Becks Induction Hour: Mark E Smith On The LP That Nearly Ended The Fall
, February 19th, 2010 05:40
This is the first in a series of Fall features leading up to the release of Our Future - Your Clutter on Domino this Spring. John Doran talks to his nibs about Hex...
[In 2007, I interviewed Smith about Post Reformation TLC. As the beer flowed we got to chatting about the genesis of Hex Enduction Hour, so I left the tape machine running...]
None of the received wisdom about The Fall is that old in relative terms. Their debut album Live At The Witch Trials may well have been critically well received in 1979 but they were still light years away from being the national institution that they are now. They were, in fact, with a rugged mixture of lo-fi punk, loose Krautrock and rockabilly, close to original guitarist Martin Bramah’s observation “Coronation Street on acid” but little else in the public’s imagination. Their debut didn’t really strike a chord with the record buying public; they were too far ahead of the curve in creative terms and didn’t have the celebrity that PiL had in John Lydon to allow them carte blanche creatively and commercially. And if things got off to an alright start they got worse before improving.
Despite being one of the most interesting bands in a period of intense creativity by 1982 after six years of enviable productivity, The Fall’s appeal hadn’t spread that much further than the listeners of the John Peel show and some readers of the NME. Their previous 10" album Slates had split the fan vote and their relationship with Rough Trade had ground to a halt. Even Smith was disheartened but decided to have one last push before packing it in. And while finishing off a tour in Iceland, inspired by the post apocalyptic landscape, they decided to start work on their swansong, Hex Enduction Hour. When they arrived back in the UK they finished the record off in a deserted cinema in Hitchin and prepared for it to sink without trace. What no one was prepared for was for it to become their first hit album (reaching number 71 on its release on March 20th 1982) and to cast a fearsome shadow over the still young Indie movement, in terms of not only production and sound but of ideology as well.
However, nothing initially marks it out as the must own Fall record. It has no 'Bingo Master's Break Out', no 'Theme From Sparta FC', no 'Hit The North' and doesn't even contain the most popular version of 'Hip Priest' (that would be the version called 'Big New Prinz' reworked for I Am Kurious Oranj). But it was their first work of genius, since equalled but never bettered. It sounded indeed like the efforts of a band who had a gun pressed to their temple. The double drumming and the wire taut guitar work of Marc Riley and Craig Scanlon added an industrial edge, as well as elements of Beefheart and the Velvets to the already torrid Fall sound. From the opening, combative The Classical the album seethes with rancour (the opening line “Where are the obligatory niggers? Hey there, fuck face!” although not racist in the context of the song, is unpleasant to say the least and, unsurprisingly, cost them a record deal with Motown). The two tracks recorded in Reykjavic, the otherworldly ‘Iceland’ and the still haunting piece of self-mythologising ‘Hip Priest’ stand in marked contrast to other vicious pieces of satire on the album such as the journalist baiting ‘Mere Psued Mag. Ed.’ and the heartfelt attack on intellectual half-wits ‘Who Makes The Nazis?’
Over pints of continental strength lager at Manchester Picadilly’s Malmaison Hotel (part owned by Mick Hucknall, another attendee of the now legendary Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, thirty years ago) we’re here to discuss the album that made everything else possible: Hex Enduction Hour, which, as the title suggests was their last ditch attempt to deal with the five year run of bad luck that was threatening to end their career before it got started.
You’ve talked about people not being able to penetrate The Fall but it’s twice as hard with Hex Enduction Hour as any other album I reckon. Can you see why so many fans and critics call it their favourite?
Mark E Smith: Yeah, I can. Very much so. Especially for people of my generation, that’s what got ‘em on it. The 45-year-olds who still come to the gigs and all their mates laugh at ‘em. Well, that’s what got them into The Fall. That was the intention of it. The intention of it was to end it [The Fall]. I went into it thinking that it was the last thing we’d ever do. I thought it was my last LP. Because we were getting nowhere. You’ve got to put it in the period it was in, you know new romantics, indie, gloomy music. So I thought “This is our last chance to put a proper LP out.” So I just thought “One last chance, just get it out.” And it was a shock to me because it did do the job. We were very in much in danger of becoming another Rough Trade group. So we left them and went to Kamera who were great. They were a heavy metal label and they just said “Do whatever you want.” I and said “I want to make an LP that lasts for an HOUR!” They’re alright them heavy metal blokes sometimes aren’t they? They were like “An hour?! YEAH! There’s a cheque dude!” With Rough Trade it would always be like “What are these lyrics about? Are you a fascist?” Fuck off. “Are you anti-gay?” No. But with Kamera it was like “YEAH! Get on with it.” It was rock & roll. “An hour long? Sounds great!” Why, do you not like it?
No, I love it!
MES: The reissue is very good I think. What’s good about the Sanctuary reissue is you can actually hear it on CD. When it came out is was on really duff heavy metal vinyl, the sort of stuff you’d use for Sabbath’s greatest or whatever. It must have sounded really weird in those days.
Yeah, the live stuff on the second disc is fantastic.
MES: I didn’t get as far as that. But when it came out is was like a Woolworths recording. All muffled and everything.
The sort of vinyl that shatters when you pick it up?
Was there any kind of grand scheme behind recording some of it in Iceland?
MES: Er, no. Because in them days Iceland was a closed country not like it is now. They didn’t have rock bands and beer was illegal and stuff like that. So we did a show there and it was a big deal for them. It was ridiculous; a quarter of the population of Rekyjavik turned out to see us. Women, children, the lot. They’d never seen a group like us before. So me being me I said ‘Let’s record something here.’ And we went and recorded Iceland and Hip Priest in this lava cave. It was where Icelandic bards go to record their Icelandic poems. That’s why the sound on those tracks has that snap on it.
But the rest of the album was recorded in a cinema in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. That sounds like perversity to me, or was it just budgetary constraints?
MES: No, I actually wanted to record it in a cinema in Hitchin as well. We had two drummers and studios were changing at the time because everyone was getting into synth music so I thought we should go to an old cinema and get a bit of a live feel to it. And Kamera just went right along with it. They were good like that. So we recorded part of it in a cave and part of it in a cinema.
You said you thought it was going to be the last ever record you ever did; did you have any kind of contingency plan for what you were going to do afterwards?
MES: No. I just thought “Well, I’ll try my hardest and see what happens, maybe we’re a bit ahead of the time.” I thought we might be ahead of the times but I just didn’t know. I mean people go on about Grotesque and all that but the truth is people at the time just didn’t like it. People didn’t like rockabilly. Like John Cooper Clark said the guitars are dead mob had it in for us. People complained that you couldn’t understand the lyrics. You have to remember that in those days you couldn’t speak in a northern accent. So unless you were a bit wistful or romantic or playing a synthesizer or into heavy metal you were fucked so it was quite a strange time.
You’d just played America for the first time. It must have sounded even weirder to them, how did they deal with your accent and serrated music?
MES: It was marvellous. The very strange thing about The Fall is we get understood in these strange places. I remember playing in Belgium on that tour and two 19-year-old tank drivers came up to us afterwards and said ‘Hip Priest’ and they understood it totally. It was odd in America. You must remember that the group was very young. 16 and 17. The group lost their virginity in America on that tour. We had to pretend that they were much older so we could play. They were more open to us there. It was very encouraging.
‘Hip Priest’ still sounds absolutely staggering to this day. I guess Jonathan Demme must have thought so when he chose to use it in Silence of the Lambs.
MES: Yeah that was good. It’s odd with stuff like films and adverts. You don’t get much money for it. I’m quite funny about that. We didn’t really get much money for the Vauxhall Corsa thing. I’ve got a bit of an aversion to car adverts anyway. I don’t even drive. Never have done. It’s never appealed to me. But you don’t get much. As soon as people see it on the telly all the ex-members dive in demanding a share. I wrote all of ‘Sparta’ and I wrote ‘Hip Priest’ but you end up with only about 8%.
What prompted you to rework it for ‘Big New Prinz’?
MES: What for the ballet? Yeah, it’s a good one that. Well, the song’s about a prince. Prince William of Orange. 1688. A glam rock version of it.
If there was one word I’d use to describe ‘Hex’ it would be rancorous. There is such a malevolent and violent feel to the music but not in an obvious gothic or heavy metal sense. Did you manipulate the mood of the band to achieve this?
MES: I would have liked it a bit more cheerful to be honest. But it’s too late now honest. I want to make cheerful music. I think it’s the way I build the tracks up. But, it’s not moaning though is it? Might have been the production because he was a miserable get.
How were the group getting on when you recorded that album though? Was it fraught? How was your relationship with Marc Riley for example?
MES: No, it was great. They were very, very young. You have to remember how young they were. The thing with Marc was I had to sack him later on. He was very young and surrounded by people these people from the NME telling him he was the bee’s knees. He didn’t understand why we weren’t playing all the hits. But it doesn’t matter how many magazines are raving about you. You can’t eat the reviews. You’re still on the dole. You’re still skint. But you know, he ended up doing what he wanted to do: becoming a minor celebrity. No, he wanted to play the hits and I wasn’t having it. When Hex came out we’d be playing in places like Middlesborough and people would be shouting for ‘Bingo Master’s Breakout’ or whatever and we’d just do half of Hex Enduction Hour. People would shout for ‘Fiery Jack’ but we’d play a song we hadn’t recorded yet. And I still do that now, play new songs and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.
I’ve got a problem with The Fall. I can quite easily describe very avant garde music but with The Fall I have great difficulties pinning the qualities of it down. Describing one record to the next.
MES: That’s good. Good. That is the basic intention. No, seriously I like that and a lot of people say that. There are no Fall tribute bands, do you know what I’m saying? If bands try and do a Fall cover version they never do it that well.
The problem is that it’s impossible to imagine the songs delivered in any other way.
MES: Well I’m not a musician you see. I don’t consider myself a musician, rather a layman.
I always considered you as being very much like James Brown, if that doesn’t sound too weird.
MES: Yeah, he just lays it down. Yeah, that is what I do. And to get back to American musicians. That’s what they’re really good at. If you say that to a British musician they just go ‘Err, what? What key’s it in?’ And I say ‘I don’t know the fucking key, just play back what I just whistled to you. Just do what I’ve fucking told you. And do it this way or that way and they just don’t get it. It’s Noel Gallagher syndrome. If it doesn’t sound like The Beatles, they don’t get it.
He wishes he sounds like The Beatles. He sounds like The Ruttles covering Slade.
MES: You’ve heard it all before haven’t you? Well, I have at least. Liam’s got a good voice but it’s a shame he hasn’t got someone behind him cracking the whip more.
Well apart from the couple of big pop, cover version hits you had. I can’t think of a time when your lyrics have been high in the mix or not obscured by yourself through mumbling or slurring.
MES: Yes. I’m not a private person but I don’t want everyone to know everything if you know what I mean. I’m not into lyric sheets much. And do you know, I don’t always have a fucking clue what I’m saying. They can be just off my head. I don’t mean I’m off my head. I mean the words just come off the top of my head. It’s a bastard because when we have to do it live it means I have to sit down and listen to them and play it again and again. But some of my best songs are like that. A quarter of it is done on the spot. If you write everything down it’s chaos. You end up with bags of paper. When I was getting really fed up making Reformation I’d put on Jools Holland or MTV with the sound off and just read the subtitles for deaf people. Some of the fucking lyrics; they’re fucking unbelievable.
Have you ever seen your own lyrics subtitled?
MES: No because if we went on something like Jools Holland we wouldn’t give them to them. If you go on the telly you have to submit your lyrics now. It’s in the contract. You have to give them your lyrics before you go on. We’ve lost a few shows that way. They want to know the address of the group members? I don’t fucking know. I haven’t asked you your blood group and full address before doing this interview with you, have I?
It seems a bit surreal to be subtitling pop shows in the first place doesn’t it? I don’t mean that to be cruel but it’s plain bizarre.
MES: Yeah, but it’s handy if you want to check out the lyrics. Some of these indie bands sound like this. [Roars] But when you read the lyrics it’s like “I love you but when I saw you down the street you didn’t recognise me.” And you’re like “You fucking what?”
It’s not ee cummings is it?
MES: Ha ha ha! It fucking isn’t. If you don’t have the subtitles on you could be fooled into thinking they were saying something. Hip hop’s not as good as it used to be. They’re all like little fucking business men now. They go about being gangstas and that but you can tell they’ve all got degrees. They’ve never been bloody shot and then they go on and on about it. And then you watch that other programme Cribs and they’ve got a really nice house with a massive kitchen. Do you know what I like? ‘I Predict A Riot’ by The Kaiser Chiefs. Read the lyrics to that. [laughs for about half an hour]
Coming soon: Mick Middles on Live At The Witch Trials, Taylor Parkes on Smith as a narrative lyric writer and more...