Friday, March 14, 2008

"Hold my hands and tell me that the Fall will never leave me"



There are school nights. And then there are FALL nights.

I'm out with D'Alma, on an ILWTT reunion tip, to see the first two bands we found out we had in common when we first met. (It was in the 1990s, when we'd both just started our first ever desk jobs). We kick off in the Newman Arms, where we got barred a few years later after watching Half Man Half Biscuit at the Astoria. But the old man is long gone, we've matured (marginally), no chairs fly, and it appears we are now persona, er, grata. Disappointed, we move on to the Royal George, where in the past before gigs Mark E. Smith himself has been known to lurk in the corner, sometimes with band, sometimes without - but this time there is no sign (and, rather bizarrely, there appears to be a ukelele convention downstairs). We stand outside, the garish neon of the "G.A.Y" sign flashing above our heads, and those of many other ageing Fallites, as we sink an Amstel or three.

Itching to see band number one, evergreen straightfaced sark-mongers I, Ludicrous, we eventually venture to the Astoria, but there appears to be a no-show from I, L. While it's not exactly unusual for us to turn up to gigs and find out that the band hasn't turned up (hello Deicide, Ice-T, er, Cannonball Jane and now Rakim again), it's hard to think that I, Ludicrous could really cite visa problems, previous convictions, fear of bombs on planes or any of the other usual excuses. But then we remember another reason why bands don't always turn up: because Mark E. Smith has chucked them off the tour. 'Twas a great shame.

(Equally, it's something of a shame, two decades after we first went there, all underage and decidedly green, that the Astoria is to be knocked down to make way for Crossrail. Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs, Maximo Park, Jamie T, the Cribs, Jack Penate and loads of students are all very upset about the demolition though, so it can't be all bad).

So, given that band number two, the mighty mighty Fall, aren't going to be on 'til well after 10, that means postponing the sweatfest at the Astoria bar. Time for a swift one at that frankly disconcerting boozer on Tin Pan Alley. And we catch up. D'Alma, like me, has belatedly realised how you can enjoy Slayer without loving Orange Juice any less. We discuss old times. Many things are more important than music, but so often it's the music that brings friends together. We cross our fingers that the Fall, at least, will turn up.

And they do. Driving, I think, is the word. Or maybe driven. The drummer hardly stops throughout, and the bass rumbles up through the floor, summoning heart flutters, palpitations. The usual new, young, band locked almost into a single, rumbling, beautifully repetitious behemoth of a groove. And it's 1983's "Wings" to start: the perfect start. It dovetails nicely with the otherwise recent-vintage set: a single riff, a blank canvas for Smith's storytelling. The newer songs - previews from the imminent album mixed with the likes of "Fall Sound" or "Pacifying Joint" - continue the pattern. By the time the two-note monster "Reformation!" is wheeled out, it has obviously been decreed that one bass player is not enough, and a second duly appears. The intensity is cranked up accordingly, as Red Stripe starts to fall like rain from the balcony.

It's not all textbook - the sound is occasionally a sludge, MES' usually clarion barks veer on the indistinct, a random interloper in a dufflecoat wanders on to replace him on vocals a couple of times, the wife's mic doesn't appear to have been switched on. But overall, they're indefatigable: you know you're witnessing a well-oiled, well drilled, machine rolling incessantly as far away from pop, from Britpop, as you could dream.

Smith batters the cymbals, first with sticks, then with his microphone. His amp-tampering, for once, fits the claustrophobic, bass-heavy haze of the band. It all finishes with the suffocating, unforgiving, fabulous "Blindness" and, it seems, a few cross words onstage. The band minus Smith reappear for an encore. Normally, this heralds some lengthy instrumental noodling before Smith is coaxed to the stage, a couple of standards are dragged out ad infinitum (or at least until everyone misses their trains), and "White Lightning" seals the evening. This time, though, maybe the intensity has got to everyone. For after only a minute or so of glam-racket, with dufflecoat-man shouting "EXPLODING CHIMNEYS!" at us, the rest of the band give up the ghost and retreat. The lights go up immediately. The sudden silence is deafening. But it doesn't take the edge off the night.

It was coincidence that "Falling Leaves" was on the i-pod on the way back, but the line struck home. We'd reflected again, on tipping out into the street, that there shouldn't really be a need for the Fall in 2008, if some of the less superannuated, media-celebrated bands out there would just step up to the bloody plate. But, no doubt too preoccupied with other matters (their haircuts, their soundbites, their dealers), we know they won't.