2. Totally weird


Mark E Smith, the 26-year-old lead singer of alternative Manchester band The Fall, had just woken, having fallen to gentle, fluffy sleep shortly after leaving a low-end B&B in Giffnock, Glasgow. His driver Rob Carroll, a 6’2” scaffolder and part-time roadie from Bury, was acting suspiciously, his steering supremely exact, like a robot from the future – from the year 2000, perhaps.

“Where’re we?” Smith enquired in a low-frequency growl.

“Not England yet.”

“You alright?” Smith asked.

“Yeah… yeah, why?” Carroll replied, snapping out of his deep concentration.

“You know it’s dusk?” Smith pointed out.

“Is that a rhetorical question or a pleasant observation?” Carroll followed.

“Are we goin’ to talk usin’ questions ’til we reach home?”

“Are you annoyed with me?”

“Rob, y’twat – you haven’t got your fuckin’ lights on.”

Rob flicked the light switch of his seven-year-old Vauxhall VX. “Happy now?”

Smith didn’t drive. There was too much to concentrate on, like you were rubbing your tummy, tapping your head and scratching your armpits all at the same time. He had enough on his plate keeping the band under control. He needed these opportunities to think and sleep, to recuperate. It hadn’t been a spectacular night. There had been an argument with a Scottish promotion duo following a gig in Ayr. For Nick Low and Graham Cochrane of Louden Furious Music, this was their first foray into promoting a tour and it proved a baptism of fire. Both had been physically threatened. The Fall’s van had broken down en route, so more money was demanded to pay for repairs. The rider was incorrect – there were 24 cans of pale ale, but Smith insisted that he’d ordered Red Stripe. Drummer Karl Burns, in a state of mobile agitation, punched a door off its hinges after catching Low and Cochrane tapping out rhythms on his drum kit. Drugs were demanded but none were supplied, resulting in Smith singing “It’s like trying to get a line from Nick and Graham” in one of the songs. A spotlight caught fire. There was a stage invasion. Low and Cochrane haemorrhaged money on the tour. The band’s van had to be left behind and was still being fixed in Ayr but luckily Rob The Roadie was located and miraculously appeared, having arrived from a fishing trip on the Spey.

Smith had recently married Brix Salenger, a glamorous blonde American musician and socialite who he’d met on The Fall’s 1983 tour of the US and Canada. Within a year of tying the knot, Brix Smith had been drafted into the group as guitarist and second vocalist. Her arrival coincided with a shift to a lighter, poppier sound and an all-round smarter look for the band. As a result, Mark E Smith on this foggy early afternoon was sporting a turquoise cable-knit jumper – a Christmas gift from his wife. Brix, meanwhile, had booked into a business hotel in central Glasgow to rest, having thrown up through the night due to mixing her many, many drinks. She expected either death or partial recovery by Saturday and would catch an electric British Rail West Coast train. Smith lost patience and bolted, having handed over a wodge of cash for taxi and plush room. Stopping over an extra night in a strange city was money wasted, and anyway, he needed to get back to Manchester to feed the cat.

“What’s this shite on the radio now?” Carroll ventured. “Hooray, hooray, it’s a holi-holiday? Bit cold for holiday songs, Janice Long, sister of Keith Chegwin – it’s freezin’ fog.”

“Eh, don’t knock Boney M,” Smith cut in. “You could learn a lot about timin’ from a group like that.”

Carroll didn’t push his argument – it was pointless with Smith. The highly opinionated singer had an answer for everything. It was like Smith had been given all the day’s questions the night before and had practised his responses in readiness. Smith performed underbites and overbites in timed rotation as the three minutes and 56 seconds of reggae-tinged Euro pop joyfully played out, before screeching, “Disco Fieber!”

Janice Long on Radio 1 seemed lost for words, as if she’d heard Smith’s enthusiastic squawking, but once the DJ had composed herself she led into an on-the-hour news bulletin. Gales, Ethiopia, Arthur Scargill… Voices drifted away in the din of six lanes of traffic.

“I don’t mind Scotland, it’s just a long way away, in’t it?” Carroll said.

“You haven’t got a fuckin’ clue about distances,” Smith said, screwing up his face and then changed tack. “I like the place, don’t get me wrong. And they can drink their whisky. Not like that lot in Prestwich, brawlin’ postmen goin’ through divorces.”

“It’s kind of in-keepin’ for The Fall, playin’ places like Ayr, don’t you think?” Carroll added. “Your sort of folk.”

 “I couldn’t stand the support.”

“What, the audience?” Carroll asked. “A bit raucous.”

Christ,” said Smith, annoyed that he had to explain himself, “I mean the support band, fuckin’ Del Amitri – that hippie, student dirge. What were the promoters thinkin’ of? It was like a personal dig, like they were takin’ the fuckin’ piss. It was fuckin’ planned. I’d rather have just had a church organist hold down the note of F for an hour. At least that builds atmosphere.”

As Carroll formulated a reply, the car strayed into the middle lane of the motorway and a booming horn sounded from a Ford Transcontinental freight lorry to the rear.

“Whoooa,” Smith squirmed – seatbelt not attached. “Juggernauts! Fuckin’ hell, our wheels are on the line – I can hear the bangin’ from the cat’s eyes. Shift over! Eh, have we still got that bottle of Bells?”

“Bells – we didn’t have one in first place,” Carroll replied, nervously straightening the car.

“Must’ve dreamt it – we should call off somewhere and get one,” Smith suggested. “And drink it.”

“S’pose so, but it’s gettin’ foggy Mark,” Carroll warned. “Anyway, I find this speed is doing the job.”

“Speed? What, 70mph?”

“No, speed. In my wallet.”

“Speed, as in the powdery powder? You’re driving on speed?”

“I often do – it passes the journey along top. As I say, Scotland’s a long way off. This brings the hours in. All the HGV drivers do it.”

“I thought you looked a bit red.”

“I overheat on it,” Carroll squirmed. “We’ll try and find an offie near Carlisle or someplace cos I might need a dandelion and burdock or cherryade. I’m not one for drinkin’ and drivin’. Maybe we should stay in Carlisle with this fog and have a night on the town, courtesy of The Fall! I’ve got a gram of this shit. I was gonna go to the Haç when we got back.”

“Not gonna happen – the band’s a business.”

“I’ll waive my long-distance taxi fee if you’ll pay for a B&B.”

“Fee? You’re not getting paid anyway – the payment’s in the thrill of drivin’ me about, an alternative-music god what writes lyrics that Jim Morrison could only have dreamt about.”

“You might be right,” Carroll mused. “Jim Morrison never sung about slags, lorry drivers and urgent calls to smile.”

“You’re not goin’ to crash, are you?” Smith asked. “Drivin’ on that shit.”

“Doubt it,” Rob said. “Never have done before. Do you want some?”

“No. I mean yes. I mean no. OK, yes. No… no, no. Badly wrong. Maybe. I don’t know. Yes. Maybe later. After the whisky. Actually, I’d like Whyte & Mackay if we can get any. The Double Lion Brand. 40 per cent. Head for an offy in Carlisle. I’m not an alcoholic, though.”

Go to Chapter 3: Fresh from the captain’s table.