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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, November 14, 2003
    High Tension Line
    Mark E. Smith to WOMAD audience, a week after Live Aid: "We're The Fall and we're from the First World."
    Smith to boisterous audience at a 1986 Manchester Free Trade Hall 'party for the unemployed': "At least we have something in common with you, for we too do nothing all day."
    "Satanists! Satanists!": audience at U2 Elland Road gig, 1987, pelting The Fall with bibles.

    In one respect, having read Simon Ford's Hip Priest: The Story of Mark E. Smith and The Fall I've learned very little: that's because there's no way Smith wants anyone getting inside his head, this enigma who admits to writing notes to himself saying 'Do not go round explaining yourself.' On the other hand, Ford's epic trawl through twenty-five years of this tangental musical movement contains a wealth of excellent cameos, such as those quoted above, where Smith meets the public and sparks inevitably fly.

    They're nothing if not challenging, this lot who use gigs as opportunities for writing new songs, whose muse I first connected with sometime in '87 when 'Hit the North' chopped through the radio speaker in my Cardiff student digs. The groove gets you first but then the words:
      Hit the North
      Manacled to the city, manacled to the city
      All estate agents alive yell down nights in hysterical breath
      Those Northern lights... so pretty
      Those big big big wide streets
      Those useless MPs
      Hit the North (Manacled to the system)
    As Ford says, here 'Smith encapsulated his feelings about the North/South divide: [the song], at once a defiant cry of outrage but also a proud identification with the song's 'savages'.' This was very strong stuff in those loadsamoney years, with our proud working heritage debased (destroyed) by Thatcher.

    The music gets you, if you like Nuggets-style garage sounds and off-the-wall experimentation. Smith's lyrics get you, if you like ripped-up reflections on contemporary mores, a kind of spot-on verbal graffiti. What also got me back then was what Ford calls Smith's 'powers of precognition'. Just as Smith released The Light User Syndrome where in one song he sings about Enniskillen and describes Manchester as a "powder keg", an IRA bomb hit Manchester city centre, devastating the city. The subject of the track 'Terry Waite Sez' was kidnapped just before the album Bend Sinister came out - the book reports that later, Waite's brother scanned the lyrics closely 'to see if there was any psychic clue as to where he might be held. There wasn't.'

    Another theme re-emerges here... William Blake, whose biography I finished last week. Smith's version of Jerusalem is hilarious, Blake's words sandwiched between two rants - the first against dogs and the last against the government:
      I was walking down the street
      When I tripped up on a discarded banana skin
      And on my way down I caught the side of my head
      On a protruding brick chip
      It was the government's fault
      It was the fault of the government
      I was very let down
      From the budget I was expecting a one million quid handout
      I was very disappointed
      It was the government's fault
      It was the fault of the government
    Smith apparently admitted to holding the greatest respect for Blake: 'I suppose my favourite work by him is "Ghost of a Flea". Ha ha ha ha! What a title! What I like about it is that it's just like a really, really grotesque painting. I like something grotesque in an artist.' Ford continues:
      They had much in common: Blake, like Smith, was single-minded and eclectic, an autodidact with idiosyncratic spelling and a keen interest in occult and esoteric systems of knowledge. Both found it difficult to establish long-term relationships because of their erratic behaviour and short tempers and both were resolutely anti-commercial. Indeed Blake could almost have been quoting Smith when he described commerce as a 'spectrous fiend'.
    One thing they did not have in common was London - Blake lived it, Smith loathes it. It's the Bury New Road or nowt for him, quite probably the only Hip Priest in Prestwich.