Live Music Exchange Blog

Fall Guy – Martin Cloonan


Mark E Smith, leader of English post-punk group The Fall, died on 24 January 2018. To mark the anniversary of Smith’s death Live Music Exchange co-founder Martin Cloonan provides some thoughts on the band’s live appearances.

Mark E Smith

(Image Credit: Sam Saunders, used under Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0)

I first saw The Fall in Sheffield’s Leadmill in 1989 and I can honestly say that this was an event which changed my life. Following the gig I went from being someone who knew about the band from hearing them on John Peel’s programme and reading about them in NME, to becoming a Fall fan. It was a seminal moment. Life would never be quite the same again.

One thing becoming a Fall fan meant was being busy. Smith worked incessantly producing extraordinary amounts of recordings at the rate of around an album a year, with numerous singles and other projects along the way. There were also countless compilations, reissues and live albums to buy and simply keeping up with all this involved some dedication. If it was hard work being in The Fall (and I have no doubt that it was), it was also hard work being a fan, although admittedly I had less chance of being sacked than band members,

A great deal of Smith’s busy-ness, of course, involved live performance with the band regularly undertaking tours across and beyond the UK. (For some idea of the scale of this see A trip to the band’s semi official website would always have details of forthcoming gigs. They were always touring, and it is the live performances that I will concentrate on here.

I have no idea how many times I saw the band, but a conservative estimate would be 50. I wasn‘t the sort of fan that kept details of each gig, but I was the sort of fan who went to every gig within travelling distance (a movable feast if ever there was one). If The Fall were playing and I could make it, then I was there. I can only liken this dedication to that of being a football fan, with all the accompanying incomprehension and derision from peers that generally characterises such obsessions.

It’s hard to write about The Fall without resorting to cliches, but I’ll at least try here not to simply trot out the familiar lines. (“Always different, always the same”? Tick!). But I can say that Fall gigs were quite unlike any others that I’ve been too.

Let’s start with the venues. While they did, of course, play the usual venues I saw also the Fall in a church (Liverpool Methodist Hall), a cathedral (Manchester), a working man’s club (Salford), festivals in Scotland and Finland and on a boat (some great nights on Glasgow’s Renfrew Ferry). Perhaps the most bizarre was an all seated gig in a leisure centre in Irvine before a crowd of less than 100. But wherever the gig was, Smith always owned the space. His stage presence was remarkable. Smith also came across as someone exploring the parameters of his own art, intrigued – even amazed – by the power and potential of his own voice and the sounds he could get the band to make. He frequently stalked the stage, turning amps up and down, discarding mics, and generally acting as a disconcerting presence. This was a mixture of discipline and anarchy which I found utterly compelling. It could be both amusing and annoying, but was never less than engaging. Even at the very last show in Glasgow in November 2017, when he was in a wheel chair and clearly very ill, Smith was an incredible performer (see Except that generally he didn’t perform in the conventional sense, often simply staring straight ahead and willfully ignoring what was going on in the audience.

Audiences themselves were largely male and members tended to exhibit the same discontent with life that Smith himself demonstrated. Of course, as the band got older, so did its audience as punks and post punks carried on or rekindled their love of the band. However, I was also struck by the fact that the shows did attract younger people. The mosh pit was ever active.

Importantly The Fall were always a working band and that meant playing live. A lot. As we know, live music involves ritual and this was certainly the case with The Fall. Part of this was that Fall shows were never about nostalgia, always about the now. This was manifested in the fact that part of the ritual involved the fact that sets would include mainly new material drawn from whichever the latest or forthcoming album was, interspersed with 3 or 4 older numbers. However the older numbers were frequently changed and whatever faults The Fall had live, not being fresh was not one of them.

In latter years sets would begin with the band coming on and playing for a minute or two before Smith made his entrance, growling or singing as the mood took him. A semi mumbled introduction of “Good evening we are the Fall” would be followed by whatever was on Smith’s mind. What followed often glorious and sometimes disastrous. I’ve seen 20 minute sets, sets where Smith was largely absent and others had to take over vocal duties, sets where he largely sang from off stage and sets which simply made me glad to be alive. So while there was ritual, there was also always the unexpected. You never knew quite what you would get. Again, I think that the football analogy is useful here. Being a Fall fan was a bit like supporting a middling football team. Generally things were OK, sometimes they were terrible, but when they were on form they were totally life affirming. With both football and The Fall, regardless of the result, I was always glad I went. And what a centre-forward The Fall had!

Writing almost a year on since Smith’s death I still can’t quite believe that I will never see The Fall live again. Such a notion doesn’t make sense to me. I often used to think to myself that going to see The Fall live helped to define me – this is what I do. Being a Fall fan became part of my identity, part of me being me, again in the same way that I think that my football allegiances help to define me. In both cases going to see object of my adoration live affirmed that identity. It made me me, while also making me part of like-minded communities. But now I can’t go to see The Fall live any more. That particular way of affirming my identity has died along with Smith. I’m still a fan, but now it’s a different type of fandom. Of course I’ll keep going to other gigs but, rather like listening to Fall records of watching football on TV, while it may sometimes be great, it won’t be the same. It won’t be The Fall and no other performer will be like Smith. We shall not see his – or The Fall’s – like again.

Thanks Mark.

Professor Martin Cloonan – University of Turku. Director, Turku Institute for Advanced Studies.

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