Pop: Live: The unsettling world of Mark E Smith

The Fall

Dingwalls, London

It's widely accepted that if you marshalled all the musicians who have ever been influenced by into a field and dropped a bomb on them, the industry would be left with only Celine Dion and a session guitarist from Pinner called Kevin. If only originality and daring translated into sales: then the band's mastermind Mark E Smith would have been indulging in acts of bacchanalian excess on the shores of his own Caribbean Island this week. Instead, were playing the matchbox-sized Dingwalls, where they frightened the bejeesus out of an audience who had quite reasonably expected that two decades of this nasty, absurd and audacious band would have diminished the element of surprise. No chance.

It remains one of the strangest and most unsettling gigs I have ever seen, and I speak as someone who has sat through the encores at a Roxette concert. are a cryptogram, a 90mph collision between order and chaos. They may appear to be drunken brickies having a stab at performance art but their ramshackle stage manner cannot conceal a muscular musical prowess tight as a drum skin. The songs come at you at full pelt; the brutal thump of the rhythm section could crack ribs. The temptation to wheel out a greatest hits set is resisted, though favourites such as "Idiot Joy Showland" and "Lie Dream of a Casino Soul" are greeted like death- row reprieves. Mostly, we get songs from the new album Levitate, like "Ten Houses of Eve", the world's first jungle ballad. Throughout, Smith rents and gurgles into the microphone, his Alsatian tongue slurping over a Rumpelstiltskin face that's as gnarled as an old oak.

The first thing he does when he walks on stage is slam his hand on the keyboard which Julia Nagle is valiantly attempting to play. Then he interferes with the guitarist's fretwork. During the final encore, "New Big Prinz", which is more of a bulldozer than a song, he carefully positions an electric fan on the snare drum, while the drummer carries on playing as though this is the most natural thing in the world. Not bizarre enough? Then here is the ballet dancer Michael Clark with a nappy pin in one ear, laying on and under a chair that he will later hurl into the audience.

Although it is the occasion of 's 20th anniversary, there will be no limited edition CD-Rom to celebrate. Wednesday's show was heartening because the band did not pause to reflect on the past; they utilised every second to prove why they still exist. Why they have to exist. They are our Modern Lovers, our Frank Zappa. We should continue to give them our time and money as long as they keep throwing things at us: chairs, insane ideas, our own preconceptions.

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