“I don’t like Northern people, I don’t like Mancunians” – Mark E. Smith’s Guide To Britain
Britain's greatest human on why he's never seen The Fall as a Northern band, what went wrong for Sheffield, and the dangers of Bitcoin.
All this week on Noisey, we’ll be falling arse-backwards into the state of UK music in a special series of articles about scenes outside the capital: from club closures to brain drains to free parties to local legends. Follow all the content on our Fuck London hub here.
Whether he likes it or not Mark E. Smith and the Fall have become synonymous with the North. It has been his geographical planting that has shaped a great deal of his lyrical, and personal, output over the years. He’s about as un-London as you get and seems like a perfect subject for “Fuck London”, although trying to explain the concept to him is not exactly easy: “What is it, Noise magazine?” he asks, switching sips between his bottle of Peroni and double whiskey. I try and cast Mark’s memory back to his episode of Noisey’s British Masters series, hosted by John Doran, “So, it’s that long-haired fella? What’s the fuck London, who is it?” he continues, “Why does John want to put it into a sort of area? Where does he live, Northamptonshire? I bet he thinks he’s Oliver fucking Cromwell. He’s being a lunatic isn’t he? He’s a lunatic.” I give up and we continue regardless.
I’ve never met another human being like Mark E. Smith. The last time I interviewed the lead singer of The Fall he tried to drive a biro into my nose to prove that the pen was literally mightier than the sword. To say he is unpredictable is as gross an understatement as to say the Fall are unstoppable; the group released their debut EP in 1978 and in 2015 are releasing their 31st studio album, Sub-Lingual Tablet. If you then throw in live albums, EPs and compilations then you’re talking about over 100 releases.
You realise pretty quickly that you’re not going to get a straight interview out of Mark. If you go there with a bunch of very specific, very analytical, questions and expect to have them answered then you’re fucked from the off. You just have to go with the flow, ask one question and he’ll give you an answer to another. To give you a perfect example: the night we meet is the day of the election. I ask Mark, “Did you vote?” and he manages to give an ambiguous answer, “I sort of did and I sort of didn’t.” When pressed, he give me a shaggy dog story of him going from wrong polling station to wrong polling station and ending up with bemused in a car park.
“I’ve never looked at the Fall as a Northern group.” He tells me, in a rare instance of keeping on track to the theme, “We’ve always been a multi-national group. I don’t like Northern people, I don’t like Mancunians. There’s something about Manchester musicians that’s particularly fucking irritating. They have this sort of God-given right, which Londoners used to have I suppose, they think they’re superior but they’re not. Manchester’s only got Freddie and the Dreamers. Where are you from, Sheffield?” I tell him that I am. “Well, Sheffield is shit. I’m playing Wakefield on Saturday – a fella said to me that it’s the Vegas of the North. London was always a shithole. I’m from Salford, it’s in the genes, they stay where they are because they’re bone idle.”
I try and press Mark on how Salford has changed over the years, was it always as grim and grey as the retrospective picture of it is often painted? “It was no painting. I don’t particularly like Salford, I don’t like Manchester actually. I got lost on the way here. No, really, I fucking did. There’s about 85 houses been built here in the last few weeks. He says, pointing outside to the gentrification of the Northern Quarter, “This Fuck London thing, we’re not getting anywhere are we? Stay in London! I mean where do you go?”
“I remember when I was recording in Sheffield, it was the place to be. In the 90s, after the whole Human League thing had died out, there was a dance scene, there was a lot of reggae going on and it was really fucking cool. It was a really great place to be. Then you get Blur or whatever they’re called.”
“Do you mean Pulp?”
“Oh, yeah. Then the crucible [been there since 1971] came and it sort of got boring. It’s like the Hacienda with Manchester, it was good and then that got boring and I moved to Edinburgh and that’s a fucking boring, yuppie place now.”
Mark starts rustling around in his black leather bag and pulls out a scrappy bit of paper, “Do you understand Yorkshire?” he says to me, giving me a letter, “I’ve just got a letter from a mate of mine from Wakefield but I can’t fucking understand it. Can you read it?” So I then begin to transcribe a phonetically written letter to Mark as best I can, whilst he pulls out a calendar of pictures of Australia and starts flicking through it. I suggest it’s a bit late in the year to have received a calendar, “Well, he’s from fucking Yorkshire, what do you expect?” comes the response.
There’s a stereotypical image associated with your standard Fall fan: Aging, bald, expanding gut, real ale lover, single and still has about five hundred cassette tapes of Peel Sessions they taped from the radio in the 1980s. However, Mark is on the affront against them, “A lot of the new fans are very fanatical. They’re very against the old baldies. It’s brilliant, I fucking love it. I’m with them. I fucking hate old people! Anyone over 43 shouldn’t be allowed in. 40 and under.”
There are many tangents that we go off on during our two-hour interview although a twenty-minute long departure into the discussion of the dark web and Silk Road is probably one of the most unexpected. Bear in mind that Mark doesn’t own a computer, smartphone or have internet access, it becomes a slightly convoluted conversation. Although Mark is aware of how Bitcoins operate, “I had this Jewish mate of mine, he put all his fucking savings into Bitcoins and it collapsed the next day. He said ‘I’ve got to take a chance Mark.’ He put £15,000 in there. I haven’t rang him since. Bitcoins are worth like tuppence now.” Mark stops and switches the conversation quickly, “Have you ever read a book called The Circle?” he says
“No, who’s it by?” I reply.
“I don’t know, some daft cunt. But it’s very good.”
And we’re off again, hurtling into a different, slightly less arbitrary, topic: An old BBC Culture Show segment on the Fall hosted by Frank Skinner and with contributions from famous fans such as Grayson Perry and Stewart Lee, “Frank Skinner? I try to keep away from those people, keep them at arms length; I’d rather talk to people like you. I mean what does he do now? Adverts for fucking HP Sauce or something?”
We wrap up on discussing the new album. As with any Fall album it can go from the sublime to the ridiculous within minutes, the Germanic-tinged ten minute stomper "Autochip 10-14" and the grubby, electronic riddled "Dedication not Medication" being examples of the former with “Facebook Troll” and “Quit IPhone” closer examples of the latter. On the subject of Facebook trolls, the last time I met Mark he was in the process of having Manchester gangster associates track down people that were impersonating him online and “having their heads kicked in”. I ask how he’s getting on with that a year later, “I was obsessed with it for a while. My wife said that I come across in that interview like a fucking psychopath. Out of the four of them, one resigned, one we got and two melted back into the community.”
Talk soon turns to a track from the album called “Stout Man” because, well it’s called “Stout Man” and it sounds like James Williamson-era Stooges as Mark barks about a fat man pushing around a pram. “That came about because the group are always going on about The Stooges and I’m a lot older than them, so I’m going like you don’t like the fucking Stooges. They think the Stooges is A/E/A/E and I said, you fucking do “Cock in my Pocket” [from the Stooges 1976 live album Metallic KO]. You know, they’re saying about the first Stooges album and I’m like don’t you fucking tell me about that, I bought it when I was 16. So, I said to them “alright then, cunt, learn “Cock in my Pocket”. Try and find that because I know it’s not on any of their LPs but of course they did because it’s on fucking ebay or something or they fucking shazammed it. So I said, learn it. It was a challenge.” The group took up the challenge, almost too much for Mark’s liking, “They’d been tricking me, they’d been sneaking back into the studio to keep tightening it up. I couldn’t catch them out but in a car on the way down to London I was looking behind the seat and there was this CD, covered in dirt, with the original rough mix of it. I made them use that; they’d been doing about eight or nine different versions of it, it was pathetic. They must have worked more on that song more than any other on the whole album.”
“That’s interesting” I offer.
“No, it’s not fucking interesting, it’s a waste of my fucking time. The fucking smart arses. They should have been working on something else and they were just doing it over and over and over again. So, this CD was like a little gift from heaven.”
As the interview winds down we end up outside whilst Mark smokes a cigarette. He scans the area, looking at the new buildings, the old ones and the old ones that are about to become new ones, “This area used to just be filled with tropical fish, mad psychopaths and gay guys.” Frankly, I can think of no better advertisement for Manchester than that.
Follow Daniel Dylan Wray on Twitter. Or just walk the streets of Sheffield hoping to bump into him.