Words: Alex Manford
Photos: Louise Brady (View full album here!)
The Fall, Trinity Centre, Bristol, Thursday 23 May
“Just like his hero, Elvis Presley, he is a consummate showman…”
That’s an old quote, paraphrased and half remembered, from ex-Fall member Julia Nagle (keyboards, 1995-2001, fact fans). It goes someway to explaining the ‘performance’ that Mark E Smith, perennial leader of the Fall, delivered at Bristol’s Trinity Centre on Thursday 23 May…
An unsettling tension hangs in the air at any Fall gig, even before Smith and his employees take to the stage. This is largely due to the platoon of middle-aged diehards who follow their leader from town to town, bringing with them a frosty reception for any unfortunate Fall support act that happens to get in their way. Tonight, the poisoned chalice is gifted to Idles.
Idles, poster boy heroes of Bristol’s indie scene, have come a long way since their low-key beginnings nervously scratching out XTC covers upstairs at the Louisiana. Tonight, the fivesome exhibit a pugnacious resolve with weary, amphetamine-crazed stares, tailored suits and at least one handlebar mustache – and give The Fall mob more than they bargained for.
One crowd heckle is met with a no-nonsense “Shut up” from singer Joe Talbot. Idles’ music may not reinvent the wheel (their Walkmen-meets- Editors sound wouldn’t sound out of place on an early-2000s NME Awards tour). Yet the group’s brash demeanor, flashes of inventiveness and grueling rhythm section win the ‘band versus audience’ battle long before they throw down their instruments and triumphantly leave the stage.
Next up are Bobby Peru, touring “buddies” (or hostages?) of The Fall. The trio – featuring former Fall and PJ Harvey bassist Simon ‘Ding’ Archer – mine their own abrasive and eccentric take on Steve Albini certified rock via the Membranes. An off-kilter tune about journeying through a young lady’s intestines fully-realises these influences and is the bracing highlight of Bobby Peru’s set, musically if not lyrically.
Then it is Mark E Smith’s turn to enter, heralded by an irritating looping electronic tape which the singer undoubtedly chose himself to create maximum annoyance. If Idles became ‘gig hardened’ in Bristol then The Fall earned their stripes in deepest Kabul. A palpable sense of tension and even fear emits from the stage; guitarist Pete Greenway’s eyes stare into his own personal oblivion, while burly bassist Dave Spurr strides onstage clutching a ladies’ handbag (probably at Smith’s behest).
Being in The Fall ain’t easy. Fans often liken the group’s sporadic successes and disasters to the travails of a lower-league football team, but tonight’s gig catches The Fall in an upswing. After years of half-realised and (even cynically?) thrown-together albums, The Fall’s 30th LP, Re-mit, is brimming with bizarre creativity and ideas. It one of the group’s best offerings since their mid-‘80s heyday and, typically, the self-destructive Mark E Smith elects to play almost no songs from it during tonight’s set.
‘Jetplane’ is among the few Re-mit songs that emerge, in which Smith inexplicably casts comedienne Jennifer Saunders as the song’s main protagonist. This is followed by a run-through of their recent storming garage rock single, ‘Sir William Wray’, reduced to spindly electronica when Smith sabotages it mid-song by switching off Greenway’s guitar amplifier.
At least Smith sticks around for that one. Tonight’s set is continually marked by one of the front man’s favourite party tricks: vanishing from the stage. Smith spends roughly 50% of the tonight’s gig on the sidelines. These ‘disappearances’ usually resemble an act of defiance; but tonight, hilariously, the Trinity’s layout leaves Smith with nowhere to go. He remains clearly visible to the front rows, squatting behind Greenway’s amps and nursing his microphone like it ought to be wrapped in a brown paper bag.
That said, Smith’s continual disappearances barely matter. His current itineration of “The Fall” (also his longest serving in recent times, with around six years’ active service) have sounded tinny and underpowered in previous years. Yet, tonight, the group are punishingly tight, bass-heavy and relentless. A spontaneous rendition of 1979’s disco-rockabilly stomper ‘Psykick Dancehall’ sounds less like a cover version of “classic Fall” than a new, powerful and menacing song in its own right.
All the while, Smith’s ‘drunken Elvis’ act continues… He wanders around drummer Kieran Melling who, wide-eyed and obedient, watches his singer’s every move for cues (just like drummer Ronnie Tutt used to with The King in Las Vegas). Smith disappears backstage before reemerging with a random chair (!?), repeatedly and asininely sabotages his band’s equipment, and has to steel a drum microphone after losing his own during ‘Sir William Wray’.
Then comes the frontman’s pièce de résistance as the group curtails its short set with a mammoth rendition of their two-note, Link Wray-on-steroids closer ‘Reformation’ (one of the band’s great modern era songs from one of their weakest albums, 2007’s Reformation Post-TLC). Smith vanishes once again before emerging in semi-darkness at stage left to meet and greet his fans like a lairy, fucked-up version of the Queen.
Smith wastes no time: he shuffles over to a young, blonde audience member and appears to whisper sweet nothings into her ear. Soon growing bored of this, he then corners a young dreadlocked roadie against the PA speaker. “Have I ever expressed the feelings I have for you?” snarls Smith, holding his knobby face just centimetres from the hapless young lad’s. “I fuh-cking love you,” he slurs menacingly, before being shepherded back onstage where he can spy fresh opportunities to wreak havoc.
It’s all a show, of course… Or is it? Perhaps Smith, like Elvis, is giving the audience what they have come to expect: inebriated chaos. He doesn’t even seem that drunk from FoF’s close perspective – although it scarcely matters what FoF thinks, as Mark E Smith has been staggering on this wafer-thin precipice between chaos, brilliance and destruction since the late-‘90s.
The only way to really gauge the success of tonight’s gig is to inspect the audience’s faces as they exit Trinity, not long after Mark E Smith has left the building. They are smiling, happy and completely and utterly confused by a ‘musical performance’ they will never see anywhere else.