When Mark E. Smith played Glastonbury – a personal reflection on a unique talent

Mark E Smith at Glastonbury 2015

Mark E Smith at Glastonbury 2015

Mark E Smith and The Fall played Glastonbury Festival in 2015 and in a personal reflection Getintothis’ Rick Leach looks back to the last ever time he saw them live.

It’s hard to explain how much The Fall and Mark E. Smith meant to me, not just as a music fan, but as a writer and as a person.

An ever-present fixture in my life since 1978, they influenced me in so many ways; from the music I listened to, the books I read, the films I watched, and so much more. My sense of identity, my sense of being ‘from the North’ (whatever that means) and I guess a general yet healthy feeling of scepticism, was largely engendered by The Fall.

I suppose I was far from being alone in that.

And now with the recent death of Mark E Smith, it’s struck me that I now have to write about The Fall in the past tense. It seems very odd, very strange and well, quite empty.

As much as Smith would have probably hated all ‘the look back bores’, for the reasons above I simply cannot let his passing just go. I have to write something. For me, there has to be that catharsis.

To be honest, I toyed with the idea of writing a long piece, a long eulogy- a sort of song of praise, if you will. But there’ll be plenty of those over the next few days, weeks and months and as I say, I’m sure Smith would have detested them anyway.

So, I’m looking back to the last time I saw The Fall, back at Glastonbury in 2015. A sunny day when I realised (yet again) what a special and utterly unique artist Mark E. Smith was.

I wrote the piece below shortly after The Fall’s set as part of my book about Glastonbury 2015. For that reason, it’s written as if Smith was still with us. I wish he was. Remember him this way.

So, as he said on that day in June, ‘Here we go…’

The Fall: Glastonbury Festival 2015

It had been a long time since I’d last seen The Fall live. Fifteen years to be precise. 2000. Turn of the century. I had seen them a lot before that, though.

On my last reckoning, 48 times between 1979 and 2000, but since then, nothing. Why this was, it’s hard to tell. I guess that it might have been something to do with my wife working night shifts over part of that time, the kids going through school and generally lots of other things going on.

I’m sure that the opportunities to see them did arise (in fact I know they did), but things just happened. It didn’t stop me from getting all their albums -usually on the day of release- as well as building up a quite large collection of live recordings and reading whatever I could about them, both in print and on the net.

As a measure of how I still followed The Fall, my homepage on the net was set to the Fall news page for a long time.

I wrote extensively about them in my non-Glasto book; the longest entry by far was about The Fall. The first piece I wrote for the any web site was about The Fall.

I’ve been into The Fall for such a long time that it’s difficult to recall a time when there was music, but not The Fall.

The Fall

The Fall

They’ve been a constant since 1978 until now. I’ve been through the countless sackings of band members, switching of record labels at will, of them being in and out of (semi) fashion and times when they’ve been teetering so much on the brink that it’s seemed nigh on impossible for them to carry on.

Yet they always do. There have been a couple of years when I lost a bit of interest and thought that they’d finally blown it for good; but when I go back and listen to those odd albums which I wrote off at the time, they now seem like new records, fresh and totally innovative.

They’ve been with me longer than I’ve been into football, longer than I’ve been married or had a mortgage. Longer than we’ve had the kids and before I had my first job or passed my driving test. You could say that I’ve grown up with The Fall, but I guess I’m past that growing up phase. Maybe growing old with The Fall is more appropriate.

Yet I’m not blind to their faults. It’s kind of like being married; you’d be naïve to think that your spouse is perfect. Nobody is. It’s impossible and unfair. You have to love someone for the way they are, imperfections and all.

So, it’s like that with The Fall in many ways. They infuriate me at times. Slipshod live albums released just to keep the pennies rolling in, crap compilations thrown together by all their old record companies as soon as Mark E Smith pisses yet another label off.

Mark E. Smith saying over and over again in interviews that ‘the kids’ are into The Fall and that their strongest audience are the under twenties; who, if the truth be told have neither heard of The Fall and if they did, would probably run a mile. Endless pronunciations that their new album is going to be a “perfect mix of Indonesian heavy metal and 1950’s truck driving songs” or some such bollocks. Despite all of this (and more), The Fall will always be there. I can’t imagine a time when I’m not curious about what they’ll do next.

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Standing at the front of the stage that Sunday evening waiting for them to turn up was therefore something that had been a long time coming. Just like seeing Courtney Barnett earlier in the day, I wasn’t dead centre at the front, but rather at the far end. Still, this gave me a pretty good view and having the barrier gave me something to lean against. Rock and, indeed, roll.

While there was more than a fair chance that something would go wrong and The Fall wouldn’t show up, the things looked promising. The backdrop was up and all the equipment was on stage, ready to go and probably ready for Mark E. Smith to do his usual “on stage mixing” with the bands amps, microphones, keyboards and drums. Otherwise known as pissing around with the knobs, twiddling for the sake of it and getting on the band’s nerves.  It was supposed to make the sound seem a bit better and I guess some Fall fans can hear a difference but it’s never done anything for me.

Because I was completely over on the right hand side of the stage, directly in front of me was a BBC cameraman with a camera attached to the end of one of the big sort of crane things. I’m sure there’s a name for it, a technical name, but I have no idea what it’s called.

It was jib-type thing that he pivoted up and down and watched what was happening through a monitor. (I’m not very good at explaining this, I know. Enough to say that this seemed to be used for wide sweeping shots of the stage.) Running along the front of the stage on the ground, just in front of the barrier was a track on which another camera was mounted.  So the whole thing was going to be recorded. Whether the BBC would broadcast it was another matter completely.

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 mixing 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 album. 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 Glastonbury 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!

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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. (Looking back on that last sentence now, a few days after the death of Smith, fills me with immeasurable sadness and regret. Glastonbury in 2015 was the last time I ever saw The Fall.)

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 to give 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.

The Fall had left the stage and a lot of the crowd drifted away. I waited five minutes or so. Leaning against the barriers I swigged water from my flask and revelled in the moment. I was a happy man.

I toyed with the idea of phoning home to tell them all about it but I knew I’d end up babbling incoherently. I’d ring later.





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