It begins at the end, or the supposed end, where having retired the old guard for a succession of young guns, Mark E. Smith faces up to a musician mutiny on The Fall’s 2006 tour of America, where the disgruntled boys quit en masse four dates in. Were it for the peculiar placing as the opening chapter, you’d think Renegade was solely an excuse to settle old scores and while the transgressors get their due, this opens up to a unique insight into the wonderful and frightening world of Mark E. Smith.
“I hope this book turns out to be Mein Kampf for the Hollyoaks generation.”
Were such a thing possible, Smith might’ve been a dangerous man, though its unlikely the “Hollyoaks generation” are going to find favour with the reflective ramblings of a fifty-odd year old man, who might recognise The Fall’s “Touch Sensitive” as being used in the Vauxhall car advert. Renegade reads as little more than hours of recorded interviews taken down the pub, Smith having one eye on a match on Sky tv and the other on the jukebox, of which co-author Austin Collins should be applauded for the onerous task of transcribing and trying to put Smith’s tangential musings in some kind of logical order.
The Fall were one of the first uncompromising bands to come out of the Manchester punk scene in 1978. Personally, they were also one of the first bands I ever saw — Smith and The Fall in Sydney in 1991 touring on the back of Extricate. It was one of those life-changing moments. Smith was on form and The Fall were the greatest. I’d grown up reading his interviews in the NME. I recall the one where he was sat with Nick Cave and Shane MacGowan in a pub and the journalist only had to get the rounds in and hit record. It was all there — his biting wit, his?Northern working class attitude and his indifference to his peers and the music industry as a whole. The Fall were a band unique to themselves, and so was Mark E. Smith.
The years and the bottle haven’t weakened him. Throughout Renegade Smith is often garrulous and cruelly dismissive. Having to consider the amount of musicians that have passed through the ranks of the Fall, he finds himself barely holding back contempt: “I find it hard to talk about enthusiastically about the ex-band members thing… They came, they saw, they fucked off and now I no longer see them.”, then later comparing himself to the manager of Manchester United, “I’m a bit like Alex Ferguson of the music game… He knows when to fuck players off… It’s his club. His ideas. His final word.”. A hard taskmaster, you begin understand just why the wheels so regularly began to fall off.
The Brix years are given a chapter entitled “The Wife”, where she too is relegated a minor role and her contributions diminished “It’s incorrect to say that Brix smoothed out the rough edges of the band. People only said that because of the way she looked”, and also his humorous experiences with women, “My sex life actually went down when I formed The Fall. It wasn’t the reason why I did it, of course”, and relationships, “Every woman I’ve been out with has been different. But when we’ve broken up it’s always been for the best. More often than not, they’ve left me.”. As uncompromising as he sounds, Smith is largely aware of his destructive nature and that he is at times his own worst enemy.
The 90s find Smith and The Fall at their nadir. Smith, now divorced, was then sued by a manager and filed for bankruptcy, while the Fall continued on making largely unimpressive albums throughout the decade. The lowest point being the one that brought The Fall back into focus again, with the much publicised incident in 1998 while the band was on tour New York. After scuffling with the band onstage and taking it back to the hotel, Smith is later arrested and charged with third-degree assault, spending two nights in the cells. Fortunately for him he wasn’t alone, “The best thing about it was that I got arrested the same day as George Michael. Because on MTV at 6am, the headlines are ‘British indie-rock guy goes ape-shit in New York hotel’. But two hours later George Michael was arrested. So that was the main news.”
For people who like the sound of the curmudgeonly music legend giving you his lager-ed wisdom (“Women who are into red wine are manic-depressives” and “99.9 per cent of people on a healthy diet eventually die”), this would’ve made a stupendous audio book. For fans of the Fall who’ve either intently or casually followed the band over the years, you’re given a swift run-through the recordings of key works with Smith more or less keen on focussing on the ineptitudes of record companies and their staff. Despite the “I don’t wilt like other people. If I wasn’t who I am I wouldn’t stand a chance nowadays” chest-beating there will only ever be one Mark E. Smith, and while a better story has yet to be written Renegade is likely the best we’re going to get.