By Tony Fletcher
As surely befits The Fall’s longevity, my 1979 interview with Mark E Smith and Marc Riley seems more relevant – and certainly 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.
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 No.1 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 15 September 1979, I finally went to see The Fall, at the Prince of Wales Conference Centre 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 evening line-up at the Lyceum, sandwiched between Gang Of Four, Stiff Little Fingers, The Human League and The Mekons. It sounds like the stuff of legend – and indeed, in 2005, it made Time Out magazine’s “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 in-between 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 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 f***ing 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.”
What follows is an almost completely unexpurgated transcript of our interview, which took place that same month, 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 wave 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.
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, cos 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, cos 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 f***ing 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 Riley: 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!” 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 ten years. I’m damned sure there’ll be a lot more people listening to our stuff in ten 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 f***ing 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.
What do you think of when you’re onstage – the group or the audience? A lot of people go out thinking of the audience and what the audience wants to hear.
MES: Yeah well, we don’t pander to audiences, but then again, audiences can make a difference. Audiences have got to give – you get a lot who just take. I find our audiences really f***ing unpredictable, I don’t know what’s going to happen with them next time, and I think that’s really good. You don’t f***ing know – I could say, “This is going to blow them out,” but I know damn well I don’t know. The YMCA was weird – that wasn’t what I expected at all…
Marc: It’s like, we played Warrington, yonks ago, with Karl [Burns] and it was hundreds of kids there – a mass of pogoing – then we played there just six months later with Mike [Leigh] and it was suddenly different. A load of people just stood there watching.
MES: Well, London is always different as well. Manchester is. The Fall haven’t got a fixed audience. The YMCA gig was really weird because there were all the intellectuals there. A core of dancers at the front going wild and all these guys with moustaches behind them going, “Hmmm, yes…”
Why is there no movement onstage?
Marc: We move when we feel like moving.
MES: Do you mean running around? Did you see Nils Lofgren on the telly? He was like a f***ing circus clown. He was doing cartwheels! No, I don’t like to put on a show like that.
You don’t like putting shows on?
Marc: It’s not “putting shows on” – it depends what you feel like at the actual gig and how much you get into it. Personally, at times I can get… bored. It depends on how you feel at the time. I’m not going to run to the front and go – [imitates guitar pose].
MES. I personally think I move quite a lot.
You tend to stand side-on to the audience…
MES: Yeah, I know. That’s a nasty habit. I should try and get out of that. I don’t like going out there and doing acrobatics. Something like The Damned – I think their movements are quite good. I don’t like them, though. But I don’t think of bands in terms of moving about onstage, really.
Do you try and put something different into each set?
MES: Yeah, sets are always different.
Have you ever played the same set twice?
MES: Not often, no. We’re gonna change it now. Like, the next gig we do, we’re gonna play half a set written down and then work it out from there, which seems like the best way.
Marc: There’s only one band that does that, and that’s Public Image. But that’s probably cos nobody knows any of the songs. I think it’s really good that they just stand around and say, “What shall we do?”
MES: That’s a bit of time-wasting, I think.
Do you think you “won” at the Lyceum?
MES: Er… yeah. People made a big fuss about that thing. It was surprising, cos we thought it was just another gig. We thought we’d made a mistake playing the Lyceum again cos we knew it was going to be like that…
Marc: After the Generation X thing. We did that and it was pretty horrible, but we decided to play there again.
MES: We thought it would be a lot better cos we were playing to what we thought were “kindred spirits”, i.e. Gang Of Four, Mekons, Stiff Little Fingers… but they turned out to be a pack of shit. It was good to play it though – The Fall thrive on that. It brings the best out of us in situations like that.
Marc: It’s like if something goes wrong before you go on, then we’re all wound up. Like at the Marquee – Yvonne [Pawlett, Fall keyboard player 1978-’79] was meant to turn up and she didn’t. So we said, “All right, well, f*** her!” It’s like spite, I suppose.
MES: Something like the Lyceum brings out The Fall’s attitude. The YMCA was a bit too easy, really.
The crowd seemed to go crazy right from the start.
MES: Yeah, right. I was very surprised at that. It’s good, though – it’s nice to see people behind us.
Marc: It’s a bit of a change.
MES: As long as they don’t start demanding things off us, you know. The thing that you’ve got in London is that a lot of these kids feel they’ve been sold down the line by these bands and like to come back to us. We’re getting a load of old Sex Pistols fans at our gigs.
Was Live At The Witch Trials carefully planned out in advance, like it was a rundown of ’78 for you?
MES: Yeah, it was rather “in retrospect”.
Marc: It was really getting rid of old songs.
MES: Well, it wasn’t so much that. We just had too many songs for it, that was the drag. The only bit of real spontaneity was the title track – it was made up there. I knew we weren’t going to have much time, so I put in a lot of work. I knew that “Frightened” was going to be the first track and “Music Scene” was obviously going to be the last one. Stuff like that.
Was it deliberate to record it in one day, mix it in one day?
MES: It was and it wasn’t. We had five days, but I got sick for the first three. There was a lot of fuss made about that as well. I mean, why bands have to take more than three, four days to do an album is beyond me. Especially with the guitar-bass-drums line-up.
Were there many overdubs on it?
Marc: Just tapes and backing vocals.
MES: No, I did the tapes live – I held the cassette up to the mic.
Where do you think its popularity lies? It’s been successful in a strange sort of way.
MES: Witch Trials? Yeah, I’ve noticed that. I’ve been reading a lot of fanzines the last few days and I was surprised to see it’s still in a lot of the charts. Sales-wise it was a bit of a failure – not for us, but for expectations. It’s probably sold about 14 grand, 15 grand.
Is the “I still believe in the R&R dream” line sarcastic or serious?
MES: It’s half and half. It’s ambiguous. But I do, in a lot of ways. Like, people say The Fall aren’t rock’n’roll, you know. My attitude is that we are rock’n’roll and no other f***er is.
Marc: It’s just what they consider to be rock’n’roll, like screwing and…
MES: Like, if you get down to the basics of rock’n’roll, if you go back to the mid-Fifties, those bands had the right attitude.
I was going to ask whether you consider yourself rock’n’roll…
MES: I do. I consider other bands not rock’n’roll. The term rock’n’roll is overused and it stinks, which is why I used R&R as an abbreviation.
Why do you consider other bands not rock’n’roll?
MES: Because a lot of them don’t keep to the spirit. Bands get into technique, they get into effects in the studio, and they get into playing their instruments. Or they get into bringing singles out; bringing albums out; doing tours. That’s not rock’n’roll. Like people used to say, “Oh, you’ve got a really good drummer,” or, “You’ve got a really good guitarist.” That’s a f***ing stupid thing to say. Audiences don’t know who’s a good musician, but they know what’s good. They feel it. It’s like me – I can’t sing but I know it’s good. You don’t play instruments in rock’n’roll. And bands that do are copping out in my estimation. Bands that go into the studio, do a guitar solo, then go back and put loads of effects on it… that’s not a guitar solo, it’s an effects board you’re listening to.
Do you reckon any of your music ever compares to The Stranglers?
Marc: Yeah, it is compared a lot. Cos of the bass sound, I think. [Tony] Friel had a very similar sound, but I think it ended when he left.
MES: The keyboard thing is there as well, but I don’t like a lot of The Stranglers’ production – they’re getting good now. I’ve never been influenced by them. I don’t know anything about them, really. I like the new ones, but I didn’t like all the stuff like “Peaches”. I always found them very mock-aggressive and all their songs were based around old Doors songs.
Have you ever thought of putting in the lyrics on records?
MES: No, I don’t believe in it, really. That’s another thing wrong with rock’n’roll at the moment – the consumer is getting everything on a plate. It’s so f***ing accessible that there’s no work required by the band or the listener. Why should people have lyric sheets? The greatest thing I ever saw was the first Ramones album where they put the lyrics in. It was so f***ing funny. That was a really good bit of piss-taking of the American rock market. Like, “You’re a loudmouth, baby/You’re a loudmouth”. No, I’m dead against it. We’ve got a lot of letters asking for lyrics and if I’ve got them handy, I send them.
Supposing you can’t hear them very well?
MES: Maybe that’s to the good, you know. How many times have you listened to a really good lyric on a record then you’ve found out what it’s said and been really disappointed? If you listen to records and know the lyrics, it’s a drag, I think.
Marc: Instead of listening to it you start singing to it.
MES: I don’t like lyrics for people to read, I like lyrics to go with music. I’d be a f***ing poet, wouldn’t I? I wouldn’t write like I write if they were meant to be read. It’s like some of the new stuff the band’s going to do soon. There’s no lyrics in it – most of them are sounds, like sub-words.
What have you got to do with RAR [Rock Against Racism]?
MES: We used to do gigs for them until it looked like they were using us. They’d have Max Bygraves if it would sell more RAR stuff. We were a bit disgusted. I thought then, if you’re going to have a revolution it’s going to take place in music as well. That isn’t RAR’s attitude at all. We haven’t done anything for them for a year and a half. They were asking us to do benefit gigs and the money was so that big bands could do free gigs. We were playing for The Clash to go and pose. That’s not a revolution – that’s worse than any businessman. But left-wingers are like that. They’re more into money than anybody.
This might seem a bit of a stupid question, but how can you see rock’n’roll developing in the Eighties?
Marc: It seems to have gone right back around again at the moment. Bands like the UK Subs are doing what should have been done yonks ago. There’s only a few bands I consider as doing anything worthwhile.
MES: I think there’s going to be a reaction against it soon. Everything seems to be speeding up a lot. I think by 1985, we’ll have another wave. I think it’ll be 12- to 13-year-old kids just making a beat – noise. Cos, as I say, all the new-wave bands have gone all smooth. The rough edges are getting polished off all the time.
A lot of people, especially the music press, think that the Eighties will be the era of electronic bands…
MES: I can’t see that, myself. I think people are going to get sick of drum machines very, very quickly. There’s no room for human mistake, or energy, or heart. A drum machine is all right once in a while but your sound is being dictated by a f***ing metronome. All these drum machines are just gonna sound the same – they’re gonna have the same timings, which is worse than disco, cos even though their rhythm sections are playing the same thing, the riffs can vary sometimes.
How do you get on with [record label] Step Forward?
MES: It’s all right. It’s a good tension. There isn’t a contract, really, there’s an agreement.
Why do we never see straightforward interviews with The Fall?
MES: We’re avoiding them at the moment, cos we think we get too much press.
Well, I’ve never yet seen an article on The Fall that’s told me everything.
MES: That’s because London journalists are a load of shit. The NME/Sounds attitude… We don’t pander to them. I don’t want to know. The NME have been trying to get a cover job for two weeks, but we keep driving off. It doesn’t bother me. People assume things, but we can be anything for anybody. We did a Graham Lock interview just after the Lyceum and he got totally the wrong end of the stick, all the way down the line, which is good. It really f***ed him up. Same with Ian Penman.
Few bands confuse Ian Penman.
Marc: If you read something written by somebody who doesn’t understand what he’s saying, you’re obviously going to be confused.
MES: We don’t go after it because, as I said before, I like privacy. All I want success for is money to keep the band going. What we’ve attained now is great, cos there’s no pressure – except artistic pressure. It’s like a fight to survive but we’re surviving now, whereas about a year ago, we were just so f***ing broke. But then again, if we started getting really big, it takes off. I don’t want that either.
Marc: It’s a case of being able to get something and use it. You’ve got to be able to get some power and use it to your own advantage.
MES: It’s all about using power. It if came to a crunch and someone said to me, “Look, we’ve run out of money; you’re going to have to do something commercial for a couple of weeks,” – I’d do it. That’s why we did the Lyceum, you know, cos it was good money that we badly needed. I’d like to play with someone like Smokie – it would be really f***ing good.
Do you think that, in rejecting fame – which is what you just admitted – there’s a danger of you becoming a cult band?
MES: Yeah, I understand that. That’s bad. The successful things I want; if we get in the charts, that’s OK, as long as no pressure’s upon us. This is what’s been going wrong. We did gigs in places like Lancashire and people came up to us and said, “We can’t get your bloody record.” So you say, “Oh well, we’re an underground band.” But that’s not the f***ing kid’s fault. Step Forward is ideal, cos their distribution’s getting its shit together. And once we’ve done that, we’ve cracked it. As long as people have the option to buy our records, it’s good. That’s all I want. I don’t want to force it down people’s throats.
What would you say is achieving something for The Fall?
Marc: Just surviving and expanding.
MES: Achieving is surviving. Getting records out against all odds. Theoretically, The Fall shouldn’t have gone this far. People are very upset about that. Like Slaughter & the Dogs [laughs], who are going around for two years doing a pile of shit. They don’t see that they’re just going to be a flash in the pan. A waste of time. These bands say, “Why don’t you want success? You could be on tour.” Flash in the pan, who wants that? We earn our followers. We don’t have to worry about them not being there because it’s not the “in thing” to do.
How frequently do you play at the moment?
Marc: Once a fortnight.
MES: But you can’t do that forever. We’re doing this tour to play places we can’t get down to, like Plymouth.
Marc: Instead of playing Plymouth and coming home. It’s a very obvious thing about tours.
MES: I’ve had letters from Plymouth for, like, two f***ing years saying, “When are you going to play here?” and we just can’t get it together, you know. We can’t afford it – it’s too bloody far. You’d be surprised what places we haven’t played – we’ve never played any further south than London.
Do you think people ever take you too seriously?
MES: Yeah, I do. It’s a drag. I get some letters from some real ravin’ f***in’ pseuds who ramble on about art and all this crap.
It seems there’s a lot of humour.
MES: Yeah, I think there is! A lot of good jokes in there, which is one of the advantages of Yvonne going. She was a good musician, considering most of it was just off the wall, but – and I’m not getting at her personally – her vibe attracted all the Eno-esque idiots, which I’m not into. That’s one of the problems of being a cult band. I don’t wanna be a pseud band, cos we’re not like that. We’re not from wealthy families, well-educated and all that shit. I don’t relate to it. I like f***in’ beat and I’m not afraid to admit it.
What bands do you like at the moment?
(Both): Scritti Politti… Scars. Cramps…
MES: I’m not into any of this London stuff.
Have you got any idea why The Fall are so confusing?
Marc: In what way?
It’s hard to describe. At the same time as it seems to come on as not ordinary rock’n’roll, you appreciate it as rock’n’roll…
MES: Well, that’s the only true originality, really.
Tony Fletcher’s book Boy About Town, about the beginning of his fanzine Jamming!, is out now. For more on Tony and the books he’s written on The Smiths, Keith Moon, The Clash, et al, plus some of his finest interview moments, visit ijamming.net