Saturday, 13 December 2014

Renegade - Mark E Smith


Teenage Kicks by The Undertones was John Peel's favourite song and The Fall were, of course, his favourite band which was a pretty high accolade indeed. So what is it about The Fall that sets them not only apart from but head and shoulders above their peer group? It's not their sound as their sound's always changing, it's not their lyrics as they're often indecipherable, and it's not their image as they're practically anti-image. No, I reckon it's the idea of them.

Behind The Fall lies an interesting and unusual intelligence borne from the backstreets of Greater Manchester and baptised in the white heat of the original punk wars of 1977. During that famously hot summer of revelations, unlike most other young contenders they declined to ingratiate themselves with the punk crowd and instead struck out on their own, not pretending or trying to be anything other but themselves. Their uniqueness sprang from them being enthused with a sense of literacy brought about through self-education, and their interest in and curiosity with the world of the ordinary. Behind the mundane and the normal lies wonder and fright and this is what The Fall shone a light upon, and - I should hasten to add - continue to do so almost 40 years later. And when I say The Fall, to be more precise I mean, of course, vocalist Mark E Smith.

Ghost-written by journalist Austin Collings, Renegade - The Lives And Tales Of Mark E Smith is neither an autobiography nor a memoir but rather one long, hilarious monologue. I suspect it was a relatively easy book to write as all it would have required was a copious supply of drink, a tape recorder and free rein given to Mark to talk. This probably wouldn't have worked for most people but then most people aren't Mark E Smith - thank heavens. In fact, there is no-one quite like Mark E Smith. He's a complete original and as his fans all appreciate, an absolute genius to boot.
So what does the vocalist of The Fall have to talk about over the course of a whole book that he hasn't already discussed before in all the years of interviews he's done? To be honest, it's difficult to know where to start but let's give it a go:

Apparently, one of Mark's relations fought against the Zulus at Rorke's Drift and in the film starring Michael Caine he was played by actor James Booth. He was the pissed, laid-up-in-bed, proletarian soldier; on the skive with a boil on his arse.
As a child Mark would have to babysit three of his younger sisters and two of their friends all aged about five, so he devised a game called 'Japanese prison camp' which as the name implies if enacted today would probably be investigated by the social services. "What can you do?" says Mark "It's hard work bringing up kids. Japanese prison camp was the perfect solution."
At sixteen he started smoking: "I don't think you need it really before then. I couldn't see the point to it. You can't appreciate it then." Before taking up smoking cigarettes, however, at the age of fifteen he was taking acid: "I was on acid before I even had any pot; pot was for hippies. I had no problem with the acid because it was proper LSD."
Before starting The Fall, Mark shared a flat situated at the back of a mental hospital and he would often invite patients in for a cup of tea, play them some rock'n'roll and let them watch a bit of telly. Whilst the nurses would all sit cross-legged on the floor, teaching the patients yoga and playing them Pink Floyd, Mark would take them down the pub for a bit of normality: "Sometimes I think I did more good than all the nurses put together. It's where my dislike of hippies came from, I think."
According to Mark, The Clash were better than the Sex Pistols but so too were the Glitter Band. Geoff Travis and the Rough Trade label are nowhere near as radical as they think and being signed to them was "like living in Russia", asking such things as "What exactly is a Prole Art Threat?" Tony Wilson of Factory Records was like Engels but rather than having twelve-year-old girls working in a factory like Engels did, Wilson had The Happy Mondays. Mark's always got time for Bez, however, and so too for John Cooper Clarke. 
Alvin Stardust was "cool", George Best "a great bloke", Leigh Bowery "a proper artist", Pete Waterman "a good worker", and The Searchers "brilliant song-writers, very underrated." And "nothing touches" the film Dead Man's Shoes. He's "a big fan" of film director Lindsay Anderson and comedy actor Leonard Rossiter who played Rigsby in Rising Damp but he's never like Noel Gallagher. Joe Strummer wasn't the "saviest cultural commentator" and his politics "were all over the place"; and as for BBC media graduates, they're either "Jo Whiley-ites" or they dress like Mork and Mindy.
Writing about Prestwich, in Manchester is "just as valid as Dante writing about his inferno". Primark sells "some alright stuff at a fair price. Go and shop there; you don't want to be walking around like an urban scarecrow". Bargain Booze is a particular favourite shop of Mark's: "You can get some good offers there". Mobile phones are "a disease. People ringing each other up all the time, talking about tomato sauce and what's happening in their car. They're as much an addiction as drink, but less sociable". Proper pub landlords tell you to "drink up and get another or leave", libraries are full of "repressed stormtroopers gawking at you", there should be "more ashtrays on morning TV and presenters wheezing", taking speed helps Mark sleep, and people fail to realize that "99.9 per cent of people with a healthy diet will eventually die". And so on ad infinitum.
Mark's dad had a few good opinions too. Regarding people naming their kids 'Keegan' after Kevin Keegan he would say: "Stop hanging around with people like that. You should get away from people like that". And: "If you're feeling too sexy have a glass of water and a run round the backyard".

When writer and critic Sean O'Hagan reviewed Renegade for The Guardian, he suggested it may be the funniest music book ever written and I suspect he may well be right. I'd be reading it on a packed-out train on the way home from work and I'd be laughing out loud to it. I can't imagine what any of the other passengers thought but then none of them cared to ask what I was reading. Not that the name Mark E Smith would have meant a lot to any of them.
Mark hoped that Renegade would turn out to be a kind of Mein Kampf for the Hollyoaks generation, and though I don't think it's quite that, it's certainly unlike any other book stocked in the music section of Waterstones. And you don't have to be a Fall fan or even to know anything about them to enjoy it. 
According to Mark, he's always wanted The Fall to be "the group that represents people who are sick of being dicked around; those that have a bit of fight in them", and I think that's a very accurate description. And that same description could also probably apply to this book.

John Serpico

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