Thursday, 30 June 2011

Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith

Reading Renegade is a bit like being locked in a bar with its subject, a man described on the fly leaf as equal parts Johnny Cash, Brian Clough and the classic British pub contrarian with rather too much on his mind. It starts with a good old fashioned rant about former members of his band, The Fall, pauses for biographical notes about Smith and his life in Manchester and Salford, before carrying on in a stream of cantankerous grumbling about the state of the nation, the North, issues about drinking and a potted history of his music. Rambling yes, but never dull.

Smith, known for liking a drink or too, describes getting into LSD as a teenager in an attempt to avoid the drink of choice of his young contemporaries; bottles of booze purloined from parental sideboards:

If anything, I was doing acid to get away from the cider clubs and the sherry clubs. Kids of about fourteen used to nick their mam’s ‘British Sherry’ and be sick all over the house. You could tell where they lived by the drink and vomit stains on the carpet.

After leaving school and working at the docks in Salford, Smith formed The Fall, one of Britain’s most exciting and unpredictable avante garde rock groups, or a noisy racket, depending on your point of view. Smith’s song writing is a combination of distinctive wordplay and characterisation built from the experience of his native North West. Drink plays its part:

The problems started soon after Totale’s Turns, when I began thinking of albums more in the way of documents; elongated newspapers, so to speak. ‘Fiery Jack’ was a turning point; I guess in hindsight you could look at it as the beginning of Grotesque. I’ve always written from different perspectives, but that one seemed to have more weight to it. I still see ‘Fiery Jack’ types like that. They’re quite heartening in a way. Manchester has always had men like that, hard livers with hard livers; faces like unmade beds. Even though they’re clearly doing themselves damage, there’s a zest for life there. And that’s a rarity. They’re not as oblivious as you might think. They’re not all boring cunts. Drinkers have a good sense of the absurd. I like that.

The Fall are one of the more prolific bands in the country and have toured and recorded relentlessly since the 70s. Smith’s trip to Iceland where they record Hex Enduction Hour included a gig where about a third of the island’s youth came to see them (he apologises for almost certainly having brought about Björk and the Sugarcubes) and copious amounts of the local hooch:

We recorded parts of it in Iceland, which was a very inaccessible place at the time, totally unlike what it is now. Beer was against the law. You could only drink shit like pints of peach schnapps. I remember firing into it one day and night. I thought my legs had been stolen afterwards.

Continually messed around by hopeless record labels and enjoying a strained relationship with other band members (Smith has sacked over forty musicians over the years) things take a turn for the worse when he divorces his wife (and fellow band member...) Brix. He moves to Edinburgh, which introduces him to whisky:

I think that’s where the problems started. I got a real taste for it. There’s nothing quite like being drunk on whisky. Things can get mental on that stuff; and things did get mental years later; but while in Edinburgh I handled it well.

As the 90s progressed, the already uncompromising Smith started getting a reputation as a drunk who should keep of the sauce before the gig:

What gets me is when I get daft promoters like Alan Wise saying, “Don’t give Mark the whisky before he goes on.” It’s written into the contract – “Do not give Mark whisky before he goes on stage.” I’d rather have it upfront... To a certain extent I understand where they’re coming from. I did happen to lose it a bit when I was drinking too much whisky in the mid 90s, but I checked myself. I knew I had to curb it. And I did. I stand by Whyte and Mackay though, it’s a lovely drink. The worst thing I could do now is completely stop. You look at the amount of people who have died because they’ve just stopped drinking or doing whatever. The list is endless. The thing is with me, I don’t get hangovers. I’ve never been bothered by them. Red wine gets to me; it makes me very violent. I think it’s bad for you. Women who are into red wine are always manic-depressives.

He remarks that a lot of people who complain about his drinking are taking copious amounts of other substances as well. Stick to drink, he says:

At least you know where you are with booze. You drink two bottles of whisky and wake up in the morning, you know you’ve done something wrong, you know you won’t be doing that again. But experience tells you it’ll lift soon. And with liquor, if you drink any more you’ll be dead. You can’t move. But with E you start seeing chickens on the road – I know I was.

The boozy nadir is a fight with the band in New York when he is convicted of a drunken assault:

The bottom end of it was that the New York court said I had to go on this alcohol programme, twice a week for six weeks in Bury. But the staff there seemed to have more problems than I had. I didn’t have any problems, to be quite honest. I don’t think I did.

It’s a self justification, but it works for him. Anyway, there’s a method in the madness:

It’s sort of good for me, though, this idea that I’m a mad drunk. It makes people frightened of me.


  1. Great review Chaz ,I love the fall and Mark e ,he is such a character ,a friend once had a drink with him in canda after he meet in a bar after a concert this is going on list to get ,all the best stu

  2. Stu, thanks for the comment. I saw The Fall live myself a few years back. Mark E. Smith seemed slightly pickled, but I would have been disappointed if he wasn't! I can recommend the book, it's great.

  3. Have you read the Luke Haines book? Lots of booze in that and sometimes funny too.
    He also has a cookery blog.

  4. Thanks for the tip. I had vaguely of it, but hadn't thought to read if for a post. I shall make a trip to the library once I've finished reading Dorian Gray... I had no idea he had a cookery blog, though. That does sound interesting.