In previous articles, I’ve found greater enjoyment in writing about television performances by punk groups; some are beautfiul, some are ugly, and some are just absolutely absurd. There’s something about the body language of the band and, of course, the cheap 1970s/80s television effects that make some outings so memorable and notable – with the visual component of the performances, a greater level of connection and understanding with the artists is established.
I’ve written about PiL and Gang of Four’s television performances, which ticked all three of the adjectives given above. So I thought I’d write about some more, because why not?
I have noted that the title of the series will become contentious, as the ‘are they punks?’ question is likely to come up at some point (I’m planning on writing about Captain Beefheart in the near future, for example) but I thought it was a half decent pun on ‘Girls On Film’, highlighting my creative laziness and indifference when it comes to naming my series.
Anyway – during the promotion of their then highest charting album release The Wonderful and Frightening World Of… which charted at a modest 62nd, The Fall were to grace the Old Grey Whistle Test stage – which was basically a dimly lit room – and play the stunning ‘Lay of the Land’ to the nation. They’d previously performed on The Tube courtesy of the generousity and obsessive fandom of John Peel, who was guest presenting the show and, if I remember correctly, would only come on in the first place if he could choose which band performs that week.
Who else was he meant to choose?
With a horribly high pitched, nasal and tuneless ‘The Fall!’ from the mouth of Jools Holland, they began. Perverted By Language track ‘Smile’ and the then-unreleased Brix-penned shuffle ‘2×4’ featured in a triumphant outing in which they, as Steve Hanley (The Big Midweek) so modestly claims, began ‘to melt the rent-a-crowd brains’. In fairness, we’ve all had our fair share of cerebral destructions in our innocent early listenings of The Fall, so I’ll forgive him for his confidence.
Songs played, brains melted, now for Old Grey Whiste Test. There’s so many parts of this performance which are noteworthy, I’m afraid I’ve no option but to list them.
Firstly, Andy Kershaw, who introduces The Fall’s performance, is donning a ‘Marc Riley and The Creepers’ shirt, which probably didn’t make our Mark E too happy at all (for those unaware, Marc Riley was the former guitarist of The Fall from 1978-83, who Mark didn’t really get on too well with). Four eerie notes start the song, and into the performance we go…
Secondly, I’ll let Brix (The Rise, The Fall, The Rise) sum it up aptly: ‘It was my second time on TV but, again, not that anyone would’ve noticed’. Far in the depths of the OGWT set stood The Fall in a darkened, gloomy backdrop, while Michael Clark and his band of ballet dancers take centre stage. You can only just make out Mark’s half silhouette lurking around the stage, but other than that, there isn’t much to be seen – imagine being Paul Hanley, hidden not only by darkness but by the drumkit too…
Thirdly, and obviously with any Fall performace, it’s musically mesmerising. ‘Lay Of The Land’ is just one of those Fall tracks, an instant classic that, as far as I’m aware, is adored by The Fall’s faithful and given a fantastic showcasing for national consumption.
And fourthly, of course, the headline act. Michael Clark and his bare-arsed army, flouncing aroud the stage to the raucous destruction of ‘Lay of the Land’ in the biggest oxymoron the prforming arts world will probably ever witness (and this was four years before I Am Kurious Oranj). It’s so crude, the standout moment being the moment when one of the dancers (I’m not sure if it’s Clark or not) bends over with arse to camera as the break in between the verse and ascending chord sequence. You can’t justify it, nor deny it’s sheer immature brilliance.
When I bumped into Steve Hanley outside an Extricated gig, he said the whole debacle was ‘absolutely brilliant’ or ‘absolutely fucking brilliant’; six of one and half a dozen of the other really. It is a ridiculously fantastic showing.
Fifth in the chaos comes the questionble last-minute guest appearance – I’ll let Steve describe this one for us:
‘At the end of ‘Lay of the Land’, for the comedy effect, they drag on a pantomime cow and start ramming cartons of milk down its neck, spilling most of it onto the floor and the cables. Brix looks terrified and even the technicians start to flap, thinking there’s going to be a mass electrocution. All those years of intense training at the Royal School of Ballet to end up as the back end of a pantomime cow on a late-night TV show. The dignity! The glamour!’
God it’s weird. So weird. What’s slightly disturbing is that the cow is clearly resisting its forced feeding so desperately but to no avail. I won’t try and explain it. What’s the point?
But there’s more. Sixth on the list of novelties is the fact that the young, fledgling act R.E.M. were backstage. In his book, Hanley states ‘they probably hadn’t quite bargained for this.’
In person, if I recall correctly, he said something along the lines of ‘they were looking around thinking ‘what the fuck is going on?”. I don’t blame them, to be fair. Though, I must admit, the image of a young and confused Michael Stipe sitting on the sidelines of a BBC studio, watching a bunch of ballet dancers attempt to follow the rhythm of half-tuned, barely-famous Mancunians is fantastic. Is this what all English people listen to?!
Around 33 minutes into ‘The Wonderful and Frightening World of Mark E Smith’ documentary, which can be found on YouTube, Mark recalls his fellow band members ‘stayed up to watch the Old Grey Whistle Test … they stayed up to watch it with their parents [a brief interlude of one of the ugliest laughs I’ve ever heard] and all you can see is like Michael Clark baring his fucking arse on the screen, fucking great, it was dead funny’. A typical Smith critique of his subjects and outlook on The Fall’s tumultuous relationship with accessibility.
It’s a stark contradiction to their preceeding and succeeding sessions on The Tube, which actually do a job of promoting the band and their music – the performance of ‘Bombast’ in 1985 is absolutely breathtaking. Even ‘Cruiser’s Creek’, which is a strong song, but for me has nothing particularly special about it, seems to have a new energy and power which was left absent in the original recording.
Yet it seems the OGWT performance will always be the most memorable Fall TV performance, but mostly due to Clark and co.’s absurd appearance. I do have a sneaking suspicion, however, that this is probably what Mark wanted all along – why would The Fall want mainstream coverage for themselves anyway?
All in all, it’s something of totally absurd beauty, and certainly a contender for the best musical TV appearance ever. It’s a magnificent showing which probably flabbergasted every innocent viewer at home. Apart from actual, overt promotion of their material, it paid off in every way possible.