Book reviewers – they are very evil. I think the book world is a crappy world. It’s an evil world. It asks a lot more of you and gives you a lot less. Have you seen what book reviewers are like? … People like Ballard are embarrassed to be in the prize lists. Mark E Smith, singer of The Fall, online video interview, 1980s. Mark E Smith died on January 24th, 2018. With The Fall, he released thirty-two albums in forty-one years. His autobiography, Renegade, was published in 2008.
A world of books / And silent times in thought. “Cattle and Cane”, sung by Grant McLennan of The Go-Betweens. Grant McLennan died on May 6th, 2006. He worked on nine Go-Betweens albums in the eighteen years the band were active. His songwriting partner and now solo act Robert Forster published his autobiography, Grant & I, in 2016. McLennan features in it heavily.
The day the music – or a singer – dies, some flickering fanbase needle gets stuck in a groove; in the confused private loyalty of public mourning, there is a cultish, collective loss. There is the stark realisation there will be no more tunes. This is the run-out groove, the white-noise limbo of a dust-clogged needle stuck in the infinity rut at the end of side two: the train has finally jumped the tracks, the shared trek for fan and artist is over. For like writers, directors, actors and others, singers are heroes. Articulate warriors of ideas and emotion, they do battle for us, winning our affections, forging an influential bond that we carry in what we might as well call the soul. Behind the record sleeve is a cacophony that speaks to us, a world we subscribe to, a place where we come dangerously close to belonging. These kingdoms of culture can be durable. They can last decades if the singer continues to create in a lengthy career. We get to know and like this kingdom – we take partial refuge within its moat, within the spiralling groove of records, within the coil of tape, within whatever geometry dictates digital iterations. With music, we witness a world changing: the evolving age and maturity of the artist run in some lip-synched parallel with our own. Singer and fan both spin through the years and get older at the same rate: 16, 33, 45, 78 …
Grant McLennan died in 2006 aged forty-eight of a heart attack. Obituaries framed his death as that of a poet. His musical collaborator, Robert Forster, writes generously and lovingly about him in his autobiography, portraying him as a dear friend and songwriting partner. Mark E Smith died aged sixty in late January this year of lung and kidney cancer. He was a hard drinker and heavy smoker. Obituaries framed him as a pugnacious word master, as a scruff exemplar of the north of England, as a fascinating and prolific tyrant. Without compunction, he bullied and hired and fired five dozen band members in his constantly mutating group, The Fall. Recycled references to John Peel’s fondness for Smith’s work abounded before and after the singer’s death, the two main comments (“The Fall remains the band by which all others must be judged” and “The Fall: they are always different, always the same”) tired from repetition even if they did indeed measure Smith by the smart metrics of a masterly DJ.
The high profile and mass adulation of a David Bowie, Leonard Cohen or Prince ensure they will be globally missed. Elvis Presley lives forever. Joe Strummer does too. But the cult singer, the Mark E Smith or Grant McLennan or the still-very-much-alive Robert Forster, lives on an edgier altar – their output and popularity may wax and wane, and they may fade from the general view. However, for their fans, their footprints are always there, deep and indelible. When the artist returns with a new album, the fans are reactivated. Dusty but robust circuit-wiring fizzles and burns with the memory of faded zest; output in the later stages of a career re-energises a sympathetic, now mature affection, one willing to overlook possible diminution of excellence. When the hero is back, they are back. They get a hero’s welcome. They are preachers and gods, illuminators of the way: they give you words and tunes to feed your brain, to touch your heart, to whistle in your daylight and use as torches in the dark. The Fall produced an album pretty much every year of their career; The Go-Betweens brought out albums more sporadically, with gaps of several years, and the most recent Robert Forster solo release was seven years in the making.
The rabbit killer did not eat for a week / And no way he can look at meat / No bottle has he anymore / It could be his mangled teeth / He sees jawbones on the street / Advertisements become carnivores / And roadworkers turn into jawbones / And he has visions of islands, heavily covered in slime / The villagers dance round prefabs / And laugh through twisted mouths / Don’t eat / It’s disallowed / Suck on marrowbones and energy from the mainland (Mark E Smith and The Fall , “Jawbone and the Air Rifle”)
Curators of pop culture often live by the crass aesthetics of a Fitch or Standard & Poor’s, functioning as ratings agencies that reduce complex works to a pecking order of X amount of asterisks out of five. But this can stop when the artist dies. Then, mean-hearted, faculty-flexing reviewers often free themselves to read their own mortality. The death of a pop star begets obituaries and memorial plays on late-night radio. It gets Facebook pages full of heartfelt memory and framed appreciation. The shared culture of fandom ratchets up a gear: a period of international mourning is implicitly declared. People take to social media and post links to favourite songs. They offer anecdotes about how their life was shaped by the singer’s work. The entire oeuvre becomes a structure on which they hang their sentient lives. The day the music dies people overlook immediate bonds with family and friends, they look away from real-world links with loved ones whose health may be precarious. Excavating deep within, they project outwards some stored fear of inevitable loss onto the dead hero, onto the star. For days and weeks, the artist’s gifts permeate – and even cloud – the ether, flowing from one fan’s heart and memory bank to the next, to collective post-death applause. Genuine tears may well up and be shed: for the godstar is dead and we are forced to realise the mediated hero was a mere mortal. And grief gets caught in a dark cage that lingers over the loyal audience. Fans who once found their vision of the world coded into timeless songs now, in the passing of the musician and singer, perceive their own inevitable decline.
Comparison is of dubious value. Books, music and paintings are best not bullied into graphs, or twisted into learning curves from which to discern a trend. It is too easy to construct comparative timelines to cut like motorways through difficult terrain. But let’s pitch two greats against each other. Let them share the same bill. Wordy musician versus wordy musician: Mark E Smith and Robert Forster are two maverick talents who mean a lot to many literate and conceptual music fans across the four decades since the late 1970s. At first glance, Smith and Forster are Lancashire chalk and Antipodean cheese – stylistically, culturally and creatively. The late Fall man was from Manchester; the living Go-Between is from Brisbane. The Fall man was urban and professed a hatred and fear of the countryside; the Go-Between is from a city but there is a greater sense of the rural in The Go-Betweens’ aesthetics and lyrics. The Fall man was a tyrant, a dictator; the Go-Between was a collaborative partner. The Fall man was malevolent, an autodidact; The Go-Between is agreeable and made it to college. They can each be termed literate and charming. Both men were born in 1957 (Smith entered the world just sixteen weeks before Forster). Neither made it onto the radar of popular acclaim (Smith was a proud saboteur of commercial success; Forster is a wistful regretter who has failed thus far due to bad luck). Both wrote autobiographies (Smith published Renegade in 2008; Forster published Grant & I in 2016). This sketch of their overlap is not a grading exercise: the comparison of the two men here is not a proxy talent show or ranking of who may or may not be top of the pops. Autobiography and music is their essential link, but so too is mortality: just as Mark E Smith’s sad death now hangs over The Fall’s collective output, Grant McLennan’s untimely passing shapes understanding of The Go-Betweens and weighs emotionally on songwriting partner Robert Forster’s book of memory.
Your sister picked me up at the station / She told me they’d taken you in, the word was it was just observation / I thought here we go again / Danger in the past / So I went and I saw you / We walked through the hospital grounds / I took your hand and I told you: never show your problems in a country town / Danger in the past / We had friends / We had friends that didn’t make twenty-five / I knew a genius in a bedroom who couldn’t walk outside” (Robert Forster, “Danger in the Past”)
Robert Forster’s memoir came out in the UK in 2017, a year after initial publication in his native Australia. He was one of two singers in The Go-Betweens – the band was a type of splendid Simon and Garfunkel for the new wave age. Words like “literate” and “crafted” were used so often about them that at times The Go-Betweens could appear sanitised, scoured of real life, and dunked into some Antipodean sheep dip by bookish folk trying to prove that song lyrics could be lucid, tender, poetic and literary.
The Go-Betweens entered obscure pop consciousness in the late 1970s, a two-headed hydra of guitars and ballpoint pens. Migrants to London, they were thoughtful and gentle signifiers for a mythic Australia not yet branded with Neighbours, one associated more with Skippy, with Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, with Aboriginals, Ayer’s Rock and a TV entertainer called Rolf Harris. At the end of a decade that ranged from Mick Jagger in Ned Kelly (1970) to Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and years ahead of Crocodile Dundee, The Go-Betweens arrived in London with their lyrical verses.
In the same 1970s, British TV beamed out spangled Saturday entertainment extravaganzas such as The Generation Game with Bruce Forsyth, his glamorous assistant and members of the public; Sale of the Century with Nicholas Parsons, matching his ‘n’ hers sheepskin carcoats and the musical clues of gifted organist Peter Fenn (early Fall members Una Baines and Yvonne Pawlett’s keyboard sound strangely seemed to suggest his dinky tinklings, especially Pawlett’s playing on the first Fall LP Live at the Witch Trials, and indeed Baines’s work on Money Mountain: The Greatest Hit, when she played with Fall co-founder Martin Bramah in The Blue Orchids). TV was a mush of ice skating, snooker and Pot Black, Roobarb, Crown Court, Jokers Wild, How, Magpie, John Craven’s Newsround, Blue Peter and Open University programmes about signal testing. And there were hours of the test card. Jokes were raucous and often racist. Curvy assistants were stage props for an overall ideology of fang-collared nylon shirts and flares. Tuxedoed entertainers such as Jimmy Tarbuck, Les Dawson and Bernard Manning wore the frilled shirts of bingo masters: on screen they held microphones as though on stage. Prior to and parallel with punk, much of TV’s entertainment looked like it was lifted straight from whatever show was running in the seaside theatre at the end of the nearest pier.
Two swans in front of his eyes / Coloured balls in front of his eyes / It’s number one for his Kelly’s eye / Treble-six right over his eye / A big shot’s voice in his ears / Worlds of silence in his ears / All the numbers account for years / Checks the cards through eyes of tears / Bingo-Master’s Breakout! / A hall full of cards left unfilled / He ended his life with wine and pills / There’s a grave somewhere only partly filled / A sign in a graveyard on a hill reads / Bingo-Master’s Breakout” (Mark E Smith and The Fall, “Bingo-Master’s Breakout”)
When The Fall released their first LP, Live at The Witch Trials, in 1979, the voice of Mark E Smith – whether singing or talking – sounded like an anti-London weapon. The danger of his Manchester accent was quite distinct from the dense, literary ambition of his words and phrases; its danger was distinct too from the prevailing sneer of take-control-of-the-means-of-production punk and post-punk. In a pre-MTV, pre-YouTube world, visual identity was vested in record sleeves, concert posters, Top of the Pops, The Old Grey Whistle Test and occasional photographs in the NME, Sounds or Melody Maker. Music leaked from tinny portable cassette players, from overly-trebled passing car radios, from the hi-fi systems of record shops walked past. The Fall did not belong to this world of pop music: you’d find them eventually on late-night radio, on shows such as John Peel’s which were safe from the easy access of daytime radio. But they were still only starting off. Witch Trials was recorded in a single day. Despite a vaguely conceptual front cover, inspection of the reverse side reveals the crude design triumph of someone with weekend access to a photocopier and a typewriter on which to reproduce copybook biro verbal doodlings. The artwork is all poorly printed photographs, a hotchpotch of parish newsletter and punk fanzine. But amid the rough package, the tracks – laid down with the cost-effective route precision of a taxi passenger unable to look out the window lest they avert their fearful eyes from the meter – are astonishing. Like a new form of elocution branded onto a new form of orchestration, a new sound and its new delivery system – and Mark E Smith’s vision – had arrived.
In such dowdy circumstances as those prevailing in Ireland and the UK in the late 1970s, a band had to live more vividly in your imagination; the mastery was mined in the music itself, not connoted by any effort at style. With The Fall, there would never be a star system or glamour, there would be no veneer of stylish escapism; instead there would be the cracked, warped formica of kitchen tables and bar counters, there would be recognisable urban magic realism as The Fall’s sturdy musicians and their ringleader drained pint glasses that wobbled when returned to uneasy resting places on the flaking plywood beneath that formica. In 1979 or 1980 in a record shop on Liffey Street, Dublin that was crammed with listless weekend delinquents, I asked to hear Live at the Witch Trials, ahead of purchasing it for the sale price of £1.50. The dandified punk behind the counter selected track three on side one, “Rebellious Jukebox”, remarking that this was his favourite Fall song: its angular scales and tuneful runs struck me forcefully that day as mathematical and colourful. Across hundreds of listens in the thirty-nine years that have elapsed since the strange arithmetic of that Mark E Smith/Martin Bramah composition still computes perfectly. That first listen reset some clock, it conjured up some new world; it recalibrated my ears and expectations of music, and synchronised me with what previous generations would have called its beat. This was something rich and verbal, something dangerous and nasty, something poetic and vivid and angry. In a heightened and word-sharp contemporaneous world of Elvis Costello, The Jam, XTC, The Stranglers, Gang of Four, Joy Division, Magazine and even The Sex Pistols, The Fall worked at another hyperactive level of phrase and music: the tunes and lyrics were enduring and mystical, with dragnets of meaning, vortices of fragments and phrases of syntax that mesmerised. It felt like psychology, it felt like sociology, it felt like literature, it felt like cultural studies, all those disciplines poisoned together in a toxic brew: it felt like first-class honours for a cheat. It felt like sincere satire, it felt like the menace of art, it felt like a jumble of newsworthy surreal headlines, maybe like what Smith might later allude to with the song title “Prole Art Threat”. When I eventually saw proper photos of The Fall, they were scrawny young people whose physiques I read as emaciated signposts for the north of England. But these signposts pointed in the same general direction as the parallel streets of a hungry, frazzled, hopeless Dublin in which the gaslight glimmer of the punk new wave had also recently ignited: under its low-watt glow, the first healthy gasps were drawn through the lungs of The Atrix, The Radiators, Chant! Chant! Chant!, DC Nien and many others. Images of the magnificent Joy Division had dour and disaffected industrialism dripping off them, and Magazine, Costello and The Stranglers had a cool glamour. But The Fall looked like truants: they were unemployed young folk hanging around on street corners, badly dressed, an unwitting gang waiting for hours at a bus stop. The aesthetics of rough, word-scrawled, album-cover artwork looked less a choice and more of a message of cut-price necessity. The riches were reserved for the complex tunes within. Welcome to the already wonderful and frightening world of The Fall.
The tables covered in beer / Showbiz whines, minute detail / It’s a hand on the shoulder in Leicester Square / It’s vaudeville pub back room dusty pictures of / White-frocked girls and music teachers /The beds too clean / The waters poison for the system / Then you know in your brain / LEAVE THE CAPITOL! / EXIT THIS ROMAN SHELL! … It will not drag me down / I will leave this ten times town / I will leave this fucking dump / One room, one room / Hotel maids smile in unison / Then you know in your brain / You know in your brain / LEAVE THE CAPITOL / EXIT THIS ROMAN SHELL / Then you know you must leave the capitol / I laughed at the great god Pan (Mark E Smith and The Fall, “Leave the Capitol”)
From the other side of the world, Robert Forster, his then girlfriend Lindy Morrison and his pal Grant McLennan fell for the industrial lure of the English capital. London was necessary for them if their band The Go-Betweens was to graduate beyond its early stages of evolution, college idealism and DIY releases back home in Brisbane. They arrived in London for the first time in late 1979. After some faltering years and several returns back down under, in early 1983, a little ahead of their second LP, they released the single “Cattle and Cane”. It was a stunning tale of bucolic boyhood innocence.
The week it came out, its line “His father’s watch / He left it in the shower” was praised by Orange Juice singer Edwyn Collins as guest singles reviewer in the NME. The song and its lyric conjured up a strong essence of childhood, universal but born of the spaces and prairies of Australia (“I recall a schoolboy coming home / Through fields of cane / To a house of tin and timber /And in the sky / A rain of falling cinders / From time to time the waste / Memory wastes”). From their forthcoming album at the time, Before Hollywood, the song included a line that would map the literate co-ordinates of The Go-Betweens: “I recall / A bigger brighter world / A world of books / And silent times in thought.”
Grant McLennan wrote and sang this lyric. Ten years after his death, his surviving songwriting partner Robert Forster performed it live on stage in Whelan’s in Dublin, in a respectful and touching homage ahead of the publication of his cunning ventriloquist autobiography named after his friend (Grant & I). In the book, he describes “Cattle and Cane” as a “song that … twinned the beat of the city with country childhood visions”.
From the start there was something reflective and overtly emotional about The Go-Betweens. The words and musical moods were sculpted and refined and they whittled generally towards some poetic, lyrical, sentient truth. But they avoided being mawkish and the band was allied to the angularity and edge that came out of punk. The tenderness seemed to reside mainly in Grant McLennan: he was the half of the band who would write “Bachelor Kisses” (“Hand, hands like hooks / You’ll get hurt / If you play with crooks. / Your hand, that’s all he took / The world opened up / For your looks”) and “The Wrong Road” (“The ghosts in the next room hear you cough / Time drags on Sundays spent in Mayfair / With all your riches, why aren’t you there? / The wind acts like a magnet / And pulls the leaf from the tree / And the town’s lost its breath / I took the Wrong Road round”). McLennan appeared for some time to be the main force. But all the time the other player was Robert Forster: he was more of a cypher, a vague energy field of the gangly, playful and camp. A gent draped in the garb of satire, he was the second pillar of The Go-Betweens: he stood on stage, a dandy staring into the middle distance, a mild-mannered mockery of rock ‘n’ roll in his performance but plenty of poetics in his heart.
Don’t stare at the heavens / For guidance or reason or even rhyme / Don’t stare at the heavens / Hoping to find the movement of time / It’s not on my mind / But I know that there’s someone / To turn on the rain” (Robert Forster, “Turn on the Rain”)
His book Grant & I is both an autobiography and a biography: Forster is writing about his own life, using his relationship with Grant McLennan as a subject but also as a personal benchmark. The title snipes at marriage deference – along “the wife and I” lines. There’s also a signal twang of Withnail and I (the Bruce Robinson-directed 1987 film about two failed actors in London) in the sense of it being an exploration of an artistic duo. Clear in the music and clear in Forster’s writing is that The Go-Betweens were a partnership rather than a band. Both singers brought out solo records while the band was defunct (from 1989 pretty much right through to 2000 when they reformed). The Go-Betweens’ lack of progression towards commercial success and their deepening cult acclaim and general pop obscurity had yielded the smart gag that when they did reform they could do so as The Australian Go-Betweens. (This was a reference to their being linked to London as well as their distant home down under, and the tribute band mania of which a band called The Australian Doors once seemed to be leading purveyors.)
Forster’s memoir is indeed his own autobiography. He writes of boyhood and parents, of hope and the emergence of his seedling identity. There are the usual tales of first guitars and of listening to the radio, of the glamour of music entering a young heart and mind. But it is named for his dead songwriting partner. This is Laurel writing about Hardy. Or vice versa. This is Forster writing about himself by writing about Grant McLennan. It is a book about friendship and its trauma, about partnership and the fear of betrayal. It is about creative co-operation and insecure competition, about mutual respect between complicit rivals. It is about taking on the world with delicate articulations about that world, the way all young wordy rebels imagine they will.
In one plotting of their shared early pathway, Forster recalls nervously telling McLennan the name he posited for their band as they drove across a bridge in Brisbane in 1978: “… The band, however long it lasted, would be a contest and configuration of our wills. And be the stronger for it. I drew breath and, as evenly as I could, said, ‘The Go-Betweens’.” Poignantly, and rather triumphantly too, Forster notes that, thirty-two years later, some 500m from that same river crossing, a new bridge would be opened, named for their band. A respectful act by the nomenclature of civic structures office and a clever semantic play: “The Go-Betweens Bridge”. Cross it if you will.
Some years later in London, working for a stint at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, Forster came across a medical file for Nicolas Roeg (who made the outback-set Walkabout in addition to Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth). “On my last day of work there, I snuck out a rogue Roeg X-ray under my coat,” he confesses. “It’s as close as Grant and I ever got to the British film industry.” The anecdote offers insight into two young men’s shared artistic dream and the potential scale of literate ambition in a city such as London; it also reveals the drab off-stage difficulty of trying to make ends meet.
Grant & I was published amid expectations of at least passable literary ability. At best, something brilliant was possible. Forster does not fall short. He does not attempt to violate his dead friend with easy psychoanalysis. Rather, he observes McLennan’s character and make-up through his evolving precarious lifestyle and situation. Nor does he self-aggrandise the hedonism that often attends a life in the arts. Drink and substance excess is portrayed as a casual lifestyle choice the way it is for the many fans of music who have never attended a gig sober. Music and drink have always made their own melody. And vignettes of The Go-Betweens enjoying alcohol or spliffs before or after a gig all seem very par for the course. It comes as a shock later in the book that Forster has occasionally fallen into bad company and has contracted hepatitis from the sharing of dirty needles, an illness that fills him with his own intimations of mortality. “I was a dabbler, never owning a needle and always having someone else shoot me up, which wasn’t helping me now. Heroin and amphetamine use was an occasional social thing with friends; a lot of people did it, and no one would have known, had not an undetected blood virus been dancing between us all … My last emotion as I sat in the doctor’s rooms was to curse myself for having been weak-willed enough to take drugs. They’d come and got me, like a hand coming through a curtain in a horror movie. I walked out thinking I had five years to live.” His potentially fatal diagnosis comes long before his shock at the death of Grant McLennan. It all seems many years and a long way from the childhood innocence of “Cattle and Cain” and that line, “His father’s watch / He left it in the shower.”
Mark E Smith had his own take on watches in an early or mid-1980s interview, whose exact source details have slipped from my memory and are beyond my internet research skills. Talking about a period of declared urban mystic energy when he worked on Manchester docks while forming the band in 1977, he says something along the lines of “That was a very psychic time. A lot of the lads down the docks, their wristwatches kept exploding.” The image could not be further from The Go-Between’s pastoral, filial-paternal capture of a little boy’s fears around careless water damage to the time-piece he borrowed from his father but left in the shower. But Smith’s exploding wristwatch is maybe even more vivid – a type of magical realism breaks through his industrial, dockside Manchester. No fields of cattle or fields of cane, more like the clanking sounds of machines breaking, of factories malfunctioning, of shop-floor accidents, all building into a symphony of wharfside negative energy. Ships unloaded ideas from overseas: cargos of concepts and forces that could push a person to breaking point. Exploding watches: they sit like statues on the jagged Fall landscape of bingo halls and loading bays, as does perhaps William Burroughs’s ticket that similarly exploded.
Mark E Smith led The Fall from 1977 to 2018: forty-one years. From a pulpit very much in the margins, the group delivered dozens of albums – at a rate of almost one a year, not counting live recordings and various compilations that testify to malicious brand mockery (50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong). The group was of course named for the novel by Albert Camus. Smith ran it like a dictator: a talented despot capable of great kindness and extreme cruelty as he hired and fired some sixty-plus recruits over the years. For some reason he insisted The Fall was a “group” not a “band”, the difference alluding to its collective and shape-shifting nature. Loyal bassist Steven Hanley describes his traumatic two decades in the band/group in his own excellent memoir The Big Midweek: Life Inside The Fall. It reads fascinatingly like the prison notebook the title suggests, detailing the paranoid control exercised by the domineering Smith and the death-row jail in which the constantly-on-the-verge-of-being-fired members do their time. Revered as the essential sound of The Fall with his deft, catchy, rumbling basslines until he could take no more and left in 1997, Hanley bandages his real scars as a human being for long enough at the end of the book to honourably thank his erstwhile tormentor for the “opportunity and unique life lessons” he has given him.
Smith’s autobiography came out in 2008 – just as his and The Fall’s thin, angular, early music is the spiky antithesis of The Go-Betweens’ refined songcraft, this work stands in a different corner of the culture boxing ring to Forster’s book. The Renegade hardback edition features a rare, studio-posed shot of Mark E Smith standing in front of what looks like a blackboard. Suited, he stares at the camera, a cigarette in his hand. On the right of the image are lengths of gaudy gaffer tape holding the backdrop in place. By his feet is a plugboard to feed the studio lights. A sweeping brush just out of his reach frames the shot: it is an image of an image being taken. This is not a tedious reminder of deconstruction or an unnecessary reference to the media being the message or anything overt like that. (Such an approach has been second nature even for the most banal exhibits of mainstream pop culture for decades now and has always been a genetic part of the perceptual alloy in which The Fall’s brilliance gleams.) Rather, it betrays a type of approach which devalues sheen, which ruptures veneer, which channels the raw and direct: it declares an aesthetic which is almost ugly in its condition. This is not Smith slumming it; this is Smith continuing to refuse to package himself, especially when accorded approval by establishment publishers Penguin/Viking. That’s the real package: Mark E in a decent suit with a cigarette in hand looking like a football manager, a snooker player. An NHS inspector. A civil servant. There is nothing intentionally glamorous about him. An intensity yes. Question: Does he look literary? Answer: It is a book cover.
Smith writes of running his group like a foreman on a building site. He tries people out for a day. His management style and training programme for recruits is reminiscent of a recurring Beano or Dandy gag of the 1970s about the job spec for a litter warden. Applicant asks: “What do I do?” Punchline: “Don’t worry, son. You’ll pick it up as you go along.” In a BBC documentary The Weird and Frightening World of Mark E Smith (2005), he explains how his grandfather was the foreman at a factory. He used to stand outside prison on Friday and, as the men were being released, he’d pick out some and offer them a start. This is how Smith approached his own band. A musician’s prospects were a function of how well they fitted in with his plan; their career in The Fall was subject to Smith’s destructive creativity and often-malicious whim. You could get in trouble for eating lettuce.
This road that we’re on / We’ve travelled so far / Do you see the light / Of the horsebreaker star?” (Grant McLennan, “Horsebreaker Star”)
Throughout Grant & I, Forster writes affectionately of McLennan: “He was a country boy who could only live in the city, he was a city boy who knew that part of his true self belonged in the country … who knew he was different not only to his fellow students but to most of his family. And maybe he lacked a little love. He took refuge in academic achievement, which flowered into grander passions. And he needed a skin to protect that boy fired with enthusiasm, one that took the form of an arrogance, never checked, which attracted and repelled those he encountered.” And later: “I woke the morning after his death with him telling me two things. The first that I must put on paper everything that had happened to us, write our adventures down, which was the moment this book was born. The second was more abstract: Go to the biggest place of worship you know and think of me.” The words are contemplative and considered. Forster has reflected on the value of friendship and his debt to his departed pal. He knows the vital role they played in each other’s lives and is trying to recollect it in later-life tranquillity.
Smith takes a more sceptical approach when writing of his group on tour in the US: “Three days in and they’ve got faces like vexed tomatoes, their skins flaking sci-fi style: burnt to fuck. They were an embarrassment; not only to me and the wife and The Fall fans but to their whole generation.” That band later walks out on him in New York after a mid-show on-stage punch-up. “It was inevitable,” Smith writes. “There was something in the air there. I knew it was coming. They’d been acting like irked union members for weeks.”
Smith knowingly recounts the twisted fun of his childhood and looking after his sisters while his parents were out in a control game he called “Japanese prison camp” – “Today, we’d probably get investigated by the social services.” Another trick to keep his siblings in check revolved around the creation of the imaginary “Auntie Nowty”: “I’d bang on the stairs with my mam’s shoes, like in Psycho … and I’d say it’s your auntie, your Aunty Nowty – she’s got a bad temper – you’ve got to be well-behaved.” Young Smith would read the paper, watch the sports results and then tell his sisters that Auntie Nowty had “gone to town without you, she’s sick of waiting for you”. He explains: “They were safe, weren’t they? You couldn’t have them roaming the streets.”
Rarely photographed without a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, he writes, as knowingly as ever, “I started smoking when I was about sixteen. I don’t think you need it really before then … We used to write our names on walls and garages with Capstan Full Strength cig-ends; they were that strong, like black chalk; better than a pen.”
Mark E Smith often called his father when he was on tour with the band to get him to collect his post. On learning that The Fall were away playing in Germany, he told his son he must be mad. Smith senior saw Germany as “just a load of old women walking around with sticks and a load of rubble; still thinking it’s 1946. ‘Is this what it’s come to?’ he’d say … He never understood why I was doing it. Better that than those other dads picking you up at the airport when you’re thirty-one!”
Smith often turned on interviewers when asked about his writing process: he would reply to their question by making the rather fair point that he should not be expected to give away his trade secrets. On another occasion, he revealed to a reporter that the mysterious technique behind his musical collaboration with his group involved him whistling the melody down a phone line so the lads could work out the music. In Renegade, he volunteers an amusing home decor tip for creatives everywhere: “If you want to get your work done, if you want to be an artist, it’s a good first step to avoid clutter. I only have three chairs in the house, for instance; one for the wife, one for me, and one for a guest. No more. One guest at a time – that’s my philosophy. You don’t want your house turning into a hippy commune.”
A learned literacy surrounds The Go-Betweens, serving as an external credential. It infuses both Robert Forster’s and Grant McLennan’s lyrics with the expectation of poetic form. They almost appear to be men of letters, and there is a sense of unseen reserves of knowledge and bursting bookshelves. Mark E Smith comes across as a different kettle of fish, wrapped in amusing knowing obnoxiousness (shot through with jokey charm if you were not the subject of his wrath). An avid reader, he appears to just know things. While they both wear their learning lightly, Forster’s appears acquired whereas Smith’s seems innate. While Forster may be studied and insightful and donnish and may aspire most productively to the poetry of poets and of classic songwriters such as Bob Dylan and The Byrds and Big Star, Smith is filled with a magpie essence. Stark street intelligence emanates from his face. He professed a fondness for HP Lovecraft, Philip K Dick and Wyndham Lewis. Something of his tapping into urban energy and its detail links Smith more to postwar writers – to the early Pinter and Osborne and Joe Orton – than to songwriters such as Ray Davies of The Kinks or any of The Beatles. You could probably place him on some ley line that runs through Lou Reed, Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, but the idea of any direct influence is farcical as Smith ripped things into his own personalised shreds. The impression is he has not so much savoured books as seen right through them; he has read into them and filleted them. He compounds his literacy into stabbing commentary – he is not the reservoir of book learning, he is the leak in the dyke. What he does with literature is a process of mutation, not of respect. He funnelled his literary talent into lyrics which work as headlines and parodies of note dictation, and much of his work reads like poetic instruction booklets. The cover of Slates (1981) declares “Cost: two pounds only u skinny rats”. This is a million miles away from The Clash’s London Calling cover sticker announcing the price for the CBS double album to be a fiver. While The Clash were brilliantly and idealistically engaging in an effort at erosion of capitalism, Mark E Smith and The Fall were pimping their underground product via a mockery of transaction itself.
Grotesque (After the Gramme) is The Fall’s third album and it came out in 1980. The song “English Scheme” is probably about working-class emigration: “The clever ones tend to emigrate / Like your psychotic big brother / Who left home / For jobs in Holland, Munich, Rome / He’s thick but he struck it rich … You got sixty-hour weeks / And stone toilet back-gardens / Peter Cook’s jokes / Bad dope, check shirts / Lousy groups / Point their fingers at America / Down pokey quaint streets in Cambridge / Cycles our distant spastic heritage”. Another tune is “The Container Drivers”: “Net cap of 58 thousand pounds / They sweat on their way down / Grey ports with customs bastards / Hang around like clowns / The containers and their drivers / Bad indigestion / Bad bowel retention / Speed for their wages / Suntan, torn short sleeves / Look at a car park for two days / Look at a grey port for two days / Train line, stone and grey / This is not their town … Communists are just part-time workers /And there’s no thanks / From the loading bay ranks.” Industry and the supply chain have seldom made such excellent subjects for songs.
Another tune on that album is called “Pay Your Rates”, and yet another is “The North Will Rise Again”, in which Smith imagines a future insurrection. In the spoken-word prelude, he recounts how one morning he hears music on the radio: “The song was ‘English Scheme’. Mine. They’d changed it with a grand piano and turned it into a love song. How they did it I don’t know. DJs had worsened since the rising. Elaborating on nothing in praise of the track with words they could hardly pronounce, in telephone voices.” The record refers to itself as part of some future scenario of upheaval.
What emerges from the Grotesque songs is a fresco of Britain at the close of the 1970s and the start of the 1980s – one that is more psychological than sociological. It is a world of daily activity described in terms of underlining ideas. There is no nostalgic portraiture, no indulgence. The songs – like The Fall’s work at its best – are not stories but amalgams of thoughts around what might occasionally be a theme. Of this album, Smith remarks in Renegade: “I wrote about what was around me; that was the whole point – to get down the experiences, scenes, people, etc. But some people are so daft they don’t understand that writing about Prestwich is just as valid as Dante writing about his inferno.” Of the next album, Hex Enduction Hour (1982), he writes, “I wanted an album to be like reading a really good book.”
The rabbit killer left his home for the clough / And said goodbye to his infertile spouse / Carried air rifle and firm stock of wood / Carried night-sight telescope light / A cemetery overlooked clough valley of mud / And the grave-keeper was out on his rounds / Yellow-white shirt buried in duffle coat hood / Keeping edges out with mosaic colour stones (Mark E Smith and The Fall, “Jawbone and the Air Rifle”)
Forster mentions The Fall twice in his autobiography. The first reference is to seeing them play in London’s Electric Ballroom. The second is when, in April 1980, after arriving in London late the previous year, he and McLennan travel up to visit Edwyn Collins in Glasgow to record a single with Postcard Records. In awe of Orange Juice and the associated band, Josef K, Forster writes that he loved this “whiplash pop, miles away from the doom of the Joy Division imitators or the rumble of The Fall”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no mention of The Go-Betweens in Smith’s autobiography. He does however have this to say about their homeland down under: “Kids start saving up to go to Australia when they’re about seven, harbouring notions of the Neighbours life before they can even chew their food properly. It’s time to eradicate this idea that by getting away you’ll find yourself or walk into a glorious new existence. People who think like that just want rid of themselves. Where you’re living is in your head.”
Forster is very smart and his personality is endearing. This shines in his engaging and honest prose. On being a schoolboy, he writes, “I was enjoying my new role as raffish, lanky lord of mischief, willing to endure censure or detention for the sake of a quip, liked by the younger teachers, an enigma to the ancient and stern with my high grades and attention-seeking behaviour.” He went to university and transferred from law to literature but, despite a deep appetite for books, found it hard to settle. He summarises his attitude as this: “My problem was that literature instilled a creative impulse in me, not an academic one.”
Smith’s experience of education is geoculturally and sociologically different, harking back to a postwar British world of self-improvement in which people attended college at night to better their minds with a view to getting ahead. Apart from grammar school selection, Smith’s potential was not fostered by the state system. While he took an evening class in A-level literature when he started his first job, the theme of many Fall songs mocks students and the university-educated, many of whom ironically were lovers of the group. “Degrees have a way of warping people,” he writes. “It’s not good for people to spend that amount of time at university … They get so distanced from the real world they haven’t a fucking clue what’s needed. It’s a luxurious prison, almost.”
It would be a mistake to appraise the literary merit of singers on the basis of books they write. The punch and kick and warm pulse of autobiographical words on a page are one thing: they may be read for information or insight into some personal world the singer has impaled upon memories that appeal. Smith and Forster both recount enlightening tales of life in their bands. They both merit the publication of their books by virtue of their fans’ curiosity about their touring and recording careers, and their interest in the songs that have touched their hearts and minds. Both Renegade and Grant & I are essential insights into the psychology and experience of two outstanding men. They are little histories of the world, of great nutrition to music fans who often wonder how things are for their artistic heroes, and who are often oblivious to the mundane circumstances in which their artists actually live. To parse singers’ autobiographies or their lyrics for proof of literary ability is a misguided task. The songwriter’s art hides nowhere – it lurks out in the open, rollicking in the raw weave of multi-dimensional music, in the clanging sculpture of tunes, in the honing of melodies and verses and choruses, in the refusal to do any of this, and in the choice to parade sharp words and glistening ideas in ramshackle ways. The real art of Mark E Smith and Robert Forster resides in their very different recorded output and their contrasting live performances; it lives in their worlds of words. Their art is a cocktail of sound and vision which delivers literature and poetry and noise both rough and polished. It pours magnificently from Forster as he stares off over the Whelan’s crowd in May 2016 with a self-deprecating thespian smile while playing guitar and singing “Danger in the Past” with the lonely ghost of his dead friend Grant McLennan living in his and his audience’s hearts; it is there when The Go-Betweens play a joyous outdoor lunchtime gig in Trinity College in May 1985 and they are all glamorous and together and still alive. The art is there when The Fall play the TV Club in late 1984 and Mark E and his then wife Brix Smith talk generously afterwards with a young man whose mind has been reeling for days with the hypnotic mystery of their just released “Disney’s Dream Debased” song. The art is there in August 2004 when an angry audience in CrawDaddy waits for Mark E Smith to come on stage, the band already two hours late and just starting to play an extended instrumental intro as their singer is nowhere to be found. It looks like it might get nasty but then he suddenly appears to rapturous applause and instant crowd forgiveness. The art is there every time he tampers with on-stage amps to sabotage the sound-desk mix. It is there whenever he wanders off to the side of the stage and slumps on the floor to continue warbling one of his hundreds of lyrics into what may be the wrong microphone. And it is there when a sadly disfigured Mark E Smith plays a final gig in a wheelchair, far from books and studio time and tours and fights and firing his musicians, a sick and dying man persisting in his brilliant lyrical art.
Photographs: Mark E Smith; Robert Forster
John Fleming is an Irish Times journalist, fictionalist and Fall fan. He dedicates this essay to the memory and influence of Mark E Smith.