Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London
May 7, 2010
I’m a band purist at heart. You can cut off all your fingers, but you’ve still got a hand. If you cut off all your band members and keep cutting and cutting and cutting, you can’t expect your audience to comply with your decision or to even recognise the music you continue to make. What was it John Peel said about The Fall? “always different, always the same”. Well, yes, but… no. Mark E. Smith is The Fall, but The Fall isn’t just Mark E. Smith. To do a band like The Fall justice, you need instigators, collaborators, people who speak your language, people who speak your era. You need consistency, familiarity. Not your current wife and a few strong-willed younger-than rabble rousers to whom Smith plays puppet master while holding both scissors and string.
The Fall circa 2010 are not the same band as The Fall circa 1977 or even The Fall circa 1990, the year in which this writer first got a taste of Smith and Co. in Australia on the Extricate tour. This was The Fall at their prime, on a run of albums that began with The Wonderful and Frightening World Of… and ended (in my opinion) with Extricate. The Fall are a recognised British institution. They’re like the Church. You become a pariah to speak out against the gospel of Mark E. Smith, yet who and what makes The Fall, The Fall? Hanley, Scanlon, Burns, Wolstencraft, Smith (B & M.E). These were the names indelibly marked in your mind, names that were a trademark of quality. I can’t even tell you who these people are behind Smith. They’re faceless, nameless. Not to discredit ‘the band’, but it feels as if Smith went from bar to bar Manchester asking “Are you a musician? Do you know Krautrock? Have you got the Nuggets boxset? Yeah? You know who I am, cock? You heard o’ The Fall?”
It’s hard work being a Fall fan. In fact, it’s nothing but a full-time job. When same-era artists like Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and Bernard Sumner of New Order read from teleprompters and lyric sheets, Smith seemingly ad-libs his way through the songs. The lyrics are nigh-discernable, and were this the Church of The Fall, hymn books should be handed out at the door. Never certain which way the hammer will fall, past shows on this tour have ended abruptly with Smith walking off (leaving a roadie to sing “Mr. Pharmacist”) or with the band playing on tenterhooks. Tonight’s show, in a surprisingly rammed Shepherd’s Bush Empire, is remarkably unremarkable. In true Fall tradition, the set is heavily weighed by tracks from Your Future, Our Clutter. But the lack of variety slows the set down to a crawl. Both “Cowboy George” and “Bury Pt.1 +3” showcase the album well, but interest quickly wanes.
The oldest track offered comes via the encore in the form of “Sparta FC”. The crowd remain undimmed and exuberant, participating in the call and response lyrics, while I no longer feel a Fall fan. My membership fallen to the sticky floor of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, lost amongst crushed plastic glasses and god knows what else. There has to be a point in a bands career when they cease making new fans and have to consider the ones left as family. Will I be missed? Not fucking likely. Smith remained curiously silent throughout the set. No heckler baiting, no banter, no sneery jeers at us southern puffs, nothing. Shepherd’s Bush played their part. The Fall did theirs. As surprisingly decent as Your Future, Our Clutter is (for The Fall still make great records), you would’ve got more value from your £25 by buying the record, a six pack of lager, a curry and calling it a night. But that’s hardly the point, is it?