Jew Or Nazi? Ted Kessler’s Encounters With Mark E. Smith

In an exclusive extract from his forthcoming book Paper Cuts, music journalist Ted Kessler recounts three indelible interviews with The Fall’s Mark E. Smith. MES portraits courtesy of David Tonge

Mark E. Smith by David Tonge

The phone in my flat above Gunnersbury’s Tube tracks sounded its alarm. I lifted the receiver suspiciously. It was March 1991, the era of disappointing news.

‘Would you like to interview Mark E. Smith of the Fall for us?’ Lime Lizard’s softly spoken deputy editor Patrick whispered in my ear. Oh! But this was an unbeatable offer.

My mind’s eye flashed forward towards the great event.

A banked seat in a Prestwich pub, floral patterns dancing across the wall, pint and chaser on the Formica tabletop, smoke curling from the ashtray, MES detonating sacred pop-cultural monuments from the corner of his mouth, pinkie raised as he holds his glass just outside of his lips . . .

‘You’ll have to come into the office next Tuesday. They’re putting the call through at three.’ ‘It’s not in person?’ A sarcastic snort.

‘It’s a fifteen-minute phoner.’

Before the Fall were my favourite group, Mark E. Smith was my favourite interviewee to read. His print personality – adversarial, witchy, contrary, learned, courteous, malevolent, witheringly funny – made any inky product irresistible. I even bought Melody Maker to read him when featured.

Over time, the Fall became the avant-garde rock band whose music I would listen to most regularly. I liked the repetitive, disciplined nature of the songs: rhythmic, bombastic, granite-hard, with shards of melody there only to shade, not to distract from the Fall’s central focus, namely Mark E. Smith’s chipped delivery of his lyrical prose. The words were what really did it. Songs about gremlins. Songs about the Football Association. Songs about Oprah Winfrey, Walt Disney and Cary Grant. About pharmaceutical giants, men of the cloth, minute details of class, corruption and small-time stupidity. About British people in hot weather. About Australians in Europe. About Mancunians in Iceland. About the very business of analysing a song’s meaning. I’d read him once reveal his band’s formula of ‘intelligent lyrics set to primitive music’ and yet I could do nothing to resist it.

I knew people so under his spell that they started to speak with the rhythm of his voice, adopted some of his physical mannerisms. I withstood that, but there were times in a pre-rave world where I listened to only the Fall for weeks on end.

More than anything, though, I wanted to sink into a pub with him during a long afternoon session, exploring the outer realms of bar-room philosophy together, capturing those jewels for print.

Instead, I sat in the airless mezzanine of the Lime Lizard office in Highbury New Park, sweating. I was extremely nervous. This was my first phone interview, with my Excalibur interviewee. I had no parameters for the experience. It would just be me, on the phone to Mark E. Smith, asking him questions about the Fall.

I stared at the telephone. We were not friends. Most telephone conversations I had were brief: what time can you get there; why have you stopped my housing benefit, etc. If I could put off a phone call, I always did. I hated speaking into the darkness, listening for the pause to return. Pals only ever called me once for a catch-up.

I stuck the phone mic I’d borrowed into my ear and waited for the telephone to blow.

I had so many lines of enquiry in mind that I had no idea what to say. The vastness of the conversation’s possibility terrified me.

Where to begin? I had twenty minutes. Would I be able to crack the code of the Fall in that time?

My pad contained no questions, just prompts for conversational lines we could follow: UFOs, Link Wray, the Labour Party . . . The word ‘lyrics’ was circled and underlined, with impossible vagueness.

For a time, I’d write long lists of questions for interviewees. Why would you do that? You can’t look at a pad of questions as you speak with someone, one-to-one. I learned quickly that I can’t interrogate people. But I can go for a walk with them. I can drink with them. Any pub interview became like being drawn at home in the cup. I knew the environment, the crowd were on my side. During one of the earliest interviews I ever conducted in a pub, Francophile singer-songwriter Bill Pritchard rescued a dreadful powwow by trying to drunkenly extinguish a cigarette in my face. My questions had been terrible, but now I had a story.

I realised then that the information extracted from an interviewee was usually secondary to describing what time spent with them was like, no matter how brief. Think about what you’d like to find out about the subject, recognise the limits of what can be learned in an hour’s company, go with the flow. Just write what happens. I wasn’t sure how this emerging philosophy would work with a telephone conversation.

The Lime Lizard phone line started flashing.

‘Hello, Ted? I’ve got Mark here for you, I’ll just put him through.’

I gulped an acknowledgement of this reality.

‘Is that Ted?’

‘Yes, hello, Mark,’ I replied to the tight-mouthed Mancunian tone I recognised like family.

‘Ted . . . Kessler?’




‘Jew or Nazi?’

‘Sorry, what?’

‘Kessler. It’s got to be of Jewish or Nazi origin, hasn’t it?’

This was a question I had never faced before in my life, yet its logic was unassailable. Either my ancestors had escaped the Holocaust, or they had contributed to it.

‘My dad’s a Jew,’ I replied.

‘Where from?’

‘He left Vienna with his family just after the Anschluss.’

‘Seen Nazis, then?’

‘My dad?’


‘He did, he saw them march into his block of flats.’

‘That’s a good story, isn’t it? Not many can say that. Did you ever see that BBC drama series about a Nazi called Kessler?’


‘Very good. Kessler’s a Gestapo, on the run. Worth tracking it down, you’d enjoy it.’

For many years afterwards, my father would incredulously tell the anecdote of the time his son was asked by a singer in an English group if he was ‘a Jew or a Nazi’ to cackling dinner guests in New York. The first time I found myself speaking with Justine Frischmann of Elastica, in a bar at an afterparty, I told her the Jew/Nazi story. A massive Fall fan, as well as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, she too saw the funny side. It became a reliable anecdotal ice-breaker.

In the Lime Lizard office, I inspected my conversational prompts again. Could we talk about Shift-Work, the Fall’s new album, I wondered?

‘Yeah,’ replied Mark E. Smith, sounding a bit disappointed in me. ‘What do you want to know?’

Mark E. Smith by David Tonge

We were racing down the motorway somewhere in the frozen north just south of Rochdale, extremely hungover. Through the cigarette smoke, I asked Andy Willsher to pull over into the approaching services. ‘I’ll try John Best again,’ I explained.

It was January 1994. We’d been on the road for four nights, Paul Moody, Andy Willsher and me, searching for the spirit of rock ’n’ roll in Andy’s Mini Metro, even though we had not been able to fully define what that meant yet. We now had an idea what it entailed, however.

We’d had the idea, Paul and I, in the Brunswick pub opposite King’s Reach Tower one Tuesday afternoon following an NME editorial meeting in the run-up to Christmas. We both wanted more work from the paper. We were doing OK, but that wasn’t enough. We’d learned in the office that January would present rich opportunity to pitch feature ideas as it was the quietest time of the year – there were even blank covers to be filled. In the pub afterwards, Paul and I discussed options.

Enthused by creamy-topped Carling Premier’s ‘nitro-poured’ 4.7 per cent lager and a mood of festive jollity, we agreed we’d like to work on something together. In an office of big personalities, Paul Moody was among its most likeably charismatic. A psychedelic beatnik from Barnet who’d joined the freelance writing team around the same time as I had, he’d introduced to NME the word ‘man’ as final punctuation to any sentence with such winning charm that by now the office was split into those who also used it and those who did not. Those who did not were invariably thought of as cops by everyone else, man.

Paul was a lightning rod for pub ideas. In another boozer, the Blue Posts, on the corner of Hanway Street and Tottenham Court Road, he’d recently helped dream up the New Wave of New Wave as a catch-all description for two or three punky bands who were playing in London and Brighton pubs around then, including SMASH and These Animal Men. He’d come up with the genre alongside two other dominant NME characters, John Harris and Simon Williams, whose energetic editing of the live reviews and new band pages acted as a magnet for like minds, as well as a mentoring service in the art of puns and daytime drinking. So taken with their idea for the NWoNW were the trio that they collated some of the acts for a one-off EP called Shagging in the Streets that they released on a label Simon named Fierce Panda. Twenty-eight years and hundreds of records later, Simon still runs Fierce Panda, one of Britain’s great independent labels.

In the Brunswick, Paul and I considered what kind of NME feature we’d like to work on together. We both fondly recalled an NME story we’d enjoyed as readers a few years earlier, in 1989, in which Stuart Maconie and Andrew Collins had spent a late-summer week driving the length and breadth of the UK guided only by random choices from NME’s Gig Guide pages. They’d spent some nights sleeping in their car, they’d gallivanted through the nights. The lead image had featured the Gig Guide strewn across the heather in the Scottish countryside.

That looked like fun, we agreed.

We can’t just nick the idea though, we also admitted. We need a new angle. What is ours?

We took a couple of deep gulps. Lit cigarettes. Ordered two bottles of lemony alcopop Hooch, which we poured into our half-full pint glasses to create Paul’s favourite cocktail, the ‘turbo shandy’.

Bingo! Paul had it. His eyes widened in revelation. ‘Why don’t we hit the road in search of the spirit of rock ’n’ roll, man?!’

I repeated the idea back as a headline, perhaps even a cover line. It was brilliant. Evocative, mysterious, vague enough for it to mean whatever we needed it to.

The Search for the Spirit of Rock ’n’ Roll.

Beautiful. My round.

A month later, on the bleakest New Year Wednesday, we met photographer Andy Willsher outside Bedford’s Thameslink station, near where he lived. Andy was an even-tempered and mostly silent man, which were two of several good reasons we asked him to document the quest. He was also a chain-smoker, so he always had cigarettes, and he was an industrious, talented photographer. Perhaps most importantly, he had a clean driving licence and his own car.

Before leaving, we’d looked at the Gig Guide and made a few arrangements with notable local acts. We’d meet Shed Seven in York, One Dove in Glasgow, the Boo Radleys in Liverpool, the Charlatans in Manchester, Moonflowers in Bristol, 60 Ft. Dolls in Newport, Kaliphz (who?) in Rochdale (where?). They could all take us in search of whatever we were looking for: clubs, pubs, after-pubs, after-clubs. We had some very late nights. We had some very bad headaches. We had many amusing diversions and silly adventures even before the car broke down in a blizzard on the Pennines (don’t attempt a cross-country Northern road trip in January: go in August). But we hadn’t yet discovered anyone who knew where the spirit of rock ’n’ roll could be located.

I had one hope left.

Flicking through that week’s NME on the morning we set out, I’d noticed the Fall were playing in Oxford on Sunday, so I’d put in a request to press agent John Best from the phone box in Bedford station. I explained our mission and wondered if we could ask Mark E. Smith about the spirit of rock ’n’ roll in person. Surely he’d know. We could pop in on the way to Bristol, I suggested.

Four days later, we were still awaiting confirmation. We were by now in a rental car as Andy’s had died. At the services Andy and Paul headed inside for a comfort break and I picked up the phone to John Best again. We could be in Oxford in three hours if needs be.

‘Good news,’ I told the other two as they returned to the car park. ‘John says Mark E. Smith will meet us at 5 p.m. in his hotel room before the Fall’s gig tonight.’

‘Excellent, man,’ replied Paul. ‘He won’t know what’s hit him!’

‘What do you mean?’ I wondered.

‘I hate that guy! He’s so horrible. He’s just a bitter grouch. NME’s always up his arse, he’s the music journalist guru. We’ll show him, man!’

I looked at Paul. ‘I mean, he really is my guru,’ I explained.

‘What?!’ ‘I love the Fall. I love them.’

Paul looked sick. ‘Man!’


‘Not you as well!!’ Paul was laughing, but I wasn’t. It had been a long four days. I lost my temper.

‘I’ve been waiting years to interview Mark E. Smith in person, so I’m not going in to have a fight with him!’ I shouted.

Paul blew out his cheeks, still laughing – but now at me. ‘We have to have a bit of fun with him though, man! We can’t just fall down at his feet like everyone else.’

Andy blended the car into the onrushing motorway traffic.

Paul was right, of course. This wasn’t a Fall feature. It was The Search for the Spirit of Rock ’n’ Roll. Turning to the window, I took a deep breath. There was no need to fall out over this. Instead, I sulked all the way to Oxford.

The Fall had booked the biggest suite in a substantial chain hotel in a leafy suburb of the city. Paul, Andy and I pushed on through its doors to discover Mark E. Smith lying on the fourposter bed in the room’s centre, the band gathered in a semi-circle on straight-backed chairs around the television.

‘All right, lads,’ called MES to us as we walked in. ‘Don’t mind the band, they still think television is a form of witchcraft. They’re transfi xed whenever they see one.’ He patted the divan. ‘Take a can and come over.’

Paul and I joined him on the bed. ‘So, what’s this all about?’ he asked. ‘Well, what it is,’ began Paul ‘is that we’re going across the country searching for the spirit of rock ’n’ roll . . .’

Mark E. Smith stretched back against the pillows and pulled out his cigarettes from the long black leather jacket he was wearing, a smirk dancing across his face.

‘Are you really doing this?’ he replied, incredulously. ‘Searching for the whatever? I thought it was a joke when they told me on the phone.’ He leant over and took his pint glass from the bedside table. ‘Look, I don’t know what the spirit is and I don’t really care. I just make records because it isn’t perfect yet. I haven’t said what I want to say.’

Paul was undeterred. ‘But is the spirit Elvis in ’56, the Beatles in ’63, the Pistols in ’77, the Mondays in ’89 . . .?’

‘The Happy Mondays?’ replied Smith, aghast.

Paul started laughing, as we all did. ‘Well . . . I mean . . . good band!’ Smith looked at me. ‘Are you a Happy Mondays fan too?’ I loved them.

‘Fuck me. Well, look, I don’t know if we’re exactly on the same page then, but I can tell you what the spirit is not.’

Oh yes?

‘It’s not fucking comedy. Did you read that shit in the papers by Tony Parsons or whoever saying comedy was the new rock ’n’ roll? Keep that sort of rubbish away from me.’

‘What about Primal Scream?’ continued Paul, determinedly. ‘Have you heard their new single ‘Rocks’? That’s got a bit of the spirit hasn’t it?’

Mark E. Smith started to laugh again.

‘You two are very good,’ he replied. ‘Maybe comedy is the new rock ’n’ roll.’ He took a sip of his drink, holding our gaze just a little too uncomfortably long. ‘Dead sad, isn’t it? All those current groups, Suede and that, dressed like something from 1973, all these fucking idiots playing pub rock . . .’

For a few minutes, he reviewed the contemporary music scene, paying particular attention to grunge. Nirvana had tried to get on the Fall’s bus, he explained, but he’d kicked them off. ‘I have a rule about not mixing with people from Seattle.’ He hated that city. ‘It’s like Moss Side on a bad night.’

He blamed the English for Nirvana’s success. ‘The British record industry closes down on 10 December and comes back at the end of January. If there’s something wrong with the spirit of rock, it’s that.’

He eyed his own group, chomping on sandwiches and cracking open cans around the local news broadcast. ‘Can I go now?’ he asked us. ‘Or should I get the band to beat you up?’

It was too brief, but it was close enough. I’d shared a drink with Mark E. Smith while he slagged loads of people off, me included. It was a dream come true.

In the hallway, Paul put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Man,’ he declared, wide-eyed. ‘What a dude! Lying on the bed like he’s the king and the band are his court, throwing out quotes for us to gather up like gold coins. He IS the spirit.’

I knew he’d come round. Nevertheless, we continued our mission a little further westwards all the same.

Ted Kessler in 1994

In the early spring of 2015, I finally went to the pub in Manchester with Mark E. Smith. I’d commissioned myself to write a six-page profile of him for Q.

‘I used to know the streets of Manchester by the pubs,’ he said mistily, as we met outside Gullivers in the Northern Quarter at noon. The city had changed, however. He wasn’t even sure if Gullivers was still going to be there when we made the arrangement via his then wife, Elena Poulou. All of his old haunts were being swallowed up by new developments. One of his favourite nearby boozers had been turned into a Byron Burger bar. He took that personally.

Happily, Gullivers had withstood gentrification. As we approached its doorway, a young woman came walking by, pointing aggressively at Mark.

‘You’re a fucking legend, you are,’ she shouted, as she stomped past. ‘I fucking love you, I do.’

Mark smiled his appreciation. ‘Very gratifying,’ he replied under his breath.

We stepped inside the pub, the day’s first customers.

Five hours later, as the pub filled up with students and office workers knocking off for the week, we were still there, shut off from the main bar in an annexe that was guarded by the landlord’s enormous Great Dane. ‘I hate dogs,’ had said Smith, as he gingerly stepped over the sleeping hound, ‘but nobody’s getting past that bastard other than us.’

I wasn’t counting, but we had four pints of lager, one bottle of beer and six whiskies each in that time – so maybe I was. Remarkably, Mark didn’t leave his seat once throughout our session. I asked him what his secret was.

‘I took this orange speed . . .’ he began, unbelievably, attributing his bladder control to amphetamine sorcery.

When he died three years later at sixty, I learned that he’d been suffering from kidney cancer when we met. The disease later spread to his lungs but didn’t prevent him from performing, even in his final months, from a wheelchair that sometimes didn’t get much further than the dressing room, from where he’d deliver his lines while the band played on stage.

Outside the pub, as we stood swaying in time to the landscape around us and prepared to go our separate ways, he’d unwrapped a packet of Marlboro for us both. I asked how he was.

‘I’m all right,’ he replied softly. ‘Compared to what I have been, I’m good.’

What had we spoken about inside the pub all that time? Richard Madeley. Internet trolls. The evil of antidepressants. His Irish mates who were very good with computers. How, as usual, his current band was better than any previous incarnation, and how his most recent fans were more his kind of folk than their ancestors.

‘There’s always some cunt who wants to ask me about a masterpiece I made in 1982,’ he said to me in reply to my enquiry about his 1982 masterpiece, Hex Enduction Hour, ‘but I’m making better records now.’

Even before we were drunk, his speech was slurred, occasionally incomprehensible. He looked a decade older than his fifty-seven years, walking with a stooped limp on account of a twice-broken hip. You sensed the meter was running out.

Yet his company was magical, hilarious. The dream. He told me shockingly libellous tales about other Mancunian musicians of his generation, as well as going into detail about his own not-inconsiderable legal woes, about which Elena forwarded me a message from Mark few days later.

Dear Ted,
Re: last Friday
Constant repeating of stories due, probably, to my legal issues.
Sorry to bore you. Talking of legal issues, can’t mention.
See ya soon for MES Age 1–12.
Yr pal, Mark E.

Outside Gullivers, I lit his cigarette and asked what his plans for the evening were.

‘I’ll probably go to the pub for a sandwich,’ he replied. We shook hands. ‘Kessler?’ he asked. ‘There’s a very good BBC drama about a Nazi called Kessler. Ever seen that?’

I told him I had not. He smiled and nodded, then I watched him wander off into the sun, his faint bald patch bobbing through the commuters towards his minicab back to Prestwich.

Ted Kessler’s memoir Paper Cuts: How I Destroyed The British Music Press And Other Misadventures is published via White Rabbit and available now

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