From the Jamming! Magazine Archives: Mark E. Smith and The Fall, 1979.
As surely befits The Fall‘s longevity, my 1979 interview with Mark E. Smith and Marc Riley seems more relevant – and certain more prescient – than it did when first published back in Jamming! issue 9. In fact, it seems more relevant and prescient than almost any other interview I’ve ever conducted. My thanks to long-term Jamming! compadre Anthony Blampied, who alerted me to the strength of Smith’s quotes and volunteered to retype the interview. Fortunately, my original transcript, much of it handwritten, had itself withstood the winds of time, and after an old-fashioned snail-mail journey to Belgium and back, it’s been brushed up, edited, retyped and is now presented at iJamming!, free of charge, for your enjoyment.
The background: I didn’t go into this interview with too much experience of The Fall. Through most of 1978, I was into highly conventional new wave power pop punk, against which Mark E Smith was, of course, strongly opposed. But with the 1979 release of The Fall’s debut album Live At The Witch Trials, the Manchester group quickly challenged The Jam for the number one spot in the Jamming! readers chart. People I knew and trusted seemed to believe that The Fall were the most authentic band out there – John Peel prominently among them, of course.
So on Sep 15, 1979, I finally went to see The Fall, at the ‘Prince of Wales Conference Center’ in the YMCA underneath Tottenham Court Road’s Centrepoint. The Fall were headlining above Scritti Politti, Methodisch Tunes, and Music Club; admission, according to the notebook in which I kept track of all the gigs I attended, was £2. I don’t know if I fully ‘got’ The Fall that night, but I could hardly deny that they were unique: in attitude, temperament, musicianship, lyrics, performance, you name it, they were unlike anything I’d seen. And the audience absolutely loved them for it.
Six months earlier, The Fall had played in London to a decidedly different response. They’d been placed in the middle of a Straight Music Sunday night line-up at The Lyceum, sandwiched between The Gang Of Four, Stiff Little Fingers, Human League and The Mekons. It sounds like the stuff of legend – and indeed, it recently made Time Out magazine’s 2005 list of “London’s 100 Greatest Gigs” as the “ultimate post-punk bill.” But as Time Out duly noted, the audience was not exactly open-minded:
“The Fall were mercilessly bottled throughout their set: Mark E Smith, resplendent in a purple shirt, was met on stage by a skinhead who poured a pint of lager over his head and landed two punches on his jaw.”
Somewhere inbetween these two Fall concerts, I wrote an editorial about this kind of relentless, mindless violence that was haunting British youth culture, under the heading “Tribalism“. It too was published in Jamming! 9 and it provoked more mail than almost anything else I’ve ever put to paper. I ended up compiling the replies onto a page of their own for Jamming! 10; in the “conventional” letters page, I printed a note that came my way from someone in Manchester. It read as follows:
Just felt an inexplicable urge to drop a few words…
Thought Jamming 9 stuff on us was excellent and well edited, but that’s not what I wrote to tell you, really. Just that I think your attitude is fucking great and I wish it was more prevalent. For instance your stuff on us gave a unique angle to The Fall that I’ve never read before, and also you’ve made me seriously rethink my attitude to mod and a few other things. Thanks. I think you’ve got The Fall pretty sussed and I don’t think many people have – we’re about HEART really and people either overpraise us or underrate us.
Re ‘Dragnet’ – we’re into bad tribal sounds but most of side 2 sounds better without the original Pye window-polish-ridden pressing, whatever stick to your views.’
Mark. E. Smith, The Fall, Manchester
Sadly, the letter itself is no longer in my possession.
What follows is an almost completely unexpurgated transcript of our interview, which took place that same month of September, 1979. It’s a fascinating read, with Smith coming across clear-headed, amiable, bright, alert and remarkably perceptive about rock’n’roll in general, punk and new in particular and The Fall in perpetuity. Guitarist Marc Riley, who chimed in lasted alongside Mark E Smith for a solid four years before inevitably going the way of other Fall members and falling out. Unlike many former Fall members who, um, fell by the wayside, he re-emerged a decade later with a radio career as Lard, which included a brief stint co-hosting the Radio 1 breakfast show alongside Mark Radcliffe. It’s safe to say that, back in the Step Forward “conference room” off the Portobello Road, such events were far from our minds.
Thanks again to Anthony Blampied for typing up the manuscript.
Tony Fletcher: I have to confess, to start off with, I don’t know that much about The Fall…
Mark E. Smith: Good! I’m bloody glad. So don’t ask me any questions about why we started and why people left, ‘cause I don’t want to know.
-Do you have any ideals and, if so, what? Anything you’re aiming for?
MES: Do you mean for the band, or personally?
-Well, for the band. Most groups want to get to the top of the charts, go on Top of the Pops, and it seems The Fall don’t.
MES: Yeah, we do tend to shut it off a lot. But that’s a lot of my fault, ‘cause I like privacy. There’s a lot of times when we could have done things like that. It’s like everything else – the less you give people, the more they want. No, it’s just to keep The Fall going. That’s my fucking aim in life, to keep it going as long as I can. It’s like an institution, really. The Fall have got something to say. No matter what we sound like, we’re unique. A lot of the new wave bands are predictable. They do things like you said – things even the old bands thought twice about doing, no questions asked. Like tours.
-I expect you’ve been asked this one even more times, but why is there such a plain image?
Marc: Well, it’s not pretence, is it?
MES: We’re ‘simpletons’ (bursts out laughing). I think it’s cheap with me being there from the start. I’m bound to influence that, so the people I attract are bound to be like me. I don’t get off on wearing clothes. Some people do, so that’s all right. People get really personal about it. They say “Come off it – you don’t really dress like that!” It’s just how I want – I mean, I don’t go in clothes shops or anything.
-Did you originally consider The Fall as anything to do with the punk scene?
MES: Er, yeah… no… I’d written songs for about a year before the new wave thing, but I didn’t take myself seriously. I think that’s what the Pistols did for everybody – you saw bands and you could do better. Before the new wave I used to like singing to myself, I used to write songs, I used to be into certain stuff that people were doing, but the barrier was broken down by the Pistols. Like, before the Pistols I thought “If I get up on stage and start singing…” – I can’t sing, right – “people would just bottle me or ignore it.” It was a waste of time, you know.
-Have any of those songs you wrote before the new wave seen vinyl yet?
MES: I wrote ‘Frightened’ a long time before. I wrote that when I was 15. I did the writing in my head, though.
-Do you consider the old Fall material as still relevant, or as something that’s been said? – a statement.
MES: I think most of our stuff’s pretty timeless. Maybe the style’s slightly irrelevant nowadays.
Marc: It’s like being able to relate to things after an album’s been out for a year. If it doesn’t age it means you can still relate to it, which is all right. It’s not like Chelsea Nightclub which nobody can relate to – not even The Members.
MES: It sounds dated within two months of coming out. That is a common policy of the band – we wanna make music that will stay on for 10 years. I’m damned sure there’ll be a lot more people listening to our stuff in 10 years than to a lot of famous bands.
Marc: Like bands from the sixties, like the Seeds and the Velvets.
MES: It’s still relevant. More relevant than a lot of what’s going down now. It’s like, bands that have hit singles – by the time that single hits the charts it could have been around for a year and that band’s been playing it for a year – and they’re going to have to play it for another year. If there is a fault with Witch Trials, it’s that we were over-familiar with the songs.
Marc: I was – and I’d only been in the band six months at the time.
-I’m not going to ask why certain people left, but why have there been so many line-up changes? Is it something you’ve wanted?
MES: It’s not something you want at the time, but it’s worked out good when you look back at it.
Marc: It’s all very personal – if you don’t like it, you leave and that’s it. It’s just like people leaving a job, really – to them. It’s funny to see them just go away. Like Martin [Bramah] – to break it off and just say “I’m leaving,” when he’s been there for like two years…
-Do you still consider it The Fall?
MES: Yeah. Definitely.
Marc: It’s as much The Fall now as it’s ever been.
MES: A band is what it’s got to say, and I’ve always spoken for the band through the lyrics. So I think it would be different if the lyric-writer had left, but he hasn’t – i.e. I haven’t. I was thoroughly bored with the Witch Trials sound. I needed a fuckin’ change, it was horrible… Well, it seems horrible to me now. The energy a line-up change injects into a band is incredible.
Marc: It shits you up and gets you going again. You can start getting complacent and taking things for granted, going “Oh… gigs again”, and then when somebody leaves it gives you the power to get it together and do it again.
Interview continued here.