This Roman Shell: The Fall @ Highbury Garage, April 2016

Despite appearances, I don’t consider myself, and have never considered myself, an ardent Fall fan, an aficionado, an obsessive. Just… a fan. Indeed, as has been pointed out to me, I can’t be that big a Fall fan because a Fall anorak would hardly spell Eleni’s name wrong (as “Elena”) for the last decade or so, as this blog has done...

So, yeah, they’ve never quite been my *favourite* band, but I’ve always kept up with them, and always had friends who liked them too, and I’ve enjoyed some of their different records, in different styles, for a range of different reasons… plus, one way or another they’ve been going so long that I’ve ended up seeing them live… well, more than any other band, and oddly that makes witnessing them anew each time *more* interesting rather than less, as you appreciate each new gig through the ever-expanding prism of this accumulated experience.

The gigs that I can remember or document with 100% accuracy go back nearly thirty years, now: an in-store at HMV Oxford Street in 1988; a jolly boys’ outing down from the Thames Valley while at university to see them at the Town & Country Club in ’92; the legendary late-90s Dingwalls gig after the band disintegrated in New York and Smith got back from Rikers Island (that night he was accompanied only by a drummer and a keyboardist, making it not too far from the never-tires meme of the Fall being Smith and your granny on bongos); the Electric Ballroom in 2002, the only time I’ve seen them play “The Classical”; the Forum circa “Are You Are Missing Winner?”, their sound happily less weedy than on that record; and then their post-Are You Are renaissance, a powering show at the Astoria when they came back with “The Real New Fall LP”, and an even more pulsating gig at the Forum around the time of “Fall Heads Roll” where they drove riff repetition to beautiful, rumbling, ear-shattering extremes; then 2006 at 93 Feet East, a sweltering venue that night which somehow enhanced the intensity of those endless riffs; then… ooh, four marvellous nights at the Islington Academy in ‘07, and then there was the Astoria in ’08, just after they threw I Ludicrous off the bill, and a midweek night or two at the Assembly Hall in 2012, and two absolutely scintillating shows in 2014, one in Brixton and one under Chelsea’s stadium… but I know that I’ve been to plenty more that I can’t identify for certain (mostly one suspects in the frazzled-with-youth 1990s, when one gig blurred into another, and every night seemed to involve traipsing home from some venue or other…)

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So when the Fall announced four nights at the Highbury Garage this strangely freezing April, we thought it would be positively rude not to partake. Just pop along for one night, at least.

Monday

Pre-match build up: The Compton Arms, for Carlsbergs and a veggie burger. By the time we leave at 9, there are still only a grand total of eight people in the pub: me and gigmate #1, two bar staff, a regular (and his young friend) at the bar, a bloke in the corner with a laptop and a confused-looking Stewart Lee, who has just arrived. “A comedian walks into an empty bar…” He gets the whole snug to himself.

Support bands: We make a point of principle about never getting to a Fall gig in time to see the support bands. Which was a relief, because apparently the support bands tonight were U2 and Coldplay.

Pre-show tunes: “School’s Out”, “Molly’s Lips”, “You Trip Me Up”, “Warsaw” (ah, 3-5-0-1-2-5, the most common six-figure passcode in the UK).

Notes: Well, they’ve shed the second drummer since we last saw them. Wonder what happened to him? Expect he’s writing his book. Also, the most thorough frisking from the bouncer that I’ve had before a gig for some time. Very invigorating.

Set: Storming set list, played at high tempo and with great power if not always total finesse (band a tad distracted by Mark’s constant messing about, see below). Kicks off with “Venice With The Girls”, and flies through songs played clearly enough to be instantly recognisable (this is not always the way): selected highlights include “Wolf Kidult Man” and that “Dedication” remix we're rather partial to. Newish single “Wise Ol’Man” appears, unrefined but certainly raucous. The songs all go on rather longer than their recorded counterparts, as the band try to adjust to their frontman’s messing around. Set finishes with a real stomp through “Quit I-Phone” (especially sweary version), and there’s later an encore. But the highlight – just showing what this band can do with repetition – is a hypnotic version of “Auto-Chip 2014-2016”, which I think I could happily have let them play until curfew.

M.E.S. watch: In playful high spirits. Magnanimously gives mic to crowd early on. Lots of old-school “live mixing”, amp fiddling, messing around with Eleni’s Korg, punching the cymbals, attempting to swing the giant speakers that are suspended like a hammock just above the stage. Spends more time than usual ‘in vision’.

Back catalogue: “Tuff Life Boogie” gets a run-out, which is a real thrill – pretty sure I haven’t heard them play that since that 1988 gig, my first.

Aftermath: Ears ringing severely. 277 home. Breaks down (the battery ran out, apparently), but luckily not until my stop.

Tuesday

Pre-match: With pub-loving gigmate #2, it’s Kozel at the Hunter S, Bavo at the Hops & Glory, London Lager at the Marquess Tavern (though blimey, that place has got a bit up itself).

Notes: They started as a four-piece: Eleni is absent for the first three songs, raising the prospect that she has resigned / been sacked / divorced / been given a night off, but just as we’re hankering down for a keyboard-free night, she appears and all is right once more. And no frisk at all tonight – almost disappointing. Also - "would you credit it?" – did you know there was snow in London today?

Support bands: We make a point of principle about never getting to a Fall gig in time to see the support bands. Which was a shame, because apparently the support bands tonight were the Poppyheads and Christine’s Cat.

Set: “Venice” is second tonight, after an opening course of the very underrated single "The Remainderer". And it’s another barnstorming single, "Wise Ol’ Man” to finish this time, following the latest pleasingly indulgent extended session of Auto-Chip. There’s a very fierce version of “Facebook Troll”, which verily shakes the cobwebs from the Garage ceiling.

M.E.S. watch: In fine fettle. Not as, um, professional as those gigs a couple of years ago, but having a rare old time roaming the stage and messing about like a demented toddler. Just like the old days (except without the strops and the walk outs).

Back catalogue: A piledriving rendition (there can be no other type) of the always-welcome “Container Drivers”.

Aftermath: The 30 home. Bus suffers no mechanical failures whatsoever.

Wednesday

Had a better offer. Well, an offer I couldn’t refuse (it was from my better half).

Upsides: Time spent with the one I love.

Downsides: Not being at the Fall.

Thursday

Pre-match: A couple in the Compton Arms with gigmate #3. Ooh, it’s much busier tonight. Stewart Lee is perched on the table next to us, but he’s just finishing off some writing and doesn’t want to be disturbed. (We later wonder whether this was his Guardian copy, published three days later, which rightly decided that it was time a broadsheet newspaper column openly declared Boris Johnson to be a cnt (pertinent vowel strategically deleted)). We hope so, not least because we’d been animatedly discussing Boris’ myriad failings (the “do nothing” mayoralty with a net negative effect) well within SL’s earshot). Then off to Gem restaurant on Upper Street.

Notes: [... here the author has set fire to a section of the manuscript...]

Support bands: We make a point of principle about never getting to a Fall gig in time to see the support bands. Which was a tragedy, because apparently the support bands tonight, reformed for one night only, were the Smiths and the Jam.

Set: OK, so we know roughly what to expect by now. “Wolf Kidult Man” is especially amazing tonight, the best rendition I’ve ever seen.

M.E.S. watch: Earlier in the week we’d been noticing how long his hair was again. Tonight, he’s seemingly gone for a mass of Brylcreem to keep his fringe from flapping in his hair. Which works fine for a few tracks, but then the sweat starts to unravel it and soon his locks are flapping all over the place again.

Back catalogue: “Tuff Life Boogie” resurfaces once more, not bad for a 30-year old 12” B-side. But the treat is the sole encore: a flailing, all guns blazing “Psykick Dancehall”. Marvellous.

Aftermath: Into the West End for the Geisha Lounge and a spot of clubbing, then out at dawn for a fry up in Hoxton. No, not really - straight onto a 277 and home. Word.

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And so it's back to life, back to reality: another week in the wonderful & frightening (but mainly wonderful) company of the Fall sadly comes to an end.

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