Joel and I went to see The Fall in Cambridge last night (sadly, no photos). The Fall are a band that has been going for over 30 years, maintaining a unique sound and presence in the post-punk world led by the enigmatic Mark E. Smith and a revolving door of lineups that has included over 30 different musicians. John Peel, for whom they recorded a huge number of sessions over the years, said The Fall were his favourite band because they are “always different, always the same.”
Part of our fascination was to find out what kind of person goes to these gigs. We arrived at 9:50 – the publicity said The Fall would be on stage at 10. Looking around it was clear that there were more people “my age” (or even older!) than “Joel’s age”. Some of these people have obviously been supporting the band since the 70’s. They seemed like a nice crowd.
At the advertised hour our collective musical anticipation sagged somewhat as some guy on decks started up a kind of post-apocalyptic-psychedelic-house-with-random-samples-played-at-varying-speeds thing. He was certainly different. He was also brave. In the vast universe that embraces quirkyness and weirdness he was from the totally opposing musical compass point to The Fall – this was the wrong crowd and he was the wrong act. Tunes were accompanied by a video track, but because one of the projectors wasn’t working this was lost on a third of the audience (including us). In between songs the audience gave him their considered opinion in fine Anglo Saxon and, as one man behind me wryly observed, if this had been going on in a rougher part of the country our resilient DJ would, by now, have been doused in beer and none of his equipment would be working. The atmosphere was tense – to ensure they could be heard people kept shouting at him between songs – unbelievably he kept going, which must at least earn some respect.
Eventually, the four musicians of the current line up of The Fall came on stage in an almost seamless handover garnering a response from the audience that blended a wildly enthusiastic welcome with something akin to blessed relief.
Part way into the first song the stage door on the left opened and Mark E. Smith was ushered in in a wheelchair. Smith broke his hip in February (resulting in a cancelled gig at the Huddersfield Literary Festival) and was still recovering. He spent the gig singing whilst propelling himself around the stage, although there were also moments when he’d get out of the wheelchair and hobble around a bit. The Fall are fascinating – musically full-on with driving drums and bass, frantic guitar and strange keyboard sounds from an ancient Korg played by Elena Poulou, Smith's third and current wife, who looked a bit anxious during the first few songs. Elena and the guitarist also sang but their efforts were not entirely audible. The quality of the mixing left much to be desired and, although undoubtedly a challenging gig to mix for, things could have sounded much better, not least because upper range hearing loss in sound engineers means they tend to overcompensate, making it all a bit ‘toppy’ for everyone else.
As the gig progressed a strange transition happened. First I was stunned, roundly entertained and amazed. Then a kind of battle weariness set in and for a while I wondered how long it would all last. Then, gradually, the whole relentless anarchic energy of the event seemed to rise up and take over and it all seemed like incredibly good fun. At one point Smith wheeled himself off stage leaving the band to carry on and then perform a number without him. Later on he left again, but after closing the door to the backstage corridor he joined in the next song from there. He spent part of one song standing up behind the bass rig and another playing the right hand end of the Korg whilst still sitting in his wheelchair. Smith is The Fall, yet he’s managed to create and sustain a band, a sound and a following that is almost unique and which has influenced generations of younger bands and musicians. Unlike so many long running bands, The Fall have not become a tribute band to their own past – their prodigious output of albums and new material continues (27 studio albums and 28 live albums so far).
The audience (“more my age”) stood in warm appreciation of this enduring embodiment of post-punk. Twenty-five years earlier they might have pogoed and shouted along with the songs – for a fleeting few moments a small group near the front tried it once more. Punk, it seems, never went away, it just grew up.
In predictable style, the gig ended with a keyboard virtuoso flourish from Smith during the last song and then the band left the stage. No encore – a refreshing absence of faux appreciation. The Fall may not seem to be your cup of tea, but perhaps that’s an absolutely fine reason to check out one of their gigs when they next come your way. This is a little bit of long running UK music history that’s still in the making.