John Cooper ClarkeEdit this event
Mark E Smith wipes the blood from the huge gash a well-aimed can left on his forehead when it came sailing down from the balcony the second he appeared on stage. A faint smile creeps across his saggy face. Perhaps Mark E Smith doesn’t want you to like him. Or maybe the only way The Fall and their fans can express their love is to wound each other. It would figure.
John Cooper Clarke is a legend. A national treasure. The word ‘maverick’ gets banded about a lot these days, but he’s the genuine article; a one-of-kind, broke-the-mould original. A visceral, instinctive genius with a rare gift to make something beautiful, funny and affecting out of the everyday, humdrum words that fits his croaky Manchester drawl and rapid-fire flow as good as any rapper’s. If there were an ounce of justice in these things, he and not Andrew Motion would be our poet Laureate. His jokes (and his hair) are beyond bad; terrible, hackneyed, Northern, working men’s social club stuff, but his poems are as immediate, as compelling and as fun as The Pistols, The Clash, Buzzcocks. It’s a shame many of The Fall’s fans are too fucking thick or just too bloody contrary to realise it. John Cooper Clarke gets a lukewarm reception to say the least. You’d think poems like ‘Stuff’ and ‘You’re the business' would be easy enough to ‘get’, but then you realise some people just aren’t here to have fun, they disapprove of beauty, they want to worship at the scowling, ugly alter of anti-pop. And in a way, they’re at the right gig. But in another, more important way, they’re at the wrong gig.
Mark E Smith and his whirling Merry-go-round of ever-changing musicians have never been about awkwardness for awkwardness’ sake (unlike, some might say, the man himself.) There’s complexity here for sure, subtlety, dissonance. There’s absurdity, anger and plain ugly misanthropy. But there are also great hooks, tribal terrace call and response chants, engaging if perplexing humour and the dumb, brute power of the band’s primitive, minimalist savagery. In a perverse way, The Fall are pop.
Nearly an hour after they were due on stage, the sinister, distorted two-note, Jaws-style technothrob fades out, the band wander on and launch into the Bo-Diddley voodoo rumble of ‘I’m Bo Doodak’. Mark E shuffles on, grabs the mic and unleashes his guttural bellowing, shrugging off the airborne drinking vessels from the tired, pissed-off crowd. ‘Theme from Sparta F.C.’’s abrasive rockabilly-glam swagger whips the moshpit into a frenzy as Mark prowls the lip of the stage, staring up into the gallery. His performance, or lack of, can make Liam Gallagher look like Liberace, but tonight, although he has one hand almost permanently in his jacket pocket and the kind of grey slacks a CDT teacher might shun, it still seems almost as if Mark E Smith feels like he’s here to entertain; playing to the crowd, working his unique voice hard, even – bugger me – smiling on occasion.
Sadly, The Forum’s murky sound gets worse and worse despite Mark’s twiddling the dials on his bandmates’ amps (You’re temped to suspect he’s exacerbating the problem out of pure devilment). It’s like an ill-behaved offspring of the dark, molasses-like gloop of the 'Rowche Rumble' days; all growling guitars and bleeping organ. The stark simplicity of the all-new material, the merry pop-reggae bounce of ‘Ride Away’ in particular, manages to just about cut through, but it’s hard going, much of the crowd static, confused, straining to pick out the music’s finer points, or indeed anything, from the racket. Thank the lord then, for the Vauxhall-flogging ‘Touch Sensitive’, a monster of a song; a yet more brutal cousin of The Stooges ‘No Fun’ with its hooligan chant. “Hey! Hey! Hey!” Course, Mark E does his best to cock it up, forgetting, or just omitting words, all but ignoring the timing of the embattled musicians behind him, but even he can’t kill the song’s visceral power – bypassing the brain, straight to the spinal cord. There’s the swinging 'Janet, Johnny and James', a vicious riff-driven piledriver of a brand new song and then, just as things are looking up again, they’re gone.
Some five minutes into sole encore ‘Blindness’ and Mark still hasn’t re-appeared on stage. His absence casts a shadow over the proceedings, building and building the tension as we wait for his return. It’s a fittingly frustrating testament to his dominance of the band and his peculiar charm that his presence is felt so strongly through his absence. Perhaps it’s an experiment on his part, to leave a Mark E-shaped hole centre-stage? No, of course, not, he’s a lazy, ill-tempered old sod and he couldn’t be arsed, but the band’s muscular playing and the song’s dance momentum bask in the refracted glory. The confused glances between the musicians suggest that this wasn’t planned and their esteemed leader probably isn’t coming back. Spencer hammers out what might be the first ever Fall drum solo (adventurous without being indulgent, simple yet unusual – pure Fall) as the rest troop off to fetch His Nibs only to return, without Mark or his wife, keyboardist Elenor, angrily thrash out the outro and piss-off.
What can I say? Not a great gig by any stretch of the imagination and on the face of it, a lapse back in to the bad old days of in-fighting and audience abuse. But, hey, as the old cliché goes, at least they’re never dull – completely unique, fiercely independent, unaware or disdainful of the ever-changing vagaries of musical fashion, The Fall will no doubt continue to delight and repel listeners in equal measure, but more than that, much more than that, they’ll always do it their, or rather his, way.
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