. ‘I reckon he [the late George Best] would have loved it when the Liverpool fans started chanting “Alky” throughout his one-minute silence at City. That’s proper football.’ (20)
Smith is quite happy to irritate followers of a wide variety of contemporary causes. In April, he suggested that he would happily ‘set about an endangered red squirrel with a set of professional hedge-clippers’, provoking outrage from animal rights activists who can’t get a joke (21). He detests the whole business of promoting healthy living, too. ‘It’s rampant, all that malarkey: New Labour trying to keep people alive forever … People are infected by all this guff. You can tell them anything. They’ll eat anything that claims to stop them burping or “may” prolong their lives by a few seconds. Red meat and liquids – that’s all you need.’ (22)
And not for him the banal orthodoxies and sustainability morality of modern architects: ‘Buildings nowadays are not symbols of progress; they’re the result of too many minds regressing into childhood … glorified fridge boxes.’ (23) Not what they should be, ‘beautiful combinations of science and art’. Like the barrister in Camus’ inspirational La Chute, Smith remains a relentless prosecutor; both of himself and all those he meets. ‘The point is not to get what you want or to settle for what you’ve got, but to understand what it is you want and to go for it; it’s in the understanding.’ (24)
The Fall have always been about producing stuff, not about consuming it. They are the hardest working band around, with albums coming at nearly one a year. That’s not counting the side projects and collaborations, ballets, re-releases and compilations, and the incessant touring. MES as working-class autodidact quotes Carlyle appreciatively: “Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a product, produce it in God’s name! ‘Tis the utmost thou hast in thee: out with it, then.”
Smith combines in a unique frame both unreconstructed working class contrariness and the very artiness he so disdains: he works very hard at appearing artless. ‘The funny thing is I think in rhyme all the time and a lot of the time when I’m cutting and honing lyrics what I have to do is unrhyme them. Dostoevsky’s a brilliant writer, Gogol, and none of their stuff rhymes but it’s pure poetry to me. It’s sweet, hard, it buzzes with words.’ (25) So too with the band, whose role, as Andrew Calcutt describes it, ‘is to provide a sometimes rough and ready version of rock/electro formats, which, combined with Smith’s intelligent lyrics, have the effect of simultaneously recycling pop music and deconstructing it. Yes, for all his student-hating, media-baiting bile, Smith and The Fall are the artiest of them all.’ (26) Net effect: ‘well-produced distortion’.
Mark E Smith’s entire life is the project of The Fall, a project played out – warts, fights and all – in the public eye. MES continues to play with the idea of being honest to oneself and about oneself to others, with identity and language. Whoever he may be, we should be grateful that he remains himself after all these years: never taking or allowing the easy interpretations, the easy acquiescence. And we should be grateful to Austin Collings for having stuck to his task: he has captured the life of a man who won’t be told what to do, what to say.
MES sums it up best himself as he reflects on the fag-end of Orson Welles’ career, recording voiceovers for frozen pea commercials: ‘Telling stories on stories until in the end he himself is a story. He didn’t seem afraid of living in that world; and it’s childish in a way, but when you can deal with it and use it, the results are evident … you see things differently. And not always in an obvious way.’ (27)
Angus Kennedy is a member of the organising committee of the Battle of Ideas festival.
Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E Smith, by Mark E Smith, is published by Viking. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
(1) The Fall online ‘Official’ website for The Fall from 1998 until 2006 when it was ‘sacked’ by MES and became the ‘Unofficial’ website.
(2) Mark E Smith, Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E Smith, Penguin/Viking 2008, p149
(3) Simon Ford, Hip Priest: The Story of Mark E Smith and The Fall, Quartet Books, 2003, p130
(4) Mark E Smith, op. cit., p225
(5) Kicker Conspiracy, YouTube
(6) Mark E Smith, op. cit., p44
(7) MESSING UP THE PAINTWORK: A Conference on the Aesthetics and Politics of Mark E Smith and The Fall, University of Salford, 2 May 2008
(8) BBC Culture Show, March 2007
(9) Ideal, BBC3, Series 3, May 2007
(10) Mark E Smith, Southbank Centre, 16 July 2008
(11) Simon Ford, op. cit., p27
(12) Mick Middles, The Fall, Omnibus Press 2003 and 2008
(13) Mark E Smith, op. cit., p124.
(14) Mark E Smith, ibid., p24
(15) Simon Ford, op. cit., p27
(16) Simon Ford, ibid., p26
(17) Simon Ford, ibid., p44
(18) Simon Ford, ibid., p63
(19) Mark E Smith, op. cit, p92
(20) Mark E Smith, op. cit., p121
(21) RSPCA investigate The Fall frontman for ‘killing’ squirrels, Telegraph, 14 April 2008
(22) Mark E Smith, ibid., p185
(23) Mark E Smith, ibid., p98ff
(24) Mark E Smith, ibid., p188
(25) Simon Ford, ibid., 152
(26) Andrew Calcutt, Brit Cult, Prion Books, 2000, p192
(27) Mark E Smith, op. cit, p241
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