If The Fall were a disease they’d be bronchitis – a wheezing, grumbling cough that won’t go away. The condition is chronic: there is no cure. Mark E. Smith will go on pursuing his bilious, blackly comic vision of Britain until his last breath – which, judging from tonight’s surprisingly vigorous performance, may be further away than actuaries might predict.
Smith has notched up 36 years with his band, which he formed after seeing The Sex Pistols play in Manchester. While his punk contemporaries have perished, sold out or given up, Smith has just ploughed on, churning his way through numerous line-up changes – there have been more than 60 Fall musicians – and 29 studio albums, the latest being last year’s Ersatz GB.
Alcohol is his fuel. The Fall’s songs are saturated with drink, from the pub lothario getting “pasted in a bar” in the sort-of love song “Bill Is Dead” to the prophetic observation in 1981’s “C ’n’ C Hassle Schmuck” that by 2010 “all England” would be a “university town” where “all you could get was wine” – the latter line sneered with proletarian disgust.
The rigours of the lifestyle have taken their toll. Smith, 55, has a battered drinker’s look about him. His “singing” at the start of the show consisted of a series of incomprehensible gurgles and hisses like a car engine seizing up. During the set he roamed the stage randomly, fiddling with amplifiers, occasionally retiring to an armchair at the back. At one point he barked out a song while apparently reading a magazine.
Yet by degrees the gig grew in focus, as though the peculiar logic of Smith’s universe were asserting itself. Structure came from his band, unusually stable over the past few years. Guitarist Pete Greenway, drummer Keiron Melling and bass-player Dave Spurr punched out hard-boiled punk and rockabilly grooves. Meanwhile Smith’s implausibly glamorous wife Elena Poulou played the synthesizer and delivered aloof backing vocals.
“Bury Pts 1 + 3” was a belligerent blast of energy while “Container Drivers”, an oldie from 1980, brilliantly applied Johnny Cash’s boom-chicka-boom beat to the British haulage industry. “Blindness” was pulsating, Smith in mystic mode delivering visionary verses over a tough-as-nails bass line. He encored with the satiric terrace anthem “Theme from Sparta FC”, a parting singalong gift to fans. Suffer The Fall long enough and you’ll be rewarded.