Brother Leader, Mark E Smith

If Mark E Smith were a totalitarian state, Nato would have sent in the Apaches by now. But after 35 years that make Gaddafi look moderate (including 28 albums, three inter-band wives and a conveyor belt of Fall members), the little man of Prestwich is still ruling the roost like it’s 1976.

On 1st June, Smith’s pulling power sees Camden’s Koko crammed with 20-somethings, not the middle-aged spread you might expect. The kids look like extras from Shane Meadows’s This Is England, all angular pogo shapes and punk hair in a mosh pit of elbows. A gentler breed of balding diehards scatters round the edges.

And then he lurches on like a geography teacher gone rogue. “We are The Fall,” growls Mark E Smith as the band slams into action. Latest album Your Future Our Clutter pepper-sprays the set. The rockabilly ‘Hot Cake’ seems to be about Mr Spock and slippery floors. Mark is spitting his weird lexicon into the mic like it’s a mouth organ.

Perhaps “national treasure” status is gradually settling on Smith’s shoulders. He’s the ranty man in the pub; the teacher who smokes with his pupils; the pre-Jarvis Cocker cock o’ the north. In fact the Pulp singer owes much to Smith’s stylings, especially the old womanish Northern charity shop charm.

The Fall travelator serves up four co-conspirators tonight from an all-time line-up of more than 60 members. Elena Poulou, Smith’s wife, contributes significantly with vocals, yelps and vintage synth. There’s something both glamorous and a little bit homely about her, like the way she hangs her handbag on the end of the keyboard.

The feral Muzorewi’s Daughter, from 1979’s Dragnet, sees Mark thwacking his mic on the speaker stack and unpeeling a grey M&S jacket to the pounding of drums that could be from The Wicker Man. It’s a crowd-pleasing relic on this largely noughties set list.

Then it’s back to Poulou for the Slits-sounding I’ve Been Duped, a modern punk classic from 2008’s Imperial Wax Solvent. The 21st-century Fall seems more equally balanced than previous incarnations and the Mark-less four do well as the front man takes a quick break. In fact, they fizz like an outlet pipe at a chemical plant.

A brand new song sounds like the Rozzers are coming, all sirens and urgency, while another from Your Clutter starts with sci-fi effects before ratcheting into an MES love song. You heard it: he’s “weak at the knees” and his “whole head’s spinning” in the Funnel of Love.

There are more Dalek noises and sirens on Chino, a blaring discordant fuzz during which a black balloon ominously takes flight, skittering to the rafters. It’s back to the 1970s for a roughed-up Psykick Dance Hall before the chiming Weather Report 2 and its sub-Mancunian modem blues: “You gave me the best years of my life.’”

The howls of Wolf Kidult Man wrap up the night, with the Camden kidults thrashing themselves into a post-punk frenzy; for once, there is a mosh pit illuminated not by iPhone glow but flailing limbs. What John Peel said about The Fall (“always the same, always different”) may be said of the fans. Nato, hold fire, this is the United Emirates of MES.

Anna Doble

A version of this article first appeared in the Spectator Arts Blog, June 2011

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