July 2008

Arts & Letters

‘Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E Smith’ by Mark E Smith (with Austin Collings)

By Gideon Haigh

Mancunian Mark E Smith is the founder of The Fall, after 27 studio albums the most durable and protean of all bands to emerge from that burst of musical DIY inspired by punk 30 years ago. Actually, if that is news to you, no purpose is served by reading further: this memoir will be inexplicable. But if you're still in the club that sets its watch by Smith's latest venture, prepare for 250 pages of exquisitely bitter and chewy pith.

Previous attempts to tell The Fall's story have failed, either through too little organisation (Mick Middles' The Fall) or too much (Simon Ford's Hip Priest, Dave Thompson's A User's Guide to The Fall). Smith provides less a narrative than a tone poem full of sideways glances and surly meanderings. He offers a glimpse of his youthful self, a docks clerk paying for studio time with pool-table winnings and tarot readings. Otherwise, Renegade is a manifesto of refusal - solitary, unsentimental and sometimes slightly messianic. Of The Fall's constantly changing membership, he states simply: "They came, they saw, they fucked off and now I no longer see them." Trademark putdowns abound. Rough Trade were "only arsed about entertaining their mates round the corner"; the Clash were "like watching the news in your living room"; Oasis are "always trying to conquer America, but never make it past New Jersey". Smith is likewise superbly unimpressed by football ("A bunch of Walter Softies"), mobile phones ("People ringing each other up all the time, talking about tomato sauce and what's happening in their car") and contemporary architecture ("Buildings nowadays are not symbols of progress; they're the result of too many minds regressing into childhood").

What's never satisfactorily explained is how the young apathete keen only to "get a flat, take drugs and not work" became the workaholic puritan justifying turnover in band members as natural attrition ("Do you still work with the same people you worked with ten years ago?") and mithering of lazy guitarists ("They want a say in all the songs but they don't want to fill in the tax forms"). Similarly, reading The Fall is not hearing it - and the difference is greater than Smith acknowledges.

Cover: July 2008
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