The Fall, Islington Assembly Hall, 5 December 2012
Naming the best band in the world is easy, and isn't even a trick question, because there's a reasonable consensus, with which we wholeheartedly agree. Basically, it's the Berlin Philharmonic, and has been since the late nineteenth century. The vexed question is who comes next. Who are the second best band in the world ?
Earlier this year, three friends and I spent a month listening to every album by the Fall. One a day, in chronological order. We then ranked them, of course, as you'd expect us old man music anoraks to: it wasn't just the 'classic' albums that dominated, either (even though "Hex" won). It proved a rather rewarding, even uplifting, thirty days and it struck me, especially as they're by some distance the band I've chosen to witness in the flesh most often, that the Fall might just be that silver medal band, second fiddle to Sir Simon Rattle & company. (What happened next, we're ashamed to say, was that rather than having a rest from the Fall, we each set about listening to all 50-odd Fall singles in order, and ranked them, too. All of which made the prospect of having the Fall back in London as welcome as ever).
As the Compton Arms was teeming with celebrity Fall fans and a disconcerting (and rather novel) aura of hipsterness, D'Alma and I started in the Florence, where I was briefly introduced to a Luddite (older readers may remember the Luddites: their "Doppelganger" was a Festive Fifty entry in 1983, only one place below the mighty Fall's "Kicker Conspiracy"). We then sat in the warm trying to work out a sensible time to venture over to the nearby Assembly Hall, given the Fall's notorious dislike of (a) coming on stage on time and (b) tolerable support bands. Just after ten to ten, we caved in. A blast of icy cold air, and we were within the rather smart Assembly Hall's embrace (not many venues welcome you in via red carpets and freshly polished fittings). There was just time for the PA to crank out "Another Girl Another Planet", "Don't Dictate" and the opening bars of "Public Image"... and then they appeared.
It was the usual Fall line-up: Mr Smith, Mrs Smith, and three work experience lads (albeit these have been around a year or two now: perhaps we should call them apprentices). Mr Smith (the sorcerer they're apprenticed to) is looking quite old now, even to the extent that he seemed to be wearing his belt halfway up his midriff. Mrs Smith, mind, is as glamorous as ever. She ascended the stage wearing a bright red duffle coat and, as always, kept her ever-expanding handbag close to her Korg throughout. The work experience lads clanked up the usual skewed rock and roll rhythms, and we were set.
The first 35 or 40 minutes, intriguingly, were mostly new songs (or old songs played unrecognisably: subsequent research reveals the latter group apparently included the normally amazing "Bury"). Unfortunately, Mr Smith decided to spend much of this time sitting down behind the amplifiers, meaning that for large swathes of the evening he was heard, but not seen: occasionally, his head would bob up into view while he messed with the guitarist's amp. Overall, the show was good, but not great.
The turning point came with "I've Been Duped", Elena's song from "Imperial Wax Solvent". On that record it jars a bit, but live it comes across almost as a lost punk classic: it reminded us of the gobby way they belted out "Systematic Abuse" (at 93 Feet East a few years back, for example). It's nice when the Fall occasionally eschew um, altrockabilly for their punk(ish) roots.
Then things really hot up. For "Container Drivers" arrives, in all its glorious madness. It's tremendous fun, the apprentice on drums having a field day, and Mr Smith is not only back in vision, but hyped up and towering over the front of the stage. After the stark contrast of the reflective "Weather Report" (from Domino outing "Your Future, Our Clutter") the set then winds up with none other than "Blindness", increasingly one of our favourite Fall songs. True, there's not much more to it than a single bassline, but *what* a bassline. It grinds on, rolls on, drives on. After a few minutes and a seeming argument between Mr and Mrs Smith, a second vocal mic is passed into the eager throng below. This time, the disembodied vocal we hear is that of a lucky punter in the front row: the punter starts riffing on a "he is not appreciated" theme, paying due deference to the Hip Priest still barking out "vocals" a few feet above him. This goes on for a few minutes, the punter starting to broaden his repertoire (we hear shouts of "Mr Pharmacist") before, sadly, the band depart the stage.
The encore is brief, but brilliant: after a flying pint glass whistles past the Korg, we get "Sparta FC" and yet again it sounds much better live than it ever really managed to in the studio. It's also rather spookily topical tonight - "English Chelsea fan / this is your last game" - for it's being played within minutes of Chelsea having been knocked out of the Champions' League. Then it's over, and we spill out onto the street, along with a formidable phalanx of other middle-aged white men.
We've seen the Fall 20 or 30 times, I guess, over a 25-year span. Sometimes not for a few years (we fear the last time we saw them may have been at the Astoria, which would be - gulp - four years ago); other times four times in as many days.
"beforehand, we had wondered whether four fall gigs in a row might seem a bit much - but in the end the answer, of course, was that it was not nearly enough."
Even on the rare occasions when they disappoint, it's intriguing: we've had the "privilege" of seeing the storm-offs, the pulled plugs, the beefs with support bands, even the guitarless three-piece Fall (not far off Smith's infamous "me and your Granny on bongos" quote) that surreally improvised its way through that debacle at Dingwalls. And even then, you *know* the setbacks are just setting them up to return stronger another time. Tonight they almost disappointed for a while, but soon they thrilled again (though it was a shame that they took too many tracks from the patchy if acclaimed "Your Future" yet nothing from their fine and fiery most recent album, "Ersatz GB"). We ended up just as excited as we were the first time, back in 1987. We're already raring for more.