It’s two years ago today that the legendary Mark E Smith of The Fall died. Although a Salfordian by birth (and his own insistence on many an occasion), for me he sums up Manchester music.
When he died, I was asked for a quote about him by The Guardian. I said: “He was a colossus, the rest were just careerists and chancers in comparison.”
I meant it then and see it even more clearly now.
From January 1982 I presented and co-produced a nightly music magazine show on BBC Radio Derby. I was given carte blanche to play and interview whoever I wanted. The show was so leftfield to a BBC local radio audience at the time that nobody cared what I did.
I first interviewed Mark E Smith in the radio studio prior to him playing the Bluenote club in Derby on The Fall’s Hex Enduction Hour album tour. He actually threw up in a waste paper bin in the studio prior to me introducing him, apologising immediately and blaming it on some rotten bacon he’d just eaten.
We had him on the show for 45 minutes, chatting and playing Fall records. Afterwards, at 8pm, he came with a colleague and I across the road to the Blessington Pub. His natural habitat, I’d say.
We stayed in there talking music, football, class politics and Manchester until 10pm, when he finally deigned to take the five- minute stroll to the venue where The Fall would be on stage at 11.30pm (that’s the way midweek gigs were then).
I’d heard the grumpy stories about him but he was interesting, interested, down-to-earth and affable – but with that side eye that let you know he wouldn’t suffer fools gladly.
The gig was brilliant, with The Fall at the time using two drummers. I had a quick drink with him afterwards, and he handed me his home phone number when I asked how to get in touch for his next album venture.
After that, from 1982 until 1988 when I returned to Manchester to work at Key 103, every time a Fall album came out I’d take a heavy Uher tape recorder and about two hours’ worth of reel-to-reel tape and come up to Manchester on a Saturday to interview Mark on what would be often a mammoth pub crawl.
We’d always meet up at midday in Tommy Ducks, where proceedings would start with a few pints of Greenall Whitley’s bitter, we’d then adjourn to The Briton’s Protection for more bitter. Then when the pub closed at 3pm we’d head for a kebab and chips at Effes Turkish restaurant in St Peter’s Square.
Then when the pubs reopened at 5pm we’d have a final jar or two in the Old Nag’s Head. On one occasion, when I was going straight back down to Derby on the train rather than staying at my Mam’s house in Old Trafford, he escorted me to Piccadilly train station and a final pint of best bitter at the Bier Keller on Piccadilly Approach.
Mark would take great delight in taking the mickey mercilessly as I’d get slurry after two pints and always seemed to get his song titles wrong. I’d ask him stuff like, “What’s this song Marquis Cha Cha about?” and he’d always start by saying, “It’s obvious if you listened to the lyrics”, knowing full well it wasn’t. And then he’d explain and give the back story.
We covered everything from how Mike Doyle, the old Man City centre half, absolutely hated United (“that’s how football should be,” he’d say with delight), through to poetry and his scorn for certain fellow musicians, or his love of books and the writers who were his heroes.
He always had this very un-rock’n’roll thing of as soon as we sat down with our first beer he’d ask me “How’s your mam?”. He valued the fact that you valued your parents; he’d say how invariably middle class kids seemed to dislike their parents in some way.
I remember, in between pub closing and reopening times, Mark taking me to the Virgin Megastore record shop on Market Street to pop in and say hi to his younger sister (16 at the time) who’d just started her first Saturday job there that day, and she was genuinely thrilled that he’d popped in to say hello and ask her how it was going.
The last time I formally interviewed Mark E Smith on tape in a pub (well, a bar) was for The Times in 2010. It was prior to the World Cup, about a World Cup song he’d recorded with ex-Fall bandmate Ed Blaney and singer songwriter Jenny Shuttleworth.
I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years, and as ever his first question was: “How’s your mam?”.
It sort of choked me up. I said she’d died in April 2008, and he immediately shot back with: “I’m very sorry to hear that… April is the cruellest month.”
I asked him where that line came from (I did science A levels, not English literature) as it sounded familiar, and downplaying it he said: “I think it’s TS Eliot”. It is, of course, the opening line of The Wasteland, Eliot’s most famous poem.
But that was Mark, too: understated and an intellectual iceberg, only one fifth visible. He’d often regale me with strange stories and snippets of knowledge or memories of childhood that sounded made up, yet when later looked into proved to be 100% correct.
I’ve got so many great and fond memories of hanging out with Mark E Smith in Manchester city centre at that time, a genuine privilege and always amazing, amusing and enlighteningly provocative company.
A few pints of bitter beckon this weekend in some of those old haunts (alas, no more Tommy Ducks), which I’ll raise – and down – in memory of the true genius and originality of Mark E Smith.