Thursday, April 19, 2007

50,000 500 (approx.) Fall fans can't be wrong


Tonight's ticket, snapped up at the very last minute as the headliners soundchecked, was procured for me by someone I recognised but couldn't quite place. And now there he is on stage, and it all becomes clear: Mike Carter, formerly the improbably tall bassist with The International Karate Plus, is now the improbably tall bassist with Heck.

A quick visit to their MySpace page reveals nods in all the right directions as regards influences (Shellac, Pavement, The Velvet Underground, Sir Les Ferdinand...) and some of their self-descriptions are much better than I could muster: "A stag do stepping on a landmine", "The frenzied abortion juice of Gang Of Four being swilled round the mouth of a Krautrock prostitute that's fucked on the skag of Sonic Youth, or something"...

Sadly, the foursome - featuring Jemma Roper (formerly of Sammo Hung) on vocals - don't really live up to that promise. They do have their moments, though, such as a song that may possibly be called 'I'm Not A Doctor' during which Roper - resplendent in what appears to be an orange boiler suit - sings something like "Can you shake it as I'm watching it?" while the boys crank out their Love-As-Laughter-in-a-carcrash racket. That enough reference points for ya?

Judging by tonight's crowd, Roper is unusual simply by virtue of not being male, not being middle-aged and not having a neck as thick as my thigh. Personally, it's a worrying glimpse into a potential future consisting of leather jackets, receding hairlines and the occasional ruck.

The Fall, the band to whom they've all been drawn, are bona fide legends, the second genuine Peel favourites I've seen this year after Persil. In truth, though, we're talking about one man, the founder member and the one surviving face from their inception in late 70s Manchester: Mark E Smith.

Tonight, in keeping with his persona, he's disdainfully late. When he finally puts in an appearance, after an experimental electronica segment set to a background of similarly warped and cut-up images of James Brown, Pavarotti and Elvis (amongst others), and after his latest bunch of hired hands have kicked things off, it's long gone 10pm.

The years have most certainly taken their toll - Smith looks just like a man who's spent a large proportion of his fifty years drinking and doing drugs. Indeed, watching him staring his belligerent stare out into the distance as if looking for someone on the horizon with whom to pick a fight, mouth hanging open all the time as if about to expectorate a gobbit of tar, it's tempting to speculate as to whether he's got an impossibly youthful and blemish-free portrait of himself stashed away in the attic.

All eyes are on Smith - and not just those of the crowd. The dapper rhythm guitarist in particular eyes him with the sort of nervous suspicion china shop owners reserve for passing bulls. Predictably unpredictable as ever, he amuses himself by adjusting amp settings, turning things off, shoving his microphone in through the hole in the bass drum and then grabbing someone else's when there's a line that needs to be delivered. When, with back to the crowd, he starts tinkering with the keyboard, the keyboard player wisely steps to one side and lets him get on with it.

Of course, it's as well not to forget that, without the band whose best efforts he seems intent on sabotaging, Smith is not much more than a grouchy, substance-ravaged loon of the sort you inevitably find yourself sat next to on the bus. This being the first time I've seen The Fall, I've no idea how the current line-up compares to those of the past - but certainly they seem bang on the money.

An acquired taste The Fall may be, but they're one that I've been gradually getting rather fond of and tonight's show is enough to erode any residual reservations. What marked Smith and his assorted cohorts out as pioneers when they first emerged in the late 70s was actually remarkably simple: they took the scabrous riffs from late 60s / early 70s garage and the repetitive, insistent motifs of Krautrock to create a mutant species of rock all their own - one which is an ideal accompaniment to the barked ejaculations of a grouchy, substance-ravaged loon.

Following a set in which 'Theme From Sparta FC' and 'Reformation' are the highlights, they disappear and re-emerge for an encore, and then do it again - all except Smith, that is, who, having decided he's already given his public quite enough, sings the final song off stage and out of view. The awkward bugger.

All I can say is that whoever stuck their neck on the line and invited him to read out the classified football scores on BBC1 and then be interviewed by Ray 'Stubbsy' Stubbs deserves the George Cross. (Worth watching again and again just for the "You look like you've escaped from Strangeways" line...)


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