Page last updated at 10:07 GMT, Thursday, 29 May 2008 11:07 UK

Fall stories: Tales of a renegade

Mark E Simth
It's not a band, it's a group. A band is what plays in Blackpool
Mark E Smith on The Fall
A rare audience with Mark E Smith, the front man of The Fall, came to the Hay festival after a deluge which left the site resembling Glastonbury.

The occasion was the publication of Smith's book Renegade, which follows his group's extraordinary 30 years, with a mix of recollections, occasional rants and a little score-settling.

The conversation with writer Jon Gower, aided by Smith's co-author Austin Collings starts awkwardly.

It's like pulling teeth, with Smith - joined by two friends on stage - pulling the faces. He eventually relaxes and it's an entertaining 45 minutes.

Possibly it is because of the driving spirit of The Fall in never wallowing in the past, that Smith didn't want to dwell much on his childhood.

"I'm not the type who likes going dragging up the past. That was very hard for me but I could trust Austin," he admitted.

Nevertheless, Collings is illuminating and the story-telling avoids clunky chronology. For example, his grandfather taking on ex-inmates at the gates of Strangeways for his plumbing business echoes Smith's own hiring and firing with The Fall.

Mark E Smith
Mark E Smith formed The Fall in Manchester in 1977

"I'm a bit like the Alex Ferguson of the music game," he writes of his need to be ruthless in changing a winning team.

There have been 50 or more members of The Fall, which he likens memorably in the book to running an unhappy guest house.

Smith said unhappy ex-members who show dissent "reveal more about themselves than they reveal about me."

"I'm just a singer at the end of the day. Some people can be musicians - I can play an A and an E, that's about it."

"It's not a band, it's a group. A band is what plays in Blackpool," he corrects.

He seemed to agree that The Fall's high points reflected difficult times in Britain.

"The Fall seem to do well when everything's going down."

'Cracked up'

On his reputation for being difficult he counters: "I've always been a cheerful fellow. People think I'm taking the piss."

Certainly, in the book he admits some regard him as a "caricature," but he is grounded in a work ethic, the responsibility of keeping the wolf from the door and a group on the move.

There are insights into his song writing, for which he needs space. This includes an abhorrence of clutter, which sees a skip arrive at his house each year for spring cleaning.

The book says he keeps three chairs, for him, his wife and a guest, but Smith tells the audience the guest chair has been removed.

As well as the "cockroaches" in the music industry, he rants against Big Brother, Brighton, celebrity culture, New Labour, journalists the middle classes and mobiles ("as much an addiction as alcohol but less sociable.")

He'd send me postcards when he was on holiday, which was strange
Mark E Smith on the late John Peel

On the extensive back catalogue he tells the audience: "I like Hex Enduction Hour and Shiftwork. I think they sound fresh to me

"Hex when it came out was on the time I wanted it to be my last record, I didn't think I'd bring out another record. 1982 - a long time ago."

The 51-year-old still doesn't look very far ahead for the future, although the band are to tour Estonia and Croatia for the first time. "Three months, that's the way I look at it."

He's inevitably asked about the late John Peel, who championed his favourite band with 24 Radio 1 sessions and famously summarised The Fall's genius as being "always different, always the same."

They had an arm's length relationship, exchanging few words.

"The thing about John is we always kept very much apart," says Smith. "There was upset when he died. He'd send me postcards when he was on holiday, which was strange."

Tongue of Satan

In literature his tastes range from horror and supernatural writing, including Welsh-born writer Arthur Machen, to the Napoloenic wars.

Musically, Smith said he liked listening to dub reggae "and 50s stuff for some reason, the sound of it..the scratchy sound, that four-track sound that's hard to get in a studio now."

Of his own recent recordings he added: "The engineers have nervous breakdowns - on the last three LPs, the producers and engineers cracked up. So for the last LP (Imperial Wax Solvent) I said let's make sure we don't crack them up.

"So we went to three different places. We went to Dusseldorf. But all three cracked up at once! We tried to move it around. It was nothing to do with me, they were all off their rockers! That's a good LP in my book."

Asked by someone in the audience about the internet, Smith dubs it the "tongue of Satan".

"I don't like it a lot, it's not very satisfying."

He was also incredulous at claims that he'd killed red squirrels attacking his fence, stories which have achieved a life of their own on the web.

"Some poachers rang me up and offered to give evidence on my behalf! Funny, there have been no squirrels in north Manchester since 1972."

Mark E. Smith on Score
18 Nov 05 |  Score on BBCi
An uncompromising Fall guy
29 Jun 07 |  Newsnight Review


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