The Fall, The Cartoon Club, Croydon

The resurrection of Mark E Smith
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It's a venue more familiar with Sabbath tribute acts or Dumpy's Rusty Nuts than with genuine rock legends, but The Fall have moved in, and a different set list is promised for each night - though that could be read as a night's set spread across four, as on the first night Smith walked out of the club about 30 minutes into a five-song set.

The club is in a grim Seventies municipal block on the London Road called the Zodiac Estate. Next door is the Anatolian Community Centre and a Berber hair salon - and it's hard to think of a more apt location for The Fall's shifting esoteric hinterland. There's that bored expectation that comes with the build-up to the band coming on, fuelled by an ear-bleeding mix tape of rock steady and some hard ambient electronica, before what sounds very much like an excellent new Fall instrumental heralds the band's arrival via a staircase up from the toilets. Of course, the club is packed.

The musicians kick into a new instrumental called "The Boss", obscured (depending where you are) by pillars or speaker cabinets. The drummer Spencer Birtwistle is parked in the far corner behind Elini Poulou on keyboards, and guitarist Ben Pritchard and bassist Stephen Trafford take centre stage, before Smith appears a few minutes in, wearing a black jacket and a shirt with big lapels, parting the audience on his way to the stage like some old pharaoh cutting through the mob.

On stage, his curious, disdaining stillness and sudden, abrupt movements work at odds to the music, as if fixing its energy and turning it back on itself and the audience as he fiddles with a cuff or mic stand. His whole performance is following a different drum to everyone else.

The result is both energising and draining, as if he's asking: what are you here for? And the answer is: "We're not here for long," for the set barely clocks in at 40 minutes, the average length of a vinyl LP - though it's a 40 minutes many bands would kill for.

The crunching "Bo Demmick" from Fall Heads Roll follows the instrumental opener, and Smith seems in good form and focused, while "Pacifying Joint", a song about breathing space, is retooled to great effect, but pales next to "Sparta FC", the kind of Fall song that sounds like it's a lot older, deeper, weirder and bloodier than almost anything except Link Wray.

The I Am Kurious Oranj mantra from the Eighties, "Wrong Place Right Time", follows, one of the few old songs Smith has revived in recent years, intoning the chorus in a voice like mummified flesh. The band segues straight into The Move's psychedelic hit "I Can Hear the Grass Grow", while the Harold Shipman anthem, "What About Us" is a demon-driven, insane masterpiece - and this is the point where Smith turns his back on the audience for some live mixing/knob twiddling that momentarily eliminates Pritchard's guitar, and soon heralds the end of the evening.

A great "Mountain Energei" from Country on the Click follows, and you feel like you're in the heart of Fall country when Smith slurs a "thanks very much, 'cos we're leaving now". The band look surprised, but they dutifully troop off, and the abruptness of it all is a bit like having your plate taken away before you've cleared it. People shout, laugh, give up and leave, a take-what-you're-given acceptance running through the crowd. To the sound of The Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz", a few hundred Fall fans disperse up and down the London Road.

Ends tonight (020-8239 1616); for more dates, see