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Renegade, by Mark E Smith
Another encore for the rock rebel who shuns the look-back bores
Friday 02 May 2008
Last year I contributed to an anthology of short stories based on the music of The Fall. Mark E Smith had, it seemed, agreed to play a gig in Manchester to support the book. On the night, however, he sent on his manager to disassociate the band from it. In case the message wasn't clear, at a later gig he tore up a copy onstage.
All of this seems fair enough. Part of the reason The Fall have survived so long is that Smith has always resisted appropriation, and has always had a degree of wariness towards his admirers, whether bands (Pavement, Franz Ferdinand), DJs (the late John Peel, Henry Rollins), comedians (from Stewart Lee to Frank Skinner), poets (Simon Armitage), novelists (Michel Faber, Niall Griffiths) or cultural critics. He has always resisted the "look-back bores", concentrating on the next album, show or line-up.
But recently older songs have crept back into the live set-list, and the announcement that Smith was to write an autobiography suggested that he may have decided it was time to reflect. Unsurprisingly, Renegade, co-written with Manchester journalist Austin Collings, is not a straightforward account. Smith resists talking about all but three ex-band members in any detail, criticising Simon Ford for doing so in his biography, Hip Priest, and states that "The Fall are about the present, and that's it." He believes a sense of privacy is important.
Although Smith has resisted a conventional biography, it offers a greater insight into his career and life than might have been expected. There are examples of Smith's fractured prose interspersed throughout, but the bulk of Renegade has a loose, conversational feel. As Smith has delivered the most entertaining interviews of anyone in the business, this approach achieves greater dividends than with lesser talents.
Smith claims he has taken Thomas Carlyle as a role model, believing that the only reason he is here is "to produce". His body of work is enormous, but while some albums are passed over in a half-sentence, it is interesting how his own appraisal of his best work does not seem controversial. Unlike Bowie, he isn't interested in championing the obscure corners of his back catalogue. A newcomer to the band reading the book for an understanding of his career would not be disappointed.
Renegade is more than just a band primer. It's also equal parts jokey-but-serious provocation (he says that Elton John and "those guys off Little Britain" are beyond royalty) and literary criticism ("writers should read"). There is insight into his lyrical process; observations on favourite TV programmes; thoughts about sport (particularly snooker and football) and advice for young men.
Thoughts on other musicians run throughout, whether about peers (his perception of the decline of Nick Cave's lyrics while he was on heroin), enduring influences such as The Stooges, or Mojo's rock aristocracy.
Whether through deliberate design or career misfortune (he presents his mid-1990s bankruptcy as "the curse of The Fall"), the most admirable thing about him is a determination to remain connected to his audience, touring and producing excellent CDs: the new Imperial Wax Solvent is among the best. Renegade is best understood less as an explanation of the work than an example of it, the latest of Smith's endlessly entertaining dispatches.
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