From Rock's Backpages: Mark E Smith Shows Us His Record Collection
, April 19th, 2012 07:00
In the run up to Record Store Day 2012 we print a fascinating interview from 1990, where Andy Gill speaks to The Fall's frontman about his record collection
CROUCHED IN THE CORNER of a back room in a semi somewhere in Prestwich, Mark Smith flips through one of several large stacks of records; stops; considers pulling out an album; then thinks the better of it.
"No, best not give away all my secrets," he decides, adding a disparaging comment about Fall copyists, of whom he is convinced there are legions who would love to learn the most intimate details of his musical influences.
He continues shuffling through the stack, grunts triumphantly and yanks out another LP instead. It is by The Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus, the bubblegum session aggregation made up of members of both The Ohio Express and The 1910 Fruitgum Company, whose sole hit was 1968's ‘Quick Joey Small’. Now, that's more like it!
"When I was a teenager I wasn't really into music at all," he admits later. "I didn't have a record player for a start, and my dad would only have Radio Two on. I got into music really weirdly, at 14, straight into it, as opposed to other people who were, like, into The Beatles and all that other shit. I just wasn't interested, I was more interested in soccer. Then at 14, all at once, I went through it all, really quick: Pink Floyd? Crap! T.Rex? Rubbish! Paul McCartney? Urrgh! Black Sabbath, 'Paranoid'? Great! Know what mean? That was the first single I bought! Everybody else was into Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Greenslade, Pink Floyd, sixth-form crap, and I just didn't get into it. I was a late starter, but I got into it really quickly when I did."
In fact, he retains an enduring affection for the Sabs – or for Ozzy Osbourne, at least.
"We're writing an Ozzy Osbourne parody at the moment," he reveals. "Got some great lyrics for it, but I've got to get the voice right. The riff's dead slow, duh-duh-duhduh, like ‘Iron Man’ or something. I still like Ozzy – the most hilarious video I've ever seen is for 'I'm So Tired': he runs out on stage with all this make-up, then there's this guy shooting a replica of Abraham Lincoln in the box, and Ozzy's singing and this dummy of Abraham Lincoln falls behind him – how it must have gone down in America I can't imagine! Nuts! But he's a good singer, Ozzy. I don't buy his LPs but..."
Which is, as they say, the rub. It's all very well knowing that Mark's musical enlightenment was borne on the none-too-graceful wings of a Brummie metal monster, or that he was a youthful devotee of the Jethro Tull of Aqualung and Benefit ("Thick As A Brick was good, too – a lot of people disagree with me on that"), but what kinds of records does he actually go out and buy? If he had to pick a representative dozen, what would they be?
Well, for starters, and not too surprisingly, there'd be something by Can, one of the clearest influences on Smith's work in The Fall. Mark plumps for Ege Bamyasi, one of the albums featuring the classic Can line-up with Damo Suzuki on vocals. "I've liked Can since I was about 13 or 14," he says. "I got into them through listening to Peel. Ege Bamyasi is an underrated LP, and it's recorded very well. I like the way it's open-ended. Damo's a good mate of mine – he actually sent me a tape when I was in Tokyo. He doesn't believe in making records any more. He's one of the few heroes I've met. He's still the same."
Less predictable than that choice, perhaps, is Best Of The Move – or part of it, anyway, as Mark explains, holding up a plain, bootleg-style cardboard cover with the titles scribbled rudely on it. (It looks a bit like a Fall album sleeve, in fact.)
"This is the third and fourth sides of a double best of collection. I don't know where it's from. It's got tracks I've never seen before on it, and The Move Live EP. It's got ‘So You Want To Be A Rock'n'Roll Star’ on it, and a Love cover, ‘Dear Stephanie’. The second side's all cover versions, apart from ‘Night Of Fear’ and ‘I Can Hear The Grass Grow’. I like The Move, they sound English – I like The Kinks as well, but there's no one great LP. The Move sound real Brummie – especially when they had Carl Wayne, they were great. That was before Jeff Lynne thinks he joined when they became ELO. I think the song structures were really fascinating; and Roy Wood was just a genius, he always has been for me. Liked Wizzard as well – remember ‘Rock'n'Roll Winter’, the single they brought out in the summer?"
One might be forgiven, surely, for thinking The Move were a bit too pop for him? "No, no, he protests. "I grew up with them, you see. I saw the original ELO with Roy Wood in it, and I saw The Move. ‘Night Of Fear’ was superb, with that bit of Tchaikovsky in it. And ‘I Can Hear The Grass Grow’... I didn't hear that until about 1974, and I remember taking acid to it – my sister gave me the record, she'd got it from a secondhand shop. I couldn't believe people had made records like that. It makes all this psychedelic rubbish now look a bit sick. I mean, "I can hear the grass grow," what the hell is going on in that? Apparently, Carl Wayne didn't know what the lyrics he was singing were about. That's why he left The Move – he found out what he was singing about! He went on to record ‘You're A Star, Superstar’, and marry Diane out of Crossroads. I'm really trivial about stuff like that! "
Another surprise is The Doors' The Soft Parade, the album most commonly considered their worst by die-hard Doors fans.
"Exactly," he says with a glint of Smithy perversity. "That's why I picked it! I've heard that people don't like it, but I think it's great. It's splendid, their best one. There's these old blokes with trombones on it, quasi-jazz parodies, and that country and western track. And ‘The Soft Parade’, the track itself, is great. You didn't get a lot of his poems in full, usually; he had to cut them down. He cut down ‘The End’, and that ‘Lizard King’ one. It's got a good clean sound, too. There's strings and all sorts on it. It's very tasteful, the way they use it. I'm not that into all their other stuff – it was a bit too over-dramatic for me."
From the same era, Mark chooses something by that classic proto-psychedelic garage-punk band of the late '60s, The Seeds.
"They were great! They only had one riff. They meant a lot to me, The Seeds, though I don't play 'em that much nowadays. Some of Sky Saxon's vocals are almost like Beefheart's. Sky Saxon went a bit wacko – I've got some of his stuff; to me, it's great. It's like, 'You see that doggy eating out of that garbage can? Try some of that food and see if you like iiiiit!', with the ‘Pushin' Too Hard’ riff still going! But Web Of Sound is a good LP. They had no bass-player, I think that's why they're good. It's so sparse, it's good. I think The Doors took a lot of their shine away. The Doors were very similar, really, it's just that Morrison's sexy.
"If The Seeds came out now, they'd be bloody Number 1 continually, wouldn't they? The Inspiral Carpets remind me of them a bit – if they got a bit cooler, they could be like The Seeds. They've got the haircuts, and the organist, that's all they need. They should not expand, they should go to a three-piece!"
From The Seeds, it's not that huge a jump to Mark's favourite guitarist, distortion pioneer and psychobilly ancestor Link Wray.
"Apparently he used to kick his amp in," says Smith admiringly. "That's why he used to get banned from the radio, because of all the distortion. ‘Rumble’ was the only instrumental record ever to get banned, because of its audio quality! I play Link Wray to Cramps fans – and I think The Cramps are brilliant, actually – and they can't believe how much like Link Wray they are; every riff they've got. He's just a great guitarist. It's not twangy like The Shadows; there's something really vicious about it. Maybe it's Link's Indian blood! I've got an LP somewhere of Link Wray live, in '88, doing ‘Jack The Ripper’ and ‘Rumble’, and he's just as good – you can't say that about a lot of people. Unbelievable.
"He does a great version of the Batman theme, too, the best – makes Prince look like a total wanker. It's got things like, 'Can we turn on the nuclear reactor, Batman?' 'Yes, Robin'. Da-da-dada-da-da-da-da-BATMAN! It's great! But 'Rockin' Rumble' has got everything good of his on it, it's definitive. It's like a cheap budget LP from a supermarket."
In related psychobilly forerunner vein is another of Mark's faves, a various artists compilation called 1,000 Rocking Guitars.
"It's a country rockabilly collection that I got in Germany, and it's splendid. It's nobody you've ever heard of. There's songs like ‘Gang War’, by guys like Marvin Rainwater – it's like Johnny Cash meets Link Wray, almost. It's hard to describe. A lot of them are just like Elvis imitators, that bad they're good. I play it continuously – not because it's obscure, I just enjoy it. A lot of that rockabilly stuff is a bit straight, but this is great."
"I like original guitarists," says Mark, warming to the wider theme of fretwork in general, "as you can see by the members I've had in the group. It's a very easy instrument to abuse! And the possibilities are infinite. But most rock guitarists are just in the same mould all the time. I've got Craig (Scanlon), and I've worked with really great guitarists like Martin Bramah – they're very few and far between. There's a lot of, like, chord-choppers about. It's funny, it's like the more they know, the less they do.
"I'm not saying any idiot can pick up the guitar and play. I mean Link Wray could obviously play, but he had an idea of space. That's the big difference between Link Wray and Clapton and Townshend. That stuff leaves me cold, even though they're playing the same sort of things – they were influenced by people like Link Wray and Bo Diddley. A lot of the time they were out of tune, that's why they sounded so good: they'd got atmosphere. Chuck Berry was out of tune all the time."
Despite his affection for Chuck and Bo, however, pride of place amongst the early rock'n'rollers, for Smith, goes to the late Gene Vincent.
"I can't remember the title at the moment," he apologises. "It's not a compilation, it's his first album, and it's really good. It's got ‘Jump Back Tony, Jump Back’ and stuff like that on it, really raw stuff lasting, like, one minute and 10 seconds. It's his voice, really: he can sing real rubbish and make it work, real rubbish lyrics. I've got all his albums, even the psychedelic one. I used to think he was really good – beatin' up DJs and all that, very impressive. That's why he never got big.
"The Bluecaps were a great band, too – a great drummer and guitarist. I do care about things like that. When I formed a group, it wasn't because I wanted to have my picture in the paper, it was because of sounds. When I started out I didn't realise, because you're not conscious of things like this when you start, but after five or six years you start to recognise kindred spirits. Like, I don't identify with anybody from the punk movement, never have. People always think I'm right into all them early punk people, but I'm not. I mean, I like the Pistols, but I don't relate to their careers."
Nevertheless, several of the singles Mark has pulled out reveal an inclination towards what used to be regarded as punk spirit, in that, apart from The Velvet Underground's ultra-rare Foggy Notion EP and something by The Marmalade featuring a cover illustration of enormous buttocks in lederhosen, they are in the main resolutely user-unfriendly. In particular, a couple of items from Mykel Board's bizarre Atlas label catch the eye: a grunge-noise piss-take of avant-garage music by a band called Swanic Youth (geddit?), and something called ‘Blind Man's Penis’, whose genesis is somewhat more interesting that the song itself. It's the result of an old druggie's attempt to call the bluff of one of those "send us your lyrics and we'll turn them into a song" adverts, by sending in the most lunatic, obscene, drug-crazed lyrics imaginable; the anonymous redneck voice put to discreet country backing, is the very one released.
There's nothing quite as weird as that in Mark's dozen album choices; the closest he comes is a soundtrack album, The Twilight Zone, Vol. IV which, given the sci-fi undercurrents in The Fall's work, perhaps isn't that unusual at all.
"It's bits that they used in the original programmes, and a lot of out-takes from it," he explains. "The only way you can get it is through the Twilight Zone magazine. Actually, some of it's early stuff, medium paced jazzy stuff, by Jerry Goldsmith, who went on to do Star Trek; and also that French guy who did the original Twilight Zone theme, ni-ni-ni-ni, ni-ni-ni-ni. It's all like that, electric guitars on their own, and harps – avant-garde, pretty much, but with a jazzy theme. I always liked that Artie Shaw type of sound. Some of it's like the Spiderman theme, but there's a load of avant-garde shit on it. This is the stuff they rejected – they had a series of 12 LPs, and this is volume four. Good, though. You listen to some of 'em, and you can see why they didn't use 'em! They've got The Grateful Dead to do the new series, but this is really good, really way-out. They had to work a bit harder then, with, like, knives on piano strings, to get tension. It's like the difference between the old Dr Who theme and the new one. The old Dr Who theme's great, it's like – well, it's like acid house, isn't it?"
Sticking with the "avant-garde shit" end of things, Mark displays a hitherto untrumpeted liking for what American populists of decades past regarded as the acme of pointy-headed, long-hair music by choosing Moses And Aaron, a choral work by the inventor of serialism, Arnold Schoenberg.
"I like all that stuff. I don't brag about it openly, but I'm into Stockhausen and all that, Clapping and stuff like that. Remember, those blokes did it a long time ago. This is beautiful, it's just violins and a lot of vocals, and long spaces. We used to use a bit of this as an intro tape. Used to freak people out. It's just, like, eight singers shouting in German, and a violin behind it. It's really tense.
It's not all that big a jump – hardly any distance at all, really from Schoenberg to that wiggiest of '70s reggae toasters, Big Youth, whose Natty Cultural Dread is a particular favourite of Mark's.
"There's a track on this, ‘Jim Squashey’, about John Coltrane, what the hell is he going on about on that? Stuff about birth control pills, and 'John Coltrane was white and so John Coltrane blow so white people blow black people mind every time', and all that. It's fucking great! The music is excellent on this one. I think he's quite an artist. He used the same backing tracks for different songs – some of the later albums, after this, he's still using the same backing tapes, and they've worn out! It's all distorted and stuff! And he couldn't sing. There's a great version of ‘Touch Me In The Morning’ on this! But the guitars are like Can, really interesting.
"He was in that interim period, it was almost like in between ska reggae and mad religious reggae. That's why it's good: the British record companies haven't bought them out and put them in 32-track recording studios yet. Later, they'd just get stoned and talk about religion – it's just boring, isn't it?"
Apart from Big Youth, black music is generally conspicuous by its absence from Mark Smith's favourite records: no soul, no disco, no blues. Oddly, though, he expresses a relatively new-found fondness for Indian pop music, and includes a recent purchase of a cassette, Jag Wala Mela, by a duo called Heera.
"I don't like Indian classical music at all, I hate all that sitar shit, but I'm getting quite into this Indian pop. It's really good, especially the drums. I'm sick of hearing records with drum machines on them. It's all on one level. These guys speed up towards the end. And I like the way they repeat lyrics. You know how if you get your standard blues and they go, 'l woke up this morning and me head was bad, I woke up this morning and me head was bad...', they sing it four times? These guys sing it 16 times!
"I'm not like a bloody ethnic music fan – I don't like African music and all that – but this stuff has struck me. Indian pop is cool, especially now that all these musicians have been influenced by pop groups, Michael Jackson and all that, crossover sort of stuff."
Finally, Mark picks as one of his "very, very favourite records of all" something by his fellow curmudgeon Frank Zappa: The Mothers Of Invention's finest hour, 1967's We're Only In It For The Money, which satirised the contemporary hippy movement with a ruthlessness somewhat at odds with the peace and love dictates of the time.
"I just think it's one of the funniest records I've heard," he says. "I like Freak Out! too, that still sounds great, really powerful, but We're Only In It For The Money is so relevant to the Manchester scene today, it's unbelievable. Like, I walk down Whitworth Street and someone comes up and says, Mark Smith, you created this scene, where can I get some E? Or pot? Ha ha! I say, I don't bloody know! He says, Well, me and the guys came down in a van from Wales to get the scene, but they won't let us in The Hacienda! And they've got the Beloved/Soup Dragons centre-parting, and they're asking about drugs. It's just like We're Only In It For The Money!
"I went to The Hacienda the other day, and it's just like that. It's so commercialised – guys who should be ashamed of themselves, well over our ages, with beer bellies and that, blokes I've known for years in, like, electric-green shirts! So embarrassing!"
© Andy Gill, 1990
Rock's Backpages is an archive of the best music writing and criticism of the past 50 years. Sign up here for the weekly RBP newsletter, listing all new additions to the library