The Fall are a legend of the British music scene.
Talking about legends is bloody difficult.
68 line up changes over 30 years of activity, there is only one solid truth within this band: Mark E Smith.
He is the core, the founder, the mind.
In the years he has a role inspiring any other band that consider noise as part of their sound, from Sonic Youth to TV on the Radio.
The story wants that the day Mark E Smith saw the Sex Pistols he was inspired and exclaimed: “I can do better than this”. (I read this somewhere but I can’t recall which was the source, anyone can help?)
If he did it better, it is not me to tell, what I am sure he did more, much more.
27 studio LPs, 28 live albums, 5 part live-part studio, 11 EPs, 4 compilations and a 6 CDs 97 songs BBC sessions box (and few more stuff here and there) have been released under The Fall name since the late seventies until today, and it’s still counting. If you want to go through them in details, wikipedia is probably the place to start.
During the decades everything happened, including Mark E. Smith assaulting his band members and being arrested.
Some things remained constant. The love and dedication of John Peel for the band and the love and full dedication of Mark E. Smith to his crazy project.
To describe the band music could be seen as a very simple or quite a massive effort depending on the level of details you want. I am not among the ones who can guide you through the different stages of the process. Frankly, I can’t distinguish many of The Fall “periods”. I appreciate the bulk of their work as a whole, a huge piece of conceptual music with more bits continuously being added.
This “whole” is a mix of uncompromising, abrasive guitars (some keyboards) over which the voice rants incomprehensible verses.
I double checked with English-spoken people if it was me. They confirmed that understanding Mancunian broken accent of Mark E Smith is very difficult. “Very difficult” translates into “impossible” to my level of knowledge of the language.
The Fall recipe puts together the most experimental music of the seventies and the once emerging British punk scene. Dresses it up with a cynicism close to madness (the behavior not the band!) and sprinkles everywhere with literate spoken-word and video art.
It can be seen as pure genius or pure nonsense I am convinced the truth is quite possibly in the middle.
So what about the gig?
My thesis relator, a chemistry professor, when I was back in the lab during my university years, taught me a good tip:
“Valerio, if you can’t explain an experiment, simply describe it”
It is a wise advise and can be applied easily beyond a scientific experiment.
I will use the suggestion and limit to describe The Fall concert. I am not able and not into them enough to do more.
The support band ended its set at 21.15. I was told by the venue management that The Fall would have not turned up before 22.
45 minutes and a pint later, it’s ten o’clock. I am standing close to the front row. Waiting.
It will be until 22.30 before something happens. Waiting in a crowded place, for someone famous to not turn up quite often, is not a nice way to spend a night out.
Finally a sort of laptop-man arrives and activates the projectors. Retro videos of music stars, from classic orchestras conductors to Michael Jackson (Jackson 5 era); from Elvis to Boy George (before jail, Culture Club Karma Chameleon age) appear on the screen.
The soundtrack is an atonal scratchy sound that mixes with their songs as if they were being manipulated by a sound engineer on speed. It goes on like this for 30 more minutes. The first five are OK, then I get uncomfrotable. The crowd gets more and more upset as the show goes and start swearing at the band.
I am sure that was exactly the aim of the provocation.
Finally the band takes its place.
Mark E Smith arrives pushing himself on a wheelchair. He broke a rib and can’t stand properly.
Clumsy he moves around the stage. It is a slap in the face of his audience the way he shares his discomfort. That actually increases the charisma of the man.
When he reaches the microphone and starts to sing/speak those lyrics (see above) I understand why I am there.
Reading from paper sheets spread all over the floor, and chosen randomly, I wonder how the band knows what to do. Probably they don’t.
Without a setlist, he moves around (on the wheelchair) irregularly. Often he turns back to the audience the Miles Davis way. Miles used to conduct his band this way, though. Mark E Smith… I don’t know, does he?
He hides behind amplifiers to play around with the volume and effects. It is a music factory that produces the sound he is famous to have crafted for the last 3 decades.
I must admit all of this is charming. Mark E Smith absurdity finds some sort of equilibrium with the extravagant disorder played by the band and the music/words they produce are very powerful, make you feel part of an experience as only the best piece of art can do.
About half an hour later he leaves the stage. I don’t know if he came back.
I hope so for the faithful public which arrived to Cambridge from all over England for one of their rare performances and such a career can’t be compressed in a hour of music sectioned with some Boy George distorted videos.
I had to take the last train to London to be in town for the G20 demonstrations the morning after, but this is probably as related to this article as the Fall are related to symphonic music!
Artist extravagance is something you must be prepared to face if you want to photograph rockstars.
When I asked for a photopass for this gig (missing the hot tipped Dananananaykroyd playing somewhere else) I was told by the PR that it was OK to them but “being The Fall you never know, they may say no to photographers at the last minute, so I’ll let you know closer the date”.
In the end it went fine, but extravagance has several facet.
Arriving at the gig quite early I discovered the weird habit of having a 45 minutes gap between the support and the main band.
Minutes that ended up being 75 before anything happened.
Another 30 minutes of videos made the interval 100 minutes long. With those videos being screened and the band not turning up I started photographing the big screen to keep myself busy.
In the meanwhile I even realized that the venue had no press pit on that night (which it usually has) making the perceived wait, standing in the front rows trying to push myself (and the cameras) to the to the barrier, substantially longer. My multi-pocket photographer’s vest makes me look more as a fisherman who lost his pond than a rock photographer, but tonight it was essential to conquer the front with my gear.
There is not acceptable concert photograph if there are the heads of the audience in the frame.
When (finally!) the band materializes on stage I am exhausted, and that is the moment the decisive fight starts. “When the going gets tough, the toughs get going”. I am not that tough, but I needed to get things going. Fans get excited and anyone start pushing to get ahead.
A nice way to convince (the nicer and most comprehensive of) the front row die-hard fans to let me through, is to tell them in a very apologizing, smiling, nice face that after three songs I would have walked away.
It mostly worked apart from a quite big and angry guy who got upset with me during the second song. I managed to find a compromise between him saying something and Mark E Smith playing hide and seek on his wheelchair with the help of the amplifiers. Hopefully lights were OK so, taken enough shots, I moved to finish the rolls on the side of the stage. I saw a nice spot to portray the man bent reading his papers with the band name projected on the background.
The next day taking pictures of the Royal Bank of Scotland broken windows in the middle of an anarchist’s riot was actually a much simpler task, believe it or not.