I’ve just read Simon Wolstencroft’s memoir, You Can Drum But You Can’t Hide, a PDF pre-published version. It’s a really enjoyable read about the many near-mythical figures of the Manchester music scene: Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Ian Brown, John Squires, and of course Mark E Smith. Simon was drummer in The Fall for eleven years, spending more time in the group than practically any other musician (with the exception of Steven Hanley – nineteen years – and Craig Scanlon – sixteen years). After which, he left of his own accord, unlike the many who were sacked. I met him at a Sleaford Mods gig two weeks ago and he asked me if I’d like to interview him. Of course, I said. We meet in the beer garden of the Britons Protection pub in Manchester on Tuesday 20th September. It’s over twenty years since I’ve been in. It hasn’t changed a bit. I find Simon in the beer garden drinking lager and smoking. I introduce myself.
First question. Why now?
Because, over the years, people have said to me, Si, you’ve had a really interesting life, why don’t you write a book about it? Yeah, right, right. Then I was watching Mastermind and the question was, who played drums on the first ever Smiths recording? and they got my name right and I thought, this might be the time to do it.
There are a lot of rock biographies out at the moment [as I type Steve Hanley’s has just been reviewed in The Guardian].
It’s unbelievable, everyone’s got one. Have you got one out?
I’ve got to form a band first.
The first 250 copies of the book, we’re putting a CD together. Ian Brown, doing ‘Billie Jean’, which we recorded as a B side back in 2000 and ‘Free Range’ hopefully.
You’ve got rights for that haven’t you?
Yeah, fifty fifty. I’ve had no money for it for years though.
That’s the only non-cover by The Fall that got into the top 40 isn’t it?
Why do you think the covers have done better than the original material?
I don’t know really. ‘Victoria’ I thought would have done better because they played it on Eastenders, in the cafe.
Radio 6 regularly play, ‘Victoria’, ‘Mr Pharmacist’ and ‘Ghost In My House’.
‘Hit The North’ they still play.
They do, occasionally, but it’s mainly the covers. ‘Mr Pharmacist’ they play virtually every day. It winds me up a bit. Why can’t they play original material? I guess they’re just more popular.
They’re the ones that stick out, aren’t they?
A lot of people think that ‘Mr Pharmacist’ was written by the band, don’t they?
Yeah, they do. It’s The Other Half, int it. It’s one of my favourite ones that I played on that. Not just because it was in Abbey Road. You know, the sound was fantastic. You get a good vibe off the place. Maybe because of all the wood.
The video is the one with Leigh Bowery with polka dots painted all over him.
I don’t think I’m in that.
I thought you were?
I don’t remember. I was strung out at the time. I was smoking gear for a long time.
[I checked later, in fact, strangely, unaccountably, Simon isn’t in the video.]
Did you keep it quiet?
Yeah, I did.
Did Mark know?
Eventually, he came out and asked me. Simon, have you been taking heroin? I said, what is this, the Spanish Inquisition? He started laughing. I didn’t admit it. Why should I? He’s not my school teacher. I never said to him, you’re drinking too much. Though I did say to him at the end, people are laughing at you, Mark. You’re going on stage, making a fool of yourself. He said, so fucking what. If I fart into the microphone people will buy it.
That sounds like a lot of the recent gigs of theirs I’ve been to.
More often than not, he’d fuck it up. He’d go off for ten minutes, as you know, and not come back. We’d be like, where the fuck is he?
What was he doing?
Just sat in his room. But he thought he was entitled to do that. I suppose he is. They’re paying to come and see him.
They’re not paying for him to sit in the dressing room though, are they?
It was funny when people came backstage. The atmosphere, you could cut it with a knife.
You’ve had a few battles with him, haven’t you?
A few. Justifiably. I had to give him a good hiding in Athens.
About your mum?
Yeah, terrible int it. It was only three days since she died. He’s got this thing, he worked on the docks, but he wasn’t a docker. He worked in an office.
He’s often been cited about his belief in the protestant work ethic. But he doesn’t always display it himself, does he?
No he doesn’t.
He’s a bit of a slacker, really.
Ha! He likes to think he runs the band like that. Thing is, he was paying our wages.
And he set up a pension for you. That made me laugh that.
Yeah, he got us all in with Rothschilds. Took us for a medical. If I’d kept paying into it I could have retired by now.
What do you think of his recent stuff?
There’s nothing that I think, that’s brilliant that. Not since that Corsa advert.
Yeah, I thought that was brilliant.
I’ve not really liked anything since Fall Heads Roll. His voice has gone all phlegmy.
There’s no singing, like ‘Edinburgh Man’. When he came up with that, he put some real emotion into it.
I thought it was funny you saying you didn’t join The Smiths because you didn’t like Morrissey’s voice, because Mark’s voice isn’t exactly soothing.
Well, it wasn’t just his voice, it was the whole dour image.
The raincoat and all that?
Yeah. I was into jazz funk so was Andy Rourke. Obviously Johnny and Andy were mates for years. It didn’t surprise me that they hooked up again.
What did you feel about all the court stuff with Morrissey and Marr?
I thought Mike [Joyce] was good for taking it on. That drummer out of Oasis settled out of court.
Andy took a settlement didn’t he?
Andy took a measly pay-off. hundred grand or something.
Because Joyce got a big sum?
Supposed to be about a million. I thought, good on you Mike. But at the time I was very friendly with Johnny. But I don’t see him much now. He moved to America to work with Modest Mouse.
Do you like his solo stuff?
Some of it. I’ve seen The Healers and his new outfit a couple of times. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best guitarist of my generation. I think his son Nile’s band is a lot more interesting though. They’re called Man Made. Nile really is a ‘chip off the old block’.
I quite like that new single [‘Easy Money’].
Do you? I heard it on Radio 2 today. It’s a grower. I’m dead glad for him. I’ve seen him a couple of times over the last few years. He’s dead happy.
He’s completely clean now isn’t he?
Yeah, he gave up everything years ago. In fact, the only time I see him now is when he’s running to his Mother’s from one of his houses, through Altrincham.
[Looking at the cigarette packet and the pint of lager] so you’ve not gone that way yourself then?
No, not yet. A lot of my mates have though. Andy Rourke has stopped smoking.
Marr looks better than ever.
I know, must be all that clean living.
Are you still in touch with Ian Brown?
Yeah, he’s been totally helpful with me. He’s got a brilliant memory.
Have you used him to fill in some of the gaps?
The early years, definitely.
I like his solo stuff.
I know yeah, I was lucky enough to play on Golden Greats. Not all of it. About five tracks.
In a way, I thought reforming The Stone Roses was a backward step.
Well, maybe not for the younger generation. It wasn’t just old geysers like me at the comeback shows, though I wouldn’t hold your breath if your waiting for a follow up to The Second Coming. Having said that, no way did I think they would get back together in the first place. So what do I know? I’m sure Ian will continue to come up with the goods, with his solo stuff, though.
I really like where that’s going. That driving drum beat, a bit military. Marching music.
Yeah, with the trumpets.
And that tabla player.
Yeah, that’s the guy.
He’s a good mate of mine. Inder Goldfinger.
What’s your relationship with Mark like these days?
Mark E Smith? I don’t see him socially but I bumped into him last January and he was fine with me. I’d just joined Big Unit, who supported The Fall, and he said, you better watch it with them Simon. Keep your receipts. He was absolutely right, because I’ve earned fuck all. We’re waiting for the stuff we’ve done with Rowetta to come out.
Out of The Happy Mondays?
Yeah, and Peter Hook on bass. With the string section from Downton Abbey. Ripped off wholesale. It sounds good. It’s a love song: ‘Cross My Heart, Hope To Die’.
When’s it coming out?
Good question. We’re waiting for the video to be ready. As soon as it is ready we can put it out.
What about the book, when’s that coming out?
November the 13th. The launch is at Crack Gallery, Hilton Street. Just off Stevenson Square.
It’s a good title, You Can Drum But You Can’t Hide. The drumming reference is obvious but why ‘hide’?
Because a) if you’re a drummer you can’t hide. If you’re shit everybody knows about it. B) you can’t hide from life. Drug habits, the affairs, eventually it comes out.
Who’s publishing the book?
Strata Books. They’ve only been going a couple of years. Started by an A and R man for Chrysalis and EMI. He only does books about musicians.
What will the launch entail?
I intend to do a Q and A. I’m going to book a new band called Nude to play after.
What do you think of Morrissey’s autobiography?
Not enough about The Smiths themselves, too much about his upbringing. I’ve read it all before because obviously I’ve been in quite a few Smiths books, and Roses books.
The court case features heavily.
He drives a gold Porsche.
Does he really? He doesn’t?!
It’s the James Dean thing, I think.
You got to like The Smiths in the end.
Yeah, I did. By the time they got to The Queen Is Dead, the quality.
Because you said that The Smiths were in a different league to The Fall.
Yeah, they were.
Do you think The Smiths were a better band?
Yeah, musically. Half the time it was understanding Mark E Smith’s lyrics.
That’s all part of the fun.
Middle Class Revolt, I understood where he was coming from. Because we had people working for the group with ponytails and designer glasses. You know, trendy ones.
He reminds me of William Burroughs. That cut-up technique. They have the same psychopathology too. I got into The Fall pretty much when you joined. I used to go to The Venue next to the Hacienda and the first time I went they were playing ‘Big New Prinz’ which had just come out. I can’t remember the DJ’s name now.
Did he have a quiff?
That’s Tin Tin.
He used to always play ‘Swerve’ by Dubsex.
Yeah, that’s him. They had an album out called Posh and I’m on the cover. I still see a couple of the lads. They were a bit too speedy for me. I know we played fast stuff in The Fall most of the time, so I never got to play my own style like I can now. I can play what I want, but back then it was, no, play it like this.
Are you still in touch with Brix?
Yeah. Steve [Hanley] had a book launch in July. She came up from London. She married Philip Start, the multi-millionaire rag trade king. She’s got her own shop, a boutique. Nice gear as well. She’s great. Hopefully she’ll come up to this one of mine.
Why here anyway? Why Britons Protection?
I used to come here with Mark. Mark brought me in here first.
I know you are in it, but have you read The Fallen by Dave Simpson?
Yeah, it’s a good book. I meant to send him the PDF of this one. I’ll do that soon.
As you know, he interviews former members of The Fall, and what comes out of that is this consistent pattern of people thinking they are what makes The Fall great and leaving to form a new band only for that band to go nowhere.
It’s not easy.
What is it about Mark though, he’s not a musician, he’s not a great singer, his lyrics don’t always make sense.
He’s got a persona. People like to laugh along with him sometimes. I think his best work is just when he’s being interviewed.
It was often why I’d buy the NME in the eighties and nineties. To read his interviews.
They were funny weren’t they?
Yeah, but by the time I got to interview him in 2009 for the Huddersfield Literature Festival he seemed to have lost some of his former sharpness. He still had it but, you know, not as much. He turned up three hours early for the interview.
I thought, what am I going to do with him for three hours?
He admits it himself, he was drinking too much.
Speed and alcohol is a bad combination. The speed just encourages you to drink more.
It’s a vicious circle.
It seems like, out of all the members of The Fall, you’ve had the most stable relationship with him. I know you’ve had a couple of punch-ups, but overall, you seem to get on.
I did have it good for a few years, but it was when Brix left. She kept him on the straight and narrow. She’s a strong character, Brix.
What did you think of Marcia?
I love Marcia, yeah.
Because she was sacked abruptly, along with Martin [Bramah]. You speculate why that was. [they had started seeing each other at the time].
He said, we’ve got to get rid of them two. Fucking doing my head in.
Was he jealous?
I think he might have been, because he wasn’t getting his end away.
Was he paranoid?
Yeah. Speed psychosis. But I’ve had some good laughs with Mark and he was dead good to my mum. Did your interview go ok once you’d broken the ice?
Well, I made the mistake of showing the John Lydon butter advert first, which he didn’t like. He said, what you showing an advert for butter for? I was using it to ask my first question but I never managed to ask it. I showed a clip from Ideal where he’s playing God.
Yeah, it was great that.
But then everything I asked him about the book-
Renegade you’re talking about?
Yeah, the book had just been released in paperback. I’d say, you say this on page six, and he’d say, I didn’t say that. To everything.
[We have just been joined by Roufie, percussionist in the new band Big Unit and Stuart Bisson-Foster, who helped Simon write the book.]
Roufie: Dave Haslem said the same thing when he interviewed him. He said, Mark, do you want me to buy you a copy of your own book?
Me: Yeah, I was talking to Dave Haslem about that. He’s interviewing John Lydon next, funnily enough.
Simon: They’re great value Mark’s interviews. They’re better than the music.
Me: So you’re not a Fall fan then? Because that’s one of the criteria isn’t it?
Simon: Yeah, you couldn’t be a Fall fan or a proper musician.
Stuart: Yeah, but that was inconsistent though. For example, someone like Simon Rogers. You’ve written loads of plays haven’t you?
Me: Yeah, a few. Stage plays, stuff for Radio 4.
Stuart: I want to turn this manuscript into a screenplay.
Me: My radio producer nearly got me a gig writing something about Mark E Smith for Radio 2. At the time Radio 2 were making these plays based on characters in popular music. I had this idea. Mark E Smith on Twitter. It’s not the real Mark E Smith, it’s someone impersonating him and Mark gets hacked off so he turns detective and eventually tracks him down. Only when he does, he gets a shock, because it’s him. He’s been posting on Twitter without realising. He’s been that off his head.
Simon: That’s good that.
Stuart: Have you heard ‘I Am Mark E Smith’, but Fat White Family?
Me: I’ve not heard that.
Stuart: it goes, ‘I am Mark E Smith, and I have got the paperwork to prove it.’
Me: I like Fat White Family. ‘Touch The Leather’. That’s a good one.
Simon: They’ve got a great sound, dead swampy.
Roufie disappears to get another round in. We talk more about The Fall, the highs and lows which are well documented in Simon’s book. Mark’s friendship with Tony Wilson, his rudeness to Ian Brown, his detestation of Madchester culture, his possible psychic powers, his fear of success. I get the next round in. We talk about cake as sculpture, Mickey Mouse, The Sleaford Mods, the soundtrack for the film Rumblefish. Another round of lagers. Things start to get messy as they do and several hours later I stumble back to the train station somewhat worse for wear.
The book is out on November 13th. It is published by Strata Books. You can buy it here: http://www.stratabooks.co.uk/book/memoir-5/you-can-drum-but-you-cant-hide/
It’s a must for all Fall fans or anyone interested in the Manchester music scene. Sometimes it reads like a soap opera about a dysfunctional family. Sometimes it feels like you’re immersed in a weird cult, but it is a riveting read and a great insight into life on the road with one of the most curmudgeonly men in rock.