Lets start with the album and the reason for going. Tromatic Reflexxions is a good album, quite a different sound for me and those familiar Mark E. Smith groans make it simultaneously new and old. I can’t lay claim to being a hardcore Fall* fan. OK, I’ve maybe got 10 albums or so, but I know there is quite a lot of it I find average at best. Not something a real devotee would ever say. Clearly, there are many highlights, Frightened is probably in my top 10** songs ever. Mark has always been able to bring something different to songs. Take, for example, way back in 1994, his inspired addition to the Inspiral Carpets’ I Want You ( Note use of lyric sheet, of which more later. )
The album isn’t universally great, but The Rhinohead is marvellous, filled as it is with the spirit of the SID chip and Rob Hubbard. So, I was looking forward to hearing it live. Well, I might have heard it live. I’m not too sure.
Don’t think I’ve been to a gig before were no one played instruments. That itself was novel. Two blokes behind and desk and they did their thing very well. The bass was like some form of battlefield organ-curdling weapon. I’d imagine that the Mouse of Mars fans in attendance would got exactly what they were after. Loud, incessant, kicking beats. Wasn’t much of a dance atmosphere. No obvious signs of dancing or moshing. I thought I’d survived as much bass as was humanly possible in a night club in Mumbai, but this was much bigger and louder than any Bhangra.
A good few minutes in and no sign of Mr. Smith. Which was fine. Built up the expectation a bit. And then he arrived. He wandered onto stage, not too steadily and with ill-defined purpose. Dressed like he had just got out of jail in the clothes he went in with (in 1979), he cut a fine dash in a leather jacket that even your oldest, coolest Uncle would be proud of. Thing is, any concept of what he looked like was instantly over-ridden by the realisation that he looked not unlike the dwarf from Twin Peaks*** This was even more of a dramatic likeness as he bent over a light, reading the lyrics from an A4 sheet. If, at this juncture, I was auditioning for the more pretentious end of the music press I would launch into a discussion about David Lynch and dystopian nightmares.
That isn’t as ridiculous a description as it my seem, but maybe not all that accessible. Imagine you had hired a rave band to your wedding. The young ones are dancing, the old ones are tutting and then your crazy Uncle gets up and starts shouting the words to “Ghost Riders in the Sky”, except that he doesn’t know the words and blurts out noises incoherently instead.
The first mic doesn’t seem to work to well. A roadie appears with a new one and calmly escorted aside by a wise hand “Listen son, I’ve been in this game a while now.” Good, he’s on his game. Maybe. Things progress well, lyrics are read, mic is rammed into amp for ear-splitting reverb. Every time he approaches the desk there is a definite look of foreboding on the faces of the ever bouncy knob twiddlers (a great name for a band/porn film if ever there was one ).And then, as if my magic, he’s gone. Off stage. Somewhere. Must be the smoking ban we think. The ‘singing’ continues from afar. Seems louder than before. Is it him? Is it a conveniently available sample. Its amazing what they can do nowadays.
From there, nothing much changes. The bass assault continues until my face starts to hurt in a way that you think it shouldn’t. And then he’s back for some more hunched burbling and away again. At this point, I am laughing almost constantly. Somehow it just wouldn’t be right to turn up and just hear the album, only a bit louder. This is a proper occasion. Mark doing what Mark does best. Its not like he hasn’t got previous. Even on live Fall albums from nearly 30 years ago he had a tendency to randomize any on-stage attempt at normality. This is what it should be.
A roadie appears on stage and can be seen to start a sentence with “Mark…” in the ear of the left boogie-meister. We all believe the full sentence is “Mark has passed out.” But no!
The last triumphal appearance on stage is a tour de force. He’s back, the lyrics match the tune, its kicking. For a couple of minutes. Cue march to front of stage, lyrics flung into air, mic handed to audience member and exeunt. No bears in attendance. Fantastic. Although, fantastic with “WTF?” tattooed on it.
There have always been those who saw Smith as a genius. And these aren’t fools. But, to accept what I saw last night as genius demands quite a lot. Clearly he was out of it and it was undeniably funny. But a 45 minute set in which the lead ‘singer’ appears on stage for about 10 of those, seems to be a little profligate. Not least because of our foolish hope that there might be an up tempo, techno cover of Cruiser’s Creek thrown in due to lack of material.
But hey, this was proper rock and roll, it was a much better story. And as I climb into my family MPV on the way home, you have to respect him for what he is and what he has been. Ain’t none of us is as young as we used to be.****
In case you are wondering what it was that took me there in the first place, have a listen to this.
* For a start, the real fans would insist on saying “The Fall”, then again, I’ve read the book, wonder if they all have.
** This is a “Tardis” top 10 containing 100 songs, deliberately not capitalised to annoy another set of devotees
*** If Stuart also uses this image, I thought of it first, he stole it
**** That was Stuart’s line, I just stole it.