It is natural to feel trepidation before meeting Mark E Smith for the first time. Tales of the Fall singer’s volatility are legion. There was the time he was involved in a drunken punch-up with bandmates during a New York gig in 1998 that ended with him being remanded in Rikers Island prison. Or the Cardiff gig a few days before we meet that the singer abruptly terminated mid-song, apparently handing all the microphones to the audience and marching through the ranks of startled fans to the exit.
To my relief, Smith radiates good humour when he arrives at a city centre hotel in his native Manchester. He clasps my hand warmly with both of his and we settle ourselves in the hotel’s bar. Smith sits at a divan with cushions piled behind him. When he laughs, which he does often, he leans back on the divan and issues guttural rumbles, head pointing upwards, tongue waggling out of his mouth. He looks like a mirthful Komodo dragon.
Smith, 54, is one of the institutions of British rock. True, he’s a prickly, contrary, wayward institution but, still, there’s no one else like him. He formed the Fall in 1976 following the Sex Pistols’ first gig in Manchester. While his punk contemporaries fell away, Smith just ploughed on, churning his way through more than 60 Fall musicians: he’s the only original band member left.
Since 2007, the line-up has been unusually settled. It includes Elena Poulou, Smith’s third wife, a Greek DJ he met in Berlin. Remarkably, the band’s new album, Ersatz GB, is the 29th Fall studio LP. To put that in perspective, Smith is just five albums behind Bob Dylan.
A pair of bottled lagers arrives. “Thank you, sir,” Smith says to the person bringing them. A chippy lyric from a Fall song replays in my head: “Nobody’s called me sir in my entire life.” A voice startles us. “Would you object if I took your photograph?” It’s a man in his forties hovering nearby. “What for?” the singer replies. “Because you’re you,” says the fan with unarguable logic. “If you hurry up,” growls Smith. “Losing my touch,” he says to me.
Is he? It’s fair to say that hard living has taken a toll. He has a drinker’s face, deeply furrowed, large-nosed, though with an oddly youthful sweep of hair. Years of booze and other substances have made his lyrics increasingly cryptic. Yet Ersatz GB is also illuminated by his customary caustic wit and surreal fantasies. “Out of the fog, connection,” he drawls in one song. Smith’s gimlet eye is still operative.
He claims he chose Ersatz GB’s title to annoy his new record company. “Just give ’em a title. There’s no philosophy behind it. Just, ‘F**king work that one out.’” But the record does have a philosophy: the phoniness of modern Britain, a common theme in Fall songs. One track is an absurdist fantasy about Smith seeing a doppelgänger of himself on rock television. Another is based on replies to a national survey introduced by David Cameron to find out what makes Britain unhappy. “There were people in Bradford going, ‘You can’t get mushy peas any more.’ ” He hoots with laughter. “Another answer was, ‘Snow Patrol being played on the radio.’ That would annoy me.” He hits the table, delighted by the banality of the responses. He leans forward, suddenly conspiratorial. “My intelligence is vast. You wouldn’t believe what people tell me.”
Smith was born in Salford in 1957. His upbringing was working class but he went to a “very, very good” grammar school. He became a voracious reader: occult writers, German philosophers, beat poets, pulp fiction, experimental novelists. His autobiography Renegade paraphrases Thomas Carlyle: “Produce, produce – it’s the only thing you’re there for.” He identifies himself as a writer, and looks down on musicians. He mentions suffering sleepless nights while making the new album. An image of a tortured Smith tossing and turning in the throes of artistic torment arises. “No, it’s not that painful,” he growls, “it’s just you can’t get the f**king tune out of your head. It’s irritating.”
His songs are full of dreams and supernatural reveries, a lager-and-amphetamine-fuelled Coleridge. Does he believe in visionary writing, the bardic tradition? “A vessel for prophecies,” Smith says nodding. “I don’t think it’s good to bloody think that you think like that. My wife comments on it, being a bit Greek you know, she goes, ‘You’re a bit of an oracle.’ I go, ‘Shut up, get me a can of beer.’ ” Dissolute laughter. Pause. “It’s like having the gift of knowing that the bus is going to be 40 minutes late or the horse that your best friend has put a bet on is going to lose – which is what I’ve had a lot. Is it a gift or is it a curse?”
Smith’s oracular tendencies give the Fall’s music its obsessive drive. They are also the enemy of the fake, the phoney – the ersatz. But the seer of Salford is unwilling to continue the line of inquiry. “Well I don’t know. Do you want another drink?”
After leaving school in 1974, he worked as a clerk on the Manchester docks, at a time when there were still merchant ships from around the world trading there. This cosmopolitan aspect of Manchester, one of the industrial age’s first modern cities, finds an echo in the Fall’s music, with its openness to avant-garde traditions alongside a grittier attachment to rockabilly and punk. “You got it in one, cock,” he agrees. But then he changes his mind. “I don’t want to push it too far. I can’t stand Manchester.” He has tried living elsewhere, in Edinburgh and Chicago but was always drawn home. “They were too nice.”
Smith’s contrariness is deep-rooted, automatic. It is the psychic balancing act of the clever working class boy from north Manchester unwilling to betray his class by moving away from it, but who also didn’t want to be constrained by the low expectations of remaining within it.
When he passed the exam to get into grammar school, “My dad used to complain about buying a bleeding blazer. That was the worst news in my house when I passed the 11 plus.” There was more grumbling when he began the Fall. “When I said to my dad, ‘I’m going into a group,’ he said, ‘You’re bleeding mentally ill.’ But not in a nasty way.”
Can he imagine following a different course in life, going to university, moving into the professional classes? “Well, it’s very strange, because everyone thought I should go to university – but I didn’t know until he died that my father had a complex about it, and he actually did say to me, a month before, ‘Do you think I should have sent you to university?’ I said, ‘Look Dad, I’ve played every university in Britain, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.’ He didn’t understand.”
Smith’s explanation for the Fall’s recalcitrant, abrasive persistence is simple. “A lot of it is just driven by misanthropy.” Has that changed over time? “No. It gets worse as I get older.” He laughs uproariously.
‘Ersatz GB’ is out on Cherry Red Records on November 14. The Fall are on tour until November 26