Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Poem: 'The New Moral Gospel Of The Fall'


she plucks the rosy red apple from the forbidden tree
holds it out for me, I say I prefer Golden Delicious
why not eat it yourself? she says I only eat apples
when the skin’s shaved away, it’s cut into
neat segments with pips and core removed,
and lightly sprinkled with demerara,
I know it’s organic and locally-sourced
but there may be bugs or maggoty-worms,
reasonable hygiene precautions make sense…
and the Satan-Snake says sod this
I’m giving the apple to the orangutans…
things have never been quite the same since

Friday, 23 February 2018



 Mark E Smith (5 March 1957-24 January 2018) 
I can’t recall exactly when I first interviewed The Fall
 But this is the full text of the encounter, and judging 
 by references to album titles it must have been around the 
 middle of 1987. Yet the issues dealt with here – the problems 
 of being a ‘Career Punk’, an ‘Establishment Outsider’ 
 remain as valid today. I saw the Fall most recently at a Festival 
 in August 2000. Mark E Smith had collaborated on some 
 tracks with Elastica. Elastica play the same Festival. Same tent. 
 Same day. But they don’t guest with Fall. And he doesn’t 
 appear with them. Instead, he prowls the stage in a kind 
 of unpredictable edginess, vanishing behind the amps for 
 long stretches of the set as the riffs continue, then – to the 
 consternation of the drummer, he becomes preoccupied with 
 dismantling the drum-kit, the annoyed Stage Crew hastily 
 re-assembling it as he wanders off to seek new toys. 
 The Fall may have added years and albums to their history, 
 but they are still not fully assimilated into the mainstream. 
 As ‘Career Outsiders’ they’ve succeeded better than most... 


False-colour photos from the dark side of Uranus (pronounced Your-Anus or Yura-nus). A switch-back of black rings no unlensed eyes have yet seen, a dance of ten new unpaced black moons in lost frigid orbits, beautiful and complex... but what the hell FOR? For whose benefit? If those moons, those rings, didn’t exist would it REALLY upset some vast eternal cosmic plan? The system runs in total impersonal isolation, according to its own illogics and for the apparent benefit of no-one.

A Wonderful and Frightening World... like the Fall. Ring-systems of black vinyl noise across some ten albums, a spatchcock of LP’s with tracks not so much posed or even composed - more decomposed. A more extensive back-catalogue than that racked up by either Velvet Underground or the Doors. But a band hermetically sealed off in its own space-time continuum run on its own devious motives. As real, and as irrelevant as Uranus.

The Fall are something of an enigma, and one worth probing.

‘Shall we go for a drink, and do the interview there?’ leers Mr Hip Priest, ‘I’ve always enjoyed the idea of a Yorkshireman buying me drinks!’ I’m working out the logistics of cross-town traffic between here – the Leeds Poly, and the local hostelry most conducive to civilised discourse over a cassette machine, and decide on the close shot – ‘The Cobourg’. We go down a cascade of ferrocrete stairs and out into that vinyl-black night. People recognise the hunched-up guy by my side – ‘Hello Mark E’ they yell matily (that’s ‘MARK E’ pronounced ‘Markey’, as in Ramones), and he replies to each and every one of them in an affable and equally matey way. And so – across the flesh-pale argon-lit tarmac to ‘The Cobourg’. They used to have live Trad Jazz here (the Ed O’Donnel Band) before they lowered the ceiling. Poet Jeff Nuttall – who wrote the excellent ‘Bomb Culture’, was oft to be found sprawled semi-sober over these very beer-pumps. And I was once savaged by an alsatian dog just there, I bear the scars to this day...

A pint of ‘Stones Bitter’ for Mr Fall slouched in behind the black intricately wrought-iron lacings of the table set in the scuffed mock-Victorian decor. A theatrically quick grin, artificially cheerful, and ‘well, Andy, what do you want to ask me...?’ You’ve prob’bly read a lot of Fall interviews, right? and you therefore know they conform to a set pattern. Writers set up a topic which Mark E then demolishes with scornful contra-think wit, before setting up the next target. It’s a mutually supportive game that reinforces the roles of the awkward sod bugger-all dour Mancunian, versus the scribe’s post-Watergate journalistic delusions of probe/ controversy/ significant-statements and the like. This interview is not like that. I don’t want knee-jerk blanket-negativity. That’s been done to death and then screwed some more. This probe wants to orbit Mark E’s enthusiasms. Find out what excites his interest. The positivism side of it all.

So – Gene Vincent. The Fall don’t usually do cover versions, so why choose Gene Vincent’s “Rolling Danny” – why that particular track, as an ‘A’-side single a year-and-plus ago? ‘That’s the first one we did, yeah’ he concedes. ‘The first cover version. Gene Vincent – yes. I’ve always been into him (or he might have said ‘interested in him’ – I’m still getting adjusted to the rise and fall of the Mancunian drone). I think he’s great. I like him ‘cos he used to... er... do you ever listen to his records?’ Nod. ‘He never used to have any production on them, or lyrics, or anything ready – it’s all noise ‘n’ stuff. REALLY. And if you read up on him you’ll see that, apparently, when he used to go in the studio, like – nobody knew what they were recording. So Gene Vincent just used to make up lyrics. That’s why I’ve always liked him, y’know. There’s a lot of NOISE on his records, which phased down some to the latter end of the Fifties. Y’know what I’m saying? I think a lot of it was unconscious – but it was really good. I like all his stuff. I don’t play it all the time – but I played it last night when I got in.’

Did you ever see Gene Vincent in the Jayne Mansfield/ Tom Ewell movie ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ (20th Century Fox, 1958)? Enthusiasm – Mark E Smith? This one near scores on the Richter scale. ‘Good film that, in’it? Ridiculous script (Frank Tashlin take a bow). It’s all innuendoes, the script – it’s all double entendres. And you know the guy who made it was a Marxist? He was a Marxist, right? And that was the last film he made – ‘cos he was subsequently banned. Senator McCarthy got him right after that film (Tashlin again!).’ And in that film Gene Vincent & The Bluecaps perform “Bee-Bop A-Lula” upstairs in the ‘Beaux Arts Rehearsal Rooms’ ($5 an hour) – and it completely epitomises the vital brat-energy spirit of what Rock is supposed to be. ‘Yeah, it’s brilliant.’ Then he adds more conspiratorially, ‘apparently – you know in that film-clip they’ve got those pictures of Beethoven and that, on the wall? Well – apparently in the out-takes, when he hits the climax of “Be-Bop A-Lula” THEY ALL FELL OFF, ‘cos the band was playing too loud! All the pictures in the room fell off, but they didn’t put it in the film. Sounds great that. You know where they go DANG-DANG-DANG-DANGDANG-KRRRRRANG!!!! – all the pictures of Beethoven on the wall go ‘PWOO PWOOO’ – all smashed! They never used that take. Bit silly that, won’it?’

Perhaps we’ll see it on one of the TV out-take shows – ‘It’ll Be Alright On The Night No. 126’? Mark E don’t seem impressed by my attempted humour. ‘I very much doubt it,’ delivered with withering scorn.


The Fall: a Wonderful and Frightening World...?

In the battle for the hearts, minds, and wallets of the Indie consumer, the Fall are old stagers. In his twenty-plus years of radio babble DJ John Peel has consistently championed just three names – The Undertones, Captain Beefheart... and the Fall. The Fall are the only band to record a full ten studio sessions for his programme. Yet Peel himself confesses confusion. While describing them as ‘my favourite band since the Undertones ceased trading’ he goes on to add that ‘my enduring admiration for their unwholesome racket is not something that can be sensibly analysed’ (‘Observer’ 24th August 1986). And still into Tens – the Fall capped their decade’s career with an integral slot on Factory’s G-MEX ‘Tenth Summer’ gee-up celebration of Manchester’s glorious musical heritage. And isn’t ‘Bend Sinister’ (September 1986) their tenth (or, if you count the ‘Slates’ (April 1981) twelve-inch EP – eleventh) album? That’s a l-o-n-g time. What exactly IS the Fall?

‘It’s Punk’ chirps Brix (aka Mrs Smith) pre-gig by way of definition, emphasising her assertion by stubbing her cig into the plush maroon Students Union upholstery she’s decorously draped over. I point out what she’s doing – is that the last residue of Punk disrespect? She smiles delightfully, ‘using the back of the chair as an ash-tray?’, and drowns it out in a gush of naughty sniggers so delightful it near-derails my investigative train of thought. Billy Idol comes to mind – he was Punk too, wasn’t he? I was watching a Billy Idol interview on TV... ‘I saw that’ burbles Brix. ‘Oh – he’s ADORABLE!’ In a Gary Glitter sort of way? He’s very stylised Punk. He’s exaggerated Punk into Showbiz. ‘Yeh, exactly. But in America THAT’S what Punk is, to them, you see?’

And isn’t it true that Rod Stewart used to play the Fall’s 1980 single “Totally Wired” over the p.a. prior to a gig – as warm-up? ‘I didn’t hear about that. That’s REALLY...’ Brix is probably totally mystified – BAMBOOZLED yet, by my line of enquiry by now. So into the punchline, don’t you think the punter on the street would see Billy Idol and Rod Stewart in a similar light. Both of them in the same category, both of them big Rock Stars removed from reality by their celebrity? ‘I don’t think so because, see – Rod Stewart is like Old School Rock ‘n’ Roll, do you know what I mean? Like Led Zeppelin, like those kind of – MEN, you know what I’m saying? That strut and prance, right? But Billy Idol is like – young, Punk, New Generation, the New Kids coming up, you know what I mean? So it’s sort of very different. I mean – I don’t think they’d see them the same. But they are both Big Business, Big Money – I see what you’re saying there. But to a kid, he’d think Billy Idol was cool, and Rod Stewart was for his M-a-a-a-r-m, y’know?’

But my point is that the Fall are now into their tenth (or eleventh if you count...) album, and that same kid on the street is going to look at the Fall and think – WOW!!!, eleven albums, that’s really something to achieve. ‘It is’ agrees Brix, ‘mmmmmm.’ So the Fall must now have something of that kind of ‘Star’ mystique. Not quite Rod Stewart, or even Billy Idol, but that same kind of logic applies. You’re a career musician because the Fall have been an established part of the scene for ten years. So how do YOU think that kid on the street would look at the Fall? She sits back carefully. ‘It’s like a contradiction, really. The only reason we’ve released so many albums is that we’ve got a lot of songs. We’re prolific. And the fact that we DO sell them. So we can – like, keep going. But we’ve only been going the same amount of time as Siouxsie & The Banshees or whatever...!’

Craig Scanlon (lead guitar) shrugs as I shift attention in his direction. ‘I don’t know. I missed the first section of your l-o-n-g question...!’ And the whole intricately constructed thesis falls apart in three-way waves of laughter. Conversation collapsing like a ton of brix (sic!).

‘I don’t know,’ he resumes. ‘I mean, I can’t judge anymore what the audience see and hear, ‘cos we’re on stage. It doesn’t matter. If they like us that’s great. ‘Cos each person’s got a different idea about what the Fall is – including the people in the band! Basically I don’t try to analyse it or do a MORI poll thing on it...’


‘This is a cool group. Here are your Wedding pictures, they are black...’

Mr Smith – how do you feel about being asked banal questions?

Stephen Hanley (bass) was born in Dublin in 1959 – just two years after Jackie Wilson’s “Reet Petite” was in the Top Twenty for the first time. He joins Fall twenty years later, following a stint with a gospel/ religious outfit called Staff Nine.

John S Woolstencroft replaces drummer Karl Burns in August 1986 in time to play on the garage-acid “Mr Pharmacist” single which scores the Fall’s highest Top Forty placing. Meanwhile, Burns was last reported to be in Geneva rehearsing with Iggy (‘Wild One’) Osterberg.

Simon Rogers (bass/ DX7) is also a recent Fall additive. Classically trained, he was scoring a Mark E piece called ‘The Classical’ for Michael Clarke’s Ballet Ramba, and was subsequently requisitioned into the Fall full-time.

There’s also Craig and Brix in the current line-up, while ex-Fall Mike Leigh was last heard doing cabaret, and Mark (‘Creepers’) Riley is now scripting ‘Harry The Head’ for IPC’s pervy juve-zine ‘Oink’.

Then there’s Mark E Smith from Prestwich, ‘a name which inspires dread and respect’ (a self-blurb from Channel 4’s Teletext)... the only member left from the Fall’s 1977 inception.

So the Fall is not static. But as a band of ten years standing (and Fall-ing), is it still GOING anywhere? Is there a conscious progression? Are the Fall evolving in any particular direction? ‘I think so, yeah’ admits Mark E grudgingly. ‘A lot of people think it’s just the same old stuff all over again’ – staring me out, challenging me to argue. So – well, a ‘Melody Maker’ review DID say that album-wise you’ve re-recorded Captain Beefheart’s ‘Safe As Milk’ ten times over! ‘Yeah – right. That’s rubbish,’ mouthed around a sneer. ‘But I thought it was quite funny really. It’s all horse-shit, in’it?’

A long pause. ‘But I find that an AMAZING viewpoint. I think everything’s very very different. Different people. Different attitudes. Every time. In fact – I think that’s what a lot of people DON’T like about it! They try and pretend that they don’t like the fact that we’re just the same – when it’s the fact that we DO actually change that they don’t like. They always want you to come up with an album that sounds like the one before, so they can classify you. It’s always been the case. I mean – the easiest thing you can do – like, the best thing for us to do would have been to make ‘Bend Sinister’ another album like ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’ (September 1985) – we’d clean up. I’ve always known this. People think you’re stupid. They talk to you like you’ve not quite cracked it, they talk to you like... (the repetition of the phrase is delivered with all the derisive vehemence of his stage-diatribes)... they say ‘why don’t you stick to this ?’, and you go ‘well – you know, don’t you think that’s REALLY TEEEEEDIOUS...????’’

‘You take something like U2 or Echo & The Bunnymen or – I’m not knocking them groups’ he hastily adds, ‘they’re... talented,’ and he coughs round the words in a way that might imply his Stones Bitter has got re-routed the wrong way, or may signify a certain choking on the word itself, I dunno. ‘But their second and third albums! There’s not much you can see between them is there? There’s NO difference! And the fourth and fifth... it goes on like that for fuckin’ ever, y’know. It’s the same bloody old...’ the word gets lost – it’s probably ‘treatment’, but might be something stronger. ‘All that’s happening is that they’re spending more money on it as they go along. Maybe the album after next has an orchestra on it. But it’s the same fuck’n album really. And I’ve always thought that was pretty obvious and pretty insulting. So I think it’s very IRONIC that people charge US – y’know, with just doing the same thing for y-e-a-r-s. I think that’s very odd. And very interesting.’

How do you define what is good Fall and what is bad Fall? ‘Er – there’s a lot of our early stuff that I don’t really like... if I listen to it. But I don’t knock it, y’know.’

I always thought ‘Hex Enduction Hour’, the fifth album – from March 1982, was quintessential Fall, eleven tracks, one hour’s playing time, cuts like “Iceland” and “Hip Priest”. ‘Exactly. I mean – ‘Hex Enduction Hour’ went down very well.’ And there’s quite a contrast between that – and ‘Room To Live’, which followed it, in September of the same year, featuring the consciously art-house “Papal Visit”, the twinned guitars of Scanlon and Riley stand-outing on “Marquis Cha Cha” and “Detective Instinct”. ‘Right. It’s deliberate. If we’d done ‘Hex Enduction Hour II’ – even though ‘Room To Live’ was very heavy and noisy – if we’d followed that up with something really similar, people would really love you, ‘cos they’re getting used to you. Which is not the point. I mean, once you’re doing something you should do it for the fun of it. You should do it for the CREATIVITY of it. You shouldn’t – like, go round repeating what you’ve done. That’s why the Fall lasts a long time.’

Do you consider that you’re working inside the Rock tradition? ‘No. I’m just saying there’s a lot more things here than people give us credit for. The trouble with Rock music is that it’s too easy for a lot of idiots to play it.’ A pause. ‘But that’s also its greatest beauty.’ But don’t you think there’s any cross-over in attitude between what you’re saying about the value of spontaneity, and the way that Gene Vincent worked? ‘I don’t think so. No. I just think that the way he worked is great.’ No continuity in that use of pure noise? ‘I don’t know. I just like the fact that there’s NO LYRIC SHEETS with Gene Vincent for sure. It’s all like ‘WIRR WIRR WIRR!! – WHAT WHAT WHAT!! – UH-HUH UH UH-HUH!!!’ You know what I mean? I like it... with the Fall we can get very literal a lot of the time.’


Uranus is 18.181843 astronomical units from Earth, and has a surface temperature of 57 kelvin. With its stubbornly inverted poles and oceans of methane gasses, the system runs in total impersonal isolation, according to its own illogics, and for the apparent benefit of no-one.

A Wonderful and Frightening World... like the Fall.

Brix: ‘I would hate for the Fall to be like the Damned. That’s my worst fear. To just evolve into a ‘Rock’ band and not have anything really unique about us, or stop the experimentation – that is my WORST fear. That will never happen.’

Craig: ‘That’d be just like doing the cabaret circuit, doing that. We NEED to play. We do get rusty if we don’t play. It helps us a lot.’

Brix: ‘We need to play to EAT! To play to live, you know? – that’s what keeps us vital. Within ourselves we HAVE to do it.’

The Fall tend to engender fierce extremes of reaction, from uncritical devotion to vociferous revulsion. Me? I’ve always found them consistently ‘interesting’. That’s the kind of smug word people use as a patronising put-down, but in the case of the Fall it’s used fairly accurately. They are a band who suggest and imply all manner of intriguing possibilities while masking it all in what looks to be webs of deliberate obfuscation. Can it be that it’s all just prick-teasing? Perhaps the blurry definition is an essential part of the Fall’s Working Class Prole-Art conception? It is ideologically uncool – as well as flash, to wear your culture too conspicuously. Hints and nudges are all that’s necessary. Audience suss will do the rest. But then – catalysed by Brix’s more Pop-attack orientation (‘I never met a girl who was so HUBBLY-BUBBLY!!!!’), ‘Bend Sinister’ is not only their most invigoratingly direct and accessible album, but also their most commercially successful seller to date. I like it a lot. It provides evidence that – even after ten years, the Fall ARE still evolving.

But do you see a point where the Fall will exhaust the permutations of their style? A long silence. ‘Bend Sinister’ is your eleventh album...? ‘Yeh – so what? I don’t see anything wrong with that! It’s just that... a-w-w-w-w-w-w... I always take it day by day. I always have. I don’t look more that three months into the future. I never ‘ave. There’s endless possibilities with lyrics. There’s endless possibilities with music. You can go on forever really. The danger is that you don’t become ridiculous, or start taking yourself seriously ‘n’ stuff!’

Another thoughtful pause, then ‘is that it then Andy? Is that it now? You finished then?’

No. Not really. The Fall are still something of an enigma, but they remain one worth probing. But I guess it will do to be going on with.

Until the next time...

Published in a slightly revised form in my book:
(Headpress/ Critical Vision - UK - December 2001)

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Cult Albums: Two by THE FALL


 Album Review of: 
(September 1985, Beggars Banquet BEGA 67) 

Fall (Ger: Sturz. Fr: Chute. Sp: la Caida)

What is this thing called Fall?

Is it Fall: as in the verb – to fall (did he FALL or was he pushed? I’m not FALLing for this crock of crapola no more! FALLing in and out of love).

Or is it Fall: as in the noun – The FALL. FALL from grace, vis theology.

Does it even matter? Mark E Smith’s a word-scrambler of some eight years standing (and FALLing). That irresistible rise and rise of Fall has taken him into a niche midway between upwardly mobile and horizontally frozen. This album, their tenth – and first for Beggars Banquet, will give both Fallophiles and Fallophobes pretty much what they’ve come to expect; some further conjugations of the verb ‘to Fall’ (in which everything’s delivered and nothing much is revealed). Same as it ever was… same as it ever was…

The inner sleeve collage shows Mr E Smith situated beneath posters for Billy Cobham, Bo Diddley, and The Trio. Are we to draw conclusions from these references? Chances are they’re scat-random, much like the use, miss-use and abuse of language within. ‘What have you got in that paper bag?/ is it a dose of vitamin C-ee?’ now is that heavy or is that HEAVY?!? The collage also cannibalises press-cuttings (‘punk is strung somewhere between the Fall and the Doors’), and a Music-Biz small-ad for a kit to change your unwanted vinyl albums into Picture Disc Wall Clocks (for a mere £3.95). Is this (a) commercial sponsorship, (b) a significant statement… about ‘Hex Enduction Hour’ perhaps?, or (c) an instruction on the recommended use for THIS album?

Vinyl-wise the album fades in and fades out with an identical motif – the first one (“Mansion”) at 01:21, both brief and instrumental, the final one (“To NK Roachment: Yarbles”) the same but with some tacky lyrics tacked on – ‘ev’ry day I have to cry some/ wipe the tears from my eye some’, didn’t Dusty Springfield sing that? Side one continues through “Bombast” with its ‘feel the wrath of my bombast’ vocals lost inside John Leckie’s labyrinthine mix, audible fragments drifting free like the bubble-patterns working their way through the surface of your own backlit aquarium; and “Barmy”, a huge cavernous dense dissonant echoing slithering interlocking imbroglio of noise threaded onto an irritating riff litigation-close to “Satisfaction”. Then there’s a rowdy rabble of vocalese leaden down with brain-dead bass (from Dublin-born Stephen Hanley) listing all the things “What You Want” – Watneys, a censor who cuts out pals like these, etc. And “Spoilt Victorian Child”, a twangy laser-knife Brix guitar cutting around a classic non-constructed song-structure in jerky zigzags of repetition just this side of cacophony – an exercise in the fine art of (almost) FALLing apart that Fall specialise in.

Side two’s a whole lot more interesting – “My New House” will probably become this album’s stand-out – its saving grace, it matches an acoustic intro and a near-Rockabilly slap-kick backtrack to Mark’s expressionless voice-over; but the one I keep jacking the stylus back to is the intriguing “Paintwork”, intercut with odd meanderings of tape and megaphone-distortion voice declaiming a stream-of-conscious narrative of notebook jottings. An acid-rain of drums (from ex-PiL and ex-Nuclear Angel Karl Burns) and “I Am Damo Suzuki”, a skewed reference to Can, maintains the interest quotient while remaining infuriatingly unmistakeably Fall.

‘All the groups who hit it big/ make the Kane Gang look like an Einstein chip’ sneers Mr Hip Priest (on “Gut Of the Quantifier”), a neat couplet, and an even neater encapsulation of the inverted snobbery of the Indie aesthetic that snares him. Does it matter? What is this thing called Fall? Is this man deep or is this man DEEP?!?

…I’ll get back to you on it.

Album Review of: 
(1987, Cog Sinister COG 1 
compilation of early singles 1980-1983) 

Fall’s latest vinyl evidence up for analysis is an odd and eccentric compilation of obscurities and curios trawled mid-period from their ten years of recording. It could be said that ANY Fall album is – by definition, odd and eccentric. But this one fields clues simply by its being a personal assemblage served up as launch issue by Mark E Smith’s own label. ‘Cog Sinister’ is presumably a twist on the previous album title ‘Bend Sinister’ (September 1986), a tag lifted from a Nabokov tale, which therefore might betray some kind of literary bent. Contents-wise things get a little less exact – “How I Wrote Elastic Man” and both sides of “Totally Wired” c/w “Putta Block” go back to 1980 and the debut singles from the Rough Trade phase. Then there’s “The Man Whose Head Expanded” and both sides of the “Kicker Conspiracy” c/w “Wings” single. Plus “An Older Lover”, “Fit And Working Again” and “Prole Art Threat” salvaged from the now-rare ‘Slates’ ten-inch EP a year later. Followed by Mark’s Falklands babble-logue “Marquis Cha-Cha” which should have formed instalment three of a 1983 singles-triad before Fall flitted from Rough Trade to Beggars Banquet – if it wasn’t for the fact that this third title was pressed up and advertised but never officially released (until the Kamera-label ‘Room To Live’ mini-album track).

There’s more… all core-samples drilled from Fall’s most fertile formative time-zone, when their initially directionless gut-liquefying sonic dementia was being sculpted into the most distinctively idiosyncratic noise in Indie-Pop. You know it by now, they all operate on the same long-established Fall principle that forbids any construction of sounds that are too obviously well-finished, surly non-audible rants delivered with the air of practiced boredom all wrapped up in a neurological devastation of riffs at head-kicking eye-thumping power. It still sounds smashed, blocked, and as exhilaratingly stunning as it ever did. And whatever it is they did – and are still doing, they did – and are still doing, pretty damn right. Theirs is a practiced and professional shambles, and if this retrospect, this Greatest Non-Hits doesn’t exactly unpervert the language or uncover the Fall-guise, then it does dig around the Prole-Art Threat some, and that makes it worth the price of admission hereabouts.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Interview: MARK E SMITH talks about 'HEY! LUCIANI'


Mark E Smith of the Fall has written a play 
about the mysterious death of Pope Paul I. 
Andrew Darlington finds out more 

‘Hey Luciani, Pop Stars in your cell, 
Hey Luciani, a Polish son of Hell…’ 

The record and the Play of the single “Hey! Luciani” (December 1986), according to the sub-title, concerns ‘the life and codex’ of Albino Luciani. The story, in other words, of Pope John Paul I who, you may or may not recall, died in 1978 under mysterious, and – some say, sinister circumstances, just thirty-three days into his Papalcy. You DO remember, don’t you? It’s H-E-A-V-Y subject matter, provoked by the heavily investigative tome ‘In God’s Name’ (Bantam Books, 1984) perpetrated by arch conspiracy-theorist David Yallop. Mark E Smith, the thinking head of Fall, magicked the tract into a play that received its London premier at the ‘Riverside Studios’ through the fag-end of 1986 to a plethora of baffled brain-numbed reviews. Trevor Stewart plays the title role, Leigh Bowery, Lucy Burge, and ‘The Comic Strip’s Lanah Pellay do dance-ons, while the Fall collective mill around dragged up as priests, Mafioso, terrorists, and – occasionally, post-tonalist musicians. A strange time was had by all.

Mark E Smith. Is this man deep?

Andrew Darlington: Is the name ‘Fall’ used in the Catholic sense of the ‘fall from grace’? Is that a deliberate reference?

Mark E Smith: Well, that’s the idea of the name, yes. But there’s loads of connotations you can pick.

AD: Religious connotations? You once did a ‘B’-side called “Papal Visit”.

MES: All sorts on connotations. There’s loads of things it means. If you go to America the name Fall means fuck-all (F-all?). All it means is bloody autumn. So everybody thinks you’re called the fucking Autumns! So sometimes you lose out, y’know. Or in Germany, the Fall means, like, making an idiot out of yourself. You know that? It means you walk down the street, and you can’t bloody walk – in German, like Prat-fall. So you’re Das Fall, and it means like, you come a cropper…

Mark E Smith. Is this man deep? I’m just looking for clues.

--- 0 --- 
‘You should always read these things slowly, 
on the look-out for clues or give-aways’ 
(Martin Amis in ‘Money’, Penguin paperback) 

Before voyaging out tonight I’m watching ‘TV Wipe-Out’, a Double-Vision video compilation with extensive live footage of Fall at the ‘Venue’, blurry figures in streaky darkness. ‘Good evening, we are the Fall, and these are the words of expectation/ these are the words of success, expectation/ every now and then I would like to do something like this…’ Fast-cut spool forward to Mark E Smith sat on a floral-print couch. He toys abstractly with a cigarette, stub-stub-stubbing at the ash-tray resting precariously on the couch-arm. There’s a stereo speaker cabinet behind his head, level with his left ear. His left leg arches up over his right knee. He’s saying ‘…’cos I, in my sort of… dreamlike world,’ uncrosses his legs, stub-stubs his cigarette absently, ‘…I sort of see myself as a writer, and the Fall is a very good vehicle… and it’s the only vehicle for me to do it…’

Now we’re sitting face-to-face in the ‘Cobourg’, a low-rent Leeds hostelry. His hair’s hacked back from the video mop-top, such hair as remains is as multi-directional and styleless as a Fall guitar solo. He seems more relaxed too, so I probe him about the ‘I see myself as a writer’ spiel. Could this be a lead-in to “Hey! Luciani”? A laconic sneer. ‘I don’t think you should actually take that Double-Vision thing very seriously. I mean, the interview part is more a FARCE y’know? I’m basically just trying to get the blokes out me ‘ouse (house) really.’ He intercepts and censors my laughter – ‘no, genuinely. I’d had enough of them, you know. They were really slow! DEAD slow!!’

So you DON’T see yourself as a writer, in that case?

‘I do. And I don’t, y’know?’

Well, no, not really – I don’t know, so tell me. Is this the classic awkward-bugger Mark E face-out or what? ‘When I’m not working I think of myself as a writer. THAT’S what I DO. But you can’t like… eat from writing, can you? As I’m sure you know. You haven’t got a regular job then?’ He’s turned it around so that he’s interviewing me. ‘Do you write for anybody else? Like who?’ His interest seems to upturn as I tell him, and confess the occasional soft-core fiction-sale to ‘Knave’ and ‘Mayfair’. ‘OH! YOUR OWN STUFF – SMASHING. That’s good then in’it. Yeah, sure man, get in there y’know. I read ‘Mayfair’ once, I think I’ve seen your name – that’s a REALLY weird magazine isn’t it – ‘she touched my penis and then she…’. Do you review records and all that? Wow – what…?’

Yes, but it’s supposed to be ME interviewing YOU! ‘For sure, yeah,’ he slumps back into the scuffed leather upholstery, losing interest, like he’d prefer to duck outta the regular Q/A routine and just chat about the economics of freelance writing. But I persevere. Prior to ‘Luciani’ there’s other evidence of a literary bent. For example, there’s a page of absurdist ‘hoaly lunatic’ Mark E original tract in ‘New Musical Express’ submitted under his poet persona Zabadak Goolze and his alter ego Roman Totale XVIII. For completists there’s a newly-published twenty-one text verse compilation – ‘The Fall Lyrics’, setting out in messy transcript the full jaggedy acid-spiked word-scramble, the complete verbal terrorism of Fall-songs mangled through a dodgy print-job (from ‘Lough Press’ Bertin as a mere twenty pre-Euro Deutchmarks, from Der D Luff, Arndstrasse 39, W Berlin 61, 1000 Germany). So there’s a continuity of prose as prose, as well as poem as lyrics. And now there’s a play, supposedly written on a series of beer-mats and delivered to the director in a shoe-box…

Hence, according to the evidence, Mark E Smith IS a writer who writes in a number of different forms? ‘Yeah, I do. I’ve got… I’m big on diaries. I fill in loads of them. I write all the time – like, if I see a bit of paper, I’ll write on it. I enjoy it. It gets a lot out of my system. And I write stories as well. I’ve got a few books of them at home. I don’t… y’know, it’s not worth the effort to keep it up. But we can flog ‘em off when I’m fifty or something! When I’m feeling a bit more mature, mature enough to sort of put it all into context, y’know what I mean? Turn it into a book.’

Do extracts from these diaries become lyrics every now and then? ‘Yes, a bit.’

And are there any writers you particularly admire? ‘A few, yeah.’

Wyndham Lewis (‘he was a funny old stick’) gets a Mark E thumbs-up in a ‘Melody Maker’ Fall-file (27 September 1986), as does the mesmerising SF-writer Philip K Dick (‘I got a Dick book the other day called ‘The Man Whose Teeth Were All The Same Size’ (the actual title is ‘The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike’, 1984), and I couldn’t believe it. It sounds like one of our song titles’). And ‘…erm, I like Martin Amis. KINGSLEY Amis was really bad I always thought – but his son MARTIN Amis is really good. Great books.’ A modern, abrasive style, I prompt – ‘Dead Babies’ (1975), ‘Success’ (1978), the black comedy sex and class of ‘Other People’ (1981). ‘He gets very pseudo in his journalism’ Mark E qualifies, ‘but his books are great.’

I can see the headline now, POP STAR READS BOOK: SENSATION! Or even POP STAR WRITES PLAY: SENSATION! Mark E Smith makes for a very STRANGE Pop Star. But then again – ‘Hey! Luciani: The Life And Codex Of John Paul I’ is a very strange play. Those seeking enlightenment on the whodunit complexities of Papal intrigue – the sinister involvement of the Masonic P2 Lodge, cliques of reactionary Cardinals opposed to John Paul’s liberalist tendencies, Vatican bankers found hanging beneath a Thames bridge… and their role in the Pope’s death, aren’t going to come away any wiser. The four-act ninety-minute Play works on the same obscurantist principle that governs Fall lyrics. Just that, in their naked Play-form the encoded loony-tuneism becomes that much more apparent.

‘Mmm-mmm. That’s part of the fun. I don’t like things on a plate, I think that’s revolting.’

Yet, although Mark E says – if grudgingly, that he thinks of himself as a ‘writer’, the song-lyrics, cryptic and impressionistic to begin with, are often mixed so far back on record that they’re practically inaudible. ‘I think everybody’s making records just for a mental age of three, y’know?’ He takes a contemplative slurp at his pint of Tetley’s Bitter. ‘They can’t work at things. They can’t constantly listen to things, they haven’t got the attention span for it, and they can’t deny it even. I think that’s very wrong. There’s a lot of things I don’t really want people to know I’m saying. A lot of things on Fall records. Sometimes it’s just the vowel sounds that are important.’ He laughs wheezily – ‘you make me sound like a bloody Professor, y’know that? I’d better shut up…!’

But sometimes the lyrics that DO surface through the mix require translation, there are few clues or give-aways, like ‘hey Mark, you’re messing up the paintwork’...? (“Paint Work” on ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’, 1985).

‘Yes. They strike home a lot more if they’re garbled. I mean, it makes sense – it’s so OBVIOUS!’

Um, perhaps subliminally? Perhaps as absurdism through repetition?

‘I mean – what’s the whole point of having Rock music?’ he demands. ‘If you want everything clean you might as well listen to Classical Music, right? ‘Cos they do it a lot better. If you listen to Classical Music all the time, it’s very nice – it’s all very well recorded and you can hear what the person’s saying. Whereas the whole idea of Rock ‘n’ Roll is to turn that thing around. To make it into, like, a different sort of…er… art. A bit more drastic!’

Lookabar lookabar lookabar lookabar Ooooo-Weeee! Point taken.

The spin-off “Hey! Luciani” single, co-written with Fall-guys Stephen Hanley and Brix Smith, forms the third part of the group’s triple-tier ‘The ‘Domesday Pay-Off’ Triad-Plus’ (1987, US only), and – like the band’s most recent album, ‘Bend Sinister’ (1986), finds the Fall at its most UP, a mere heartbeat away from the mainstream charts. Probably Mark E’s deliberate obfuscations work better within the unique structureless structure of the Fall song than they do stripped and pegged out on stage as drama. But when his devious strategies work – as they do during the ‘Bend Sinister’ excerpts infiltrated into the Play – they do so ferociously well.

On the Double-Vision video, live from the ‘Venue’ Mark E is on stage, running off at the mouth over a Velvet Underground backbeat, ‘if we go on like this…’ he slurs, ‘we’re gonna end up like King Crimson, Echo And The Bunnymen, Wah Heat…’, which sounds an unlikely enough future for such a unique institution as Fall, but still sounds more likely than him ever becoming a Brecht/ Weill or a Lloyd-Webber. Which is prob’bly just as well.

This man is deep. Rock is a better place for his inputs.

--- 0 --- 

LAST SECTION RELATIVE TO THIS PERIOD: BRITISH MUSIC – A REAPRAIS, by Professor Bruce I Shepton: By the late eighties little could be done to salvage the English-based music system; a bleak future lay ahead subsistent mainly on recycled Dylanisms, courtesy of gentlemen whos main point was ‘Because of my handsomeness, you never took me seriously as an intellectual – for that, you and audience suffer.’ (Mark E Smith, ‘New Musical Express’ 21 December 1985).


1986 – “Hey! Luciani” c/w “Entitled” (December 1986, Beggars Banquet), A-side collected onto 2004 compilation ’50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong’

1986 – “Dktr Faustus” on the ‘Bend Sinister’ album

1986 – “Living Too Late”, single, issued on some formats of ‘Bend Sinister’

1987 - ‘The ‘Domesday Pay-Off’ Triad-Plus’ (Big Time 6039-1-B) US edition of ‘Bend Sinister’ with altered track-list also including singles “Mr Pharmacist” and “There’s A Ghost In My House”

1987 – “Mark’ll Sink Us”, “Haf Found Bormann” and “Sleep Debt Snatches” as ‘B’-sides of single “There’s A Ghost In My Mouse”, collected onto compilation ‘458489 B-sides’ 1990

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Interview: BRIX SMITH, the Fall & the Adult Net


An interview with Brix Smith
in which the former 
Ms Mark E Smith talks about 
her group The Adult Net, and her 
other extra-FALL activities 


Brix scruffs her immaculately pre-scruffed hair. ‘Not if they’re not to HAAAAAAT.’

‘All lights are hot – otherwise there’s no STRENGTH in ‘em’ reasons the Lightman with the Black Uhuru T-shirt.

Brix smiles. ‘Well, like half-dimmer or something?’

For a moment it seems he’s going to argue back, then he capitulates, ‘well – I’ll get the lights up, and if you wanna come around, we’ll switch all the houselights down and you can just have a look and make sure you’re happy.’

‘OK, thanks.’ She beams delightfully, then turns back to me, ‘now – ask me some more questions.’ And who could resist? Certainly not me.

Rock spouses – as a species, have not always rated highly on the credibility profile. Let’s name names here, Angie Bowie, Linda McCartney, Bianca Jagger – remember? But ‘Brix’ Laura Elisse Smith (Smith as in Mark E Fall) is the exception proving the rule. To describe her as ‘attractive’, ‘vivacious’, or even ‘effervescent’ sounds at the worst, a sexist condescension and at the very least tabloid idiot-speak. But the qualities of attraction and vivacity are REAL qualities that go beyond such banal stock usage, and in the final analysis there are few other adjectives that so accurately describe her.

She ignites the aforesaid Fall, on stage, page and vinyl with an energy, adrenalin and visual splash this erstwhile dour but worthy band have never before enjoyed. While – wearing a different hat, she’s served up a series of delicious 45rpm concoctions in her own right, as Adult Net. No Suzy & The Red Stripes they – Adult Net are distinctly different and definitely Brix. Reviewing their third single – “White Night (Stars Say Go)”, ‘New Musical Express’ struggles to find a prose sufficient to cross ‘Hawkwind with the Shangri-Las’, and wind up commending a sound they find ‘nicely individualised with a series of quarter-demented guitar breaks’ (28 June 1986). ‘Melody Maker’ fares better – their Jonh Wilde describing Brix’s “Take Me” single as simply ‘a shimmering cascade of syrup and speed’ (15 July 1989).

Brix is here now, awaiting a Fall soundcheck. She punctuates our conversation with ‘you know what I’m saying?’, with a dance of highly expressive verbal emphasis, and the kind of laughter you last heard in a ‘Swinging London’ movie. She’s sharp, very alive, enjoys being in a band or two – ‘guitars, they’re my FAVOURITE things.’ She enjoys being interviewed too… 

Twenty-six years young, she comes from ‘L-L-L-L, A-A-A-A’, carefully spelling it out. ‘I wrote that song’ she swanks (side one, track six of Fall’s 1985 ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’ album), and name-drops like a fan about how she used to hang out in Los Angeles with girls who would later be Bangles. And she’s still new enough to all this to be suckered on celebrity, to be refreshingly excited by this whole Rawk ‘n’ Roll life-style. Billy Idol for example – ‘I lurve Billy Idol’ she gushes. ‘Oh – he’s SO cute. I met him once and he was s-o-o-o nice to me. He was the n-i-c-e-s-t boy in New York…’

“Incense And Peppermint” was the first Adult Net single, a charting debut covering what had been originally a cheapo quasi-Doors US no.1 by the bizarrely named Strawberry Alarm Clock, an anonymous Santa Barbara-based six-piece. ‘I chose that song because I saw this movie called ‘Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls’ (a 1970 Russ Meyer exploitation)’ she explains. ‘And Strawberry Alarm Clock were playing it in this movie, and I just fell in love with it.’ July 1967 I muse, I remember the song first time around. ‘You do?’ Brix laughs prettily, ‘I was four years old, ha-ha-ha!’

Something snags deep in my memory-cells hereabouts, some rusty synapses close making odd conversational connections – Billy Idol/ Strawberry Alarm Clock/ Generation X… didn’t THEY do an album called ‘Valley Of The Dolls’ (1979)? But maybe that’s a tenuous link too far…?

‘Sure’ says Brix in a bemused kind of way, ‘but whaddya mean? That’s just the name of one of their records – ‘Valley of The Dolls’.’ She looks at me oddly, yet I get a sneaky suspicion that, like her friend Susanna Hoffs (of the Bangles), Brix is something of a sixties-ophile. She decides on a course of intensive instruction – ‘‘Valley Of The Dolls’ was a book, right, about these three girls, one of them is – like, addicted, because they all take these pills – called ‘dolls’ or whatever. And one gets her breast cut off, and one – y’know, dies. It’s tragic. But ‘Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls’ – you see, is nothing whatsoever to do with ‘Valley Of The Dolls’, and it says so. It’s just a movie, but it’s a REALLY weird movie. It’s like an acid trip. It’s like the California sixties. It’s completely different.’ Then, to ram her point home, ‘I didn’t like Generation X so much anyway! But go on…’

Suitably chastened I move on hurriedly to November 1985, and the second Adult Net single – “Edie”, ‘about Edie Sedgwick.’ Not a cover, she adds, ‘I wrote it myself this time.’ The record’s based loosely around the book ‘Edie: An American Biography’ (1982) by Jean Stein, a biography of the suicided New York socialite that was issued ‘a l-o-n-g time ago. About seven years ago. But it was good.’ The book was made up interview-style, of block-type sections. ‘Yes, by all the different famous people that knew her and stuff, those who just hung around in the Andy Warhol crowd.’ The Cult subsequently issued a single about Edie, and it’s alleged that Bob Dylan wrote his “Just Like A Woman” for Ms Sedgwick, with her ‘amphetamine and her pearls.’ If so, then Brix’s song about Edie ‘in the death-seat of Warhol’s car’ is a worthy successor – albeit in a parallel dimension. Brix’s universe draws its energies more from the ‘California sixties’ – witness the surf-warm Beach Boys harmonies on the next-but-one single “Waking Up In The Sun”, with energy inputs from the like of the aforesaid Shangri-Las. In fact, Adult Net revive THEIR classic weepie “(Remember) Walking In The Sand” on its B-side.

Any more cover versions lined up, Brix? ‘With Adult Net? I’m gonna do a song…’ A pause to decide what is and what is not safe to reveal. ‘An album will come out, I think there will be a cover on there, but I won’t say what it is in case someone snatches it…!’ You have to check out ‘The Honey Tangle’ (1989, Fontana 838 125-1) album to trace out her references. Following the up-switch from Indie to major, from Beggars Banquet to Fontana (distribution through Phonogram) Brix issued her Adult Net version of the Grassroots’ “Where Were You (When I Needed You)”, a 1967 American hit written by legendary eccentric PF Sloan. It’s there, as she tells it, on the album.

But she’s already proved herself by writing a clutch of fine originals for Adult Net – contributing “Get Around” and “Phantom Power” to the original “Edie” twelve-inch, and “Naughty Or Nice” for the flip of “White Night (Stars Say Go)”, before writing the bulk of ‘The Honey Tangle’ material. She’s also written songs for Fall. She was fronting her own group, Banda Dratsing, when she first met Mark E at a Chicago concert, and subsequently found herself in Manchester in time to contribute “Hotel Blöedel” to the ‘Perverted By Language’ (1983) album. Then some of the more accessible titles on ‘Bend Sinister’ (1986) – like “Riddle” and “U.S. Eighties-Nineties” are hers. A member of Fall for six years, her contribution shouldn’t be underestimated. Indeed, not since the departure of Kay Carroll, former manager and Mark E’s girlfriend, has anyone got to input so much material. It’s surely no coincidence that her tenure with Fall coincided with their hit covers of “There’s A Ghost In My House” (no.30 in May 1987) and “Victoria” (no.35 in January 1988), the closest Fall would ever get to the ‘Top Of The Pops’ mainstream?

‘Now – ask me some more questions’ she demands. And who could resist? Certainly not me.

For Brix, Adult Net is ‘just a separate band which is just sorta like – a release. Y’know what I’m saying, just like – fun!’ Being in the Fall is ‘the day job’. Adult Net is one of a number of extra-curricular activities – the details of which are often kept cagey. Apart from Brix, Adult Net members have been – according to various hand-outs, either odd names like Ottersley ‘Der Golem Of Romford’ Kipling (aka Simon Rogers), Mask Aiechmann (aka Karl Burns), and Silki Guth (Craig Scanlon) possibly fabricated at Beggars Banquet invention, or a pool of star pick-ups for the Fontana line-ups, including ex-Blondie/ Eurythmics drummer Clem Burke and former Smiths guitarist Craig Gannon. The album also credits Cassell Webb (support vocals), Luis Jardin (percussion) and James Eller (bass) – while Smiths Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce, as well as Morrissey’s sideman Gannon, fell into the Adult Net to play the band’s one-off live ICA gig!

Various adventures in other guises tend to suggest such a flip and flexible attitude. Brix and other Fall-members cameo on the video for Tom Watts – Lofty from BBC-TV’s ‘Eastenders’, first single. That, too, was a sixties retread – Bob Dylan’s word-scrambler “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. It was issued on Tom’s own ‘Watt The Duck’ label around mid-1986. A month or so earlier Brix and some other Falls could be seen, and heard, on the Channel Four screening ‘Hail The New Puritan’, an avant garde ballet predating ‘I Am Curious Oranj’ by dance’s enfant terriblĂ© Michael Clark. The film was made up of twelve odd sequences following Clark through a seedy travelogue of decadent symbolist London. Directed by a ‘Charles Atlas’, it was supposedly inspired by the Fall-song “New Puritan”…

And Brix, she looks attractive, vivacious, and yeah – effervescent too. You know what I’m saying? But whatever the full details of Brix’s covert activities, she’s staying schtum…

‘Hmmmmm – I’m SO tired’ she yawns distractingly.

…and lets the music stand on its own merits.

The Lightman with the Black Uhuru T-shirt hovers, waiting for her approval, and it’s time for me to go.


July 1985 – ‘Incense And Peppermint’ c/w ‘Searching For The Now’ (Beggars Banquet BEG 137) with ‘Fat Hell’ on the twelve-inch

November 1985 – ‘Edie’ c/w ‘Get Around’ and ‘Phantom Power’ (Beggars Banquet BEG 148) Producer: John Leckie

June 1986 – ‘White Night (Stars Say Go)’ c/w ‘Naughty Or Nice’ Beggars Banquet BEG 164)

August 1986 – ‘Waking Up In The Sun’ c/w ‘(Remember) Walking In The Sand’ (Beggars Banquet BEG 171) Producer: Ian Broudie

1987 – ‘Spin This Web’ (Beggars Banquet) unissued LP, the tapes aborted at ‘the request of Brix Smith’

March 1989 – ‘Take Me’ c/w ‘Sea Of Rain’ (Fontana BRX1) CD and twelve-inch EP also includes ‘Going Nowhere’ and ‘Incense And Peppermint’. Producer: Craig Leon

May 1989 – ‘Where Were You (When I Needed You)’ c/w ‘Over The River’ (Fontana BRX2) twelve-inch also has ‘Edie’ and gatefold sleeve

July 1989 – ‘The Honey Tangle’ (Fontana 838 125-1). Produced by, and additional keyboards by Craig Leon. With Side One: (1) ‘Take Me’, (2) ‘August’, (3) ‘Waking Up In The Sun (re-recorded)’, (4) ‘Spin This Web’, (5) ‘Sad’. Side Two: (1) ‘Where Were You (When I Needed You)’, (2) ‘The Honey Tangle’, (3) ‘Tiffany Tuesday’, (4) ‘Tomorrow Morning Daydream’, (5) ‘It’s The Way’, plus ‘Baby You’re Away’ on the cassette edition, and ‘Going Nowhere’, ‘Over The River’ and ‘Incense And Peppermints’ on the CD version

August 1989 – ‘Waking Up In The Sun’ c/w ‘August’ (Fontana BRX3) with ‘Baby You’re Away’ on the twelve-inch

(Since this interview took place it was announced that Brix had ceased to be a member of Fall, and would concentrate her energies on Adult Net, who were then dropped by Fontana in October 1990, and subsequently split. She currently works with Brix And The Extricated)

Monday, 29 January 2018

Poem: 'Ken Barlow's 115th Dream'

115th DREAM 

waking with the strangest suspicion
my entire life has been a Soap Opera,
all my passions and greatest fears
nothing more than plotlines,
yet it’s all ice-clear, I remember
it so real, the anger and tenderness
the lovers and friends written out,
uncle Albert, Ena and Elsie, Len,
and Deirdre… ah, always Deirdre,
the glisten of vinegar on chips
the warm smell of stale beer,
walking these familiar cobbles
hunting cameras from my eye-corner,
rerun memories in black-&-white
down from uni, impatient
to change the world, yet
still here on this same street
memorizing script prompts
watching the credits run
haunted by that endless plaintive theme…
William Roache wakes in strange confusion,
am I really Ken Barlow dreaming I’m me
or me, dreaming I’m Ken Barlow…?

Saturday, 27 January 2018

UNTOUCHABLES: Two Interviews


They’re in Alex Cox’s classic cult ‘Repo Man’ 
movie. They look like an illegal assembly. 
 They’re One Step Beyond, by being one step behind. 
They are Stiff-records Ska-band Untouchables from L.A. ...


First thing I knew about Ska was Prince Buster, Ezz Reco & The Launchers, the Ethiopians, late-sixties Mod, the Bluebeat label, parka…

Then it was Special aka, Selecter, Madness, Two-Tone records, late-seventies, Coventry Ghost Town…

Now it’s Untouchables… Silver Lake Los Angles… and Surf-Mods?

‘It kinda caught on after ‘Quadrophenia’ (1979) came out’ explains bassist Caine Carruthers. ‘Actually, members of this band were the first cluster of Mods to ever happen in LA. We were devoted to the stuff (Ska) – and we started a movement pretty much in California that was based around that type of music. We helped spur it on. Of course, the bands that came from the UK were VERY influential as far as live shows were concerned, getting it to LIVE out there. They took plants and roots of it out there…’

We’re sat backstage at the Leeds Uni sampling the Students Ents hospitality – neat triangle-cut wholemeal sandwiches, and a bottle of Liebfraumilch poured into polystyrene cups. But Caine’s full of barely-suppressed energy and the confidence that charting a first single brings. “Free Yourself” is no.31 as we speak – with ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ and ‘Top Of The Pops’ TV-slots already behind them, and a Stiff-records album all tied up and primed to GO! He’s telling me about playing American support-spots with UB40 and General Public while I’m trying to reconcile contradictions. The Rude Boy/ Gangster Pork Pie hat aligns with stereotype – but how does the ‘ROCK OUT WITH YOUR COCK OUT’ T-shirt square the Mod sartorial eloquence?

Whatever… ‘a lot of the Mod scene is ‘underground’ because of the way the American media is. It’s really hard to get anything that’s diverse or this-side-of-left on the radio, or to the people’s ears. That’s what happened with Two-Tone. If those bands had hung in one more year they would’ve been phenomenal in the States. One more tour and they would’ve been, like, over the top. But they just quit right before then. The Beat and the Specials both stopped right when they were reaching their…’ he leans forward to emphasise his near-disbelief, ‘but they just… Aaawwww! In many ways, this band picks up where they left off. We know there’s a hunger for it in the States as long as people can get exposed to it.’

All of which seems effortlessly logical as far as market-penetration Stateside goes – but this is LEEDS. Do we NEED a new Two-Tone already? I mean – do we REALLY need it? The answer is already charting. The answer is already stood milling around waiting outside for the gig to begin. I never imagined so many Two-Tone badges and so much Mod regalia was still in circulation. Largely on word of mouth, Untouchables have filled the venue, across the boards. Caine shrugs, ‘everyone loves to dance – all over the world.’

Josh Harris plays ubiquitous Roland keyboards. He’s blonde but sun-bleached white, with a long flexible face and a penchant for spontaneous work-outs during soundchecks. He pours me some more Liebfraumilch and offers ‘the Mods in California are also kinda taking on their own identity. There really are… like, Surf Mods out there!’ A concept to make Brian Wilson spin in his sandbox.

Caine rejoins the dialogue enthusiastically. ‘They have to adapt to our climate. So you get a lot of Mods going around in Surfer shorts and shirt-sleeves, or no shirts at all riding their scooters…’

‘…with their Surf boards,’ from Josh.

‘Sure. With their Surf boards tied on them!’

--- 0 --- 

Untouchables are ethnically mixed (four black/ two white). ‘We can be considered ‘two-tone’ in that respect, in that we have white AND black members. But when the band was set up we weren’t LOOKING for that balance. We didn’t say ‘well, we’ve got four black guys so we’d better get a coupla white guys.’ It was never like that. It’s just how it is, just being able to work together without even thinking about it. We don’t even see colours, y’know.’

Alongside Josh and Caine there’s vocalist Chuck Askerneese in neat dreadlocks, percussionist Jerry Miller – who snatches vocals for “Free Yourself”, Clyde Grimes whose high-kick guitar pose forms the band’s logo, and drummer Glenn Symmonds. On stage tonight they augment with sharp horn-fills from a three-piece brass section punching out their contagious ‘One Step Beyond’-mutation of Herb Alpert’s antique hit “Lonely Bull”. Their frantic “Lovers Again” – next single?, also comes with more than a modicum of the fast-pace Beat-beat. But although they wear their influences on their collective sleeve – a new band needs a high-profile image to latch on, sure – they already show signs of growing beyond the restrictions of that box-jacket.

On the twelve-inch mix of the single they do a live “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”, an old Monkees B-side, but – as Josh is quick to acknowledge, a Sex Pistols stalwart too, and that’s another input. ‘The Sex Pistols, yes. I’m influenced very much by their version of that song. Their version is very coarse, I like that.’ While the forthcoming album – cut in Amsterdam with American Soul veteran Stewart Levine producing, flirts with Rap-tracks and Stax riffing. But what sounds an odd mix on paper works a seamless dream tonight on stage.

--- 0 --- 

California Mod-ism has yet to produce its own celluloid manifesto. It took Britain fifteen years to get around to making ‘Quadrophenia’ – and then they cast Sting! But those who’ve caught ‘Repo Man’ (1984), Alex Cox’s inventive spoof sci-fi – oft over-the-top movie version of Los Angeles, will know that the movement’s already been documented.

‘Yeah, we get to beat up the star’ laughs Caine. ‘We do a scooter rally on the way to the guy’s house, and…’

‘He (Harry Dean Stanton) comes to repossess our car’ explains Josh more patiently. ‘The band has a car, right – in the movie, it’s all fictional of course! The band has a car, and he comes to repossess it. Unbeknown to us he’s trying to hotwire the engine, but WE have it suspended on jacks. So he’s got the engine going, but the car’s not moving. And we pull him out of the car and beat him up.’

Yes, it’s a laugh-out-loud sequence in a cult classic movie.

‘Man, it’s a GREAT movie’ confirms Caine.

Tickets for THE Last Train To Skaville, anyone…?


The bass-riff from “Day Tripper” stumbles through the wall… 

Josh Lawrence Harris dives into my bag, resurfaces with the ‘City Lights’ pocketbook edition of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’. ‘Hey, when I was in ‘Frisco I’d hang out around the ‘City Lights Bookstore’, it’s still there y’know’ he informs. ‘I love all that old Beat stuff!’ We get into dissecting the trivia of fifties Beatnik minutia while the bass-riff gets to shake-out the plaster…

A warm night at Leeds University, and direct from L.A. USA – and the UK Top Forty, it’s Untouchables. Progenitors of the latest Mod renaissance, tying Ska and Two-Tone Blue Beat into a package acceptable for the eighties.

– but Beatniks?

There’s more to this band than fancy poses. Josh plays keyboards and adds vocals to “What’s Gone Wrong”, his malleable mobile face illustrating the lyrics. At soundcheck he turns in a fiery cool rerun of Booker T’s “Green Onions”, grinning across at bouncing guitarist Clyde Grimes who’s filling in Steve Cropper’s little guitar licks. Then Josh goes into aerobics – swivels from the hips, touch-toes, deep-bends, as the three-piece horn-section start jamming around the Stan Getz/ Astrud Gilberto “Girl From Ipanema” while practicing their neatly-rehearsed choreography.

There are but six Untouchables: dreadlocked Chuck ‘Pokie’ Askerneese (vocals), Jerry ‘EQ’ Miller who is all sharp-pressed suits, Pork-pie hat and sartorial Rude Boy-ism (percussion plus vocals on hit single “Free Yourself”), Josh, Clyde, Cain Carruthers filling bass-space, and resident drum-head Glenn Symonds. Their Stiff-label Press release proclaims them ‘L.A.’s coolest club act, signed to the world’s neatest label – the HiFi affair.’ They look like an illegal assembly. They’re One Step Beyond, by being one step behind. Their rhythms draw on reggae and non-stop Ska, the style is Two-Tone and Mod, the horns are Stax and Northern Soulboy, the keyboards are 1960s.

‘We play a lot of Soul,’ agrees Caine. ‘We hang onto our American roots. “Free Yourself” is basically a Stax-type of thing, but we put our own flavour onto it as well. We don’t just try to revive anything.’ But when they do “City Gent” – one of the eleven tracks offa their ‘Wild Child’ elpee (1985, Stiff SEEZ 57), they drop in references, quotes, from Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love”… and the Beatles’ “Day Tripper”. Same with their second single, they revamp Jamo Thomas’ “(I Spy For The) FBI”, given a London production job by the very-Special Jerry Dammers.

It could be argued that in the current disposable remake/remodel scene their knowledge of the prehysterical leviathans who Rocked the Earth before the world was formed – works to their advantage clear up the scale. They played the drenched-out Glastonbury CND Fest where they kick ass and kick HARD, winning all the arguments. They played the Hammersmith Palais, they played ‘Dingwalls’ – where Caine met Jedda Roskilly, and wed her three weeks after, they played Dublin’s TV-Club where they encore with Paul McCartney’s “Give Ireland Back To The Irish”, and now they’re playing Leeds!

America has a lot to answer for – John Travolta’s feet, Ronald Reagan’s morality, the Coca-colonisation of the world. But it’s all redeemed in the irresistible Ska‘n’B of the Untouchables’ contagious “Lovers Again”, or the Rapping “Mandingo”. Their set runs seamlessly, each song threaded on warm linking Rap-rapport from Jerry and Chuck…

The bass-riff from “Day Tripper” stumbles through the wall… first time I see Untouchables they’re playing catch-ball around the equipment-stacks and speaker cabinets that have yet to be positioned on the stage behind them. These guys are no-nonsense friendly and direct, no trace of the heavy political angst that accompanied the original Coventry Two-Tone wave. So, with the soundcheck beginning, me, Josh and Caine, cut out to the dressing room to document further…

Andrew Darlington: This is your first trip to Europe?

Caine Carruthers: Yes. As a band, and it’s really exciting.

Josh Harris: We’ve had some really wild times, it’s been really good…

CC: …and that’s before we’d even played! We’ve been looking forward to this for quite some time. We’ve played all over California, we kinda have that really sewed up, so we were eager to try it out on a new crowd. And it’s been going over really well.

JH: We’re surprised to be here. Three months ago we had no idea we were going to be in Britain AT ALL! It was all so sudden. It was our video that made the break for us (the promo for “Free Yourself”, which the band made themselves, and was voted top independent video of 1984 by America’s ‘Billboard’ magazine). That’s really how we got our break with Stiff Records. The President of Stiff had seen it here and was specially impressed. He went over and signed us! We were touring with UB40, and had no expectation of coming over here. It was kinda like a wild dream of some sort. And time has just slipped by so quick too. It’s been like… six-and-a-half weeks or so, and it’s like a day. It’s a blur.

AD: The Long Ryders from LA were also in Leeds recently. Do you know them?

CC: The Long Ryders? Oh sure, we know them. Actually it’s a really tight scene in LA. We know ALL the bands that are playing up there, and they all know us. We play with them. We have to share some stages and stuff. We share a certain amount of each other’s crowds too.

AD: Your styles are very different.

CC: Oh yeah. Which is the neat thing about LA bands. We’ve all got our own styles, it’s not very much like, maybe a lot of European bands get things going and a lot of bands’ll be playing the same thing – but LA, it’s the diversity of the people and the diversity of the musicians we have out there – so comes your diversity of bands. Every band has its own bag. It’s really neat.

AD: Whereas your style is Mod? Ska? Rocksteady?

JH: I think we’re closer to the new European bands than we are to the American bands. We’re closer to Northern Soul – we don’t sound American. Normally people are very surprised when they find out we’re from California. They don’t quite understand how we can do the music we do with California accents. But Northern Soul, we love it!

AD: Is there a Blue Beat/ Ska following in the States?

CC: Not really – other than us. We had to kinda start on our own.

AD: Do you go back beyond Two-Tone to the original Prince Buster-era stuff?

CC: Oh yeah. We dig everything we can find. Josh has got an AMAZING record collection.

JH: Yes, I’ve been collecting Reggae – Reggae particularly, for quite a while. I’m a connoisseur of Prince Buster – he’s great. The King of the Dirty Guys!

AD: That was happening in the UK in the mid-sixties.

JH: Sure, but the Mod scene didn’t happen in the States. There wasn’t an original Mod scene like it was in England, I guess.

CC: There was just a handful. And after that, we started the band and brought more people to it.

JH: There IS a strong Mod scene now though. It hasn’t been like a passing trend or anything. In California especially, they really love the British music scene.

AD: What kind of venues do you play over there?

CC: We play all kinds of Clubs. We’ve actually moved up into a higher ring of Clubs in LA because of our large following. We couldn’t even play a small Club now if we wanted to – unless it was REALLY outta town! Now we’re playing in the ‘Palace’ – what’s the seating there… 1,300? We sell out that place every time.

JH: Travelling British groups would play there once every six months or whatever, once a year. We play there regularly, that’s our home turf. But we’ve pretty-much penetrated the West Coast of the United States. We’ve opened up for quite a few acts – UB40, General Public, Black Uhuru.

CC: We’ve worked our way up from small Clubs. We started at the ‘O.N. Klub’ – a REAL dive. A small club out somewhere in Silver Lake, right outside of Hollywood. From there, we’ve worked our way up.

AD: Are you Los Angeles born?

CC: Well – no, we’re not all born in LA, but that’s home. I was born in New York but I’ve been in Hollywood for seventeen years now. I mean, it’s home.

JH: I’m from San Francisco.

AD: Who is most responsible for writing the group’s original material?

CC: We have Josh, and Clyde.

JH: Yes, as primary writers. Then the group as a whole, because we compose as a group as well. More of our compositions are leaning towards group efforts and less of individual efforts.

AD: Are you happy with the way the album (‘Wild Child’) has turned out?

JH: It sounds great, terribly good.

CC: We have Soul on it. We have Reggae. We have Ska tracks on it, and some good Rock ‘n’ Roll – actually, some high-tech New Wave Rock ‘n’ Roll with “Lovers Again”. That’s going to be a very very important song. We’re not shy or scared to try ANYTHING and make it work. There’s “Wild Child” itself, maybe our next single, and “Soul Together” which is a MONSTER as well. We tried a Rap-Funk on a song called “Freak From The Street” which is really good too. There’s actually no songs we haven’t been pleased with. It’s quite hard to say one over another.

JH: It’s consistency from the top to the end. We dabble a little bit in different styles, and they were successful, it works – but still, because it works it makes it a little more difficult for them to formatise us. We’re so versatile within the one album.

AD: You feature in the movie ‘Repo Man’ (starring Harry Dean Stanton), produced by Alex Cox – who is known for promo-video work with the Pogues! The ‘Repo Man’ soundtrack also includes such luminaries as Iggy Pop.

JH: We’ve actually been in two prior movies.

CC: But ‘Repo Man’ is the one to see – alright? We were in ‘The Party Animal’ (December 1984, a gross-out comedy directed by David Beaird, the Untouchables play “The General”) and ‘Surf II’ (January 1984, Beach-Zombies directed by Randall M Badat, the Untouchables play “Dancebeat”) as well, but those movies are kinda DOGS you know. They called us in to try and SAVE those movies. Hope this doesn’t bounce back at us but – I mean, we’re the best part of BOTH those movies. They were real low-budget B-movies.

JH: ‘Repo Man’ is pretty good though.

AD: I haven’t seen the movie yet (I have since, and I love it, check out my review at http://www.videovista.net/reviews/july08/repoman.html ). Do you play a Club-scene or something?

JH: No. We beat up the star!

CC: It’s a really good movie. ‘Cos we’re in it we feel good about it. Man – it’s a great movie. It’s gonna be a cult classic very much like ‘Clockwork Orange’ (1971) and those types of movies. It’s always gonna be around.

JH: I don’t think Alex Cox is your next Stanley Kubrick, but ‘Clockwork Orange’ – we see it all the time in LA.

CC: It’s something that shows continuously at specialist cinemas, if not on just regular cable television. I’ve seen it on that.

JH: I’ve just found an old ‘Mad’ magazine. They do a parody of it called ‘Clockwork Lemon’.

CC: I bought that the first time it came out. I actually read that before I saw the movie!

JH: And have you read the original Anthony Burgess novel ‘Clockwork Orange’ (1962)? It was WILD, a wild one!

AD: Your single “Free Yourself” was issued in a limited edition gun-shaped picture disc. Was that your idea?

CC: Well, it wasn’t actually our idea. The first picture disc that came out was just us with Clyde doing the kiss-ass symbol on it, right? And that was very nice. Then they offered us the gun – but we’re not really pro-gun and violence or stuff. It’s just one of those things that happened without us really having a hold on it. Hopefully it’s not gonna be a real negative thing. The idea behind it – the guy who did it, Dave Robinson and Stiff’s Art Department, they liked the name Untouchables, and they really tried to parody it…

AD: You mean they tried to parody the idea of the old ‘The Untouchables’ TV series?

CC: Yeah, the original ‘Untouchables’ TV series with Robert Stack (as Eliot Ness), the G-Men Gangster type of POW BANG BANG ‘we’re the good guys’. So – a tommy-gun made of chocolate or something, yeah – but a real Smith-&-Wesson 357 Magnum is kinda like… well, people could easily be misled by that. Because no, we’re not Gangsters or violent at all.

AD: Is the group name really derived from that late-1950s/ early-1960s TV series?

CC: Well – it was, of course, borrowed from that. But what it ACTUALLY means is – it was like a parody of the mid-seventies Supergroups who always walked around like they were mythical giants, y’know, they didn’t really relate to audiences at all, right? they were self-indulgent and wanted to keep away from crowds. But we are always mates and friends with our audiences, we always go out and chat with the crowds, just hang out and be loose. So we kinda made fun of it, I guess. We’re ‘untouchables’ – but it’s quite the reverse, if you get to know us.

JH: There was a Ska-band from the sixties too, the Untouchables from Jamaica.

CC: It’s that too – like Josh says, a lot of those Jamaican bands like rude names, y’know, Dennis Alcapone, Dillinger – ‘Prince Buster’ itself is a pretty rude name. The Untouchables kinda falls into that James Bond slick cool sorta thing. The TV series was a G-Man thing, it’s not shown in LA as much as it used to be, although you can still catch it once in a while. But really, we love English television wherever we can catch it. It’s a funny thing, people here complain you only have four channels – and I tell them ‘but god, look what you GET on your four stations!’ We just love the stuff. I never missed the ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ shows. Same as the Marty Feldman show… even Benny Hill cracks me up. It’s kinda funny – out here it’s ‘Dallas’ and ‘The A-Team’, out here it’s all cops.

AD: Do you intend covering any of the old Ska records?

CC: No. We don’t cover any Two-Tone or older Ska things. Those were all brilliant and I don’t see how we could really do them justice. I mean, us turn around and play a Specials song? We are much stronger in our own ring, you know what I mean? We play our own Ska. We put our own sound to it. We do “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”… we do Herb Alpert’s “The Lonely Bull” – our own version of that, we twist and bend that one.

JH: We try to make it more into a ‘Spaghetti Western’!

CC: We camp a little bit on “Green Onions” at the top of the set, to kinda get a groove going. Just to point us in the right direction. But we bring our own flavour to it, we put our own sound to it – which I’ve noticed ALL the Two-Tone bands had. Madness sounded a lot different to Selecter who sounded a lot different to the Specials.

AD: I always liked Selecter. Pauline Black is still around. She hosted a Channel Four chat-show for a while.

CC: Selecter were one of my fave favourite bands, and I SAW her on TV. It KILLED me man! It blew my mind – she was so professional and smart. I went ‘god, is that how she REALLY is!’ I saw her in ‘Dance Craze’ (Joe Massot’s 1981 live-tour documentary film, with Selecter doing “Three Minute Hero”, “On My Radio” and “Too Much Pressure”) – and I didn’t even ever get to see Selecter live, which is one of my big heartbreaks. Then there’s the Equators. Have you heard the Equators? They’re a band out of England also. They were almost put into the Two-Tone thing, but didn’t want to be a part of it (also signed to Stiff Records, the Equators backed Desmond Dekker on his July 1980 ‘Black And Dekker’ album – Stiff Records SEEZ26, and later issued a 1980 version of “Baby Come Back” produced by Eddy Grant, Stiff BUYIT95). The Equators just played Ska. They were all West Indians, and that’s the thing – they were all black. They weren’t a ‘two-toned’ band…

AD: Selecter were an all-black band too.

CC: It’s kinda funny, how do you call Madness a ‘two-tone’ band, ‘cos they don’t have any BLACK members? Yet ultimately, I don’t think that’s REAL important, whether you do or you don’t.

AD: Being part of a ‘movement’ like the Two-Tone thing can be an advantage, but it can also be stifling.

CC: Well, yeah. It’s a thing that Radio people and journalists alike have to have – a handle to really grab onto. I know a lot of bands that don’t have a real definite identity, it’s actually worse for them because the press don’t know what to think about them. Those guys are… Folkadelic, or whatever… they have to MAKE UP some other word to describe them…

…the bass-riff from “Day Tripper” stumbles through the wall…

Last time I see the Untouchables they’re onstage, triumphantly encoring with the Monkees-Sex Pistols “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”.

It’s been a good fun-time night…


1982 – “Twist ‘n’ Shake” c/w “Dance Beat” (own label, Dance Beat Records DB-101)

1983 – “The General” c/w “Tropical Bird” (Dance Beat Records DB-102) A-side featured in the movie ‘The Party Animal’

1984 – ‘Live And Let Dance’ cassette + mini-album (Twist Records E-1102) with ‘Free Yourself’, ‘Lebanon’, ‘Whiplash’, ‘What’s Gone Wrong?’, ‘What’s Gone (Dub)’, ‘(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone’ (live)

April 1985 – “Free Yourself” c/w “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone (Stiff BUY 221), produced by Chris Silyagi and Pat Foley. The B-side recorded live. Issued in limited-edition gun-shaped vinyl March 1985. Reaches no.26 during 11 weeks on the UK chart

July 1985 – “I Spy (For The FBI)” c/w “Whiplash” (Stiff BUY 227), produced by Jerry Dammers. Twelve-inch version also features “Shine On”. Reaches no.59 during five weeks on the UK chart

July 1985 – ‘Wild Child’ LP (Stiff SEEZ 57) produced in ‘Sound Push Studios’ Amsterdam by Stewart Levine (except*) with Side One (1) ‘Wild Child’, (2) ‘I Spy (For The FBI)’*, (3) ‘Freak In The Streets’, (4) ‘What’s Gone Wrong?’, (5) ‘Free Yourself’. Side Two (1) ‘Piece Of Your Love’, (2) ‘Soul Together’, (3) ‘Mandingo’, (4) ‘Lasershow’, (5) ‘Lovers Again’, (6) ‘City Gent’

1985 – “What’s Gone Wrong?” c/w “The Lonely Bull” (Stiff BUY 240), the twelve-inch version has an extended version of the A-side plus the album version. They perform the track in party scene in the 1987 crime movie ‘No Man’s Land’ directed by Peter Werner with Charlie Sheen

1986 – ‘Dance Party’ (Twelve-inch EP) (MCA-36016) with remixed versions of ‘Freak In The Street’, ‘(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone’, ‘Hey UT’s’ (live), ‘Free Yourself’, ‘I Spy (For The FBI)’, ‘What’s Gone Wrong?’

1986 – “Freak In The Street” (five mixes) (US only, MCA Twelve-inch 23690)

1988 – “Agent Double-O Soul” (four different mixes) (US only, Enigma ENCT 11)

2015 – ‘Free Yourself: Ska Hits’ (US, Cleopatra CLP 2127-2) with ‘Be Alright’, ‘Whiplash’, ‘Twist ‘n’ Shake’, ‘I Spy (For The FBI)’, ‘Jade’, ‘Bond’, ‘Mandingo’, ‘Keep On Pushing’, ‘Movin’ ‘n’ Groovin’’, ‘Free Yourself’, ‘Wild Child’, ‘What’s Gone Wrong?’, ‘The Lonely Bull’