I had a fair idea of what I was in for when I went to see The Fall at Brixton’s Electric last Friday. They’re a middle-aged band from Manchester, just like the Stone Roses, or the various incarnations of New Order. In journalese, this almost makes them ‘Heritage Rock’.
I can’t remember when people started using this term, but it’s gone from the repertoire of niche music writing to being A Thing. You can’t go a week without some old beat combo or other announcing their re-formation, and in return they get a sort of protected status. Old rock music has become to the British what films about unfaithful middle-class couples are to the French. That is, culturally important but not very interesting.
Thus you know roughly what to expect from the average heritage rock gig: a lot of merchandise and much shared nostalgia. And blokes. Proper blokes. Blokes of a certain age, most of them of a certain look, dress code and smell. Paunches, ill-fitting T-shirts and the faint whiff of lives having peaked in 1982. I could picture the scene long before I got there.
But when I walked in, I realised something wasn’t right. The merchandise stall was present and correct, but there was also a sense of something …vital. Authentic heritage rock demands reverence and expectation, like Lourdes minus the fun. This, though, was most definitely a party.
There were also GIRLS. Attractive girls. Girls drinking Red Stripe and talking about, y’know, whatever it is girls talk about at leftfield pop concerts. It prompted the question: was it possible that The Fall might be a band one could describe as ‘cool’?
I was intrigued. Support acts came and went — one band’s USP was to cover the oeuvre of 1960s garage refuseniks The Monks. They were girls, too. They wore cassocks and called themselves The Nuns. Sniff all you want, but they were ace.
By the time The Fall took the stage, the section I had imagined would never — could never — be a mosh pit was indeed a mosh pit. I stared at the man in the cheap suit and patent leather shoes who stood before me and marvelled; he looked like the precise midway point between Andy Serkis’s Gollum in Lord of the Rings and Bruno Ganz’s Hitler in Downfall.
This was Fall caudillo Mark E. Smith, the group’s only constant member. There he was, as unremarkable as you could imagine, but somehow other. Here is a man who has run his band like a dictatorship since 1976 and really does walk it like he talks it. (When my father introduced me to The Fall’s music ten years ago, his briefing ran thus: ‘They’re interesting because Mark E. Smith lives in a house with no electricity and no running water.’ Which, to be fair, is a hell of a lot more exciting than anything proposed by Mumford & Sons — ‘Irish retards’, according toMES.)
What follows and, by extension, your judgment of it, depends entirely on what you want from popular music. If you like tunes and — Christ, I guess you’d call it ‘accessibility’ — there is no point whatsoever in going to see The Fall. But if the idea of disturbing and gratuitously repetitive kraut-punk sung by a troll appeals, you’re in for a treat. They have two drummers, for God’s sake.
And blimey was this fun. The Fall are rock music as imagined by Brecht. They play, or rather attack their instruments, like five-year-olds with OCD. It’s bad – terrible! – but excitingly so. The songs (if they can be so described) were indistinguishable, though one senses such trifling things aren’t really the point. Mark E. crowed out every word like a man possessed. Every word was nonsense, granted, but more zealous nonsense you’re unlikely to hear anywhere.
MES stood louche as a sozzled Bryan Ferry and mumbled throughout, stopping occasionally to kick stuff and bully his terrified guitarist. There was no patter until the bitter end: ‘I’m Mark E. Smith and we are The Fall. You’ve had yer hour-and-a-half, go home now.’ Heritage they are not — their act is consummately psychotic. This is most definitely a good thing.