Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Lots of E numbers

DURING my formative years as a confirmed punk rocker I must admit one band past me by. The Fall were the legendary John Peel's favourite group but for some reason they slipped under the radar while I was pogoing to the Clash, the Sex Pistols and the Ruts.
Wren, by contrast, is a mad Fall fan and if I didn't know better I would think she was actually in love with the shambolic-looking being that is Mark E Smith (perhaps the similarities have something to do with why she actually spends more time with me than is probably good for her).
Anyway back in the dim and distant past that was the early days of our relationship she extracted a promise from me which she spent little time in acting upon. It was to go and see a Fall gig, in whichever part of the country Mark E had managed to stumble into at that time.
Next thing I knew we were booked to see this legendary band, which has gone through more changes than David Beckham's hairstyle, at the Roxy Ballroom in downtown Manchester.
On Sunday, the great day came to pass. The Fall were appearing at the Roxy as part of the Manchester Music Festival, the gig promoting a book called Perverted by Language which is, very loosely, based on the works of the Fall and their off-the-wall frontman.
With Boo now sitting lonely in a street outside Charlie's garage trying to prostitute her dubious talents for as little as £200, and my new car (still to be christened) lacking tax, petrol and a stereo, it was Wren's Micra Millie that transported us oop north on the Sunday.
I was a bit apprehensive beforehand, on the basis that it was the first smoke-free day across the border in England. What a mare! But I rang the Castlefields Hotel where we were staying and they assured me that I was still able to puff away freely in the smoking room I had booked. Wouldn't get that in Rhodri's fascist Wales. I immediately treated this as a victory over the Thought Police and Nanny State.
The journey, what with various stopovers for things like a yummy double whopper in Burger King, took over five hours but we eventually pulled in at the hotel, the rain sheeting it down as you might expect for Manchester, a little after 5pm.
Lovely hotel, £40 per night with a huge swimming pool at your disposal etc, can't be bad.
After settling in and getting dressed up for the occasion we then wandered in the direction of the gig looking for somewhere to get some money. Haven't they heard of cashpoints in Manchester? We passed the venue and then walked on... and on... and on... finally coming across a NatWest.
About to put my card in the warning flashed out: "This machine is temporarily out of order".
Hot, bothered and getting the occasional soaking from the intermitent showers we finally found one near the bus station. I reckon we had walked about a mile, so the need for beer was getting critical.
Back at the venue we picked up our tickets only to be warned: "There's no smoking inside, and no passouts either". Nightmare. Wren smiled apologetically at me. I smiled back through gritted teeth. Whatever happened to rebellion and anarchy? No smoking at a rock gig? Next thing you know Ozzy Osborne will be chewing off jelly baby heads and swigging from bottles of ribena.
Upstairs we found a couple of stools right on the balcony edge and proceeded to swig back much needed Fosters. There then came some rather amusing, albeit art house mental, films on screen followed by poetry readings. The first guy, Stuart Lee, a Manc-based comedian, was particularly amusing, expecially when he railed against the changing face of his beloved hometown, so twee now that even the BBC had moved there. Brilliant.
As the night wore on and the beers went down, the need for cigarettes intensified. I was queueing at the bar for another Fosters when the music started pounding out, rhythm layered on rhythm. Sounds good, I thought, trying to attract the attention of the doziest barmaid in Britain (straight out of Corry, I wouldn't wonder).
Returning to my seat, on walked this stick insect of a man looking like a cross between the comic actor Martin Clunes and Kate Moss on a diet. And as soon as he started ranting into the mic I knew I was going to enjoy it.
Marc E Smith may come across as some reject from Alcoholics Annonymous but beneath that withered exterior you know there is a clever man. I might not be able to make out all the lyrics slurred one after the other into the mic but you can tell they mean something, if only to the loonies in the Mosh pit below. You can't survive for 30 years, produce 2o-odd different albums with an assortment of different musicians, and not have that X factor quality.
There were little side shows as well, besides the music. I'm sure the Fall's new roadie had been told that every time the man in the middle moved anything, it had to be returned to its original place as soon as possible.
Mark E drops a mic stand of the ground? Roadie runs on and retrieves it.
Mark E puts a microphone in the bass drum? Roadie has to bend down, pick it up and prop it back on the mic stand.
Mark E pumps up the bass to top volume? Roadie has to return it to its original position.
My God that Roadie was on stage so much he will probably be asked to play Glastonbury next year.
In the dying moments during the second encore Mark E, wise to the joke, managed to tangle the four mics on stage together, leaving the roadie with a complex rubic's cube of a puzzle to sort out - Fair play to the lad he managed it. I was almost clapping as much for him as for the band by the end of it all.
Meantime, the Moshpit fans were flinging cigarettes onto the stage in the vain hope that their anti-hero would light one up and give them all cause to rebel. No such luck.
Walking back to the hotel I realised that I had survived the entire gig without a cigarette. Mind you, if I had been watching something less animated and all round fun that might not have been the case.
Sadly Sunday night in the centre of Manchester is pretty quiet. No pubs open after 11 so it was back to the hotel for a nightcap.
As I fell asleep that night I could still hear the relentless beat of Fall tunes in my head. A good band, a good show. Long may they reign.

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