mark e smith barry douglasMark E. Smith - Barry Douglas photo 

Seeing a band three nights in a row rather reminded me of when I used to see interstate bands like the Laughing Clowns play the Tivoli in Adelaide; how I afforded it I cannot really recall, but I never had enough to buy any drinks…

The Thursday night would usually be fairly sparse, the Friday a bigger crowd, and the Saturday the joint would be full to bursting. The Thursday and Friday I could usually dance without biffing into people, the Saturday night it would be too crowded up the front, which I spose is is why I think that anyone dancing extravagantly at a packed front of the stage is just rude (as it forces other folk away). Call me Mr Polite, then, go on.

Never was an LP title more prophetic: “The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall” was the band’s seventh album, released in 1984. Thirty years ago, The Fall looked like being about to “cross over” but … nope, after numerous minor hits, Mark E. Smith and his band has never had one in the Top 10. Perhaps that’s partly Mark’s idiosyncratic approach to recording, singing in a manner which either causes confusion or a swift twiddle of the knob.

Festival Hub, Melbourne
October 23, 24 and 25, 2015 

Pete Townsend, Nick Cave and (insert name of useless punk band here) all started out as punters and wanna-bes. They’re all part of the background now, even those DIY black’n’white style “hardcore” bands so determined to stay in a stale old 1984 world. Good luck to them.

In the meantime, I notice a few live reviews of The Fall receive the usual “why no old favourites?” line (akin to Wire). This is why professional reviewers usually don’t have a clue - unlike The Buzzcocks and (again, insert name of once-important punker/ new waver outfit here), the likes of Wire and The Fall are not nostalgia acts. They’ve been going out playing only their current stuff for decades, progressing and developing in the public eye for decades … I was discussing this with my friend Sean Duncan who, if you were to ask for the “old favourites his outfit used to do” would (at best) laugh in your face…

As you may know, I loathe pigeon-holing any art; sometimes it’s useful to get an overall view, usually however, it merely makes life easy for teachers and lecturers. The Fall may be considered “a post-punk” band, for example, and I am sure Simon Reynolds would be happy to explain why. But to me, people like Wire, Dave Graney, The Fall and countless others … are about as indivisible with the original UK punk creed as it is possible to be. Which means, of course, that they don’t have sleeve tattoos, piercings, mohawks and run around constantly angry at the govvinmint.

Put The Fall a different way: John Peel, one of the five most influential men in music in the UK (and a lot further), had a separate room in his house for all his Fall records, and had The Fall in to record a mighty 24 Peel sessions (where a band showing promise could play live in the studio and use the exposure to develop a broader national interest). There’s a new biography (“Goodbye and Good Riddance”, I think) which seems to nail the Peel situation in the title: the BBC hated Peel, but couldn’t get rid of him because of his huge importance. I’m sure The Fall aren’t especially well-liked either; they are a similar bit of grit in both knee-joints.

Mark E. Smith is the works foreman of The Fall. Simple as that. He runs the band like a small business; the band get paid a wage; when they tour they get fed, watered, all accom and travel paid for. Smith operates The Fall as if he were a classic middle-class entrepreneur, which is what he is. It’s just that what Smith manufactures is dissatisfaction with an unsatisfactory world. This band isn’t a democracy (though truth to tell, most of us despise democracy where the votes of four ignorant morons decide what any one person with knowledge and a fair mind has to do, even if it’s spectacularly wrong) (ah, I may have digressed here. Hang on).

Since taking over The Fall (in a not quite corporate coup), Mark has used the state of Britain as a template or metaphorical vehicle which is as applicable to you and I as to Britain as it drowns in its own sad ooze.

Smith’s lyrics are overdue for proper collection and publication. I’m sure he won’t want that to happen, not really. Because his talent will be revealed, and Mark doesn’t want that to happen. Why? It’d give the game away, force Mark into a pigeon-hole… see, his lyrics are fine, cutting stuff. As relevant in their time as John Wyndham, William Golding, Vladimir Nabokov, T.S. Eliot …

Think I’m joking..? The Fall’s first few LPs have all received extended two-disc treatment, and “The Wonderful and Frightening World of…” boasts a four disc set. And their last few albums “Imperial Wax Solvent”, “Your Future, Our Clutter”, “Re-Mit” and “Sub-Lingual Tablet” (the latest) are all must-haves for anyone who enjoys a bit of threatening rock ‘n’ roll..

So. I figured that three nights of The Fall would be revealing. And the bugger wasn’t doing Adelaide (no-one understands what’s happening in Adelaide, least of all the major daily which has dispensed with its local entertainment section, which is hardly good for local venues either).

There were several surprises at the venue. Much like The Garden of Unearthly Delights at the Adelaide Festival, the Festival Hub on the banks of the Yarra has overpriced beers, ‘modern’ (for which read, ‘poorly-designed disguised as edgy and earthy’) facilities with reasonably-priced tuck and clots of well-heeled chatterers armed with a handful of tickets for multiple shows each night.

I will quickly say that, however wonderful Festivaltime is, for those 70 percent or more of us who earn less than the average wage, festivals are really not for most of us, simply because we only have so much dosh. I might be tempted by one or two events, in between a busy working life, but I can rarely splash out. So when I see the expensively dressed posh out and about … I tend to wonder just who these festivals are for. Perhaps we need a festivus for the restofus (or perhaps I need to be less curmudgeonly).

For several hours on Friday and Sunday, DJ Sean Simmond played good, intelligently-selected music which dovetailed tidily with the gig about to start. He got my attention when he put on Lou Reed’s “Vicious”, followed by Rowland S. Howard’s “Pop Crimes” … his set included the Gang of Four, Can, a track from Von Sudenfed Tromatic Reflexxions (imagine Mark E. Smith in a techno drag Krautrock outfit), and James White and the Contortions. I sipped my $9 beer and eyed the stream of people, mostly ladies, scuttling over to the side entrance wearing stifled looks of stuffed expectancy, mostly to discover that this side of the venue wasn’t the toilets after all, but people milling near two entrances, uncertain as to which was which and so on.

We’re a long way from the suburban beer barn, The Fall’s traditional Aussie music environment. In a way, presenting The Fall as an artwork akin to a play or dance or filmic piece isn’t too far from the, uh, ‘mark’.

The venue is a large shoebox, clad in carelessly-burned pine sheeting. It looks vaguely interesting from a distance, until you get up close and realise that the modern tendency of cheap building asserting that, um, ‘new is modern is good’ is still in play. What a pity. I don’t know what the shoebox cost, but surely Melbourne city should invest in an open-air amphitheatre or four; in the long run, surely it would prove an invaluable investment.

Mark E Smith WatermanRoss A. Waterman photo

Adelaide, the city with the first aussie festival of arts, and site of the first Aussie Grand Prix, has an amphitheatre which seats hundreds, can be covered and, once built, barring earthquake, will always there.

This first night, the shoebox doors were to open at 9pm, the band were to go on at 9.30, and the stage had to be vacated by 10.30 so the crew could set up for the next act, due on at 11pm.

Now, the doors weren’t actually opened until after 9.15. We know there’s a time limit here, so we’re impatient to get in. The band is late coming on (9.50). They leave halfway through the set (the set-list is visible to us front-row junkies) and, making us wait a while, come back again for two more songs and piss off bang on 10.30. This looked like I would be seeing a band do one longish set plus encores, but spread over three nights.

The audience howled and bellowed and was not impressed.

Last year, at the Adelaide Festival, The Pop Group had two odd, intriguing acts as support, and they played a strong, 90+ minute set until, stuffed with jetlag, they tottered off. Perhaps the Adelaide Festival (which encourages journos to review their acts) still seems to know what they’re doing - at least in how to present a rock’n’roll band.

That said, I spoke to one of the Festival staff here in Melbourne who said that the one hour duration was probably more due to the band; when the request form is sent out, questions apparently include how much money and other conditions the band expect, and how long they want to play for. So who’s responsible for the one hour stint I don’t know.

And that makes me wonder about definitions; are The Fall a rock’n’roll band, or art theatre? Apart from anything else, there’s a good reason why Mark E. Smith’s outfit has a reputation of being chaotic and ramshackle. I wasn’t much impressed by the shortness of the set on Friday and I most certainly wasn’t alone.

The second night, the Saturday, we were in the door on the dot of nine, and the band’s intro music didn’t start until ten, and they lasted until just after eleven. There is nothing more extraordinary that thinking that, because the band are half an hour late, and that if tonight is like last night you’re only going to get half an hour if you’re lucky, to create heaving, heady expectation.

One long-time fan (Dom, he introduced himself as) was hollering Fall song-titles at the top of his lungs, causing the bouncers no small anxiety; then he started singing entire sequences of lyrics. After much hilarity by those near him, he switched to quoting verses of T.S. Eliot. And that, serendipitiously, is the kicker to understanding Mark E. Smith’s lyrics. He really is a modern poet cum artist or something. Cross Eliot with Whitman and add a bit of drunken Joe Orton and you’re getting warm.

So, then. The first night’s set list was:

No Respects/ Venice with the Girls/ Bury Pt 3/ Wise Old Man/ Dedication Not Medication/ Fibre Book Troll/ Quit iPhone/ Junger Cloth/ Theme from Sparta FC/ Snazzy/ Wolf Kidult Man/ Pledge!/ Auto Chip 2014-2016

But I should point out they didn’t get half-way through before leaving, returning for a two song encore (with howling audience interval) and departing precisely at 10.30.

“Wise Old Man” is a new song; “Theme from Sparta FC” is from 2006’s “The Real New Fall LP”; “No Respects” is from 2013’s “Re-Mit”; “Wolf Kidult Man” is from 2008’s “Imperial Wax Solvent”; “Venice”, “Dedication”, “Junger”, “Auto-Chip”, “Pledge!”, “Snazzy”, “Fibre Book” and “Quit iPhone” are all from their latest LP, “Sub-Lingual Tablet”.

The second and third night’s set list I couldn’t get to, but a chap called Simon managed it. The second night was a different (and longer) set; (2008’s) “Wolf Kidult Man” came thundering out first, followed by “Venice with the Girls”, “Cowboy George” (from 2010’s “Your Future Our Clutter”), “Bury Pt3” and then “Wise Old Man”. “Dedication not Medication” was followed by “Tuff Life Boogie” (a positively ancient song from 1988’s “The Frenz Experiment”), “Junger Cloth”, “Theme” from “Sparta FC” and “Snazzy”. Although the set list had “Pledge!” next, they skipped it and went straight to “Auto Chip 2014-2016” and “Mr Pharmacist” for the encore.

The third night the band bounced on comparatively early at 9.40 and again stayed with us for an hour; the set list was (as written):

No Respects/ Venice/ Wolf/ Dedication/ Wise Old Man/ 2014/ Tuff Life Boogie/ Mr Rode (from the recent Remainderer EP)/ iPhone/ Sparta/ Bury. Unlisted was the encore, Blindness (from 2005’s Fall Heads Roll)

All us old coots know the young people, quite rightly, resent (if not loathe) the old fuckers. Contrariwise (a word coined by Lewis Carroll, presumably with M.E.S. in mind) Smith has his publicity photos emphasise huge rifts and cracks in his face, making him look like some dissolute 115-year-old satyr. Interesting how seamlessly the older songs and the newer songs sit so well together.

No, he doesn’t look like that in the flesh; right up close he looks more or less like you or me. Or anyone, really. Which is pretty clever, to fuck with people’s expectations in such a blatant way that we’re fooled so completely. When The Birthday Party expressed an affection and kinship for The Fall, it was partly because their lives were their art, their external selves all part of the consuming fire, the creative imperative. It’s a damn dirty pity that John Peel couldn’t see Smith now; he’d love what The Fall are now.

Smith is last out onstage after the band (and first off). Now: this outfit are probably his most powerful, reliable, and understanding (they’ve been with him the longest for a reason). The rhythm section don’t look like punkers are supposed to look like but (sorry, boys) brickies. Dave Spurr plays a rumbling, effortless bass (until Mark interferes); Kieron Melling maintains a pounding, relentless thunder (despite Mark’s … etc).

The rhythm section are damn good, thumping rock’n’roll. They know what they’re there to do and they are tight, tight, tight, creating a huge, repetitious steamrolling effect. Very Can. Very Stooges. Very Velvets. And like none of them. Even their recent ‘cover’ of a Stooges song on their last lp (Stout Man) sounds entirely like The Fall.

Most rhythm sections look at each other occasionally. Dave has his back to Kieron, but, like Kieron, takes his cues from Peter Greenway, a fine, clever guitarist who looks like a public servant but who is actually the lynchpin of the band (and, as jobs go, appears to have the hardest job on the stage). All this is no mean feat in any band, but particularly with Mark doing his best to create new and unexpected aspects with the band’s sound which has partly lead to so many previous ructions with previous band members.

You know that line on coffee mugs, mouse mats and other assorted crappy officewear, ‘you don’t have to be Krazy to work here … but it helps’? Well, you definitely need a strong, well-balanced sense of yourself and a whacking sense of humour to work onstage with Mark E. Smith.

Smith’s wife Eleni Poulou looks like she’s there by mistake (both nights she comes on in a black coat, the second and third she’s lugging a very large handbag) as she works away at her Korg. Her playing, incidentally, is perfect for the band, she plays simple parts which cut across or go against the band’s driving direction, which creates a further element of depth or landscape to the songs.

When Mark nicks one of the Kieron’s cymbal mics and sings into it, or when he’s bashing the kit himself either with his hands or mic, or when he’s repeatedly removing the kick-drum mic and dropping his own mic in there, or when Mark twiddles with Dave’s bass amp, turning it up (then down-then up-then down) in accord with his own internal rhythm, this band stay steady. Indeed, even when a mic is abruptly thrust under someone’s nose, they know what to sing and off they go before it’s whipped away, as if Mark’s testing them.

When Mark starts mucking about with the guitarist’s fretboard mid-song, a sly little grin spreads over Mark’s face as he watches Peter’s rather harassed expression, you begin to get it a bit more. The band love Mark, his intelligence and determination to present his songs in the way he feels is best suited to them.

Mark does something similar to the Peter’s amp a few times, wanders about, goes behind the drum kit and over to Eleni’s amp, fiddles with it, and also decides to play her Korg (with his back to the thing) … Eleni smiles, amused by his tinkering and deliberate introduction of the natural state of things: disorder and unease. Even when her Korg gets turned off completely by the sound guy she simply wave her hand and smiles angelically.

Yes, I could cheerfully go to see this band without Mark, but it wouldn’t be remotely the same. At first glance you might think he’s performing almost as if the band are rehearsing in his living room, as he tinkers with his two mics and two amps, ambling around the stage, moving with awkward, condensed-humoured grace (on Friday his tinkering didn’t work so well) as he created some monstrous rackets which fit perfectly into the songs. “Northern prick”, a friend commented as he massaged his malfunctioning inner ear.

Mark himself … it’s been a while since I’ve seen him onstage, and I’d forgotten how he can appear to be several things at once, formidable, vulnerable, determined, forgetful, awkward and self-conscious, yet relaxed and familiar. He comes as close to the crowd as he can; some of them want to touch him (I mean, for God’s sake…) or shake his hand, Mark either dodges or bats them away.

He’s a clever, under-rated bugger too, you know, Mark E. Smith. Very, very few people can turn their back on a crowd and still hold the audience’s attention - and it’s not the desire of expectation either. Nick Cave can still do it, for example. But the bunch of lazy musos plunking away down the local boozer can’t without looking like arrogant sods who have no cause for self-satisfaction.

Mark may be many things (the festival’s press release trills on about how cantankerous, curmudgeonly and belligerent he is) but one thing he ain’t is arrogant (nor does he crave adulation like, say, Madonna or Morrissey). During one song on Friday, Mark handed the radio mic to some berk in the crowd who, predictably bellows, shrieks and carries on like an unpopular minister on the scaffold. During what we didn’t realise was the encore, Mark handed the mic to a young chap (with the muttered aside ‘I want this back!’) who either knew the words perfectly or made his own up as he went along, which was for several verses, perfectly in tune and time with the band; brilliant.

He did the same once on Saturday and Sunday night and, although the result was rather good, it wasn’t as fabulous as Friday.

Up front, Mark will stand closer to you if you’re not obviously a throbbing twat. He opens the gigs by singing off-stage, sometimes goes off-stage to sing during the gig, which means that you’re never really entirely sure whether the gig’s actually ended or what. He’s also one of the most commanding performers I’ve ever seen; after handing the mic into the crowd, at one point he realises the singer isn’t going where he wants the song to go so, his back to that part of the crowd with the mic, and right up against the lip of the stage, he reaches down, clicks his fingers and makes a clutching motion with his hand. The mic is immediately returned to him.

His voice is as carefully and critically manipulated as Tom Waits’ or John Lydon’s - any limitations Mark may have as a traditional singer are eclipsed by his constantly extraordinary pronunciations, where words are so mangled, gargled, gerbilled or altered that they take on completely other properties.

Mark E. Smith looks alternately awkward, lost or perfectly in the present, like someone’s odd grandad. Toward the end of the second night, he pulls out a wad of lyrics and, not being able to find the right sheet, shrugs and stuffs them away again as the song pounds away to a conclusion.

The antithesis of the rock’n’roll performer, Mark’s focus is on providing the best response to the songs - which is to create an emotional response to the spectacle people are seeing. To some extent it works.

On the Saturday, one of those “I’ll have you!” tough guys is bounding about at the front, alternately worshipping or insulting and threatening Mark. At one point he’s pointing directly at the vocalist, who’s on the lip of the stage, poised waiting to deliver his next line, when this pillock is pointing right at Mark, mere inches away…

“I’m gonna mess you up! I’m gonna mess you up!”

Mark’s next line is, “I’m an eternal optimist” …

I was a bit surprised that that pillock wasn’t removed from the crowd, as the bouncers had already indicated to one rather harmless chap that they were ready to chuck him out…

Mark E. Smith is still a prole art threat, not least because his critical intelligence knocks aside the twats who come to his shows for the emotive spunking off (if I hear the phrase “it’s a post-punk band” again as code for “we can behave like selfish morons here, it’s allowed” again…), or the “I was there” braggadocio (without owning at least half The Fall’s studio LPs, “I was there” doesn’t mean a pinch of bumflakes.

The Fall live in MelbourneRoss A. Waterman photo

So. Friday night was certainly disappointing but also exhilarating; emphasising to me yet again that sometimes you really do have to be down the front to see what’s going on rather than wedged into the middle where all you can do is hear is (I have this latter on good authority) a rather rubbish sound and brief glimpses of the people you paid 60 bucks to see as the floor bounces up and down (rather like the Old Greek Theatre of yore).

Actually, the fact that the entire shoebox gives off massive vibes of transience, of a thin and fragile structure (you can see the actual struts holding the bloody thing in place on the inside), of the bouncy thin wood floor and a stage made of thin plates which, if you push them, have an awful lot of give to them… a riot would be all too destructive in such a shoe-box…

Saturday was a strange, borderline violent night down the front, and left us hungry for more. And Sunday was the best night of the lot, as the band was relaxed, and more powerful. Mark even smiled a few times (and he looks completely different) and I am hungry for more.

Mark doesn’t indulge in that “Hello, Boston!” crap, or “Goodnight, thank you for coming”. He seems quite shy at that sort of thing. On Sunday, he was genuinely pleased at the constant response, and mumbled thanks and that he’d see us next year.

Mark E. Smith creates partial conditions of riot (internal as well as external) as he makes us aware of how fragile, how out of our control everything is. His lyrics are a lyrical goldmine, delivered in a manner guaranteed to either make you pay attention because you can barely make the bastards out, or leave the room for a cup of tea because you frankly can’t be arsed. So, he either gets you both ways or (and I reckon this is why The Fall have had innumerable charting singles but no Top 10 hit) you just don’t get it. And, if you don’t get it, I can’t help you.

These days the world hasn’t changed greatly from when I was a lad. Or even when my dad’s dad was a lad. We’re still fond of encouraging wilful self-entrapment as a way of life, for example. Human nature doesn’t alter that much, but very, very few bands can expose our dreadful and wonderful behaviour.

But if ever a band existed which you had to see, and see close-up, to understand properly, it’s The Fall. In that respect, it’s easy to see why The Birthday Party respected The Fall out of most of the then-current pop outfits; the similarities in approach were evident. The disgust, the amused and knowing mockery of what disgusted them … young people today are just as much a part of the problem as the older people. Like I say, nothing’s changed.

Decades on from the early ‘80s, Mark E. Smith and his wonderful and frightening world are at the top of their game. Don’t miss them.