Colin Irwin takes the tundra trail in Iceland and points north in pursuit
of The Fall. Pics by Tom Sheehan.
It came like a rapist at the dead of night. No threat, no warning,
no preamble. .. Heimaey slept on, its people blissfully cocooned in their
homes against the fearful January snow. Even the drunks didn t make it out
There was a low rumble that grew, with frightening determination, into an intimidating growl, and then a full-blooded roar, The earth began to quake violently, the ground swelled like a huge balloon, and then ripped open. Huge flurries of fire, smoke and cinders belched into the sky, and the mile-long split in the ground began to vomit cascades of white hot lava which instantly began to seep towards the houses of the town.
Heimaey was aroused with staggering speed. Police cars and fire trucks raced around the streets, sirens wailing; people dashed from house to house to awaken their neighbours; and within minutes of the eruption, entire families had abandoned all their belongings to be shunted on to boats in the harbour taking them to the mainland.
Later, planes and helicopters converged on the town to speed the rescue operation, and the entire population of Heimaey was evacuated to Reykjavik in hours, save for rescue workers and screaming animals. The volcano merely exploded more and more lava and continued to do so for months in its remorseless destruction of the island ...
The members of a (sort of) rock band from Manchester called The Fall listened to the story in silent awe. It made their tales of riots in Mosside seem pretty inconsequential. Ah, but the Icelanders are a resilient race, said our host. Bred on karma and legends, they fervently believe that disaster signals a brave new beginning. Eight years on the people are back in Heimaey, the harbour is bigger and better, the town has been rebuilt, and the houses will be heated for the next 50 years from the still-warm lava. The Fall look wide-eyed, buy their postcards, and retreat to their booze. It makes you feel humble in Iceland ...
The whole idea was comically absurd, of course. I mean, Iceland...
jeezus, even bloody XTC - World Travels Unlimited - havent pulled that
one yet. And the Fall, savagely dismantling orthodox concepts of rock music
with their jagged thrashes and vitriolic lyrics, dont exactly strike
the chord as pioneering ambassadors for Britain.
But in Iceland - where the singles chart is currently topped by Rick Springfield and the albums by Leo Sayer - there exists a coterie of Fall freaks with enough clout, commitment, and ingenuity to bring them over for a three-gig tour - only the fourth British band to visit the Arctic in three years. The others? The Clash, Stranglers, Any Trouble.
Any Trouble. Any Trouble?!! spits guitarist Marc Riley in abject horror. God please forvive us. Please forgive Manchester.
The folk writer, meanwhile, appalling ignorant of lcelands proximity to the North Pole (too many copies of Parade under the desk during geography) tumbles off the plane at Keflavik Airport in tee-shirt and smiles, and immediately has an attack of pneumonia. The wind slices the body in two, numbs the duty-free in the veins, and instantly devastates s years worth of hangovers.
Out of the airport, past the massive American naval base thats angrily resented by most Icelanders, hit the road to Reykjavik, and it looks like the moon - all craters, lava, and mountains. Actually, says Einar, student, singer with an outstanding post-punk band called Purrkur Pilnikk, and chairman of the.welcoming committee, the Apollo space team came here to practise for landing on the moon. Einar, who speaks with an accent wholly more comprehensible than that of my Mancunian companions continues to give us a compelling insight into the quirks of Icelandic life. Theres no alcoholic beer (They dont want the Icelandic drunk - so they sell you spirits instead so you get drunker); no trees; no unemployment; no telly on Thursdays (or in July!); cigarettes are £1.30 a pack; and concerts have a 100 decibel limit thats enforced by officious chaps with toilet paper in their ears waving decibel meters over their heads.
Eh? says Kay Carroll, the Falls magnificently abrasive manager, No booze, no trees, no telly, no cigarettes, and blokes walking round with toilet rolls sticking out of their ears - what kind of a place is this?
Listen, were the Fall, shouts Marc Riley, with a twinge
of desperation. Not the Falls roadies, the Fall. Were famous
in England, honest. I get me head kicked in for being famous at home.
We are standing late at night in pitch darkness in the middle of some rough old road outside of Reykjavik, grappling not only with the bitter cold but a large, inordinately heavy makeshift stage that had suddenly, mysteriously appeared in our headlights. It is, it transpires the stage for the following nights show at theHotel Borg in another part of town, and well, they need a bit of help putting it up. Next thing we know the Fall are sweating like navvies erecting their own stage. And theyd only popped out for a sherbert.
You better not write about this, says Riley, its not good for our image. Were meant to be bleak and industrial.
Is the stage high enough? asks Einar, when weve eventually got it up. Yeah, were an ugly bunch - nobody wants to see us. I saw New Order in Oslo, continues Einar, and they played in a pit.
Best place forem, says Craig Scanlon sourly. He quickly regrets it and is anxious for me to know he feels New Order are one of the few groups that are okay. We used to know Joy Division you know. We wore really shocked when Ian Curtis died. Really shocked.
A portly midget stumbles over. Ingelish? he enquires, grinning. Dont mention the cod war, says drummer Paul Henley. Mar-carrot Tasher? beams the midget. We look at him. We look at each other. I think he meant Margaret Thatcher, Riley concludes finally. Oh, we dont talk about her, says Paul. Mar-carrot Tasher, repeats the midget hopefully. No - me social democrat, says Paul.
The midget breaks into a grin more exaggerated than an Allen Jones anecdote. Me social democrat also. He pumps Pauls hand vigorously. Only joking,says Paul. The midget continues to pump his hand. Youve done it now, says Marc, the social democrats here are probably the fascist party. Paul is still attempting to extricate his hand. Who...who...who won the cod war, then? he eventually bellows triumphantly. Er...I think they did actually, says Marc.
Mark E. Smith, lead singer with the Fall, spent the night drinking schnaps until it come out of his ears, repaired to a disco called Hollywood that looked like a Thirties nightclub in Berlin, bopped alone on the dance floor, loudly abused the disc-jockey for repeatedly playing Stars On 45 and their ilk, and collapsed, fully-clothed, into a coma at the Hotel Esjna. It was a good first night.
They start leaving halfway through the second number. Not in embarrassing
numbers, but enough to make breathing considerably easier at the Turkish
bath clubroom at the Borg. That days Dagbladid newspaper had come out
with a front-page picture of the Fall announcing BRITISH RAW ROCKERS ARRIVE
IN ICELAND, and the general lack of live music in Reykjavik - British or
otherwise - had inspired a virtual sell-out. But it sounds as if Mark
Smith is singing through a megaphone, the band are tense and tame, and the
audience becomes increasingly possessed by a demon madness frequently blamed
on them being descended from a bunch of Irish monks, but is probably more
to do with the vodka they consume in copious quantities (costing an arm and
a leg per shot).
One of the demonsgoes straight to the front of the stage, puts his face an inch from Mark Smiths and attempts (unsuccessfully) to stare him out. Another bounds up, grabs the mike, and shouts Icelanders are happy - why are you unhappy? Mark just glares at him and goes into Hip Priest. Another guy gets his head caved in during a fight on the steps of the hotel.
It looks like a funeral parlour here, says one of the hosts in the dressing room afterwards, observing the deathly silence.Yeah, well, says Kay, we just played 50 minutes - what dyou want, another show or something?
Someone says something about the Fall inspiring a lot of curiosity. Yeah, thats our main strength, says Mark. People coming to have a look. Thank God theres a lot of nosy people around.
I ask Mark if it depresses him when people walk out on Fall gigs with such regularity. It depends for what reason, and I can usually suss out the reason. Sometimes its because were dead lame - Ill admit that. Punk was very prophetic in a way, because it gave people instant stimulation. Four years later people are really into that - they just won't bother now. They wont listen to anything through. Which is why you get all these fucking Stars On 45 things - you couldnt have got away with it a few years ago. People now just want quick gratification. Punk made people ready for it - the jokey disrespect. And now its like the outside markets caught up.
Mark, Kay, and a couple of the hosts are having an argument about the American base. The Yanks deny it, of course, but the word is they hold nuclear weapons at Keflavik, and while the servicemen are only allowed into the town at strictly regulated times, their presence is regarded much as a mouth ulcer. Its said that even the new lady president Vigdis Finnbogadotiir, revered in Iceland, has campaigned against the American base. With typical perversity, Mark E. Smith defends them. He likes Americans, says that none of them are ready for a war, so theyve got to indulge in this game of elaborate bluff so the Russkies dont get any ideas. I think, he says, building up to the ultimate pay-off, if the Russians invaded Britain, then Id kill Russians.
Mark decided to go for a coffee in the cafe across the road. He tripped, and tumbled across a pile of tables. Nobody laughed. Nobody got upset. Nobody blinked. They thought he was a drunk. It happens all the time in Iceland...
One of the support bands at the Falls second Hotel Borg gig is a punk
band called C4U fronted by two ladies dressed in black suspenders and not
a great deal else. One of the ladies whips off the remnants of her top as
the screams into the mike.
Shes not shy is she?observes Paul Hanley, viewing her intently One couldnt disagree.
A hulking trawlerman wades into the audience during the Falls set and is leapt upon by half a dozen skinheads. He just marches on, dragging them with him. Another guy barges to the front of the stage and hurls a chair at Mark Smith - Id vibed him out, he only did it because he liked you, says Kay afterwards.
The Fall played magnificently that night. Made us all feel good. The hosts were well chuffed. Threw a party for us. Mark Smith buried himself in the record collection, and honed in on Lou Reed and Peter Hammill.
I dont, he said, in answer to the inevitable query, listen to much new wave.
The lads, Smiths collective term for the rest of the Fall - are writing a postcard to their local in Manchester. What shall I put? says Marc Riley. Lets see, ponders Grant, their sound man and token Londoner, no beer. freezing cold, the water stinks, no telly on Thursdays, Icelanders fall over at least twice day, and the national pastime is crashing motor cars. Wish you were here.
One day we drive up into the mountains - its impossible to drive far
without going into the mountains (the alternatives include day trips
to Greenland and a visit to a whaling station). Our hosts play us tapes of
a man with a cracked voice and a Dylanish air and describe him as the
father of Icelandic rocknroll. And they tell us the story
of Megas, who ridiculed the sacred Sagas of the land, wrote scathing, surreal
lyrics, got heavily into booze and drugs, was barred from radio and shunned
by society. In 1979 he released a double album called Plans For
Suicide announced his retirement, and hasnt performed in public
since hes now a dock worker.
Mark Smith is entranced by the story, and rivetted by the music., The following day Megas, a pale, gaunt figure, turns up at The Falls concert at the Austurboejarbio and shakes him by the hand. Mark will return to England clutching a parcel of Megas records under his arm.
Right, no dicking about, lets get set up - weve wasted enough
money already, Mark Smith yells at at his lads as we shamble
into the recording studio.
Whats he going to do, then? asks Tony, the English engineeer Dont ask me - he never tells anyone what hes doing. says Kay, watching assorted Falls tinkling abstractly on various instruments.
The Fall eventually rattle out two tracks - the mildly funky Look Know and the weird haunting Hip Priest - both on first takes. Everyone holds their breath on playback and looks expectantly at Mark, whod been pacing the floor outside. Mark just mutters its okay, and we all start grinning.
Mark then announces they will try a new song. Craig patters out a tune on the piano, Marc Riley starts to play banjo, making it sound like a sitar, and you suddenly recognise the abstract tinkering theyd done earlier. Is he going to sing? asks the engineer. Kay didnt know. Grant goes to find out. Hes going to play a cassette first, and then hes going to sing, says Grant. The engineer scarcely blinks. I see, he says. A cassette. I do like these easy sessions.
Mark plays his cassette - of the wind howling against his hotel room window - and launches into the verbals... To be humbled in Iceland ... sing of legend sing of destruction...witness the last of the Godmen...hear about Megas Jonsson...to be humbled in Iceland...sit in the gold room...fall down flat in the Cafe Iol...without a glance from the clientele...the coffee black as well...and be humbled in Iceland...
No, we didnt know what he was going to do either, says Riley in a state of euphoria later. He just said he needed a tune, something Dylanish, and we knocked around on the piano in the studio and came up with that. But we hadnt heard the words until he suddenly did them. We did Fit And Working on Slates in exactly the same way.Yeah, I suppose it is amazing really...
A huge trawlerman knocks Paul Hanleys chair from under him, sending the drummer flying. Pauls on his feet in a second, fists raised...then checks the trawlermans size, alcoholic state and the fact that he probably eats drummers for breakfast, and international diplomacy rules. Meanwhile a Fall record is played over the PA and clears the disco floor in seconds.
The interviewer from the Socialist Party asks Mark E. Smith how much hes
being paid for playing in Iceland. Mark laughs out loud, puts his face
conspiratorially close to the interviewers, and tells him its
none of his goddamn business.
The guy asks him instead about Manchester and Factory Records. Factory are the other side of town - the university side, says Mark cryptically. The interviewer looks quizzical.
When we started the Manchester scene was the Nosebleeds, the Drones, and Slaughter and the Dogs, they come and go. But its like Joy Division, who were a very good group, but they could have come from Paris or America, or anywhere.
Do you like New Order?
What do you think about the Clash and Siouxsie and the Banshees?
Not very much.
Do you like the Rolling Stones?
Yeah ... the early stuff.
The Falls last gig in Iceland is a matinee performance for an audience
of teenyboppers in a medium-sized cinema, supported by the splendid Purrkur
Pillnikk. Thev listen to the Fall in bewildered bemusement - some walk out,
the rest gaze in silence and stamp for more at the end, as if determined
to convince themselves theyre into it. The honours are even.
The Fall decide Iceland is fab.
That night we sit in my hotel room discussing the vagaries of the record industry, for which Mark has always seemed to hold a healthy contempt. He says the best two bands hes ever seen are the Worst and the Prefects, both of whom never got signed up, yet announces that, contrary to popular belief he has nothing against being signed to a major label even though most A&R men make journalists look like super-brains. He even admits he rather fancies the power of a hit single, and that Totally Wired was actually conceived as a potential hit, though Rough Trade didnt see it the same way.
Im not against record companies at all. Independents are no different. Theyre just like big record companies with less facilities, and they wear different clothes.
He has even less sympathy with the Crass alternative, despite admitting a fondness for their music, if not their lyrics.
Crass attack people who play on emotions and thats exactly what they do. Kids emotions. Its a badge innit? I like to see a kid in a Motorhead tee-shirt, but I worry about a kid in a Crass tee-shirt. That sort of mass equality thing freaks me out, after a while you end up not being a person.
Crass reminds me of when I was very heavily into left wing politics when I was about 17. I got really psychotic about it, about sexism and all that. Anybody who doesnt agree with you is like a fucking lackey. You realize in the end its your own inadequacies that gear you towards that in the first place.
I ask him if he has any time for the supposedly political bands like Gang Of Four.
No actually I find Bushells mob a lot more stimulating politically, I really do. Thats a more honest political statement than anything else going down. I think its a genuine statement. And its a lot more convincing than the Gang Of Four will ever be. It says a lot about England that music.
The talent is somewhere else, but its not in the Gang Of Four. The Gang Of Four are never going to do anything positive. Those skinheads arent taken in by shit like the Gang Of Four and thats a positive plus to them.
But its dangerous ...
Of course its dangerous, but so is the English working class. The 4-Skins are more relevant to whats going on in the country, no matter what they play like, than the Gang Of Fours songs about Chinks in 1951 and all this, man. Its more true, man, and its probably as good musically...
The Fall spend their last night in Iceland drinking wine at an up-market
disco that requires various borrowed trousers, shoes and shirts to gain entry.
Mark E. Smith once again takes to the disco floor, bopping alone to some Icelandic
version of Abba.
He wants to take a glass of wine outside to our long-suffering coach driver, whod spent the week parked outside various houses in the middle of the night waiting to take drunken Englishmen back to their hotel. The doorman - a stern bow-tie - begins to get angry. Mark E. Smith begins to get very angry.
Listen, he explodes, theres a boy out there whos been very kind to us this week and Id like to take him a drink. The heavies start to muscle in. They start barking. We feel like errant schoolkids. We all depart ignominiously. The coach driver says he didnt want a drink anyway.
It makes you feel humble in Iceland ...
Moonscape: Einar 0rn