God Through All Things? The Fall Live In Islington
, December 6th, 2012 21:02
Miles away from album coming or previous, Luke Turner wonders why we all keep wandering back to see The Fall - this time live at Islington Assembly Hall. Photo by Valerio Berdini
'Deus Per Omnia' reads the Latin motto on the crest of the London Borough Of Islington in the pleasant, 1930s plaster work above the stage in the Islington Assembly Hall, a venue more accustomed to private hires and appearances by Roachford, Wishbone Ash and Uriah Heap than The Fall.
'Deus Per Omnia' - God Through All Things, or God Pervades All Things. Popular perception would have it that the old slogan to exhort the citizens of Islington to a holier life neatly sums up The Fall, here for another night of the Mark E Smith Show, with punters (yammering at hapless bar staff who have not quite provided enough Red Stripe to slake this most thirsty of crowds) desperately hoping for something to be wheeled out of the 1980s, or leering and roaring at every amplifier fiddle as if he were Widow Twankey in a button-down shirt.
But they're odd things these days, Fall gigs. They've become unsettled into a kind of anti-canon of their own. Since the (supposed) debacle of the late 90s, nobody is going to judge a Fall gig by the standard of anything else - classicism is irrelevant here, as The Fall are adroitly against the current disappointing trend of their supposed leftfield contemporaries to indulge in classic album rehashes or greatest hits jamwagons.
So why do they still come, to these odd off-circuit venues - the punters I mean, not the band? It's simply that there are new temptations. I know a fair few people who were born around the time The Fall played early gigs, and beyond. A cursory look at the always reliable Fall fan site reveals that exactly 34 years and a day ago, as I was hacked out into existence in St Luke's Hospital, Bradford, at Strathclyde University, Glasgow The Fall played "With Here and Now and Patrik Fitgerald. No tape exists?". What keeps us 'weren't there until Dingwalls '99' crowd (or much later) coming back for more than a freak show, for more than a trip down a memory lane that - of course - never actually existed for us? If you're in your early to mid-20s, you're not going to see The Fall merely because 'Mark might do something mad' (he got that out of his system in the late 90s) or 'they might play all of Hex (it'll never happen, none of us are that stupid).
Instead perhaps The Fall in late 2012, with nothing to plug and a new album vaguely scheduled for some point in late Spring next year (no deal yet signed), appeals because for once you actually get to see a group subverting itself, while wandering, in its own idiosyncratic way, somewhere else. The Fall, as Mark E Smith well knows, is a work in progress, an evolution.
They're still edgy, Fall gigs. Not in a nasty old sense of flung broken glass and violence, but because there's no money back guarantee. Usually when you watch a group a long while (a year and five weeks) after the release of an album and some time before the next one, there's an awkward balance of the apologetic and easy gratification, and the faux-polite 'do you mind?' as they attempt something new before gratefully getting back to the last no-mark single.
Instead, here we witness the head-scratching putting together of nuts and bolts of what pugnacious tracks driven by Dave Spurr's held-high bass like 'Gray' and 'Spider/s' might become. The moments when Smith's sat at the back and murmuring as the band play on are the gestation that we're invited to watch. The Fall, through their rigourous touring regime of recent times, have not only emphasised that they have no truck with nostalgia, but also invited us into their creative process. So much for a dictatorial group. Obviously The Fall always did this, and will continue to do this, it's just a shame that their supposed iconoclast contemporaries were so quick to sink into the miasma of retro professionalism.
Someone is here tonight, randomly in town on two weeks away from work for the UN in Africa. He says he's seeing The Fall for the first time since the 1980s, and that Mark E Smith sat in a chair behind the amplifier as the group grind on serves to emphasise that the band members are a tool of Him - 'Deus Per Omnia' - God Through All Things.
But Smith is not omnipotent over The Fall, even if he is omnipresent. Listen to 'Cowboy George' or 'Bury' - always look out for the tracks from the album before last - Smith is up front and snapping it out. It's when it breaks down to more abstract moments than I've ever heard from The Fall before that the direction they're perhaps heading in makes sense - back to when they were weirder, and still ahead of the faux weird. If Smith was the egotist dictator, why would he be allowing the group the space to move out into the tightly ironed groove of 'Chino' where, when he's sat behind the amp, it's Elena, his General Montgomery (as well as a black handbag she carries a huge Waitrose carrier, which our friend surmises might contain the fee), who leads?
Obviously there's an old song or two whacked in there - tonight it's 'Container Drivers'. Surely chuckling it out with two mics and a "brrrrrr" in a hoe-down style is to taunt all the paunches under raised arms: 'you do that for that, when I'm offering you this?'. And yeah, the whole point of a Fall gig is that not everyone goes away happy - the problem with most gigs in the current way of doing things is that that's the idea, packaged processed and satisfying, whether you're talking the Greggs Bakers, Pret A Manger or Paul Boulangerie ends of the medium, or the stadium concert market. I'm never going to be happy when I hear The Fall crank out perennial ropey garage covers 'Strychnine', 'White Lightning' or 'Mr Pharmacist', and I get two out of three tonight. The bastard. So be it.
Ah, but of course he's not a bastard, is he? That's the biggest myth of Smith, as the Rev'd Ian Paisley of post punk. This is no God Through All Things, but intelligent artist, getting on with his own thing and not caring about anything else or what you or I think (weird how that's become a radical concept in this day and age) aside from The Fall, his curation project, and - as becomes increasingly apparent tonight - his wife. So you get 'Weather Report': still the most personal Fall track since 'Edinburgh Man' and unnerving on record, live it becomes a far more complex synopsis, reduced to toms (a couple more whacks at points and you'd be thinking of The Cure), bass, and a stabbing Korg melody from Elena, thoughtful as Smith sings - to The Fall - "I gave you the best years of my life". In the popular narrative of The Fall, with MES as washed-up drunk, that might be darkly poignant. But tonight? Nah.
Not to say that this is getting comfortable, but surely it's good to see a Fall line-up where drummer Keiron Melling is grinning his head off as Pete Greenway is encouraged to ad-lib vocals and Smith's nodding along (from the balcony his hair has gone a bit first series of Blackadder, a surprisingly strong look). What indication this gives as to the shape of the next record is unclear, but now that everyone seems aware they've become part of the process it probably doesn't matter. Indeed, there's surely no better way of pointing out how far The Fall have come from most of their peers than relating how a flier-brandishing comedy Manc comes up to me after the gig saying "Hey our kid, that didn't live up to what you were expecting... come to this," as he thrusts a notice for Peter Hook's next plod through the ancient hits of Joy Division and New Order into my hands.
But there's a sweeter way of finishing, for now. An encore of 'Psykick Dance Hall' is basically a rather sweet entanglement of Mark E Smith and Elena trying to get sufficient free wire from the forest and undergrowth of mic stands and cables for him to be able to sing 'What About Us?', wherein Smith wishes Harold Shipman might have been his generously prescribing GP. It's not quite the Lady And The Tramp pasta scene, but still, most would not expect to visit The Fall for romance. Clearly, He still moves in mysterious ways.