Made with the highest British attention to the wrong detail
All the records I listened to compulsively back in the fin de siècle era have first tracks that skip, I guess from all the times my drunken fingers picked them up too aggressively. I don’t mind the skips, they remind me of all those times, sitting up late, listening to song after song.
The first lines of The Classical by the Fall, the opening track of Hex Enduction Hour, skip accordingly. It is a dozen years later and I’m alone in my house in the afternoon. The stormclouds in the sky never came to anything, familiar people walk by outside, the family with the Sharpei for example. It’s a puppy, and has a fat head that resembles a cinnamon scroll. Different family members take turns promenading up and down my street with it. Yes, here I am in the suburbs, but living mostly in memory land.
When I started listening to the Fall, back in the LP scratching era, my favourite albums of theirs already seemed so far back in the past that my feeling I had been born in the wrong time was only made stronger. It was music from another world that for me was like a window, I could use it to imagine. What I imagined was some kind of dark place, going adventuring at night, stepping over the rocks of the railway tracks, yelling whatever came into our heads.
So seeing the Fall in 2010 was a strange experience. I was going to write surprising, but it is not surprising – we live at a time when every experience is available. Almost every single band I sat listening to and wondering about has appeared in some form, live. I think carefully before going to any of these dinosaur concerts, fearing disappointment, dislocation.
I’d seen the Fall already, in 2007. Tim and I were in London and went to see them in a venue inside a shopping centre in Islington. The video mash-ups that lasted for an hour and a half before the band came on made the crowd very angry. The hall rung with the voices of men crying out “BULLSHIT!” We felt like we were at the mercy of Mark E Smith, that he was making us angry, frustrated, testing our patience.
This time, the video art section of the evening was much condensed. We had already had to endure Dave Graney in support (if one was not out at the bar, queuing for twenty minutes for a plastic cup of gin and tonic which one sweated out immediately upon re-entering the sweltering hall), and now we watched a giant, fat Elvis, sweating and licking his lips, singing Unchained Melody, the footage, and the song, stretched out, excruciating. Fat Elvis makes me feel emotional, and I was glad when his face disappeared from the screen, even though he was replaced by a huge Barbara Streisand face, horribly distorted, nose bulging. EM, standing beside me, made a horror movie scream and fled to the bar.
Watching The Fall play was like watching a man wander around his study, or his living room, and pick up things for a moment (paperweights, decanters), then put them down again, lost in his own private reflections. It is easy to project things onto Mark E Smith, he becomes a caricature, a kind of nasty, grumpy uncle with a sharp, and somewhat surreal tongue, who you like to observe to see who he’ll tell to fuck off next.
As with the London show, Smith entered the stage not a moment before he was required. He appeared to a great gust of cheering, but I got the impression that he had just happened to walk on stage, and a band just happened to be there, and so he might as well sing. Sometimes he wandered up the back of the stage, to take of his jacket or pick up the sheaf of papers that could only have the lyrics on them, not that I could make out any of the lyrics that he sung anyway. I didn’t expect to recognise the songs, and I didn’t, although Fall songs have enough common elements that I felt like I recognised them even though I’d never heard them before.
The sound was dominated by the drums, played by a huge tank of a man, who smashed away at the kit forcibly the entire performance. I wished one of his particularly violent strokes would send him plummeting through the floor, but no luck. Sometimes Smith would go over and tap on one of the cymbals, before fiddling with the guitar amps or stabbing out some unrelated notes on the keyboard. Being in the Fall would be a horrible job. The keyboard player, who is also Smith’s wife, wore her handbag diagonally across her chest the entire show, as if at any moment she was about to step off the stage and hail a taxi and get out of there.
Hex Enduction Hour is on side B now, the scratches clicking and popping. I’m thinking about expired fires and midnight suns, and remembering the bits that Tim and I used to find funny, like when he sings “what the goddamn fuck is it- (uh)” and about falling down flat in the café aisle in “Iceland”. They were scraps of life mixed up and turned into something else. The songs didn’t ask us to like them, and so I did.
Before the show on Wednesday, Simon and EM and I engaged in more Mark E Smith ruminations. What would he be doing, while we were eating lotus root chips in a Japanese restaurant? In fact the thing I enjoyed most about seeing the Fall was wondering about Mark E Smith, the impenetrable egomaniac, continuing to believe each new album is the best, as his band members get younger and younger. The Fall is Mark E Smith, in that it could not exist without him, but it’s also some kind of monster. I understand a little of the kind of monster it is, the kind that comes when you feel disgust for what surrounds you, and you feel as if you have to make a kind of army to fight against it.