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Friday, 24 November, 2000, 11:54 GMT
Falling back in time

Mark E Smith: "Hiya"
They've been called one of the 20th century's most influential phenomena. BBC News Online's Chris Horrie revisits The Fall, nearly 30 years after being in on its birth.

"I don't know why he's playing in a little dump like this... he's a genius." A spotty youth in an anorak is handing over cash to a ticket tout outside Dingwall's, the rock venue in rundown Camden, north London.

The tout, togged out in a full-length Gestapo leather overcoat and sporting a flowing ladies silk head-scarf as a cravat, speaks in a thick Essex accent.

Mark E Smith
Still an anti-rock 'n' roller: Mark E Smith today
"Yeaah... I mean... Nahh.. he does well 'ere... he does all his best stuff 'ere...". The tout grabs the money. "There y'go bruvver... does all his best stuff here... 'slong...hee, hee... as long 'ees not too drunk to stand up, I mean."

The venue is not much bigger than a pub. It is pretty full, but not bursting. The crowd consists almost entirely of white blokes, many of them clearly in their 30s and some even older.

Shelf stackers

About half of the blokes are bald, intellectual types, generally wearing leather jackets. The other half, the younger ones, just look scruffy beyond belief.

The impression is of a national convention of Michel Foucault impersonators which has been mistakenly gate-crashed by a gang of Kwik Save shelf-stackers.

After a while the lights go down and The Fall shamble on to the tiny stage. There are two guitarists, a drummer and a bass player.

Mark E Smith
Sporting the very latest artificial fibres

An ear-splitting cacophony starts up, and then the main attraction, vocalist Mark E Smith, stumbles on stage. By now the group has settled into a tune of sorts - a very repetitious Bo Didley-like riff with lots of emphasis on mindlessly thudding drums.

Smith, thin as a rake and hump-backed, is wearing a tan leather jacket, slacks and a perfectly ordinary shirt.

He acknowledges the crowd for the first and last time, fixing them with a glare of cold, snarling hatred while tapping out a few discordant notes on a keyboard.

While some of the audience start old-fashioned "pogo" punk-style dancing, Smith stares at the floor, and wanders about in a bored fashion, shouting from time to time at nobody in particular in his monotone northern bingo-caller's voice.

My part in his Fall

I first met Mark E Smith in the early 1970s when we were both living in and around Prestwich in north Manchester.

At that time he was working as an office boy in a warehouse and trying to organise a pop group with his girlfriend Una.

Iggy Pop
Big in Prestwich: Smith's inspiration was Iggy Pop
Since I had an electric guitar and was working at the same mental hospital as Una, I got briefly involved in what was to become The Fall - the Mark E Smith project which, to my amazement, was later hailed as one of the greatest cultural phenomena of the 20th Century.

From the start, one source of inspiration was the many harmlessly psychotic in-patients who could be found wandering around Prestwich expostulating freely at the top of their voices as they followed weird, fractured and frequently disturbing lines of thought.

I thought these people were quite interesting, but it was Mark who realised they were on to something.

Alien dress sense

I rehearsed with the group and we performed once in a pub. But I didn't fit in because I was much too normal - long-hair, denim jeaned and jacketed.

The Fall went for nylon clothes of all sorts and, generally, stuff that was so un-hip that it was hip. The style is pretty commonplace now, but at the time it made Mark and the others look like aliens from another planet.

The Fall in concert
If it's chaos you want... The Fall in 1981
The main clue we early Fall members had to the musical style Mark was trying to create was his liking for Iggy Pop - a man best known for his stage act of slashing his naked torso.

Since I was, at the time, one of the organisers of a folk club and was mainly interested in playing Bob Dylan numbers, a parting of the ways was inevitable.

Now, meeting Mark E Smith again after almost 30 years, the remarkable thing was how little he has changed. The sound is almost identical, although about 100 times louder and insanely repetitious; more un-entertaining and "anti-professional" than ever.

Don't leave home without it

One of the "songs" involved him shouting something like "I hate roundabouts" over the noise, but I couldn't really make it out. After a short break he was off again, this time merely shouting "aaarrrrrggggghhhhhh!" without too much effort or conviction.

Soon after this he seemed to me to be chanting the words "I never leave home without my radio" and then "I've got to get my hands on some F-ploddy-Mars" as he stared at the floor and wandered about in another world.

Too much like a Rolling Stone
Then the din hushed a bit. Smith crouched down into a sort of foetal position and drawled sarcastically: "Congratulations on your birthday. I am saving up for one of those wheelchairs that go up and down the stairs..." followed by more indecipherable cacophony and the sign-off line: "What a bloody pain in the backside!"

After the performance I met Mark E Smith backstage (for about 10 seconds). He seemed delighted that I had come to see how he was getting on.

His face, which looks OK when in its default scowl, displays a fantastic number of wrinkles when it is contorted into a smile.

"Hiya" he said. And then the dressing room door shut in my face.

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