Charles Shaar Murray, "Mekons/ The Fall/ Human League/ Gang Of Four/ Stiff Little Fingers"
NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS, March 31, 1979
AND the stars look very different today ... For all practical rock purposes, we may as well own up that we now living in the eighties. Just to be arbitrary, let's assume that the fifties began when Leo Fender invented the bass guitar and Elvis Presley plastered his hillbilly sneer over international horizons; the sixties began with The Beatles and the seventies opened for business with 'Virginia Plain', 'Ziggy Stardust' and 'All The Young Dudes.'
Sunday's Lyceum gig will stand as a watershed between the seventies and the eighties.
Five bands billed and one opening as an afterthought: some of the audience sniffing around looking for the eighties the way dogs look for bones and some looking for 1977 (if they find it, they pogo; if they don't, they throw things). Some are looking for art, and I hope they found it; some are looking for fun, and I know they found it; some were looking for members of the opposite sex: (they did okay, some of them anyway); some were looking for booze and drugs, and they got lucky as well.
Everybody found something and if it wasn't what they went out looking for... well ace, shut your face. You want it on a plate.
Openers: heavy men in evening dress mashing down on the toes of the wife's brother's boots and then confiscating his laces on the grounds that he was some kind of aggressive skinhead. Dennis Brown and Dillinger -- ricocheting round the hall and no white folks dancing. Ahhh, the first bondage pants of spring: one girl wearing so much metal that she drowns out the disco when she walks past.
Endocrine glands get geared up for something and then an unscheduled hors d'oeuvre: Mark Perry and two colleagues marching to the heat of a different drum machine as Good Missionaries (not ATV) attempt to exorcize various demons collected at Greenwich and Derby. Everyone is masked (except the drum machine) and the music is disguised even though Perry's rant is naked and shivering. The first section is inconsequential beyond belief though the latter half gets almost mesmerizing when a structure is imposed. Most people are puzzled, though some enjoy the tweaks and boings. As The Missionaries make their exit kids turn to each other and murmur, 'Shit, I could do that.'
They are absolutely right. They probably could. Would they want to?
Mekons are next and your reporter, a sixties kid disguised as a seventies oldster and earnestly participating in the search for the eighties, is instantly reminded of a remark recently made by Graham Parker to the effect that a lot of bands nowadays sing very witty songs in Gumby voices and get theses written about them. Mekons are a whacked-out cross between Jilted John and The Rezillos: there seems to be more of them on the stage than there actually are and they jump around like The Magic Roundabout.
Their audience rapport is instant and cheery; one of the singers gets more mileage out of blowing an attempt at a James Brown cum Rod Stewart Hot Move with his mike stand than he would've done if he'd brought it off. Guitarist Kevin Mekon similarly gets much mileage out of being unable to get his red Burns guitar to stay in tune. Their killer single 'Where Were You' provokes an outburst of manic pogoing which lasts until the end of the set and earns them their encore in classic style.
Someone somewhere seems to have perpetuated the impression that there is something Arty about Mekons. There isn't. They are Big Fun, and I hope they remain Big Fun even after they've become a proper professional rock band with real Fenders, leads that don't give up halfway through numbers and so on.
Lots of young people seem to have it in for The Fall, and a fair proportion of them were at the Lyceum.
The Fall were by far the most unorthodox band on the bill (i.e. they sounded less like The Clash than anybody except The Human League, but then they're different), since Good Missionaries weren't so much a band as an event or a happening or Art or something like that, and the intolerant boilsuckers who can't see that there's room for more than one sort of rock band made them pay for their daring.
They'd hardly had time to get plugged in before it became blindingly obvious why they'd entitled their album 'Live At The Witch Trials.'
Plastic glasses! Beer cans! Coke cans! Gob! Yep, what we had here was a classic case of remembering those fabulous seventies. The low point of the set was when some spiky psycho leapt on stage and slugged Mark E. Smith (Fall mikeperson) two or three times and then jumped back into the audience before Smith or anybody else had time to ask him to account for his behaviour.
Okay, The Fall are Difficult And Arty, if that's how you interpret attempts to dispense with orthodox rock ideas of what structure and texture ought to be; or alternatively, if that's how you'd describe a band who can't take their music where they want it to go by using the conventional language of rock. The Fall are threatening: not in the conventional tear-ya-down sense, but threatening in that they tell you stuff that you may not want to hear in a manner to which you are not accustomed.
The Fall are not comforting in the way that even the most badass conventional rock act is: The Pistols could be incredibly comforting if you identified yourself with their threat rather than with their targets. Yeah! We're All Punks Together! Bugger the Queen!
This response is not possible with The Fall. Not yet, anyway. Maybe later, when we've all learned the words to the songs and started to dress like them and the people who threw things at them (maybe even the scheisskopf who hit Smith will be boasting about having been to this gig), right now, they are not just alienated from (ta-daaaaaa!) society but from standard rock, and that includes punk.
None of them look like punks, and the punks gave 'em the kind of response that Dr Feelgood used to get from Ted audiences when they were starting out. The worst kind of Teds are stuck in 1957 and yeah, sure, we've all been laughing at them for years, but punks stuck in 1977 (or anyone stuck anywhere, for that matter) are just as bad, and this kind of shit has GOT TO STOP NOW.
If you don't like The Fall, sod off to the bar and get quietly pissed with your mates until Stiff Little Fingers come on in approved clothes and play some approved pogo music. All right, creeps?
Back to The Fall ... Martin Bramah plays upside-down guitar on a drastically surgeried Fender. All his licks sound to he upsidedown as well: high squibbling rat-scratch solos when you'd expect chunky rhythms (enriched with marrowbone jelly) and verse vica. He looks both perpetually surprised and Somewhere Else. Mark E. Smith, who has a Prince Valiant haircut, a maroon shirt that keeps coming out at the back, an indomitably accusing voice and more personal courage than anybody else in the hall that night kept on singing: after a lesser human would've split the stage in either a hood of tears or a fit of pique.
Yvonne Pawlett pats away at her piano and looks shit-feared, as well she might be. Singers and guitarists can dodge f'Chrissake, and drummers have kits in front of them, but a small girl behind a small piano is vulnerable beyond belief and Rock Against Sexism does not mean that Real Men can now chuck stuff at girls onstage. (Sorry to keep going on about all this, but I was pissed off and I still am. Okay?) Her sound is misty and pervasive, gauzy and stinging.
Marc Lacey (sic) is huge and stolid and his sound is likewise: bass playing that you could build any kind of edifice upon. Karl Burns' replacement (dunno his name; sorry) kept his head down and the beat in place. The Fall impressed me enormously. I haven't learned to like their records yet but any band this powerful live has to be able to get it down in the studio somehow.
They were the only group on the bill (Perry wasn't billed, remember) who didn't do an encore, but they were the band who deserved one the most.
The glass-chuckers had temporarily exhausted themselves: it wasn't until The Human League bleeped into 'Blind Youth' that the missiles returned.
The League are electronic entertainers from Sheffield, and the only reason that anyone could find them less enthralling than the gargantuanly overrated Suicide is that they don't have any kind of New York Loft Junk Squalor mystique going for them. Structurally, they are orthodox: it's just that they prefer synthesizers and slide shows to Les Pauls and jumping up and down.
They are Fun rather than Art (the barrier is artificial but let's talk in those terms for the benefit of glass-chuckers everywhere), performing The Righteous Brothers' 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' almost properly and seguing ridiculous transcriptions of Gary Glitter's 'Rock And Roll' and Iggy Pop's 'Nightclubbing' together for their encore.
The Fall used conventional instrumentation (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, singer) to produce unconventional music; The Human League use unconventional instrumentation (synths, drum machine) to produce what is basically rock esperanto. They got a good ride from the audience in exchange for a good gig; they were hugely enjoyable and will Go Far.
Four bands into the night and my ears were beginning to go.
The Gang Of Four leapt onstage with Fenders at the ready to perform the most conventional rock music thus far. The singer windmilled his arms and shouted, guitarist Andy Gill ran about and waved his guitar and the rhythm section hammered away. They exist on a jagged line drawn between Pere Ubu and Wilko Johnson with a few reggae detours when they swopped instruments: Gill played drums and the drummer came upfront to blow some melodica in an earnest approximation of Augustus Pablo.
They were fine, and the pogoers loved 'em (if anybody threw anything I was in the bog at the time), but definitely late seventies.
This ain't even approximately doing them justice, but as noted above, my perceptions were pretty blunted by that stage. I'd like to see 'em again when not on a mission to find the eighties, 'cause they're a good contemporary rock band with nary a hint of Arty Pretension or elitism to be found anywhere about their persons.
Finally ... the moment you've all been waiting for... STIFF LITTLE FINGERS!!!
Yep, present and correct: drum risers, expensive guitars, leather jackets. Success, success, success, does it matter? It's invidious and shameful to dump on a band because you don't dig the way some of their punters behave (the Sham trap beckons: please put your foot in here) but there was complacency in the air this night. Jake Burns could've told off the kids who'd mistreated The Fall and he didn't. Wasn't his fault, but Fingers have paid enough dues for two dozen bands and they should know that it's too late to stop now.
Apart from the token democracy of sticking Burns at the side of the stage (if a geezer sings lead and plays most of the guitar solos he deserves to be where more of the audience call see him), it was conventional Punk Heroic: leather-jacketed agitpop, ramalamafirebomb.
Sod the eighties: it was a Clash-surrogate late seventies punk gig by the end.
Again, I'm allowing what happened to The Fall to sour my reactions and I shouldn't be taking it out on Stiff Little Fingers. If I'd arrived just as Gang Of Four went on, I'd probably have had a whale of a time, because Stiff Little Fingers are - objectively speaking - a hell of a band with power, courage, conviction and skill.
But I saw them play like Heroes and get received like Heroes and something was wrong, because the band who had showed the most real heroism (quiet, with a small 'h') got bottled off the stage and didn't get to do the encore that - in real terms - they'd earned.
For a band to make easy gestures to an audience who only want to make easy gestures back is the most suspect device in rock, but there's no way a band can break this deadlock without either sabotaging their set or else playing Deliberately Difficult music, which puts us right back where we started, breaking our balls on the Art/Fun fence.
The seventies are going to have to learn to cope with the eighties the same way that the sixties learned to cope with the seventies (remember 'boring old farts'? If you threw a glass, check yourself out very carefully) and the fifties had to cope with the sixties and everybody had to learn to cope with rock and roll when it started in the first place.
We've still got a long way to go.