Gavin Friday Of The Virgin Prunes On The Fall & Sending Postcards To MES

Thanks to Odhran Smith as your man in Ireland, for this exclusive interview with Gavin Friday of the Virgin Prunes about his time with The Fall and his friend Mark E. Smith

I’m writing to discuss your collaboration with The Fall on three songs – ‘Copped It’, ‘Stephen Song’ and ‘Clear Off’. How did the collaboration come about?

I was a Fall fan from the very early days, and still am, eternally. They’re one of the best Britain threw up. Myself and Mark E. used to write to each other, and had a longstanding habit of sending each other crazed Christmas cards and books. Mark was also kind enough, in those penniless days, to let me crash in his flat whenever I was in Manchester. I used to frequently go over to the UK in my late teens to see live bands and shop for records. As you can imagine not a lot was going on in Dublin way back then.

It was at that time we struck up a friendship. Later, in the early 80s we was label mates on Rough Trade, and Virgin Prunes and The Fall played numerous gigs together. Such great memories of those days, I have. The collaboration was very much a freeflow thing – Mark invited me into the studio for the Wonderful and Frightening World Of… Sessions.

Was the recording completed in one day?

All recording was ‘live’ takes with the band, recorded over two nights I think. It all took place in London as far as I can remember. John Leckie was producing and was surreally dressed all in Pope’s purple. The live takes were so fucking loud my ears bled for days.

Were you still in Virgin Prunes at the time?

It was the last days of the VP… we was falling apart. I think the album was recorded in 1984 and they broke up in 1985.

Did you ever perform live onstage with The Fall?

Yes, Virgin Prunes and The Fall performed many times over the early years. I performed by myself with them once at the Hacienda. Well I think I did. As far as I know I did. I also did something with them in the early 90s at the ICA in London. The brain ain’t too sure on the reality though. Showing my age – please excuse.

Your voice is quite prominent on all three tracks on which you alternated vocals with MES. During this period Brix [Smith-Start, Mark E.’s wife at the time] would normally have added backing vocals – was she not put out by this newcomer?

Brix was a long-time fan of Virgin Prunes and she was into me singing with The Fall big time. It works to great effect it’s quite different from your normal singing style. Mark asked me to sing “in that Irish Johnny Lydon fucked up Bowie way”. I just went for it.

How did you feel about being credited as a ‘friendly visitor’ on the album?

It was my suggestion. Mark asked me how I’d like to be credited and that was what I was to that ‘Wonderful and Frightening World’.

Your friendship with Bono is well documented – Mark E. Smith and Bono are two fairly iconic figures, albeit Bono’s a lot more famous. The Fall supported U2 in Leeds and perhaps elsewhere. MES claimed at some subsequent point that U2’s fans threw bibles at them onstage and was noted in his criticism of Live Aid. He’s said some fairly unsavoury things about Bono over the years, but do you think they have anything in common? I know you’re sick to death of talking about Bono but I have to give it a shot.

What Bono and Mark E. have in common… well, both of them are what I would call ‘Judge and Jury’. Not much gets in the way of the visions of those men. Other than that, they are chalk and cheese. I’ve never heard that one about the bibles on the stage, but I would have loved to have seen it.

What are your favourite Fall songs and albums?

Hex Enduction Hour, Slates, This Nation’s Saving Grace… way too many to mention.

Have you heard any of their more recent material?

Yes. I’m always in tune with the in and outs of The Fall.

Do you think your nationality had any bearing on your relationship with Mark? I ask this question because I’m Irish as well and The Fall are seen by many to be quintessentially English. You were railing against the Catholic Church in pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland and Mark was railing against other things.

Yeah, I was kicking against the pricks – coming from a very different place to where Mark was coming from, but sort of the same in essence. The Irish/Brit thing was very intense back then, but Manchester is very Irish in ways and I remember both of us had a fondness for Brendan Behan’s writings. And his ‘Black and Tans’ stories he told me still ring true – the man is so informed and well read. Mark’s a lot more ‘GlamArt’ than people make him out to be – it’s been a few years since I saw him last. Me and Guggi [alias of Derek Rowan, vocalist/ performer with Virgin Prunes] met up with him after a Fall gig in Dublin. He’s a diamond! Send him my best…

A question from author and journalist Mick Middles: “The most interesting aspect of Mark E., I find, is the spontaneous nature of his work… something comes to him in a wild scribble, often on a beer mat. Was he like that with you?”

Yes, very much so. The lyrics he gave me were on scraps of dirty paper, backs of cigarette packs or whatever. But when he spoke of what the song was about it was pure and direct. He was a visionary. He was 100 per cent in control of what he wanted the music and words to say.

A question from Paul Hanley [Fall drummer 1980 – 85]: “I loved Virgin Prunes – amazing how such a scary live band could be such fantastic people. The only people who stayed at our house to send my mum flowers! Ask him what he thought of the setup in The Fall – the VPs seemed to be much more of a democracy. I can’t think that Gavin’d be nervous, but it must have been a bit odd to be asked to appear, pretty unprecedented! I don’t think Gavin was very happy with his vocals at the time either, but we all thought they were great – what does he think now? Oh, and if the Prunes ever reform and they need a drummer, tell him I’ll be on the first ferry.”

Hello the Hanley boys. Total gents. Yeah – Mark cracked the whip strong and hard with the band. It was almost like being back in the Christian Brothers. Not happy with the vocals back then? I’m rarely happy with anything when I’m recording, but now I love it. Especially ‘Copped It’ and ‘Clear Off’.

What are your plans for the future? Any new material or gigs on the horizon?

Currently I am finishing off a Gavin Friday album for release later this year. And yes, I do plan to be playing live and I have various other projects on the boil. Album first though – it’s been 15 years since [Friday’s 1996 solo album] Shag Tobacco… Jesus.

As Ireland seems to have returned to the 1980s, any plans to reform Virgin Prunes? Everybody else seems to be doing it.

No, it couldn’t happen. I did a slight tribute at my 50th bash in Carnegie Hall – myself, Guggi, Dik [Evans, guitarist] and [no wave vocalist] Jim ‘Foetus’ Thirwell performed two Virgin Prunes songs. But we couldn’t reform – the band was of a time and age that will never be again. I respect what we did too much and wouldn’t fuck with it.

Do you dislike the name Fionan?

No, I love the name Fionan, but only my mam calls me that. I don’t like anyone else calling me by that name other than her.

I’m just trying to imagine the timeframe of your early friendship with Mark.

It started around the time I formed the Virgin Prunes which was the summer of 1978.

Had Mark quit his day job as a clerk?

I was actually a purchasing and stock control clerk in a slaughter house ‘til late 78. I got sacked due to my appearance. Mark, in my mind, was in The Fall, not a clerk… I didn’t get to meet him ‘til way after …Witch Trials.

Can you recall any of the books you exchanged with Mark?

I remember sending him Behan’s Hold Your Hour and Have Another, a book he was very taken by at the time. Vague memories of Proust’s ‘Remembrance Of Things Past’… and him sending me various sci-fi books and comics, as far as I can recollect.

Can you tell us a little more about the postcards you used to send each other?

I’d send him some nice ‘Madonna and Child’ Irish Catholic stuff, but Mark’s cards usually had a crass Dickensian Christmas scene which he would visually massacre or scribble on. It wasn’t like we was mates, it was a surreal MyFace, Spacebook vibe via The Royal Mail and An Post, if you know what I mean.

The habit of sending each other crazed Christmas cards reminds me a little of this story…. One day Mark E. Smith is walking down a street (in Salford, I think) and he sees a little girl crying. He asks her what’s wrong and she says she’s lost her teddy bear. So he says, ‘Don’t worry. He’s gone touring with a rock band.’ The little girl calms down and every now and again Mark would send a postcard from Mark E. Bear from a variety of destinations. He kept this up until she was 28.

Yes, I believe this. Very much so. Mark has a soft and romantic side to him.

Do you still have any of the postcards?

Yes I am a hoarder, they’re somewhere in the attic. And I’m not going up there…

I’ve included a quote from [founding Fall member] Martin Bramah about the rivalry between The Fall and Joy Division:

“The Fall were Prestwich, and Joy Division were Salford boys, which is just down the road from Prestwich. But it seemed to mean a lot at the time. We both thought we were the real deal. Joy Division felt their working-class credentials were impeccable, and we felt the same way! We… shared the same rehearsal rooms and did the same gigs but we never spoke to each other, because we were rivals! I think they’re great now, but at the time The Fall and Joy Division were contending."

Would it be true to say that perhaps U2 took their lead from Joy Division and the Virgin Prunes from The Fall, or is this an over-simplification?

Yes, over-simplification. They’re not at all connected in my mind, and I wouldn’t put The Fall and Joy Division together in any way other than they’re ‘Manchester’ and then the late 70s and punk. The quote sounds like football talk to me.

I was slightly confused by this section of the interview: "I remember both of us had a fondness for Brendan Behan’s writings… and his ‘Black and Tans’ stories he told me still ring true…” Mark E. Smith told you ‘Black and Tans’ stories?!

Well as I said the Brit/Irish thing was intense back then. Anyway, I have memories of us talking about the 1916 rising and him talking about the British sending in the ‘Black and Tans’ and his stories about how “savage” they acted. Most were ex-cons and prisoners put into British army uniforms and sent over to deal with ‘the Irish problem’ as the ‘real’ army were busy fighting WWI, et cetera…

In January 1920, the British government started advertising in British cities for men willing to "face a rough and dangerous task", helping to boost the ranks of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in policing an increasingly anti-British Ireland. There was no shortage of recruits, many of them First World War army veterans, and by November 1921 about 9,500 men had joined. This sudden influx of men led to a shortage of RIC uniforms, and the new recruits were issued with khaki army uniforms (usually only trousers) and dark green RIC or blue British police surplus tunics, caps and belts. This mixture gave rise to their nickname- the Black and Tans. The name stuck even after the men received full RIC uniforms. Although it was established to target the Irish Republican Army, it became notorious through its numerous attacks on the Irish civilian population.

Slightly ironic the news that Mark E Smith told ‘Black and Tans’ stories because Dominic Behan (Brendan Behan’s brother) wrote the song ‘Come out Ye Black and Tans’. (A family of songwriters Behan’s uncle Peadar Kearney wrote the Irish national anthem). In the song the service of the British Army in colonial wars against the Zulus is mocked, as the "natives" had "spears and bow and arrows" while the British "bravely faced each one, with your 16-pounder gun". In his autobiography, Mark E Smith claimed that Alfred Henry Hook,- a soldier who fought at Rorke’s Drift in the Anglo-Zulu War was his ancestor. (The defence of the mission station of Rorke’s Drift immediately followed the British Army’s defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879). Which led to the Smith family being invited as guests of honour to the Whitefield showing of Zulu (the movie), where the soldier was played by James Booth. The Fall used to come on stage to the theme song composed by John Barry-it’s even included on the ‘27 Points’ live album.

I don’t for a second think the irony of all this was lost on Mark E. Smith. But it’s just strange because ‘the Irish problem’ was later obliquely referred to in I Am A Kurious Oranj. Anyway I’ve always faced criticism from my brother that MES was a ‘little Englander’ and Gavin has gone a long way in assuaging those fears. Although there is the story he recounted to When Saturday Comes of writing ‘Catholic Gits’ on an Irish Manchester United fans coach after a derby match that still worry but as a City fan myself I’ll forgive him. Heck of a lot of The Fall members have been half Irish – most notably Craig Scanlon and the Hanley brothers.

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