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The North Rises Again: Interview With Mark E Smith

The Fall’s legendary front-man has some deep-fried career advice for the Arctic Monkeys and the Kaiser Chiefs

(Arena Hommes Plus, Summer 2006)

“’Avin’ been around the world I reckon we’re very lucky,” says Mark E Smith, pop genius and (usually) lovable curmudgeon in a moment of uncharacteristic optimism. “They don’t realise what they’ve got, English people.” And what have we got? “Well,” he stalls, eyeing me and sensing a trap, “you don’t know until it’s gone do you, Mark!”

Mark E Smith, is 49 years old this year. It’s part of the mythology of the man who put ‘front’ in ‘frontman’, the lead-ranter for the longest-serving pre-post-punk band The Fall, that he looks much older than his years. Maybe it’s because those heady days when pop and art and literature and, well, everything worth caring about seemed to intersect, and everything seemed possible, especially after a line of dodgy speed and a can of Special Brew, now seem much further away than they actually are.

Due to an odd trick of the 21st Century light, the late Seventies, when The Fall was founded after Mark E Smith and most of the English working class was laid off at Salford Docks, is now much, much further away than, say, the early Sixties.

Or maybe it’s just because he’s generally reckoned to have consumed enough sulphate and Special Brew to give ICI indigestion. “A tooth fell out this morning, at 2am,” he tells me with a grin, “I thought that’s fookin’ typical! Just before I’m due to meet the press!”. He orders a pint of lager and a whiskey and lights up, eyes narrowing in the smoke.

It’s clear that Mr Smith has had, ahem, a few late nights, and isn’t going to make the cover of Mens Health any time soon but to me he looks younger than his years. No, honestly. Maybe it’s a trick of the iconic light on this Sunday afternoon in this postmodern Manchester hotel, or maybe it’s because he doesn’t care about his looks in the way you’re required by EU edict these days, but the man behind 25 studio albums and 24 live albums looks as scampish and defiant as ever. A slightly shop-worn Kes with a merciless Mancunian motor-mouth.

How does he feel being an icon? “It don’t bother me” he says with a shrug. “Though, being a Smith I prefer not to be noticed and to just get on with it.”

Smith’s style is anything but anonymous. Lyrically, he’s a cross between William Burroughs, Philip Larkin and Ena Sharples. Above all else, he is distinctively, eccentrically English. In the true sense of the word. That’s to say northern.

“London’s sealing itself off with its prices and its attitudes,” he moans. “London is fookin’ surreal. It’s like: ‘You can’t come in here!’ And what is London, that collection of villages, for? Fook all. Compare it to cities like Newcastle, Leeds and Manchester, great cities which changed the world. I don’t wanna get too northern here…”

Please do….

“After 11 o’clock you still can’t get a pint!” He grins. “But we can’t say this Mark coz this is going in a London-based magazine!

Albert Camus, who penned the novel Smith named his band after, described a rebel as: ‘A man who says “no”’. Smith has turned ‘no’ literally into an art-form – always placing himself apart from the latest trend, the latest bleating herd-instinct; it’s made him a lot poorer and a lot less celebrated. But it has also made him a hero. One of the last.

He isn’t impressed by the current renaissance of Northern English pop, even those bands which owe rather a lot to The Fall. “I think that the Kaiser Chiefs and Arctic Monkeys should open a chain of chip shops in North Yorkshire”, he says, only half joking. “I think the East Germans had it right, actually. Every group used to have to have a permit. Until they came up with anything culturally relevant, like a classical composition. I think they should bring them in here. I should start a musical Stasi. If you can’t play in fookin time, then fook off back to the factory.”

What have the English got? Mark E Smith, that’s what.

Let’s hope this is one thing they appreciate before it’s gone.