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The Fall @ Croydon Cartoon Club 14/03/06

We arrive at the Cartoon quite, as the kids say, "bladdered", just in time for the Hicks-Milligan Prophecy - the bastard child of Roxy Music and Sparks, bedecked in black and white and determined to give the Cartoon Club what for. H-MP feature two rather lovely girls on bass and drums, doubling the current female population of the murky low-ceilinged venue (not dissimilar to a seedy American lap-dancing bar). They struggle on through sound problems and a fair amount of nerves - will they get beaten by the rabid crowd up if the universally-acknowledged-as "difficult" headliners don't show up? The crowd themselves aren't really up for a riot though, their average age is double mine.

My gigging companions continue to ply me with beery nectar, fuelling the half of my brain that is winning the battle over the half that is attempting to pay attention to the gig for subsequent review-writing. However, this is the perfect manner in which to attend a Fall gig: disorientated, belligerent and slightly apprehensive. The last Fall gig I attended was in Kentish Town just over ten months ago, showcasing nearly all the tracks from their new album that absolutely no-one had heard yet, with only the car-advert-whoring Touch Sensitive and the Saturday tea-time favourite Theme From Sparta FC to placate the rowdy audience, who displayed their displeasure by hurling beer cans at an oblivious Smith. But back to now. Apparently a second support act has taken to the stage. A mysterious man is crouched over a magic box with dials and lights on it, making a low roaring sound. Behind him is a large video projection of Freddie Mercury, and someone is pressing the Pause/Still button like a small child that has just worked out how the VCR remote works, the same few frames of Queen: Live In Concert jarring forwards and backwards. Whatever. I'm more interested in the crowd: so far I have spotted Ben from work, Craig from Hollyoaks, Bobby Gillespie (possibly) and 90's comedian Stewart Lee! Lee keeps pacing up and down between our spot at the back of the room and the bar. Eventually he plumps down behind us. I nearly sit on his pint whilst draining one of mine.

As the beer dissolves my neurons one by one, I openly chastise the DJ for seamlessly seguing MC5 straight into Dr Buck's Letter. Doesn't he know that the Fall are *actually playing* tonight? What a schoolboy error! My smug scorn turns to shame as I realise that four-fifths of The Fall are actually on stage early, playing an instrumental version of said song that is tighter than an Formula One hair-pin bend. The audience can't quite believe they are hearing a song they recognise. The current line-up of Ben Pritchard (guitar), Steve Trafford (bass), Spencer Birtwistle (drums) and Elena Poulou (keyboards) is remarkable for its stability over the last few years - since the band's first gig in 1978 there have been 49 members of The Fall. Smith married Poulou five years ago (a year before she joined the band) and is still here. Her expression of fierce concentration doesn't change for the entire evening.

Standing on a bench near the back, I have a marvellous view of the entire club (although now Stewart Lee probably doesn't) and hence am among the first to spot wizened genius MES ascend the stairs from the bogs and wind his way through the crowd to the stage, to ever increasing roars of admiration and relief that Smith is a) conscious and b) appears to be in the mood for a gig. The captivating old man stumbles on the stage, squeals "Drrraara Bux Lerrar!" and the band promptly switch straight into Touch Sensitive. Smith and his band remain almost motionless throughout the set and let the music do the talking, with no less than seven storming tracks from 2005's Fall Heads Roll (including a truly uproarious Pacifying Joint) plus a surreal cover of Motörhead's White Line Fever. An attempt at the uncharacteristically delicate Midnight In Aspen is quickly dismissed. Smith probably needs a piss and so quickly cracks the whip into the growling sludge closer of Blindness, sings half a verse, twiddles all the knobs on the amps to make the sludge even more incomprehensible and buggers off through the crowd, back down the stairs.

With each album The Fall prove time and again that they defy comparison. Amazon.co.uk has a go: 'Customers who bought titles by The Fall also bought titles by these artists: Can, Mission Of Burma, Pere Ubu and Gang of Four.' All legends in their own fields, if you picked up one of The Fall's *twenty-five* studio albums then the chances are it would sound nothing like any of the groups listed above. If you see them in the flesh then it is a different experience yet again, just as likely to be frustratingly ramshackle as rousing and disciplined. Tonight the odds were in our favour. All we had to worry about was getting home from sodding Croydon.
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