‘Cropdust is the one that forecast the Twin Towers’

Mirror: Mark E Smith

Mark E Smith Interview Malmaison Hotel Bar, Manchester, 14 May 2004

Herein, the late great leader of The Fall discusses the group, the-then new album, Country on the Click, touring the US, William Burroughs, Orson Welles, Brion Gysin, TOTP albums from the 1970s, analog synths, group members, poetry and spoken word, Hex Induction, the nature of composition, production, record companies, reissues, Arthur Machen, Hawkwind and, well, a hell of a lot more. Engage and enjoy, salute a master

Mark Smith walks carefully down the sloping ramp from the hotel reception into the bar, head turned to spot the likely journalist among the room’s dozen or so post-lunch hour drinkers. Hotel bar with waiter service, Becks on tap, smoking all areas. We move to a table bear the wall, and Mark settles into a chair and puts his crutches against the wall next to him. ‘I’m gonna throw these as far as I can when I’ve finished with them,’ he says when I ask how he is. The long slog of an American tour, from New York through the Midwest to Texas, Arizona and California, has taken its toll, especially after giving up the medication, and its mind-deadening side-effects. Smith prefers to hear what the body is telling him; that it’s in pain. It also means that he can drink.

MES: Every interview in America that’s all they wanted to talk about. ‘What about the pain….’ [laughter]

Tim Cumming: How was the American tour?

MES: It was good, it was good. We came back two weeks early. We were going to have to cross the desert, and we didn’t want to do that. We were going to go back but I don’t think we can do that now. The visas run out next week. It’s got much harder in the last couple of years. We took some internal flights, and you’re not talking an hour or two, you’re talking four hours to get through an hour’s plane journey. The places we were in weren’t used to it. Places like St Louis had never done a security operation. You get these old fellas saying, I think you’re supposed to sit down now. I’m supposed to get this thing out and wave it like this. It’s quite weird.

TC: Weren’t you there a couple of years ago?

MES: We were there last year and yeah, the year before too.

TC: How much do you think it’s changed, and how much do you travel around?

MES: I insist on doing out of the way places. I insist on doing Texas and places like that. Doesn’t go down very well with people in New York much. We’ve got fanatics, fanatical fans in the mid west. With The Fall it’s quite peculiar. A lot of British groups don’t do so well in Chicago and places like that. We do, you know. So if you’re going to go, you might as well do those places. So we did it, and places like Pittsburgh, where nobody goes anymore.

TC: What kind of venues where you playing?

MES: We were drawing all kinds of ages, which was interesting. Anyone from 12 to 80. You get a lot of young kids there, which is good. Quite fanatical, about 16.

Fall MES crop.jpg

TC: There’s always been that renewal in the group and the audience.

MES: Yeah [laughter] Not the usual lot like me and you. Have you been working for this lot [the Independent newspaper] long?

TC: I’m freelance. Done it for about four years. First one I did was on Stockhausen. I did one on Orson Welles, and this film that never came out called The Other Side of the Wind.

MES: A mate of mine says he’s got that on video. He’s had it for ages. I’m a big fan of his. His Macbeth is the best one ever, that [laughter]. Really good. There’s those bits where his hair’s five times longer because they had to shoot it three months later.

TC: I saw F for Fake in the cinema not long ago.

MES: F for Fake’s a great one. A very good film. Way ahead of its time. What’s The Other Side of the Wind about? My mate keeps going on about it.

TC: John Huston plays an old Hollywood director, coming back with one last film, a kind of sex and occult movie, and there’s this party and screening of bits of the movie in a movie, and all these young directors like Bogdanovich and Curtis Harrington,  playing kind of acolytes.

MES: Is it coming out then?

TC: They need two or three million to finish off the editing and stuff.[pause: 2017 update, we are still waiting, but now Netflix is on board] I’m going to writing about the new Best Of CD, 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong. Did you have much involvement in it?

MES: I did with that one, yeah. Not a lot of them I don’t, but Sanctuary is alright actually. They do sort of put it past me.

TC: Did you have your own choice of tracks?

MES: They always try it on and you’ve got to chase them up. I think it was a lot longer, that. A three-CD one and all that. There’s only so much you can put out, I think. The last one’s more important to me, The Real New Fall LP. I think it’s good, that. The American copy’s good as well. It’s got a few different tracks on it, and it’s got a much sharper cut for some reason. harder. The same mix but very hard.

TC: What was the story about the making of the album? I heard it was recorded in a week then held back for about a year?

MES: Well, about six months of pissing around with it. We did it and I was very happy with it, and then the record company – Action – started messing around with it. So I went to EMI and they started messing around with it, which was the only reason I went there in the first place. And I went to Mute, and they started pissing around. So I just went back to Action. Did a lot of it again, to be honest. Which I’ve never had to do before. So it’s absolutely what I want now.


TC: The re-recording or the mixing?

MES: Well, it’s funny, it’s sort of remixing but it’s more or les what it was in the first place. I couldn’t really believe after all this time that people started thinking they could take tracks away of mine and mess about with them. It’s forbidden. So that’s exactly how it should sound.

TC: The American release has a couple of remixes and a new track, is that it?

MES: Yeah. Worth hearing though.

TC: With the album being recorded so quickly, was working on the songs beforehand a much longer process? You’re working with a very new band.

MES: Yeah [long pause] I didn’t have any problems with em. That’s what annoyed me. It’s like if you make it look a bit too easy, people think they can just fiddle around with it. It was hard work, but something like Sparta was knocked up in two days. It sounded really great. Then you get it back and it sounded like Posh Spice, you know. So that got me off, of course. Putting on extra vocals and all that. Nowadays they’ve got too much equipment. You know, it’s out of time. It’s very out of date, trying to put dance music on top of rock. It’s been done. We never needed dance stuff over out stuff. There’s always been that element there. Our kind of stuff is atonal, and they’re trying to put dancy tunes over it, so it skews the whole track. I hate talking like this because you get into studio speak, you know.

TC: Do you like doing stuff in the studio or is it better live?

MES: They’re both alright. The thing about the studio is you have to hang around a lot. It’s a pain in the arse really. You go out for an hour and come back and they’re still messing around.

TC: Most of the time is spending time?

MES: Yeah, worth it though.

TC: With songs like Last Words, there’s that thing where you change sound sources, and you do that a lot on Panda Pander Panzer, and it’s something that goes way back.

MES: Yeah. [pause] It’s quite interesting about all this equipment and what they don’t do with it. It’s funny doing the tour with these [gestures to crutches] because I’ve had to do most of it sitting down. Singing sat down the whole time.


TC: Are all the spoken word performances sat down?

MES: Yeah well it’s held me in good stead really. I’m settled in like with one mic going through an amp, another going through the desk, and through another amp. Good one, that.

TC: Three different sources?

MES: Yeah.

TC: What’s the attraction of using all these different sound sources? Is it how you think about sound?

MES: Yeah, very much so. But I haven’t got a musician’s ear, me, at all. I know less now that I did when I started. Chord progressions and things. Cos the group now are quite sticklers for the music. They’re all a generation younger than me. Where I’m coming from has always been atonal and quite savage. So I get them to unplay a bit [laughter].

TC: So they come to you with something, with a song, and then play it through.

MES: I rough it up, yeah. Lop bits off it. Don’t need that bit [laughter]. Put this bit in [laughter].

TC: And that’s the process of making a Fall song?

MES: Aaah, I suppose so, yeah. I don’t think too much about it really.

TC: You don’t reflect on it or intellectualise it in a certain way?

MES: I try to but, um, I think it’s important for the group to be topical, not in a sound way, but in a sort of musical way.

TC: Do you find yourself subtracting more than adding things?

MES: More so, more so, yeah. Savage edits now, you know. I’m really into them. Cutting whole chunks out of the song. Which you have to fight for. It’s the opposite of being a writer.

TC: How much writing do you do on a regular basis?

MES: Depends on what I’m doing. I still write every day. It’s not as voluminous as it used to be.

TC: Do you find yourself writing a lot on tour?

MES: Yeah. I’m hoping to put June apart for recording.

TC: Will you have Dingo back?

MES: I have no idea. I don’t know, I’m quite happy with this new lot. He’s good. I also found out on tour he’s quite a little genius himself. He’s been writing for years apparently, since he was about 15. Very interesting stuff. Sort of like Manc pop but a bit weird. So I’m hoping to use a bit of his stuff actually. Different angles. What kind of music do you like.

TC: A lot of country and western, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Townes van Zandt. Rock n roll stuff.

MES: I bought a Merle Haggard LP at a truck stop. Haven’t had time to play it yet. It was one of these bargain ones. I’ve been looking at it wanting to play it all the fucking time. The titles are great, you know. The Bottle and Me, and all that, you know.

TC: And German stuff – Neu, Ash Ra Tempel. I’ve got these recent CDs by Manuel Gottsching.

MES: Oh aye yeah. [examines CDs] Oh they are good. I’ve got some of this somewhere. Have you heard of Mouse on Mars? Sort of German poppy group. I saw them in London and they were fantastic. They were really like Neu! With like synths. Nothing like their records. The records are all – bippity bop.  There’s supposed to be a compilation LP out of Fall songs by all these groups.

TC: I’ve got a copy. Perverted by Mark E Smith.

Fall pervertefd

MES: What’s it like, is it good?

TC: Yeah, really good. [pause] You’ve got links with Germany going back to that book of lyrics that came out in the mid 80s.

MES: Yeah. The wife was brought up in Germany. She’s playing in the group now. It’s good. People like it. Bit of drive to it.

TC: In Country on the Click, there’s quite a lot of electronic things going on, but in recent gigs it’s been much more a straight guitar-drum-bass sound.

MES: I’ve been trying to get round to that. In America we were working on it a lot. By the time we’d finished there, electronics was a lot more prevalent than say the last time you saw us.

TC: Using sequencers, stuff like that?

MES: Well, Elena’s got a lot of old synthesisers she brought back from Berlin, and it’s really good, the sound, like nothing I’ve ever heard. It’s quite funny, all that stuff you used to throw out fifteen years ago is all coming back now.

TC: Like those 80s pad drums are coming back.

MES: Good. I used to like them. We used to have them in The Fall when we started out. People used to laugh. They were good.

TC: Mate of mine remembers seeing the band in 79 when Una Baines was using an ironing board as a keyboard stand.

MES: Right, yeah. You’d put magnetic mikes on the ironing board. Can’t get them anymore. All that’s like gold dust now.

TC: Do you like playing around with that kind of equipment?

MES: Yeah. I do a lot of that on stage. I have to be very careful, because musicians have a temper, you know. Turning the dial in the middle of stuff, breaking things you shouldn’t. I’d say about a tenth of the money we made – if we made any in America – was spent on microphones and amplifiers. Mikes I dropped or gave to the audience. They don’t take that kind of thing very lightly over there. Like [American accent] ‘that mike was made in San Francisco in 1969…’ Right. ‘You gave it to the audience and we’ve not seen it again.’ Sorry and all that, you know. $500. [laughter]

TC: This 50,000 Fall Fans… is a 25th anniversary compilation?

Fall 50,000

MES: Yeah well I’m very wary of all that stuff.

TC: You don’t want to be in a position to have to consider all that?

MES: Well I never have, y’know. [Looks through the track list] My eyes sort of run out half way down it. I’m sure it’s good, you know. That’s the good thing about Sanctuary. They have got a bit of taste. Some of the other compilations, I used to have nightmares about them.

TC: Have you been involved in the Sanctuary reissues project?

MES: Well I think they’re alright, you know. At least they’re mastered properly. What I don’t like is the way they don’t have any kind of theme. Especially with CDs. It’s like they haven’t really got their heads around the CD. I still think in LP form.

TC: Do you think in LP time as well?

MES: Yeah, like a thread going through it. I sort of got around that with Country on the Click because you can really listen to it all the way through as if it were an LP. With a lot of compilations you have to stick a lot of extra tracks on and they jut out.

TC: With Country on the Click, when you were putting it together, do you have an intuition about running order?

MES: Very much, yeah. You still get it wrong, no matter what you say. [picks up CotC] Even that’s in the wrong bloody order. They switched them around. So it’s in the right order now, the American one.

TC: Sparta’s going to be a single here, right?

MES: That’s what I found out when I got home. I wanted to put this song Portugal on the B Side, which we put on the American thing. And they were going, no, no you can’t do it, it’s libellous. Last time we played in Portugal there was this road crew. It’s completely surreal. We arrived and they sort of pissed off on the day of the show, saying we behaved really badly and all this. Somebody threw a bit of paper at them, like a plane or something. It was quite funny; they wrote, like, their excuses for running off. But if you saw these blokes you’d laugh your head off, because they were four big blokes with long hair and leather jackets, and like, I’d knocked on the door at 12 o clock at night to ask what time they’re going down to the show. Just banging on the door. And they wrote, ‘he was banging on our door at 12 o clock at night,’ and I got the group to read all their letters out. And a few more. It’s a good track.  I’m quite mad they didn’t put it on the B-side. It would’ve fitted great, Sparta with Portugal. It would’ve been good.

TC: Can you remember how a song like Sparta come about? It’s a really great track.


MES: Everybody likes it, yeah. The group made this song that was sort of like Born to Be Wild, I thought, with a great feel to it. And Elena came up with some great words and I added some words I thought were like the Greek football fan’s attitude, you know. I do know quite a few Greek football fans, and their attitude to soccer is completely different to Britain. Sort of cobbled it all together, put a Greek motif on the guitar and that was it.

TC: The lyrics seem to be a springboard form whatever interpretation you want to put on it.

MES: Right. The thing is, their mental attitude is quite strange. It’s not about winning or anything. It’s just about being within the club. They find British fans very funny. They find them hilarious. You know, when they cry. You see it now, you know. They cry when they don’t win, and all that.

TC: I saw that the other day with the Chelsea game.

MES: Yeah!

TC: A bit shameful.

MES: [much laughter] Spartans, you know, Greeks don’t even want to know the score, they just want to get to the match. [laughter] It’s not really important, it’s not really a matter of life and death. I don’t think anyone else has got the set up we’ve got here. It was easier to get results for Man City in America than it is to get them here. I find it funny that you have to pay to watch England, or go to a pub to watch it.

TC: A kind of pay per view culture.

MES: Like, what credit card have you got? Quite horrid.

TC: With a lot of your songs, they seem to be open to interpretation of anyone who hears them. Is that what you want, basically?

MES: I’m glad you’ve said that, yeah.

TC: And when you’re performing, how do you approach the songs?

MES: It’s more open-handed now. As I said on that last American tour my voice was getting really good, and a lot of the songs sounded better live. I can ease in new material.

TC: You were introducing new material?

MES: Trying to, yeah. We always have this fight, you know, with musicians. They’d like to do the same set forever, for like fifteen years. [points to Best-Of CD] They’d do this set if they could, a lot of the musicians I’ve worked with.

TC: That Blackburn DVD came out and that is basically this set, isn’t it?

MES: Yeah that’s right.

TC: Was that done specifically for the DVD?

MES: Yeah, I’m quite pleased with that. I can’t watch myself you see. Telly or video or anything like that. It doesn’t make any sense to me, but I was pleased with that one. It was a three-day project. They wanted to do some old songs, and there were three or four we’d never even think of doing. And it was for this record company that used to do all these duff compilations. [laughter] Secret Records. Used to be Trojan. Brought out all these horrible compilations that didn’t make any sense. All crap. Not that the music’s crap, it’s just the way it’s cobbled together. Makes no sense.

TC: Will the Sanctuary Reissues continue, and will you try and phase out the old stuff?

MES: Correct, yeah. Do a big clear-up and get it out the way. Sanctuary are good like that. They’re doing it all over the shop. They’re doing it with Deep Purple. They’re doing it a bit tasteful. You can draw a line under it, you know.

TC: They were doing the same thing with Hawkwind.


MES [much laughter] They’re having a resurgence in America. Kids we were talking to were obsessed with them. I saw Hawkwind when I was about fucking 16. Status Quo were supporting them. This was when Silver Machine were in the charts. They came on and did a 25 minute song that made so sense. It was brilliant.

TC: They’re still doing it now. I saw them at Concord 2 in Brighton about two weeks ago.

MES: You’re joking aren’t you? I’m talking about when Lemmy was in them.

TC: There’s been a few Bob Calvert albums being re-released.

MES: Yeah, they’re really good. He used to hang around with Moorcock, didn’t he? In fact I think Moorcock used a lot of his stuff.

TC: When you were starting out, what were the people you were listening to – your frames of reference seem wider than a lot of other bands. People like John cage as much as Can.

MES: Rock music is so standardised these days, I can’t believe it really. It’s overmixed. If you’re going to do basic rock, you’ve got to do it properly. You shouldn’t interfere with about eight guitar overdubs. It’s wrong isn’t it.

TC: Do you think there’s a purity in the essential form – bass, drums, guitar.

MES: Sure, sure. I still think the same I’ve always thought, that the guitar’s not been used properly yet. I might have to go back to playing it again.

TC: When did you last play?

MES: Well only for composition. Around Hex Induction Hour, used to play a lot of guitar. I do like that one. It’s the only one I like from the 80s. In fact we do Mere Pseud Mag. It always sounds good. Did a version in Texas three days before we came home, and did the end bit, repeating the line for about five minutes. It was good. Like, ‘oh, his medication’s kicked in.’ No it hasn’t. It’s fucking great, you know.

TC: It makes it a sort of invocation.

MES: Yeah. People don’t do that much no more.

TC: Now they keep it like the LP is.

MES: Straighter now than ever, don’t you think?

TC: What, these days?

MES: Yeah

TC: Is there anyone new you’ve got your eye on?

MES: I don’t get the time, you know, Tim. I do like a lot of that Kraut stuff that I’ve heard, though I can’t remember the names or anything. In America we were getting a lot of these tapes off groups. It’s dire stuff. Really bad. It’s like this semi-grunge movement’s out there. And this Strokes-type sound which I hate. Bad 70s music.

TC: Three Dog Night sort of thing.

MES: I think so. They’re even doing this travesty tomorrow. The Eurovision Song Contest. I mean, how dare they tamper with that. I’m a big fan., me. They’re doing all these things where they’re turning it into Pop Idol. The British entry and the German entry really does sound like Three Dog Night. That’s exactly it. It sounds like what their fathers listened to. 3 Dog Night crossed with Joe Cocker or something. Horrible. The theory of Eurovision was that it was totally amateurish. Tripe. You get good stuff. But now they’re playing so there’s a quarter final. It’s a bit like the Champions league, they eliminated some countries last night, so it won’t be all of Europe in it.

TC: We did well last year.

MES: That was a bit of a triumph, wasn’t it? That was a great one, that one.

TC: Would you like to use that poppy kind of sound?

MES: Always thought I was doing that.

TC: Five or six years back, you had Britpop, which was very retrospective, referential, 60s and 70s stuff.

MES: I think these things show a bit of a gap, a yearning for something. Hence an interest in all this stuff [gestures to 50,00 Fall Fans…] shows there’s something wrong. I’ve said it before, but you meet a lot of these groups now and it’s like going to a bloody businessman’s convention. Working out what their investments are going to be, what they’re gonna be doing in three years. It more than takes the fun out of it.

TC: Do you still have fun with it? You’ve worked outside the mainstream for 25 years. How is it now?

MES: I think I’m alright. I don’t look at it like that. Am I making any sense here, Tim?

TC: You look at it more as a circular thing without a linear time line?

MES: I think so, very much. I call it the seven year gap. There’s a Fall time and there isn’t. If you wrote a graph of The Fall it would go up and down like this, like the Alps.

TC: At the beginning, were avant-garde people like Stockhausen and Burroughs an influence?

Burroughs Nothing Here

MES: Yeah, that’s right, when we started out. I still like Nothing Here But the Recordings by William Burroughs. It’s really good. It’s something that Genesis P Orridge put out. A bit of an influence that, I must say. Genesis has made a bit of a comeback, have you heard about that?

TC: I heard about getting his lips and tits done.

MES: I know about that. Don’t want to think about it. If anyone’s going to rebuild themselves it’s going to be someone like that. They used this binary head thing, some kind of recording device. I used it on a track once. They did a show at the Hacienda where they tried to put it through a stereo, through the PA rather. The fact they were playing hardly anything didn’t seem to bother them. It was quite interesting.

TC: When I saw Psychic TV in the mid 80s there seemed to be hardly anyone playing, it was all tapes, and a dozen guys on stage.

MES: You can hear the guitar going on in the background, ding-ding-ding-ding-ding,. And Genesis in the middle, or wandering around the audience. Like being in the middle of a bad dream.

TC: I interviewed Genesis about Brion Gysin, and he talked about how he rescued all these films with Burroughs and Anthony Balch.

MES: He’s good like that, Genesis. He’s very good that way.

TC: Do you do any videos these days?

MES: I can’t be doing with them. It’s the same thing with sound. You have to really argue with them. It’s a bit Orson Welles-ish. Looking at that Blackburn DVD, though, we put some daft staged pre-show thing which I did at the end of it, in a holiday camp. It was dead funny actually. It started as a Channel 4 documentary which didn’t come out. The usual stuff. That was funny, because I said alright to the group and they were in and out so they weren’t really in on it. Like, that’s not going in the set you know, and getting them to write out the set list again. It’s really good. That’s the sort of thing I like. In this culture, you watch a film then see all the blokes up ladders and all that. It’s like the crew getting more attention. You get all these programmes on, like the top 50 films and you get Citizen Kane on, and you get about ten seconds of it and this guy starts talking about it. I find that really irritating.

TC: You don’t get to eat anything, you just get to see the dish.

MES: [laughter] That’s very well put.

TC: I’ve got this great BBC video of Orson Welles talking for about three hours. One camera angle.

MES: I’ve got that. It’s good isn’t it. He’s got his cigar and all that. Great to watch.

TC: After doing that Blackburn DVD, did you think of bringing in more old songs?

MES: Sort of, yeah. In my mind it’s a long time ago, though it isn’t that long ago.

TC: Do you avoid doing it because you don’t want the audience to expect it?

MES: Yeah, I’m kind of tight on that, Tim. I don’t mind this stuff [the CD and DVD] but I don’t want too many live show like that. I always think it’ll stop people coming. The show’s completely different now though.

TC: Did you get any trouble from cancelling the last few shows? Was it a band decision about not wanting to go on, or more to do with the pain?

MES: I don’t know. You’re talking about that Fallnet aren’t you? I think that Fallnet has to be tightened up a bit, actually. It’s getting too much like a chat room, in my opinion. I’m going to tighten up on that, don’t you worry. I never read it, but when I was in America I had a look at it. Most of it’s alright, but I don’t like all that ‘I paid so and so…’ This culture where you have to explain everything all the time what you’re doing. It puts a clamp on you. The people who are into the Fall don’t really care about them things. You get all these old fogies going I haven’t seen so and so since 1983. I had a lot of complaints from kids in their early 20s who want to go on Fallnet to find out what it is now, not what it was. They’ve already got the compilations, they don’t want to hear people talk about them. It can be quite a trap, I think.

TC: As a band site it’s really good.

MES: Oh yeah. It’s the envy of a lot of other groups, I know that.

TC: There was some rumour you appeared in the Bob Dylan movie, Masked and Anonymous.

MES:  I heard that. Someone told me about that. Could be someone who looks like me. It’s fire in the hands of fools a lot of the time. Those times where they go, I saw Mark Smith the other day in Stoke. You get fellas pretending to be me, which I have to track down. Which I find a real pain in the arse.

TC: The German CD [Perverted  By Mark E]  has a song listing all the ex Fall members.

MES: [laughter] Fucking great. I’d love to hear that. I think I might know the people who did that.

TC: I’d like to ask about the making of Hex Induction Hour.

MES: It was done live in a cinema in Hitchin. Without an audience. This is the last LP I thought I’d ever do, so I wanted to get everything on it. So I packed it all in. It’s one of the ones – I don’t sit down and listen to it every week or anything – but I do give it a good hearing. It stands up, I think , which surprised me.

Fall HEX

TC: When the remasters come out, will it have more original material, like the full half-hour cut of And This Day?

MES: No, you can’t alter that. All that stuff’s on the floor, thank god. They’ll put a couple of singles on  it, with some good B sides.

TC: And some was recorded in Iceland?

MES: In a cave made out of lava. Hip Priest was done there. It was before the days when Iceland got hip. You go there now and the studios are all complexes. Then it was like a lava igloo. It’s why Hip Priest and the other ones sound good. It’s a very strange sound. We should’ve done more, really. I think it fell to bits a year later. The lava cracked.

TC: Hip Priest was used in Silence of the Lambs. Is that a good source of income?

MES: Not particularly. I was more democratic in those days and gave everyone a share so that it has to go round about six people. [laughter] Of course I wrote every note.

TC: I heard there was some screw-up over registering Touch Sensitive before it was used in the car advert.

MES: I think I forgot to register it. I don’t really worry about that. It’s quite funny, because if there’s one kind of advert I rail against it’s car adverts. The money they spend you could make a British film, and bugger me, I’m one of them.

TC: What do you think of the three books that came out last year?

MES: I liked the Users Guide, that was just LP by LP. Facts. I enjoyed that one. But the other one, Hip Priest, where he interviewed everyone but me. I didn’t like that at all. I didn’t read it. It’s amazing how he tracked down everybody but me. I deliberately didn’t talk to him, but I mean, I don’t really go there, Tim.

TC: You want to avoid having to look at it the way they look at it?

MES: Yeah. It sounds a bit precocious, but. Like a lot of things, it’s all through rose-tinted glasses. The bits I read in Hip Priest about what a great guy I am and all that, from ex members. That wasn’t the case at the time.

TC: Is there always tension between you and musicians?

MES: Very much, all the time. I don’t know what it is. Ever today, you know. I sort of lose me rag with them. You can say, well, ten years ago you were having hard times and all that, you were drinking a lot of whiskey, which I used to do, but now it’s still the same, sober or no.t Still, I think it works.

TC: It’s part of The Fall’s tension.

MES: I think so, too.

TC: It’s the creative tension between two very different attitudes.

MES: Very much so, yeah. I can’t do what they do and they can’t do what I do.

TC: When you’re bringing in a new member you’re basically trying them untried.

MES: I try to do it that way.

TC: Did you stay to watch the Magic Band when you played with them at the Royal Festival Hall?

MES: No I didn’t. I was a bit upset actually. I was very disappointed.

TC: Were you hoping to perform with them?

MES: That was touted, yeah, at this LA festival about six months before. The idea was to do the whole of Trout Mask Replica with different vocalists, which I thought was a really good idea. It’s one of the few albums where I know all the lyrics. There’s about five songs I can do just like that. What they played wasn’t really the Beefheart period I like, the seventies period. I liked the 60s stuff much better. But it’s up to them what they do.

TC: It was good, but it was an imitation, they were sort of their own tribute band. It was very different to how you’d do it.

MES: I’m not used to supporting people anymore [laughter]. That might have something to do with it.

TC: In writing songs, is it more to do with impact and tone than with telling a story?

MES: I do fancy going back to a bit of a storyline. A lot of material I keep for a few years, actually. I have it around in my head. I find that’s the best way.

TC: Do you find yourself writing on a theme?

MES: Yeah, you look back over a three-week period, there’s a thread there you couldn’t see. A lot of things that read like nonsense when you write them make a lot of sense a month later. Seems like complete rubbish as you’re writing it down, and it seems to come true in a couple of weeks.

TC: There’s well-known instances where your songs have come true.

MES: That’s very strange. Bombast, somebody played that in America, bombs coming down. Strange song. Don’t know where the hell they came from at the time.

TC: You were a big fan of Philip K Dick.

MES: Still am. A massive fan. I got the DVD of the movie Spielberg did, and he’s talking as if he wrote it himself. It’s all in the public domain, which is a big thing in America. It’s public property so they don’t have to pay anymore. The Spielberg one is only about 50 pages long, and the film’s really great, I think Tom Cruise is really good in it, but on the DVD he’s like explaining Dick’s work without mentioning Dick’s name at all. It’s very strange. It’s like you claiming to have written Country on the Click, you know what I mean? It’s something he talks about in his stories.

TC: I wondered of the song Book of Lies was a reference to Crowley, whether he’s a figure you’re interested in.

MES: Well I do, but I keep it at the end of my arm. I’ve seen too many people dabble in that shit, you know. Like Genesis, he was into all that wasn’t he. You’ve got to be very careful with that stuff. I do like his Tarot though, the Crowley one. I do still like that. The interpretations of the cards are so funny, some of them. The reverse one is like, you are a crawling cockroach of the worst order [laughter]. The normal one is, you’re blocked, you’re not doing the right thing, you should be a bit more open and think about what you want to do. And he says, you’re a crawling cockroach of the worst order. Hah! You are like a bluebottle in human form. Imagine reading that to somebody. They’d probably kill themselves. [laughter] You are an average person, you’ll never amount to anything. [more laughter]


TC: Do what thou wilt and those phrases.

MES: Oh that’s still good.

TC: During the Fall’s history, have you ever thought about knocking it on the head?

MES: About once a year. All the time, yeah.

TC: The way you are, do you have to keep out of the trap of the past, and try and just focus on the present?

MES: I try to yeah, but people don’t like – people aren’t as daft as you think. You can’t be expected to know every Fall LP and all that. I think that’s good. It’s like these compilations. You can’t do anything about it. I remember when I was a kid you’d buy this LP and it was a duff Kinks LP, you got it home and discovered it was all duff B sides. But you learnt something from it. At least it was there.

TC: I bought this rock n roll album when I was a kid, and it wasn’t by the originals at all, it was like one of those Top of the Pops albums.

MES: Oh they were great weren’t they? I used to buy loads of those. One of my favourite LPs has ‘hits of T Rex, Slade and The Sweet’. I remember buying it when I was about 15. And inside it’s got, ‘as performed by Unicorn…’ And they’re better than the originals. They’re a lot better. This bloke, his voice breaks in the middle, and with the siren on The Sweet, you know Blockbuster, the police siren gets really out of control. It’s fantastic.

TC: They didn’t have enough budget to change it.

MES: [laughter] A lot of them are better than the original, especially the Slade one. The blokes voice cracks, it goes in the middle of the song. It’s excellent.

TC: Did you like Glam Rock?

MES: No, not at all.

TC: Going back to Pander Panda Panzer, was it you who edited and put it together?

MES: Dingo helped me a lot on that.

TC: It has some beautiful ambient stuff coming in and out between the recordings.

MES: Yeah it’s really nice isn’t it. Good.

TC: You kept it to one track as well.

MES: Yeah. That confused a lot of people.

TC: Were the decisions made about what to put in done on the fly or with more conscious thought?

MES: No, I just wanted to get that out. The first spoken word was really popular and no one wanted to bring another one out. Action Records did that one. I listen to it. I like it. What I use it for sometimes is an outro tape for a show. Because I’m, always hearing things. You play these things in a show and go off and the DJs and people put on The Smiths, especially in small towns. So you shove that on and it shuts them all up. Empties the hall quick.

[Elena, Mark’s wife arrives]


TC: Have you thought about publishing stuff?

MES: Very much so, but I haven’t got the concentration.

[TC discusses his books Contact Print and Apocalypso from Wreckingball Press and Stride, as well as 80s-90s small mag culture of The Wide Skirt, Echo Room, Liar Republic, et al)

MES: Remember that thing you were reading in Baltimore, Elena? You get these free magazines.

ELENA: And all they write about is their childhood trauma, what’s been done to them.

MES: It’s really poor stuff. But these mags are really good. They bring them out in every city. A bit like City Life used to be. They had these poetry sections, and you read them, bloody hell. Bad, bad. Really.

TC: It doesn’t get out of the box of the personal.

MES: My grandmother…

TC: I think it’s workshop culture, actually. Perpetrating it. Write what you know culture.

MES: I did this spoken word in Sweden.

ELENA: With the American woman.

MES: It was in the afternoon. It was a nice festival, in this Swedish palace with chandeliers. People took it dead serious. Half of them were in suits. It was the afternoon and we were going to play at nine and I wanted to do a sound check. I said I was only gonna do 20 minutes anyway, at about 4pm. So we get there, me and the roadie, and it’s about 3 o clock and this woman’s going on. The microphone’s on, me tape’s ready, I’m a bit nervous because I’m on my own, the group’s not there. And, uh, this woman goes on at three, and it’s a quarter to five and she’s still on, like ‘I remember the red bouncing ball…’ It was a red bouncing ball. It was like Friends, you know what I mean?

TC: Without the laughs.

MES: Yeah [laughter] So we were saying get off! Get off! Get off! Yelling from the balcony. So I went on for five minutes.

TC: When I’m doing a reading I wouldn’t do more than 15 minutes.

Elena: It’s the attention span.

TC: No you can’t do more than that.

MES: 25 is my maximum.

TC: Do you think you’ll end up doing more of that? There was one in Manchester recently with John Cooper Clark.

MES: That was very good actually. But it’s the same thing; read five minutes, then it’s an hour before anyone else went on. I was in my wheelchair so I couldn’t get out of the building.

TC: With readings, and songs, do you improvise, so that something strikes you and you think – that’ll work?

MES: Touch wood it usually does, yes. So far. I’ve never had a prolonged feeling of plodding on in the studio, and nothing’s going anywhere. That’s good. It did happen about ten years ago, around Light User Syndrome.  I was really stuck sometimes, to be honest.

TC: Is that why the band disappeared in 98?

MES: That’s right. Correct. That’s true. Well spotted. The group’s good, but not sparking anything off. And of course you’re running up bills in the studio, it’s London.

TC: Do you try and operate it so you own the masters and tout them?

MES: Only with the new one.

TC: I heard Dingo had a studio you could record in.

MES: Yeah. Let’s hope he’s still got it when he comes back of loan. It’s a bloody footballing term, isn’t it. Like a transfer.

TC: When do you think another LP will be out?

MES: By November. I don’t usually tell people these things, Tim. It’s good that you asked. The group will read it in The Independent and feel more secure.

TC: I did one earlier in the year for the Guardian. You were in Greece, so I spoke to ex-members and Ben Pritchard.

MES: Oh was that you? It was good, that one.

TC: Yeah. Was it alright?

MES: It was great, that one. That’s pretty funny, because on that sing Portugal that I was telling you about, I actually cut that out and said read a bit of that out, and they only read about three lines of it. So you can sue as well. How did you get in contact with them?

TC: Through band websites, and stuff.

MES: I’d like to keep that actually. I think they threw it away out of jealousy because there was a lot of ex-members in it. It disappeared very quickly.

TC: I guess your band are in their mid 20s, so it’s like two generations down. And in music terms, it must be about five generations.

ELENA: I must say they seem very old fashioned. They listen to things we never listened to. They listen to what their parents listened to.

TC: In love with their mum and dad’s Neil Young collection. My dad listened to Wagner. He despised rock n roll.

MES: Yeah [laughter] My dad listened to military groups. Black Watch and stuff like that.

TC: There’s that real leakage between generations. It must affect the music somehow.

MES: Do you not see it?

TC: Do you think there’s a future? Do you want to carry on with it?

MES: I’m alright for the time being. It’s more than necessary to do it. Just wait till tomorrow’s Eurovision. That’s what we’re waiting for, isn’t it Elena? You’ll see the future tomorrow. By Saturday night.

TC: What’s your opinion of what’s written about you?

MES: The thing about browsing through these books, you don’t find out anything about me at all, do you?


TC: Do you think there’s a bit of a myth about you, a mythological Mark Smith?

MES: Too much, yeah. If you go round the corner from here there’s like a mosaic of me on the corner. But nobody knows who it is, because it’s got like all these people from Coronation Street. I’ve walked past it loads of times and never noticed I was in it. Like, who’s that, you know what I mean?  I thought it was like Jarvis Cocker behind some Coronation Street actor’s face.

ELENA: I just came past there. They’ve put a new one up as well.

TC: Is there much going on in the Manchester scene?

MES: I don’t know, I haven’t been home for three months, Tim.

TC: Do you still like to go and check things out?

MES: The Seeds were on, the American garage band, they were on on Oxford Road, but I didn’t get to get there because I broke my fucking hip. Finding out is impossible.

TC: Do you like the Elvis style cover for the Best Of?

MES: What can you say, y’know?

TC: If you flick through the tracks, do any stand out, or sum up a particular period?

MES: Whoever did it did a good job. The great thing is they’ve got the track from the new LP. It’s all very good. Cropdust is the one that forecast the Twin Towers. Powder Keg forecast the Irish bomb and all that. I think it’s alright actually. Whoever did it was smart. I’d listen to this one. That’s the one I’d recommend. I wouldn’t recommend any of the others.

Dear reader, if you made it to the end, congratulations.


Now go. 


Gospel Bob: guitarist Fred Tackett on playing with Dylan, 1979-1981

Gospel Bob theatre

This week, Sony releases the latest Official Bootleg Series set, Trouble No More, focusing on the Gospel years, 1979-1981, and comprising more than a hundred previously unreleased performances on the 8CD and 1 DVD deluxe set. 

To accompany the special feature on The Arts Desk, which features an interview with the guitarist on all the Gospel tours, Fred Tackett, here is the full text of my interview with Fred, done by phone between London and Topanga Canyon. He’s a good storyteller, and I hope you will enjoy what he’s got to say about working with Gospel Bob during those three extraordinary years.

 Gospel bob band


How did you start working with Dylan?

It was after Lowell George died. I’d come off the road, I was in a session, and my wife said, Bob Dylan’s office called, and they want you to come down and jam with them. So for three weeks I’d drive down to Rundown Studios in the middle of Santa Monica, a funky little place upstairs, and I started jamming with Tim Drummond, Jim Keltner, Spooner Oldham and Terry Young – who was an amazing gospel piano player – and Mona Lisa Young [her voice graces BA’s famous “Flower Duet” commercial] as well as the gospel singers. I remember grousing to myself, thinking, man it’s been three weeks. Are we gonna go on the road? Then I started thinking, there’s about 50 thousand guitar players who would die to do this, what are you bitching about? [laughter]

Eventually, Bob called me on the phone, days before the were going on Saturday Night Live. “We’re doing this tour, this TV show, can you make it?” And I said, sure man, have your manager give me a call. He says, “I don’t have a manager.” Okay. So the next day I went in to the rehearsal and after that he told me to come in to his little office, and said what’s the story. And I said, well Bob – and he put a finger up to his lips and pointed to his ear. So I put my face right up against his ear and said, you know Bob, I get uuh double scale, which is $600 a day for a six-hour session. So that’s seven days a week for three weeks…And he’d listen to me then pull back as if saying, you kiddin’ me? And stick his face right back in my face. Just playing with me, that’s all he was doing. He has a great sense of humour. Very dry. That’s how it all went down. He called me the next day and said, that’s cool. There wasn’t any negotiation about it. He just went through that whole little thing, which I thought was hysterical. I think he thought it was hysterical too. [laughter] Otherwise he wouldn’t have been doing it.

So we played all the songs from Slow Train Coming and the new songs from Saved, then we went on the road, which was a first for me, playing songs that hadn’t been recorded yet. It was only after we’d been on the road for I don’t know how long that we drove into Muscle Shoals, got off the bus, went in to the studio, recorded for about three days, got back on the bus and went to the next gig. And that was Saved.

Gospel Bob guitarThe Toronto recordings [which feature on the deluxe set and on the Trouble In Mind film] were spread over several days, with three cameras. It was a big thing that we were going to do this, and then no one heard anything more about it. They sat on a shelf for years, and now they’ve put it out. They have really done a good job editing it, and it’s just fantastic, the sound and the close-ups are really good.

What was the feeling in the band – were members of the band partaking of the spirit of it?

Everyone was into the spirit of it. I grew up playing sacred and secular music, so it wasn’t unusual for me, and I was glad to have the opportunity to play sacred music. We used to have a kind of prayer grouping every night, with all the girl singers and all the guys in the band before we went on stage, and even though I wasn’t an evangelical born-again Christian I would participate, because the idea of doing it was fine with me. We did that every night. I understand the power of faith, but I didn’t have it. Some of the guys in the band did. Most of the singers were pretty much Gospel all the way.

But it was a really good gig, I just love Dylan. I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan, so if he wants to sing about Jesus, that’s great, go ahead… And I love everything that Jesus said. The problems I have are with organised religions. Organised religion seems to be like a bad charity, and not an efficient one.

How did it go down when you did Saturday Night Live?

That was our first show! Everyone was extremely respectful, everyone was blown away that Bob was showing up. Because Bob wouldn’t be a part of any of the skits, they got Al Franken, who is now a senator, to dress up as Dylan, and he came over to us and was so humiliated. “I want you to know that I don’t want to do this, please don’t hold it against me…” It was the first night Bill Murray was in the cast, and it was the first show without Belushi and Ackroyd, and they called up Jim Keltner to wish us all good luck. Everyone was really excited about us being on the show, and it went down great.

How much antagonism did you face at the first run of gigs at the Warfield in San Francisco?

The reviews were terrible. That was a whole drama. We had Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a famous atheist, protesting. There was a guy walking up and down outside with a giant cross. It was a whole theatre going down on the street. One of my subsequent friends who I met at that time was making good money busking old Bob Dylan songs, because you couldn’t hear them inside. [laughter] The best thing I saw was a guy in the front row with a sign that said, ‘Jesus loves your old songs’, which I thought was a good point.

At the same time, people were digging it, and we had everyone in San Francisco there, Gospel Dylan Roxysfrom Jerry Garcia to Maria Muldaur and Mike Bloomfield, all these people came and sat in with us. It was exciting being in the same spot for a couple of weeks. But the newspapers – one review was headlined, God-Awful Dylan. Most of the press was so bad, Bob told me once he called up one of the reviewers, got his number, and called him on the phone, and when his wife answered and he could hear the sound of children in the background, he was so shocked that this dude would have a wife and family that he was speechless and hung up. [laughter] Like, what in the world are you writing about me, man, and then thinking, my God this guy’s got a wife and kids… I don’t even know what to say.

The reviewers hated us, but the audiences, they were pretty enthusiastic. I have tapes of all those shows. There were hecklers, but not so much in San Francisco as in other cities. I remember in Arizona he had people turn on the lights, like, let’s see who these people are. Some funny stuff. I remember him saying, I was telling these people about Jesus and they were going boo, and he was making this weird sound [a long, low-pitched boooooo], like he’d never heard anyone say ‘boo’ before. He thought that was so strange.

Does that kind of adversity fire up a band or hobble it?

Well, it was exciting because it was controversial. I really enjoyed it when we played the old songs, but the concerts by then were like a really good concert. The first ones, Bob was on a mission, and we felt like our job was to fulfil the musical vision that he wanted to put out. We tried to make it as good as possible so that people couldn’t deny it. It was undeniable, you couldn’t say it was horrible. If you did, you looked silly. A lot of times people said, I don’t like what Bob’s doing but the band are good. That was an easy ‘out’. But taken as a whole, it was undeniable what was going down.

There’s a sense of real intensity in 1979 and 1980. Did that change further down the line, and with the older songs in set?

It wasn’t quite as special. It was more like a really great Dylan concert. I mean, the first time we played Like A Rolling Stone at the second residency at the Warfield, that was the first song we played, and when we started the intro to that people just went crazy and this chill went up my spine. It was really, really special. We were still playing some of the Gospel songs, but when we first went out and were playing only those songs, it was definitely passionate and dangerous. People got upset, and also, John Lennon was shot in the winter of 1980 and that concerned everyone, because you thought, my God if someone went after John, why wouldn’t they go after Bob? So we were much more concerned. When we started the European tour everyone had bullet proof vests, and all this kind of stuff, special security guys checking out all the apartment buildings around the venues. That lasted for a little bit. Maybe one concert we wore those bullet proof vests, and then someone said, this sucks, enough of that. But there was a feeling of danger, something that was different from just going out and playing a bunch of good songs.

There are versions of amazing studio songs on this set that took years to come out. What was the experience of working on those in the studio?

Dyhlan writingWe’d rehearse all those songs in Bob’s studio, and Every Grain of Sand was really informal. Everyone had taken a break and gone off, to do whatever they were doing, and Bob and I and Jennifer Warnes were standing around the studio, and Bob started playing guitar. I started playing along with him, and they sang. It was very informal, and it came out really great. Caribbean Wind was a funny incident, I don’t know what versions they have on the boxed set but we got a call from Jimmy Iovine, one of these guys who thought, if I could just get Bob in the studio with the A-team guys, and really do a good basic track, all that stuff. ‘It’ll be huge, it’ll be great’. So he got all of us down early to Studio 55, an old studio that they had redone. An A-team LA pop music studio of 1981. He put me and Dave Mansfield in a room at the back. I had mandolin, Dave was on fiddle, and they had Jim boxed in with baffles and all this stuff, everything separated, everything discrete, and eventually Bob shows up with his guy, whoever was helping him out at the time, running errands and things, and he’s standing there, and they start telling him, Hey Bob this studio is where they cut White Christmas, because Bob loves old studios and is always looking for old studios and mics and stuff, and then they play this track of Caribbean Wind that they want Bob to sing over, and he stands there and listens to it straight-faced, waits until it finishes, and turns to his guy and he says, go get me the music for White Christmas because I can’t cut any of my music in here. [laughter]

And then he goes, Fred, where are you, and I say, I’m back in this back room, and he goes, get your guitar and get out here. So all of a sudden there’s me and Steve Ripley and Keltner and all the baffles are gone, and we’re all sitting in a circle in the same room and we’re all playing live again, and we start going through tunes. We’re doing Groom, and I’m looking down and the mic isn’t even pointed at my amp because someone’s kicked it, so I’m putting it back in front of the amp where it’s supposed to go, and we look up and Jimmy Iovine and his engineer have gone. [laughter] There’s no one in the control room apart from the second engineer.

Is there one gig, session, or song, that stands out for you?

Bob bwI really love Pressing On, from Saved. That is very funky, one of the funkiest things we ever did. I like that one a lot. Every Grain of Sand is another of my favourites, because it came down so naturally, but then all of them came down pretty naturally. I think we’d played most of the other songs a lot on the road, so they were a little more worked out. That’s always the thing Bob tried to avoid. He wanted to stop people getting a part that they’ll play every night, which tends to happen. You find something that works and you stick with it and the next thing you know you have this set- in-stone arrangement. Pressing On was more spontaneous, because I don’t remember us playing it as much as we did the other songs, like Saved. Now Saved is pretty great, especially when you hear these new live mixes. And Solid Rock, that’s a really good one.

For you, how does it all stand up today, 37 years later?

I have only seen the film, but I was amazed, man, it was so good. Everything was just so good. They picked the very best songs for it. Him and Spooner Oldham playing this harmonica and Hammond organ together at the end of What Can I do for You. Spooner would play these chord substitutions under Bob’s harmonica, and it was just so cool and hip, and Bob is playing so great. They found the best stuff of all that and put it in this movie. Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell is in there, all kinds of great stuff. It is really impressive sounding.

What were the recording sessions like?

We treated each of the songs as an individual. We were knew what the point of a song was, but we were just trying to figure out the best musical arrangement for it, and that was partly down to Bob. ‘Try it this way. Do it as a reggae’ [laughter]. We’d do everything as a reggae once.

He had this really cool thing. When we were working on Saved, we just worked on those tunes. He was writing them and we were learning them before we recorded them. But later on, when we started playing his old songs again, he’d give me a tape of someone else’s song. One time it was Bob Seger’s Night Moves. Another time it was Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. We even did a version of the Muppets song, Rainbow Connection. He’d say, teach the band this song, so I’d write the chord sheets, the guys would come in and I’d teach them Night Moves, Sweet Caroline, and so on, and he would sing it, then he’d send the recording to Bob Sager or Neil Diamond. [laughter]

He never said anything about it, but I always thought he didn’t want us to have these set-in-stone arrangements down. He wanted us to rehearse as a band but without us butchering his tunes over and over again, banging them into the ground. So he gave us these other songs to play. Then we’d go out on stage and play his songs. We’d rehearse them a bit, but not enough to be set in stone or to get our parts down. And I thought that it worked great. It was a great tactic, and I’ve never run across anyone else doing that. It’s a great way to rehearse a band, where you’ve got everyone together playing, without wearing the songs out.

Very much like Miles Davis, perhaps?

Exactly. I think Bob is very much influenced by Miles, He told me one time that when he first started living in the Village he got all his ideas of what was cool from watching Miles Davis. And I can dig that. I understand that. The Carnaby Street shirts, the cool clothes, the ‘don’t tap your foot, tap your heel’. Miles always said don’t flap your foot up and down. Use your heel, it’s much cooler, man. We used to say on the band stand – watch Bob’s heel, man, to keep up with whatever was going down, or what was supposed to be happening – watch his heel. He had really good timing. He is really good musician, and he doesn’t really get the credit from a lot of people who don’t think he is as incredibly unique as he is. He has got a great sense of vocal phrasing. There’s that thing he does where he back-phrases, where he won’t come in right away and plays catch-up with the melody, and at the chord changes he just shows up at the right word. It’s clever, complicated stuff.

I once said to him after a show, man I didn’t think you would ever get to the four chord because you waited so long to come in, and the next night he did the same thing, turned around and looked at me, as if to say, ‘oh yeah?’ [laughter]. He has an amazing sense of phrasing. And he’s invented guitar stylings. There’s certain way he plays rhythm guitar where it goes from a swinging folk thing to being a really straight thing on top of it, and he invented that. No one did that before he did it. He’s just a really good musician.


All images courtesy of Sony Music

Gnawa Festival at 20

The marvellous Gnawa Festival in Essaouria celebrated its 20th birthday this year, and I celebrated my 11th visit to the festival, armed with drawing books, brush pens and black pens, friends including writers Andy Morgan and Jane Cornwell, and musician, DJ and all-round magician of London-Moroccan culture, Moulay Youssef Knight. Here’s some of that image hoard.



In the heart of Norway’s fjord country


Fordefestivalen plays host to some remarkable music from all over the world, and from across Scandinavia, the concerts unfolding in venues all over the little town in the midst of the fjords and mighty mountains. On Saturday, my report from the festival went live on The Arts Desk. This is an image mosaic from the latest edition, in early July 2017, and here’s a taster of the Arts Desk report. Click the link to read it all.

Førdefestivalen is a unique musical gathering in a small Norwegian town on Norway’s west coast, deep in fjord country, the landscape painter Nikolai Astrup’s habitat. Skydiving from the nearby Hafstadfjellet mountain (alas, sometimes fatally) is a popular pastime. Jumpers launch themselves from the television mast at the mountain’s peak, where Victor Tavares, a Cape Verdean nonagenarian accordion player, and his group Bitori made music one bright, cold Saturday morning in the Nordic midsummer…


Sam Lee and Song Encounters


I’ve a new review up on the mighty Arts Desk today, Sam Lee with a quartet of amazing musicians from Scotland and Norway, playing under the name Wind Eye.

It was the last of the Songlines Encounters for this year. Sadly, as the closing words and music of Linden Tree resounded around the hall, an Islamist death cult was exacting its own repulsive encounters just south of the river in the folklore-rich, song-rich, history-soaked zones of revelry and gathering that are London Bridge and Borough.

One love for the true citizens of London, one hate for the scum guard of a rotten death cult.

Here’s a link to the review:


Full Nelson


God's Problem Child packshot

First off, here’s a link to today’s review on The Arts Desk of Willie Nelson’s new album, God’s Problem Child. It’s got some crackers on it, and Leon Russell’s last recorded vocals on the title track. To go with this, below is the text of a feature published in The Independent, written overnight back in March 2005, after joining Willie on his bus to talk to him en route between Kay West Hotel and Shepherds Bush Empire, where he played a great set. The paper needed it the next morning, and I remember sitting up till the early hours with the poet Gordon Wardman, who’d joined me on Willie’s bus and asked the best question – “Did you ever meet Buddy Holly?”. [No].

“God may have a problem, but Willie’s cool” 


On the bus with Willie Nelson, West London, March 2005

Written overnight, published the next day, and Willie was playing a second date at the Shepherds Bush Empire. Mid morning, The Independent calls to say someone called
David Soul wants to speak to me. Turns out he used to hang with Willie on his bus
in the 1970s, and wanted to reconnect. I did the connecting, and there he was,
sat on a chair at the side of the stage that night. 

Willie Nelson’s bus is something of an American legend, one you can walk all the way around and still see nothing but that legend staring you in the face, albeit with darkened windows and all the mod-cons money can buy.

Willie probably spends more time on the bus – he plays over 100 dates a year – than anywhere else on earth. When you climb up the steps behind him, you find yourself in Willie’s world; there’s the faint aroma of grass, the windows are completely opaque, and the mirrored doors create a sense of unreal space – you could be anywhere on earth, or suspended above it.

Right now, we’re travelling from the band’s hotel to the artist’s entrance at the Shepherds Bush Empire, the only indication of where we are in the world from a distant siren, and the occasional judder of the brakes.   Willie is dressed casually in a grey tracksuit top with IRISH PUB BOXING down the sleeve. There is absolutely no indication from his relaxed, casual manner that in twenty minutes or so, he will be leading his band onstage to play a two-hour set before a packed house. He does look older than when he last played here –his hair is perhaps thinner, but still hangs down to his waist, and the beard is pure white. He is big on eye contact, and though he’s hard to get to, once you’re there he completely accommodating. There is no one who wears their ‘legend’ status as casually or gracefully as he does.  He and the likes of Merle Haggard – yes, he’s still alive and touring America with Bob Dylan – are among the few surviving elders from Country’s rebellious pantheon, the ones who blazed a trail out of the saccharine stupefaction of 1960s Nashville and laid down the prototype spirit of rugged individualism that has inspired the alt-Country/Americana revival of the last decade.

‘They had their own individual style,’ he says of a generation of which he is one of the few survivors. ‘When you heard Johnny Cash, you knew it was Johnny Cash. Same with Hank Williams, or Waylon [Jennings]. The guys who have their own sound are the ones who’ll always be hanging around, and we’ll always like their music.’

With his headband and long, tied-back hair, he still looks like the original Cosmic Cowboy, a left-field, sometimes outspoken figure in a deeply conservative industry – witness the fate of the Dixie Chicks after daring to criticise Bush – and whose music and aura hits you like direct eye contact in a world of mirror shades.   And he is as busy as ever – there is a new album being released on I-Tunes, a batch of gospels songs with his sister Bobbie, and he scoffs at suggestions that this may be his last international tour; the idea of last anything doesn’t really figure on Willie’s internal route map.

There will also be a chance to hear a reggae album recorded in the mid-90s for Island, but never released. ‘Toots Hibbert (of Toots & the Maytals) and his engineers did some tuning up on the album,’ he explains, ‘they added some great rhythms and took off some things and stripped it down. I’ve been listening to it, and it sounds really different, but it sounds good.’

Over the decades, Willie has become an expert in the fine art of song-catching – virtually the whole of the American song book can be found rolling around in his oeuvre of more than 100 albums and countless concerts over five decades. ‘When you hear a great song you know it,’ he says. ‘You can’t explain why they’re great, but you know they are and you want to sing them.’

The same song-catching spirit applies to his own compositions. The ambivalent romance of the title track from 2004’s It Will Always Be, shows how, with a few words, he can speak volumes, and say different things at the same time, for beside the song’s affirmative chorus are verses of doubt and profound isolation. ‘That song came all at one time,’ he says of its composition; it’s as if he’s talking about a flower coming into bloom. The elongated, conversational phrasing and half-rhyme of the opening verse tells you a lot about his famously around-the-beat vocal style. It’s so simple it’s almost see-through, but the more you listen, the thicker it gets; and it’s not half as sentimental as it first sounds. The lines and delivery are loaded with feeling and executed with a masterly minimalism learnt on Nashville’s front lines.

‘The shorter that you could make it and still get your point across, the better the chances of airplay,’ he remarks of those early songwriting years, ‘so we writers were sort of taught to see what you could say in nine lines of verse or whatever, and that makes you concentrate on the lines you wanna use and put more thought into them. I’d sooner lose thirty mediocre verses and come up with three good ones. Good songs are timeless, you can do em today or a hundred years from now, they’re still good.’

Born in Abbott, a small town on the plains of central Texas, in the depths of the great Depression, and raised by his grandparents, his life journey is the archetypal Country ride through lucky stars, ill omens, and fortunate catastrophes. His mother, who left when he was six months old, was part Cherokee, a singer in her own right, while his father was also a player – he would later do stints in Willie’s family band decades later, when Nelson had finally made it through.

‘I have Indian blood and I’m proud of it,’ he says, ‘There’s a lot of Indian and Irish ancestry in there… Native Americans have a lot to teach us, their attitudes and way of life, the way they love and protect the earth.’ And perhaps the roving mother who left him soon after he was born – though she became a part of his life in adulthood – is the absent figure to whom so many of his songs launch their appeal. The likes of Everywhere I Go and Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground aim straight for the heart, and they rarely miss.

It’s been said that Willie Nelson wears the world like a loose garment, but finding that loose fit was some way up the line, and the distinctive voice and phrasing, his easy, elastic turning of a line, was way out of step with the times. By the end of the Sixties, with his songs finding success only in other people’s hands, he had semi-detached himself from the music business to run a hog farm just outside Nashville before a fire sent his home, his business, and most of his belongings up in smoke, and he returned to Texas, took his band on the road, and found that the music Nashville had dismissed, Texans loved.

He bought some land outside Austin, and hit the local music scene, which included the likes of Guy Clarke and Townes van Zandt. ‘There was a place called Armadillo World Headquarters,’ he says, ‘and I was playing the real cowboy redneck places down there, and I started hanging out at Armadillo; there was a lot of young people around, and I knew some people who owned the place. They had a beer garden there, and I thought, listen, we can try out some Hank Williams here. So I started playing there, and sure enough, they were big Country fans. There were guys doing it already,’ he adds, ‘like Gram Parsons and Commander Cody, but the traditional guys like me, hadn’t started to hang out with that crowd yet.’

He teamed up with the likes of rocker Leon Russell. ‘We started realising these things can mix up good,’ he says, ‘and we really mixed it up, and proved that it can be done.’  With 1975’s Country concept album, Red Headed Stranger, he had his first million-selling LP, and by the end of the Seventies, he had been elevated to iconographic status, a national monument etched into the American fabric as firmly as the heads on Mount Rushmore.

There were numerous crossover hits through the 80s but by the decade’s end Country radio was tuning out the old guard for a shiny new breed. There were further severe setbacks in 1990, when the IRS raided his compound in Luck, Texas, and took everything that could be taken, down to the glass between the control room and recording booth. Willie picked himself up, dusted himself down and released the IRS Tapes, went on the road and by 1993 had paid off his debts, moved back into Luck, and resumed an itinerary of touring, recording and golf that continues more or less unbroken to this day.

As he is often wont to say when asked about retiring, ‘All I do is play music and golf; which one do you want me to give up?’  His genius may be casually worn, but there’s a powerful sense of continuity about his music that ensures it never strays far from its sources. He has played the same guitar, and led the same band for decades, and on stage at Shepherd’s Bush, with Mickey Raphael’s harmonica blowing like tumbleweed across Willie’s guitar runs and sister Bobbie’s bone-dry gospel piano, the Family band – including guitarist Jody Payne, drummer Paul English, the Gothic cowboy looming darkly over his one snare drum, and Bee Spears on bass – are one of the longest-serving and sweetly-seasoned bands in the business.

Their subtle, mercurial sound summons up the spirit of classic songs with uncluttered playing that leaves plenty of room for Willie’s incredible guitar playing and vocal phrasing.   They may have been playing more or less the same set for decades but there’s room enough for Willie, the band and the whole audience to move about in those songs, and it seems that Willie is never going to get tired of reconstructing and rephrasing his work in new and refreshing ways.

‘It’s something that you wanna do it bad enough that you just go ahead and do it,’ he says, when asked about his career’s legacy. ‘It’s not ever easy. There’s always someone saying you can’t. But you can. If you think it’s the right thing you can do it’

And what is the most important lesson a life in the music business has taught him? He considers for a moment. ‘Patience,’ he says, and laughs. He tries to think of something else, but that’s about all there is. ‘Mainly patience,’ he says, and laughs again.

Beethoven, revolution and Number Nine

Peter Cumming Beethoven001

(above, Beethoven in his rooms in Vienna, by Peter Cumming, circa 1993)

Published here and by the Boston Musical Intelligencer, what you are about to read casts Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony into a fresh light, stripped of historical excesses, and drawn from the conductor Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra’s outstanding performance of what is arguably the greatest piece of music ever written, at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank on Saturday 18 March 2017.

Beethoven, Revolution and Number Nine approaches the Ninth from the raw, the vernacular, the immediate, in view of the classical but focusing on the vitality of the experience of being in the concert hall with this music as it is being made, and drawing on a generously expansive and informative conversation with Zander in its aftermath. His and the Philharmonia’s new recording of the Ninth will appear later this year.

Benjamin Zander is conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, a post he has held for 39 years, and his radical account of the Ninth is the first to incorporate all of Beethoven’s instructions concerning tempi, and proved to be a revelation to many who were there, and revolutionary, too, in how it still speaks to us now, in the present tense, not as a remote monolith but very much alive and very close.

The drawings that illustrate the text are by my father, the artist Peter Cumming, and taken from a number of the sketchbooks he kept throughout his life. The above drawing was made in the frontispiece of Michael Hamburger’s Beethoven’s Letters, Journals, Conversations

Peter Cumming Orchestra001

The Orchestra, Peter Cumming, circa 1960s

Please take your seats. The performance is about to begin.

The Royal Festival Hall, Southbank, 18 March, 2017. 730pm

Revolutions – they tend to date quickly and age very badly. But sometimes the music they inspire remains immortal. Such is the case with La Marseillaise, and so it is, too, with Beethoven’s Ninth, one of the most recognisable and globally loved of all pieces of music, and whose roots, in the poet Schiller’s revolutionary-era Ode To Joy, date back to the turbulent 1790s. And while the Choral Symphony is just a few years short of its 200 birthday, and familiar enough to anyone with a sprinkling of musical knowledge, if conductor Benjamin Zander is right, we haven’t been listening to the symphony as Beethoven wrote it at all.

Zander is conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and has spenzandert a lifetime studying the Ninth, and in March he came to London and the South Bank to lead the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra through a radical restoration of Beethoven’s original tempi, which have been largely ignored or dismissed as unplayable, and the errors of a deaf and disturbed old man since Wagner made a colossus out of the Ninth with his Bayreuth premiere of 1872. Zander’s energising 58-minute account shaves about a quarter of an hour from the standard performance, and his recording with the Philharmonia will be released this Autumn, and promises to change the way we respond to what is arguably the greatest piece of music ever written.
The conductor’s preoccupation with Beethoven’s original tempi goes back to the 1980s, and a project with the BBC to record a Ninth at the radically faster times indicated by the composer in his annotated scores. The project stalled when the broadcaster asked Zander to use period instruments; the conductor preferred a modern orchestra. His extensive notes and research into the world of Beethoven’s metronomic markings would later be passed to Roger Norrington for his 1987 recording, while Zander released his own account with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra five years later in 1992, with John Eliot Gardner’s excellent Philips release following in 1996. “At the time, I felt very annoyed,” says Zander of Norrington’s recording, “but subsequently I was delighted because I needed another 35 years of work.” He laughs. “At the Royal Festival Hall I got a chance put forward many different things that I didn’t know about in 1980.”
Zander’s reading of the Ninth is a vigorous raising of the symphony’s  original fiery spirit, rather than its monolithic reputation
Commissioned in 1822 by the Royal Philharmonic Society for just £50 (and initially dismissed and disdained by London ’s august critics’ circle), the Ninth was revolutionary then, and remains so today. Its colours never fade – it is only our perceptions of it that change, and Zander’s reading of the Ninth is a vigorous raising of the symphony’s original fiery spirit, rather than its monolithic reputation.
For us listeners, the Ninth is a deeply internal voyage, with very powerful communal effects. It gets to you; it’s in that spectrum that penetrates like an X-ray. It is music with the quality of urgent speech but from a place that is generally beyond words, if close to the inner voice, and the inner ear; it’s music that speaks inside us, and its immediacy extends from the contexts of its creation to the reception we give it today.
“It was a very troubled time then, as it is for us now,” says Zander, talking a few days after his triumphant Ninth at the South Bank, that saw the audience rise for an unprecedented 15-minute ovation. “And the message of the Ninth is more relevant than ever. It is not a description of what is, but a presentation of what could be. It is music for our time.”
By setting Schiller’s revolutionary-era ode, Beethoven was harking back to the spirit of the revolutionary 1790s, of intellectual, cultural and political release as the European Enlightenment exploded into anti-monarchist revolution, which itself exploded into self-consuming violence, Napoleon, empire, continent-wide warfare, Waterloo and, by 1814, the Congress of Vienna, with Europe’s royal houses recalibrating power back to something they could understand – complete top-to-bottom control.
The message of the Ninth is more relevant than ever. It is not a description of what is, but a presentation of what could be. It is music for our time
Peter Cumming Beethoven at home004
Which means that, by the 1820s, the liberation fervour of the 1790s was long gone, as far away from the middle-aged Beethoven as the optimism and fervour of the 1960s is from us. The composer’s troubled times, and ours, are coupled, if not at the hip, then at the ankle. The Ninth was created in hostile conditions, under the dystopian eyes and ears of Metternich’s secret police – they had a fat file on Beethoven, and they added to it. Like the Stasi of the 20th century, they were listening.
And we still listen. This angry, anguished and disabled man’s late testament to personal despair, resolution, acceptance and ultimate sense of shared liberation from within remains the European Union’s anthem, even as the EU project teeters and buckles under the weight of banking algorithms, Brexit, populism, and debt. The Ninth still speaks to us, and in the present tense. And how it speaks.
The first movement, that cosmic egg breaking open among the strings, is a sound structure suspended in the first ripple of space-time
Under Zander’s baton, it’s as if two centuries of varnish, candlewax, and post-Romantic indulgence and mythology has been cleared from the surface to illuminate the depths. The smoky accretions of the 19th-century masters and their 20th century successors have been simmered off by the process of patient reduction and a return to the source.
The first movement, that cosmic egg breaking open among the strings, is a sound structure suspended in the first ripple of space-time. And then the opening descending riff, the armature around which the movement unfolds, expands, retreats and reiterates. In the grand recordings of Toscanini or Furtwangler there is something gigantic and ponderous in this first movement, a great creature of great depths. With Zander and the Philharmonia the depths remain, but our attention deepens, and what we hear is more translucent, fresh, immediate, and the underlying dynamic in Zander’s account here and in the whole symphony, is of compression and release – great compression, with the potential to blow the roof off – and great release, of exultation, of orgasm, of liberation and of union.
Peter Cumming Beethoven at home003The muscular riffs and fanfares of the second movement speed along at Beethoven’s indicated tempo, with the trio section cramming in four notes to the bar instead of three, at a speed deemed impossible, until now. It is not only possible, but realised by Zander and his players in a way that no other performance has achieved, the extraordinary detail of the composition brought out with a rare clarity and sense of space. It’s the Ninth stripped of grandeur and High Romanticism’s self-regard.
The extraordinarily beautiful third movement unfolds its secrets one by one, lotus petals opening in a soft southerly breeze of wind and strings, and though taken at a faster pace, losing none of that sense of timeless suspension, of infinite space and utter calm descending into musical form.
The extraordinarily beautiful third movement unfolds its secrets one by one, lotus petals opening in a soft southerly breeze of wind and strings
At its close, Zander barely pauses before launching in to the ‘Horror Fanfare’ that hurls the final choral movement into being. Again, the feeling is of hearing something anew, afresh, in real time, in our time, cleared of the dirt and grease of accumulated performance traditions. For this is an Ode to Joy that’s bare, forked, and naked. There’s a renewed sense of excitement as it rounds up and corrals signature themes from throughout the symphony to create a sense of time inverted, dispersed, eddying in the flow of music before revealing its signature tune – Beethoven drafted it painstakingly to get it right, in the little sketchbooks he carried with him everywhere, his blank-paged familiars. The chorus is a revelation, more nuanced and dynamic, no longer turned up to 11 throughout. Deep within, the Turkish March is simple, humble, haunting, as around it the choir and orchestra rises and falls in peaks and valleys, turning and weaving as the dynamism of that folkish little tune unfolds itself, over and over, like the secret of perpetual motion in sound.

Peter Cumming Beethoven at home005
At the Royal Festival Hall, before Zander and the Philharmonia, as the drama of the music – and our reception of it – unfolds, it is hard not to feel awe before the Ninth, to hear in the flesh rather than in a recording the music that lies in all those little sketchbooks, all the sheet music, the unsettled scores, all the mess and anguish and temper, the shabby rented rooms of the grey-haired, shock-haired, deaf-as-a-post composer, on his own here, quite alone, the giant who, at the Ninth’s premiere, needed to be tapped on the arm and turned to face his audience by a pretty young soprano, a woman whose mouth the composer had just filled with the most beautiful music. It takes your breath away.
It was quite extraordinary; people said they hadn’t seen a reaction like it before – but it is Beethoven who got the reaction
As Zander brings it on home in the last few bars, after the last note there is the briefest silence before the first wave of applause builds across the Royal Festival Hall, a standing ovation that seems to go on and on. “It was quite extraordinary; people said they hadn’t seen a reaction like it before,” says Zander afterwards, adding: “It is Beethoven who got the reaction; I was the servant who enabled that to happen with the orchestra and the choir and the soloists.”
And now it is the orchestra, the choir and the soloists who stand with Zander, as the audience around them stands, as audiences have done over the past two centuries, right back to that seat-of-the-pants Viennese premiere of 1824, with Beethoven being turned to the audience, all of us getting to our feet and bringing our hands together in the spirit of the Ninth.


Beethiven conducting the 9th

A 19th-century depiction of Beethoven at the Ninth’s premiere


“The most touching and moving thing,” says Zander, “was that this man, who was deaf, who had no connection, no woman in his life, no companion, cut off from the world in terrible conflict with his nephew, with the authorities, and having to move house constantly, one of the saddest individuals and ill to boot, wrote a piece which brings the world together. That is the most extraordinary idea, the most moving idea, and there it happened in concert on that Saturday night.”
Europe today is in shabby shape, like Beethoven’s rented rooms, piss-pot under the piano, the keys out of tune, debts everywhere, shouting in the street, fears that the treaties binding us together will not last the way that Beethoven and his Ninth will last, that little tune of liberation and joy singing away in its handful of notes. But whatever our troubles, the music lets us in, brings all of us here to this place with one purpose, to realise the greatest of symphonies, to unleash the Ninth and to experience for ourselves, for a moment, its spirit of joy.
Tim Cumming
Peter Cumming Beethoven at home002

The composer in his rooms, by Peter Cumming, circa 1960s (JS Bach?)

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FINALE: Watch Benjamin Zander at TED