The greatest band NEVER to have played High Wycombe

The passing of The Fall frontman Mark E Smith on Wednesday 24th January 2018 cannot be left without comment on this website.  If I don’t write something, I fear my mind will literally explode with all the thoughts and memories of the Fall in the preceeding 40 years.

Mark E Smith – 1957 to 2018. Some Fall memories. Main photo taken at HMV records Oxford Street, 1988, Photo pass from The Garage 2002. Fall badges. Paul Lewis

The Fall have played a huge part in my discovery of music and sadly (for me and many other Fall fans in the area), despite a live career spanning more than 40 years, The Fall never made a live appearance in High Wycombe – hence I offer them up as the greatest band NEVER to have performed in a town where so many other iconic names in the music industry have graced the likes of The Nag’s Head and Town Hall stages.

Firstly, I would like to pass on my sincere condolences to Mark’s family and friends. Plus, my heart goes out to the many Fall fanatics who will see Mark’s loss as potentially leaving a significant void in their lives.

In the days following Mark’s passing I have read numerous tributes and it is perhaps ironic (but not surprising to Fall fans), that he and The Fall will now gain wider recognition for their 40 years of constant output.

It was as recent as 12th January 2018 that I was able to ‘joke’ on Wycombe Sound’s Punkarolla radio show for suggesting a two hour Fall special. I was therefore grateful to host Andy Chalk for allowing me to indulge in The Fall on his show and on that particular occasion, send my best wishes to Mark, before playing the title track off the ‘New Facts Emerge’ album, released in the summer of 2017

Most Fall articles will pretty much write themselves. The check list/The Fall bingo, will read something like:

  • One constant name
  • X number of band members in Y number of years
  • Z number of albums
  • One of John Peel’s favourite bands, always different, etc
  • Girlfriends/Wives in the band
  • Punch-ups and knob twiddling on stage

So, bearing that in mind, I don’t intend to write a tribute as such. There are trained journalists who will be able to collate the necessary words and pictures and I’ll give some links at the foot of this article to a few of the many that I read in the first few days since Mark’s passing.

I discovered The Fall in 1978, via John Peel of course, (oops, one off the Bingo list) but despite keeping an eye out for local gigs involving the Manchester band, it wasn’t until the early 1980’s that I managed a trip to The Hammersmith Palais to witness them in person for the first time. I travelled up from the Wycombe area with my friend Martin.  It was the first gig I drove to having passed by driving test a few days before.

For Fall fanatics (and I know there are plenty), they will appreciate this was their ‘Hex Enduction Hour’ period.  However, I soon learnt that The Fall, unlike the majority of the other bands, didn’t ‘tour’ an album with a ‘standard’ set-list.  They would also throw in unreleased songs – with many still a work in progress.

The Fall – my poster from gig at Hammersmith Palais – 25th March 1982

Fascinated by their Palais appearance, a month later I drove to some weird nightclub venue in Oxford – getting there around 7pm to give me more chance of getting in without a ticket but then had to wait for more than a hour before the doors opened and then until about 11pm before the band came on stage.  The set at Oxford included at least three songs that were completely new to me. I particularly remember the mesmerising bass lines.  I wanted to hear these songs again.  I had to wait a few months before they were back in area for another gig (a marathon four or five bander Sunday night at The Lyceum) but needless to say the set-list had changed dramatically again and it was Monday morning before I got home.

The non-conformist set list, the random stage times and as I had now realised, an introduction at literally every gig by Mark E Smith during their opening number with his iconic slur – ‘Good Evening WE ARE THE FALL’, would become a trademark.

I was pretty much hooked from those first few gigs. All so different – The Palais gig seeing them able to sell out a major London venue and then a month later playing a dingy nightclub where you could, if you chose, stand as close to the stage as you dared.  It is a quality to be proud of and one that lasted throughout their career.

So, how many time have I seen The Fall? A question that I’ve been asked a few times over the years and several times since we lost MES.  I’ve actually lost count but from an old list I found while writing this article, the figure was well in excess of 50 by the mid 1990’s.  Yet, even that figure would not get me into ‘Fall nutter’ category.  Fall fans embraced the internet right from the early days and the lovingly created and maintained website is a remarkable archive and ongoing discussion place for all things The Fall.  Prior to this, the Fallnet mailing list proceeded all the Facebook and Twitter malarkey.  It was still going strong at the time of this post, close to 25 years after it was first set-up.

So, back to my point about The Fall being the greatest band NEVER to have played High Wycombe. The nearest venues to High Wycombe The Fall played at were in Slough (birthplace of famous Wycombe promoter Ron Watts).  The rather unassuming Slough Centre on the Farnham Road in the summer of 1986 was the first chance.  I recall being quite disappointed with the set and crowd reaction but went to The Town and County Club in Kentish Town the next night and they played seven encores!

The Fall returned to Slough for a festival in July 1992 and it wasn’t until 1996 that they finally made it to Aylesbury to play the Civic Centre – the same venue as used by Friars but a venue, for whatever reason, they had never previously played.

Slightly further field from High Wycombe, Reading was a regular location for Fall gigs – ranging from various appearances in front of 1,000’s at Reading Festival, to gigs in front of a few hundred-people crammed in at venues such as The Alleycat and The Fez Club. It was during a 1998 gig at one of those latter venues that I witnessed the shear tenacity of MES to carry on regardless.  Unfamiliar, at that stage, with what had gone on a few days earlier in the USA, the gig was played out with a completely unfamiliar line-up and when the songs fell apart, a guitar was handed around the front row to help out.

I have to confess, the chaos of that night, temporally put my fascination of The Fall on hold. I attended a few gigs in London in the next couple of years but like watching a football team I came away thinking that I didn’t really enjoy it that much but I’ll just go along to the next game and hope things got better.

It was after travelling to see Wycombe Wanderers play their final game of the 2001/2 season at Swindon that myself and a few friends decided that seeing The Fall could be a perfect antidote for seeing our team enter that ‘difficult period’. We arrived in London from Swindon by train and made our way to The Garage venue at Highbury Corner.  Approaching the doors sometime around 7.30pm, it was obvious the gig was in high demand.  The problem was we had no tickets and The Fall, by this stage, were not the band to attract the usual low life London ticket touts – although I would have appreciated them at this stage.  I joked to the others that I had attended Fall gigs previously and the band had gone for drinks in a bar close to the venue.  They might have spare tickets.  We randomly selected a fairly awful pub/wine bar just across the road from the venue.  It was relatively quiet – most gig punters were now in the venue.  We ordered our drinks and then realised that Mark E Smith was sitting across the room with a non-band member.  I can’t say I was star-stuck to say something but perhaps more shy or afraid of a negative reaction.  A friend in our group, better known to us as ‘Oily Sailor’, was less shy.  Being considerably younger, he was less of a Fall fan and wasn’t bothered what response he would get from MES.  The next thing we know is that ‘Oily’ is having a conversation with MES, explaining that the two ‘old gits’ at the bar are massive Fall fans but don’t have tickets.  Almost without hesitation, MES pulled out two photo passes for the gig and handed them over.  It made the two ‘old gits’ very happy and I felt it only fair that I took a few photos of a gig that completely restored my loving of the band.

It was the beginning of another period of amazing creativity for The Fall and one where MES would eventually settle on a fairly stable line-up (by Fall standards) for his band. Fall fans will argue forever about what their favourite album or track is but from that period the ‘Fall Heads Roll’ long player is generally regarded as a classic.  I never tire of seeing and hearing the version of ‘Blindness’ on Jools Holland in 2005 and wondering what on earth Mr Holland is thinking about the sound emanating from the keyboard.

The Fall may not have been everyone’s cup of tea and of course musical tastes are very much subjective. I once ‘treated’ my partner Jane (pregnant with our daughter) to a Fall performance at Cricklewood. For me it was right at a high point of The Fall’s musical output.  I have to confess the sound that night was loud.  The bass was thudding away so much it vibrated right through your stomach.  Jane had to leave some of the gig because she said she ‘felt sick’.  Her post-gig review was that it was, ‘just a noise’.  Pretty accurate and perhaps a complement?  I didn’t admit that I had seen other Fall gigs that had made me feel sick.

I recall MES describing Fall fans as ‘Salt of the Earth’ and it is Fall fans who will be best placed to attempt to explain the diverse range of output of the past 40 years. However, remember, if you are a non-Fall fan then don’t consider criticising The Fall – only Fall fans have that option.  We will defend the band to the very end – and returning the football analogy, that’s exactly what we often do with the football team you support.

However, it always seems strange to me that The Fall sometimes were on the end of criticism from those that confessed to be lovers of ‘punk’ and other diverse musical genres. Perhaps it was the characteristic of Mark E Smith never to be drawn into the importance of style or image?  MES and The Fall were very much anti-fashion.  It is certainly a credit to MES that The Fall never became a lame tribute to themselves, playing ‘greatest hits’ set-lists or following the usual rock conventions.  He performed, created and evolved constantly in the 40 plus years since he formed The Fall.  The Fall influence has been and will be felt for years to come – for Fall fans we know that already, for others you have that to come.

Goodbye Mark. It was an absolute pleasure to have been a small part of witnessing The Fall journey.

Bill is Dead – The Fall – Snub TV

Blindness – The Fall – Jools Holland – 2005

Further reading on The Fall

My photos from the gig at The Garage 2002 – note email address on this page is no longer valid but you can contact me via this website.

Tributes and obituaries

2 thoughts on “The greatest band NEVER to have played High Wycombe”

  1. I was quite surprised when we spoke the day M.E.S. died Paul when you said the March 1982 Hammersmith Palais gig was your first too as I recall you being a fan well before I was. That was a great night with 3 excellent bands. I recall both of us passed our driving tests around the same time, which opened up a whole new world of driving places to see bands – the first 2 early excursions being WOMAD to see the Bunnymen and The Beat at Shepton Mallet in July 1982 and then Deeside 2 months later for the Futurama Festival with New Order, Nico, March Violets, The Damned and many others. I recall you heading to Manchester the next year to see The Fall at the Hacienda followed the next day by The Cure doing a festival gig at the tiny Moles Club in Bath. There were a lot of Saturdays for us where a match would be followed by a gig by the Fall. In addition to the ones you mentioned in 1988 I went to QPR v Nottingham Forest and then was off to Sadlers Wells for the last night of ‘I am Kurious Oranj’ with you (and Buzz I think). There’s really not much that beats a match and then a gig on a Saturday afternoon/evening! I was pleased to hear that Hearts played ‘Edinburgh Man’ over their tannoy today and Bradford City ‘Sparta F.C.’ – highly appropriate. The best tribute I’ve seen so far is the shrine building up outside ‘Bargain Booze’ in Prestwich (see photo) . They must be worried about their economic future now that one of their best customers is no more! Martin. PS Great to see the ‘Cigs smoked here’ Fall badge (made by Better Badges)

    1. Great comments Martin and a fantastic picture outside an iconic northern shop.

      I recall seeing the Kurious Orange show at Sadlers Wells and being apprehensive about what to expect in such plush surroundings. By the end of the evening we regretted going for the cheap seats near the back of the stalls and returned the following weekend in seats as close to the front as we could find available. I’m sure in years to come that show will be looked back on as an artistic masterpiece.

      In my relative haste in posting my initial tribute to MES, I failed to mention a genuine High Wycombe connection – former High Wycombe schoolboy and resident Adrian Sherwood.

      It was back on the very first Punkarolla show in November 2016 that Andy Chalk called me in for my radio debut and desperate to knife and fork a Fall reference in, I was delighted to discover that Sherwood (most famous for his work with the On-U Sound record label) had worked with the band on at least two occasions – the 1981 Slates EP (due to Sherwood’s connection with Rough Trade records), and then a couple of tracks on the 1990 Extricate album.

      Sherwood DJ’ed at The Newlands Club in the mid 1970’s and later became involved in the live music scene around the time of the 1976/77 punk explosion and starting gigging with Creation Rebel Sound System – they appeared with The Slits at a High Wycombe Town Hall gig in December 1979.

      As I was to find, Sherwood was involved in the Middlemass track from Slates and apparently recorded the sound through a toilet! His ‘Extricate’ input included producing the title track, plus the classic ‘British People in Hot Weather’. Some links below

      Middlesmass – The Fall – 1981

      British People in Hot Weather – The Fall – 1990

      Adrian Sherwood’s tribute via Facebook

      Sherwood recalls Slates

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