At precisely 7.30 p.m. some sort of synthy sound blasted over the P.A. and The Fall trooped onto the stage.
“We are The Fall, from the long, long days. Not used to the countryside, they’re half asleep…group. They’re so happy to be here……in Salford of Manchester. They think they’re in such a great place.”
This was Mark E Smith, looking like Ken Barlow’s older/younger pisshead brother, dressed in what can only be described as a pair of slacks, a blazer, a fetching sky blue jumper and a white shirt. Littlewoods catalogue circa anytime between 1965 and 2015. Not sure if there actually still is anything like a Littlewoods catalogue anymore. I know this isn’t a book about fashion although some description at this point doesn’t probably go amiss.
I had no idea what Mark E. Smith was going on about. Not a clue. But it was good to see them back on stage again after all those missing years. It was strange as it was the first time that I’d seen them in the day time and outdoors instead of some ungodly hour in a (back then) tatty smoke-filled club.
Mark E Smith hadn’t lost any of his customary charm with the technical crew. He waved an arm in the direction of the missing desk.
“Thanks for turning the monitors down. On the desk. Cunt.”
Now that was certainly something that would not be broadcast by the BBC.
“Here we go,” he shouted into two microphones he was holding and they launched into “My Door Is Always Open” from the “Post Reformation TLC.” It was a great start, all driving drums and chopping and twanging guitars. Sometimes you know when you’re about to see a brilliant show, right from the very first note, something instinctively tells you it’s going to be good. This doesn’t just apply to The Fall of course. You know it when you‘ve listened to too much music and been to too many gigs.
Although Smith messed around with two microphones throughout the first song, he kept the knob twiddling to a minimum, only wandering over once to an amp and half-heartedly messing around with the settings. This was a good thing because I’ve seen Fall gigs where he’s been getting close to whipping a soldering iron out his jacket and rewiring stuff half way through a song and I believe that tendency has not diminished at all in the last few years.
There was a lot of jumping around from what was by now quite a large crowd. A large crowd comprised of what might be termed indie folks. Not indie kids but indie folks. There was a smattering of people about my age and indeed most of the crowd looked like they were well over 30, if not a lot older. A lot of long-term Fall fans forged from the white heat of 1980 and post-punk. A veritable Saga gig. Not the Canadian prog rock outfit, but the well known insurance/cruise/holiday specialists catering exclusively for the over-50’s. It wasn’t all bald old men however because there were enough kids in their early twenties to drag the average age of the crowd down to about 45. These kids were the ones who were by and large doing most of the leaping around in front of the stage. Well, you can’t really expect all us old Fall fans to be doing that sort of thing, can you? Dodgy knees and bad hips are a bit of dampener on moshing. Nodding heads is as good as it gets. I noticed a few cans getting thrown through the air. Only a few mind. A bit of a token gesture and one that took my back to the halcyon days of 1978 when you’d spent a lot of your time at gigs ducking nervously as cans of Skol would be flying hither and thither. I turned around and peered towards the back of the field. While there were a few folks wandering around on the periphery, it seemed almost as full as it had been for Spiritualized the evening before.
The Fall had recently released a new album, but you could say that at any time as they’ve done that every year for the past 35 years or so. And like a lot of Fall albums, it was critically praised as “a return to form.” For me that kinds of begs the question as to how can it always be a return to form? Every time? It’s a bit of a contradiction really. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no form to return to in respect of The Fall. Anyway, this set at Glasto was their opportunity to flog the “Sub-Lingual Tablet” album to a whole new audience, not just at the Park Stage, but across the net on the BBC and on the TV. I wasn’t wearing those rose-tinted glasses that blinded me to the fact that commercial considerations would surely enter Mark E Smith’s mind somewhere along the way.
It didn’t matter to me though. The new album, whether it was a return to form or not, was a cracker and after the first song they played three songs from it; “Venice with the Girls”, Dedication Not Medication” and “First One Today”, all rattlingly good tunes (in a Fall way), and one that kept the set bouncing along at a good old pace. Smith gurned, grimaced and indeed, grinned his way through them all and the band, while for me, not hitting the heights of the Fall in the early 1980’s, were tight and solid. At least they took his limited on stage mixing with good grace. There is always for me something that sets The Fall apart from all other bands, some sort of Northern taut mysticism that‘s impossible to define or indeed quantify, but it’s always there. The essence of The Fall. Fall-ness.
Halfway through the set and at the end of “Junger Cloth” (another new song), Smith grabbed the guitar neck of the lead guitarist and shouted down his microphone, “Dropout, dropout. Go, on you can do it. Go on! Droput!”
For a second I again hadn’t a clue what he was on about. More alcohol induced ramblings? But as the band looked at each other somewhat quizzically before the drummer kicked things off, it dawned on me that they had launched into Captain Beefheart’s “Dropout Boogie.” The Fall covering Beefheart at Glasto? Could it get any better than this? And it wasn’t even raining! The sun was out! I couldn’t stop grinning to myself!
It was a sublime, growly version of it as well and hit the mark perfectly. As it came to a crashing end a stray thought came to my mind. How much would have John Peel loved to have seen and heard it?
A great moment tinged with a certain amount of sadness.
There wasn’t much time for an overt displays of sentimentality because they rounded off the just under an hour long set with the classic “Sparta F.C.” ( a cue for what had become a quite large crowd to go collectively bonkers) and finished off with “Auto Chip 2014-2016” (the best song from the new album and surely a future classic as well.) During the latter Smith wandered backstage with microphone in hand for a good few minutes, something that might have surprised anyone who was new to The Fall, but something which was pretty much expected for seasoned Fall watchers.
But after 54 minutes it was all done. A full set by The Fall at Glastonbury. Something I didn’t think I’d ever see. The fact that it didn’t end early or that it actually started at all was a bonus. As for the rest, all I can say is that I’m certainly not going to leave it another 15 years before I see them play live again. For purely rational reasons mainly. I’d be 68 and Mark E Smith, if he was still alive, and that is a moot point, would be in his early seventies.
In passing, I do have a sneaking suspicion that Smith plays the pisshead that can’t be stopped, the man with the bionic liver card a bit too much. I have no basis for this save that being an intelligent and quite savvy chap it’s to his advantage he gives out the impression of being an old soak and therefore somehow more or different than just a talented wordsmith with a knack for being ahead of the curve. It seems like his art comes naturally to him, it’s something natural and unforced whereas in reality, I think he works very hard at it. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Yet this is just a theory and I’ve nothing to back it up at all. Speculation and nothing more.
"Feels Like Going Home" - the fourth Glastonbury book is available here both in Kindle or paperback formats..