Telephone Thing

Did he really sack a sound engineer for ordering a salad? Did he really read out the football results live on the telly? Did he really leave a hapless member of the band in the middle of Sweden? Or, on the way to spending an unplanned night in the cells, have a full-on fisticuffs punch-up on stage in New York with one of his more loyal and long-standing Fall members?

Yes. Yes he did. He was Mark E Smith. One of our greatest cult figures. It was his business to be as caustic and obtuse as possible, the abrasive scraping fingers down the chalkboard of contemporary music. His was real working man music, approached in the same way you or I might approach our own 40 hours a week job. It wasn’t for everyone though. He couldn’t stand poseurs or pretence, cared not a jot about chart positions. He changed the players in his group as regularly as the England team manager freshening up his options in attack.

There’s a two/three year cycle. Sooner or later you’re going to need a new centre forward.”

I never met Mark E Smith. I never even saw The Fall live. I know….I know…. Every time I’ve ever driven over the border from England back into Scotland, though, just as we’ve passed the blue ‘Welcome To Scotland’ sign, I’ve broken into a spontaneous 5 second burst of The Fall’s Hit The North. Der-Der-Der-Der-Der-Der-Duh-Der HIT THE NORTH!! No one else in the car has any idea of what’s happening, but it’s over as quickly as it started. In the words of the man himself, he is not appreciated, in my car at least.

The Fall played in my hometown a few years ago, supported by no less than John Cooper Clarke. Did I go? Did I heck. I think it was around the time our eldest was born, so I’ve a reasonable excuse, but it’s no excuse really. I’ve form for this sort of thing, as you might know if you’re a regular on here, but missing The Fall when they roll quite unexpectedly into your hometown, even with little in the way of fanfare or basic promotion? It’s just not the done thing to do. And I done went and did it.

Over the next few days, many better words by better and more qualified writers will be written about Mark E Smith and the uniqueness of The Fall. I’m not going to try. Here’s a true story instead.

No, I’ve never met him. No, I’ve never been in the same room as him. But I’ve spoken to him. Or, to be exact, he’s spoken to me. Around 1990 we had a rehearsal room in Kilmarnock’s Shabby Road, home to the Trashcan Sinatras – The Next Big Thing – and a ragbag collection of sundry acts who thought they were already the next big thing. I class my own band in this category, of course. The Trashcans were on Go! Discs, so all manner of folk would be around the place. Half Man Half Biscuit came and recorded some stuff and played football on the waste bit of ground/(cough) ‘garden’ at the side. The Stairs borrowed a guitar string from me. Chas Smash was ‘avin’ a fag and a cuppa tea in the kitchen one time. And John Leckie, fresh from sprinkling his magic atop the Stone Roses’ debut, was in for a few days to work on some songs with the Trashcans. They’d end up on their 3rd single, Circling The Circumference, which itself was enhanced by one of Leckie’s trademark Stone Roses’ whooshes midway through. You should seek it out if you’re unfamiliar with it.

At one point, Leckie left his notebook/Filofax unattended, and this is where the real fun began.

I took a Shabby Road business card from a table and quickly copied out some telephone numbers; Steve Mack (‘Petrols‘), Phil Saxe, Happy Mondays’ contact at the time, Steve Lillywhite, Lee Mavers and at the bottom, the Hip Priest himself, Mark Smith (‘Prestwich‘). It was funny, because we were sitting just up the road from Prestwick. We’d never heard of Prestwich until then. Anyway, fast forward a couple of hours….

….back in home territory, The Crown, and fuelled by Dutch courage, we fired a few pieces of loose change into the public phone at the end of the bar and picked a number. Lee Mavers was first. We dialled. It rang. “‘Allo?” a voice answered. Unmistakably Scouse. Shit! I passed the phone to Rab. Pause. Five of us stifling sniggers, daring not to breathe. There’s a muffled voice on the other side. “Aye,” says Rab. “Aye. Is Lee in?” Pause. Shit! Rab hangs up. Cue lots of nervous laughing and “I can’t believe we did that!” mutterings.

Buoyed by youthful bravado, I gulped the dregs of my pint and dialled Mark Smith. Three rings at most and then it was answered. On the other end of the phone was the unmistakable voice of Mark E Smith. Not Mark Smith of Prestwich, contact in someone’s phone book, but Mark E Smith, the pop star who was soundtracking my life presently with the Extricate album and the Telephone Thing single. “Yeah?” he drawled, totally Mark. Pause. “Yeah?” Louder this time. “Who’s this?” I panicked. I hung up. Of course. I Iike to think he looked at the silent receiver, irritated, before dropping it into the cradle and muttering how dare you assume I want to parlez-vous with you. He definitely didn’t though.

In hindsight, I wish I’d told him how fantastic these two tracks are, but then, he knew that already.

The Fall Spoilt Victorian Child


The FallUS 80’s – 90’s


If you’ve yet to acquaint yourself with his work, it’s never too late. But much like the musicians on those Fall records, it’s not for everyone.


12 thoughts on “Telephone Thing”

  1. You don’t want to hear this Craig, but The Magnum gig was special, no rose tinted glasses here, The Fall were great, Dougie James joined them on stage for Boxoctosis and they also done a great cover of Walk Like a Man.
    There used to be a cpl of youtube vids of that night but they seem to have disappeared, which is a shame as I’m sure they were professionally shot.
    Acchh, we’re in a wee gang together though, cos I never went to see them when they played Ayr Piv,in 84 with thee classic linuup and a setlist sent from heaven

  2. “Over the next few days, many better words by better and more qualified writers will be written about Mark E Smith and the uniqueness of The Fall.”
    I very much doubt it fella. Superb piece, as always.

  3. Cheers. I tend not to do the obituary type posts, but seen as I had a tenuous story it felt appropriate. That photo of him and Nick Cave and Shane MacGowan doing the NME thing – how many folk would’ve had MES pegged as the first one to go?

  4. The Fall at Ayr Piv 1984 was fecking brilliant. Me and my pal got right to the side of the stage for The Fall set. Two drummers on full kits (a la Glitter Band), everybody swapped instruments every few songs, the elegantly guitared and be-quiffed Brix spat cider and black from the low Piv Stage onto the (still) spitting punks of Ayr (still spitting in 1984… Ayr Punks… yeah I know…). It was a bit ugly. The music very loud, jagged and incredibly tight. Mark at a full-tilt snarling fury. But even with such an acrid atmosphere there were massive choruses of “Eat yerself fitter…” lead by MES (a year later at a packed Wembley during LiveAid, Queen {the group} would attempt a similar thing with “We Will Rock You” but utterly failed in comparison to the chorus that night at Ayr Piv).
    When The Fall launched into “Container Drivers” the entire Piv building levitated four feet into the air, my head expanded and the pal I was there with shat himself. He was actually wearing Co-op jeans. I was wearing an old shirt of one of my brothers from the 1970’s which had vintage cars on it – simply because I had seen a picture in the NME of MES wearing an identical one to the hand me down now in my clothes drawer. Mark E Smith looked at me at one point, I’m sure he noticed the shirt I had on and I was fucking scared.
    It was one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. It was raw, seriously threatening and a totally blistering performance by ALL of The Fall. The fact that Ayr ever saw a band like that in 1984 is something else. I had bought the double 7″ of “Container Drivers” when it came out and went to the gig on the strength of that. It truly was a performance that didn’t disappoint for a single minute.
    Now later gigs by The Fall in Edinburgh (when I lived there in the 90’s and 00’s) … they didn’t quite match up to that blistering performance in Ayr back in 1984… but they were always the best gig ticket available THAT night in Edinburgh – whoever else was in town.

    Bye Mark. You made those decades just more interesting.

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