Review – Renegade – The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith

When considering this book a while back I had a look at Amazon and saw that some reviewers were disappointed because “it was a rant from start to finish”. It’s Mark E Smith, for fuck’s sake. What did they expect? The Fall have been churning out studio albums at the rate of almost one a year since their 1979 debut Live at the Witch Trials, so it is fair to say that Smith does not rest on his laurels or sit back and admire his achievements. He claims to dislike nostalgia as shown on It’s a Curse (a musical rant from 1993), “Vimto and Spangles were always crap, regardless of the look back bores”.

However, in Renegade he frequently acknowledges that this is not the same society that he grew up in: “I left home young; not like lads nowadays, who live at home until they’re thirty and spend all their money on cars and hair products and bad ecstasy.”

Nor does he think we are living in the same wonderful and frightening world that inspired The Fall back in the 1970’s: “The Stooges only knew about three chords and had to get it down. Not enough bands work like that nowadays. They’re too precious. It’s the Stone Roses syndrome: five years to record an album. Just get in there and fucking do it. That’s your job.”

Smith knew he was onto something when he saw the Sex Pistols in 1976. It may have been a life-changing event for him but not in the way described by many Manchester punks or would-be-pop stars. He was one of the few to be unmoved by the experience: “I thought, my lot (The Fall) are not as bad as that. We’re better.”

Younger rock stars like Pete Doherty are no longer delivering the goods according to the Fall front man. “It’s fine when they’re arm in arm with supermodels, but sit them down and ask them to record an album and they’re fucking straight off to rehab.”

He delves deeper into the mists of time to find the main influence on Manchester’s Factory records: “It wasn’t that far removed from the original factory days. Engels was a factory owner in Manchester, he had 12-year-old girls working for him, probably in the same buildings where the Hacienda was. A middle-class socialist; same as you’ve got now. He’d observe the kids and write about how depressed they were. Who does that remind you of? Tony Wilson!”

Surprisingly, Mark has more time for record producer Pete Waterman and the feeling is mutual! The pair worked together on a single in 1996 and when session musicians complained about Smith being difficult Waterman said to them, “If you carry on like this you’re fired, because you’re talking to Mark E Smith. Whatever he wants to do he can do. However much he wants, give it to him”.

The long rant provides a few surprises along the way. Who would have thought he’d rate The Searchers above the Beatles or that he’d have more time for Liam Gallacher than Noel? He might well have a point about the latter’s arrogance and pretentiousness. But the biggest shock of is Smith’s interest in tarot cards. He’s even been known to give readings!

His views on Manchester do not make great reading for the tourist board, “It’s just a bad Rotterdam now. Toy Town. I don’t know what it is with architects”. But nonetheless it’s still home at the end of the day and he’s never felt a need to move permanently to the bright lights or sunnier climes. So, sick of the North West following his divorce from Brix at the height of the Madchester rave on, he decided to head north to Edinburgh because it was the only place he’d been to that he actually liked, “Not the people, just the way it looked”. He sees some common ground between the Germans and the Scots; people he thinks have been taught properly and read a lot. “Even the daftest Germans read books all day. Not like the Brits at the Reading Festival where Mojo is the tome of choice.”  

In Edinburgh he passed the time in specialised libraries where “some fellows used to bring hip-flasks in; you’d see them nipping away while reading about 19th century law. It was very civilized. That’s how it should be in England. Go into a library round here and you’ve got loads of repressed stormtroopers gawking at you”.

If hyperbole and romanticism interfere with his perception of Scotland’s capital (remember his famous quote some years ago regarding how you could talk to the gasman there about Nietzsche when he came to read the meter?), then Australia didn’t take long to throw up a few disappointments: “Apart from guff like the Sullivans, the rest of the TV was Yank stuff and British comedies. The cheeky bastards – having a pop at us for being a bunch of talentless scrawns and all they could come up with was this funeral-type entertainment! I didn’t like the place.”

Americans fare better despite some pretty disastrous experiences on tour there. “They’re not as vapid as you think. They concocted their entire history from lies, so they’re not going to buy into some limey’s glorified head trip.”

One of the lowest points occured in the USA when the band laid into each other on stage and apparently it was one of his own band, Julia Nagle, who called the police after Smith went berserk at their hotel (Fall-ty Towers?). He was arrested by New York Police and thrown into a cell, but he plays down the incident as usual and claims (again) that group members are spoilt and prone to exaggeration. Although not appearing proud of this episode, Smith went on: “The best thing about it was I got arrested the same day as George Michael. On MTV at 6am the headlines are ‘British indie rock guy goes ape-shit in NY hotel’ kind of thing. But two hours later George Michael got arrested so that was the main news. I was a footnote at that point. Thank God.”

Of course, Renegade is Mark E Smith speaking to music journalist Austin Collins, so this is not an impartial portrayal of the man, warts and all. Clearly there are many unsightly aspects and before falling too far into the trap of portraying Smith as an eccentric old uncle, it is also worth seeking a bit of balance by reading former Fall member Ben Pritchard’s shocking account of life with Mark. This gets a mention at the beginning of Renegade and Collins provides a link for anyone who wishes to hear a very different side to the Fall story:

Naturally, Smith himself denies he has a drink problem and blames self-righteous hypocrites in the music industry for a clause in his contract that he isn’t to be given whisky before going on stage. Meanwhile, for Smith, the health conscious “fail to realise that 99.9% of people with a healthy diet will eventually die”.

Smith readily admits that band members are disposable and that constant change is necessary in order to keep the whole thing fresh. Musicians also have other uses at times. One of Pritchard’s extra-curricular  duties was to chauffeur Smith’s wife Elena to Tescos. “ That’s why I’m gutted,” he said of Pritchard’s departure, “because I don’t have anybody to call on to do that any more”.

On occasion, members have fallen foul of Smith’s regime for crimes such as trying to grow a beard: “I used to make them have a shave because they couldn’t even grow proper stubble; they looked like a bunch of school kids trying to buy beer with bum fluff for ID. I wasn’t having that.”

The Fall leader’s view is basically that young musicians are a product of a mollycoddled society and his message to them is that they don’t appreciate the privileged position they are in: “You’re getting the same money as Franz Ferdinand but you don’t have to make a fool of yourself every five minutes on TV. You can record what you want. It doesn’t have to be a hit. Stop whining!”

Seemingly it is their over-sensitivity that leads to their downfall: “The post-Fall life really gets to a lot of them. It’s as if they’ve been to Vietnam or had a particularly fraught space-excursion and their senses have been obliterated. That’s all they can talk about, that’s all that remains in their fried heads. I’m thinking about setting up a post-Fall-syndrome therapy hour. That’d chase a few wolves from the door.”

Smith logic dictates that “I’ve hung in there for so long , so why fuck off now?”. Has he got any role models? Well surprisingly for a Man City fan, one of them is United manager Alex Ferguson: “I’m a bit like the Fergie of the music game. I see parallels with his timing. He knows when to fuck players off – none of that pandering to reputations. It’s his club. His ideas. His final word. And the results are evident… If only City could get him.”

Renegade was originally published by Viking Books in 2008 and by Penguin the following year.


2 thoughts on “Review – Renegade – The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith

  1. I does sound brilliant. I bought the first single – bingo masters – when it came out and then everything until Grotesque, although i bought the odd record after that.

    I saw them live a few times, back in the old days. top performer.

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