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BBC TwoNewsnight Review
Last Updated: Friday, 29 June 2007, 17:54 GMT 18:54 UK
An uncompromising Fall guy
By Stephen Smith
Newsnight Culture Correspondent

Mark E Smith
Mark E Smith has a fearsome reputation amongst journalists

A delicious - but oh so decadent! - cigarette dwindles in the hot afternoon. Showbusiness gossip is batted back and forth, as gay as a rubber of shuttlecock on the Cliveden greensward.

There are solicitous enquiries after the state of one's drink. I was born too late, alas, to interview Noel Coward.

But can the experience of being backstage at the Old Vic with the Master have been so very different from sharing a cashiered industrial unit in Dusseldorf with Mark E Smith of The Fall?

Dear reader, if you are pinching yourself, you are not alone. To have even a working knowledge of the gnarled post-punk frontman is to know that he is a daunting prospect at close quarters.

The Fall

This is the man, after all, who is alleged to have taken such exception to one journalist that he stubbed out his ciggie on the unfortunate scribbler.

Mr Smith won't confirm this colourful yarn but he is quite clear that he summarily gave his band their cards while on the road in the States.

No wonder, then, that the young men rehearsing in another corner of this teutonic shed, the latest and umpteenth line-up of The Fall, are hard at work.

In the three decades or thereabouts that Smith has been keeping the sometimes rackety show on the road, so many people have passed through his band that even he is unsure of their exact number, or perhaps only indifferent to it.

But it is now settled Tin Pan Alley lore that a guitar berth or drum chair with The Fall is to a tyro musician what six months in 'Joseph' or 'Les Mis' is to a young actor.

It turns out that Smith's preference for going onstage with two bass guitarists rather than the more usual one, a celebrated feature of Fall mythology, has its origins in this churn rather than any sonic experiment on the leader's part.

Mark E Smith
Old women would stop me in the street. You know - "I saw you on Newsnight - funniest thing I've ever seen, Gavin Esler, ha ha ha!"

He says, "The first time I did it [fielded multiple bassists], it was because I thought one of them was going to leave!"

Did he need a sub, I ask.

"That's right, yeah! I was scared they were leaving so fast I thought I'd better get one in reserve."

Show-stopper

I wonder if Smith has something in common with the late James Brown, both of them working-class troubadours (Smith began his working life on the docks), idiosyncratic frontmen, rock 'n' roll martinets.

Brown used to fine people in his band - had Smith?

"I've given em a good tearing down, yeah. Cos they can get carried away, you know."

Fortunately, Smith is not of a mind to do the same to Newsnight. This is a relief because his last appearance on the programme was a show-stopper, and I use the term advisedly.

Smith was booked as a guest after the death of John Peel, his friend and greatest fan. Among other things - a phrase which doesn't begin to do justice to the maelstrom which ensued - the Fall man appeared to think that our own Gavin Esler might be the DJ's replacement. It was all a terible mistake, he says now.

"Mind you, the amount of kids who got into The Fall through that! And very old people as well. These old women would stop me in the street. You know - 'I saw you on Newsnight funniest thing Ive ever seen, Gavin Esler, ha ha ha!'"

Smith couldn't be more biddable today, though, dilating thoughtfully on the subject of Pop Idol, for instance. "Would a panel have chosen Ray Davies of the Kinks? I don't think so. He sings out of tune!"

Inspired

Perverted by language
Smith is none too enamoured of the book he has inspired
For all Smith's long years in the business, he hasn't got much truck with the idea of a music career. "I always thought it was, you know, a bit of a statement instead."

So is it a vocation, is it the case he can't imagine himself doing anything else?

"That's right, yeah. It's ironic really because it's like 60, 70 hours a week."

Whatever you may have heard about the man's habits and hard-living, it comes as a shock to realise that Mark E Smith is in fact a workaholic. He's preparing to commit the 29th Fall long-player to shellac and to play his native Manchester as part of that city's International Festival.

Some members of the music press have suggested that Smith is tired of his reputation getting in the way of his back catalogue, of which he is clearly proud. "I'm a Fall fan, you know."

Indeed. He is jealously protective of the Fall 'brand', as he'd hate you to call it. A group of adoring writers have penned works of fiction inspired by his songs for a new anthology, Perverted by Language.

They may be hurt to learn that Smith is none too chuffed by their efforts.

"It's strange, the book world. You have no say in these things, you know? If anybody brung out a record like 'I'm Mark E Smith' I could come down on 'em like cramp but with a book you can't."

"Don't you take it as a doff of the cap?" I ask.

"Yeah I do but I think its more that I'm being used as a vehicle for young talent."

Plumbing

Smith singing
Smith's band The Fall have regularly gone through wholesale line up changes
Talking of which, Smith recalls that he only took to this performing lark in the first place as a way of avoiding hard graft in the family business alongside his old man. What did he do? "Plumbing."

Steady work, I suggest.

"Yeah I know."

You can almost imagine a dungareed Smith in your kitchen, shaking his head at your blocked U-bend and sucking his teeth with that signature gurn of his, a facial expression which was feared lost to showbusiness - wrongly - on the death of Les Dawson.

He says, "I wish I'd learnt more about it, I'd make more money now than in bloody rock music. In America they do! You've got your own plumbing firm, you make more than REM! It's true! I wish I'd took more of it in 'cos you have to get people in and I've got my grandad's plumbing certificate on the wall, you know."


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