The Fall, Electric Ballroom, Camden 23 November 2010
It does good things to you, fronting the Gorillaz before filled arenas. ‘It was the glitter frieze!’ Two nights prior to tonight’s concert in Camden, The Fall played Switzerland alongside The Residents. And, as the placard-bearers outside the venue urging Don’t Fall For It would have the band reconsider, The Fall are scheduled to play a concert in Israel in 2011. Whether a direct result of this flurry of activity or not, Smith seems confident and, for at least four long moments, in complete control.
Queuing outside the venue for half an hour means missing the beginning of their set, but French/US support band Paris Suit Yourself are interesting: tall female bassist; suited drummer; toned dreadlocked male vocalist and a stick-thin guitarist/keyboardist thrown in for good measure.
For all their disparate elements (ska, heavy metal, prog) it’s original – in that here is a band really playing live - the guitarist picking rough-sounding scales on the guitar, the vocalist lifting his arms to signal the rest of the band up the ante. The way the guitarist appears to kiss the bassist after the gig. I’m interested in this band.
There are moments of calm, including a section in which the drummer plays fills which could have come from ‘Petty Thief Lout’. ‘This is our last song’ says the keyboardist, and someone shouts ‘Good!’ He looks genuinely surprised. ‘Are you kidding?’
November saw the re-release of 1984 Beggars Banquet album The Wonderful and Frightening World of ... which includes two songs named after Fall stalwarts Craig Scanlon and Steve Hanley. So it’s a reassuring sign of continuity to hear Mark write a song with the apparent title ‘Greenway,’ in questionable tribute to his current guitarist, Peter Greenway. The song in question is the highlight of the gig. Full of recited (not read) lyrics, it appears to document a visit to a hotel room where the CD player he’d arranged to be waiting for him hadn’t been delivered: ‘There’s only so much you can take!’ Think a Salfordian Highlands. Let’s hope this is caught in the studio.
After the first section of a lovely ‘Weather Report’, Mark stands aside to let the band take the limelight, before walking back, raising his hand and the song doubling its tempo, as he repeats ‘You gave me the best years of my life.’ It demonstrates an attentiveness to the pace of the gig, especially as the second part previously echoed the closing section of ‘Cowboy George’. The crowd go wild, and Mark tosses his mic into the audience, relishing the mayhem.
‘Cowboy George.’ Apparently named after an A-Team episode guest-starring Boy George, Mark has explained in interviews how this is nothing to do with George Bush. Except, in the second section tonight, he reads new lyrics off sheets of paper from a red carrier: ‘I hate his guts. It was like a musical show. It was like a musical show. A stage-craft.’
‘What About Us’. Lest I forget, this song, with its chant of ‘Shipman,’ when broadcast in session in 2004, raised hairs on the back of my neck. Among the usual lyrics, Mark explains how in Germany he could get hold of any drug he wanted, but in Britain, nothing.
It is striking, among other things, that here is a track nobody but Smith could write. A lyric beginning ‘I am a rabbit from East Germany,’ punctuated by Elena Poulous's ‘hop hop hop’s, ambiguously referencing a modern-day demon in the public imagination: ‘there was a doctor dishing out drugs...’
Second support is V.J. artist Safi Sniper, a little over-exposed on the Fall circuit perhaps (he’s been supporting them since at least 2005.) At moments he is like a visual version of The Field – Barbara Streisand caught mid-wail, merging with a young Michael Jackson. One of his images is a sweating Elvis Presley struggling through the climax of ‘Always on My Mind’ (‘Fat Elvis!’ someone shouts, and we can envisage Michael Jackson’s demise beyond his childhood appearance in the Jackson Five.) In his eyes, sweat and weight Elvis recalls Johnny Cash. But we also see Mark Smith in there.
Except, here Smith is performing the closing song, a cover of the Big Bopper track ‘White Lightning’:
T. Men, G. Men, Revenue too
Searching for the place where he made his brew
They were looking trying to book him
but Papa kept cooking it –
Tonight, sporting shoulder length hair, M.E.S. more resembles Gene Vincent, who also played exceptional Rock and Roll to the faithful well beyond his commercial heyday. Somehow, Mark has come through the disarray of the Nineties (‘I’ve had so many problems in the last 20 years with groups’ he deadpanned to Mike Joyce in a radio interview earlier this year) through sheer self-belief perhaps, and emerged with vision completely intact.
Alongside ‘White Lightning,’ sure-fire crowd-pleasers ‘Sparta’ and ‘Strychnine’ are lapped up by the mosh-pit. Smith pleases both camps – tonight I opt for the Stewart Lee chin-scratching, watching from the balcony, though I’ve often been among the ones jumping about at the front.
‘Who took the batteries out of my cassette player?
They have no respect.
They try to drown me out.’
One more point to close. ‘Muzorewi’s Daughter,’ a track from 1982’s Dragnet is performed – a reference to the Pope’s recent visit perhaps, or the result of his recent comments on contraception, or none of these things.