In the mid 1980s, the Jazz Butcher several times played as the support act for The Fall. Two of these bring back excruciatingly embarrassing memories. There may well have been more than two, but I’ve managed to block any others out.
Nothing against them, mind. I like The Fall, always have. Not easy listening, granted, but songs of genuine substance and intelligence and spat out with a vitriol that captured the zeitgeistlike nothing else at the time.
I’m not sure why we were such frequently favoured guests of theirs (on the surface there wasn’t a lot of common ground musically, although our singer could also do vitriol when the fancy took him). I suspect it had to do with our single, Southern Mark Smith, which initiated a rapport between our singer Pat Fish and Mark E Smith. They were not the most likely of 80s pop bedfellows but hit it off pretty well.
I was already friendly with their drummer Karl Burns. He once sold me a couple of tasty crash cymbals at a knock-down price. It later transpired they weren’t, strictly speaking, his to sell. They were the band’s property: and the band was, effectively, Mr Smith. Fortunately he never found out about the deal. If he had I’d have been smacked in the chops by Mr – rather than Mrs – Mark E Smith. And that would have hurt an awful lot more, as many others could testify.
I think the first time we supported them was at Loughborough University. It was June 1984. It was all going well until the last song, when I…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Most drummers will be familiar with the problem of the walking drumkit. When you hammer on a bass pedal for an hour it has a tendency to inch forwards, in spite of the spurs that are meant to stabilise it. It’s not usually a big deal: you just drag it back towards you every couple of songs. At Loughborough, however, the helpful roadies had an alternative solution. Once the kit was set up, they nailed a block of wood in front of the bass drum, rendering it immovable.
It seemed like a splendid idea until the laws of physics threw a curved ball. As I bashed away at the drum, it stayed put. The drum-stool was not, however, anchored. The pressure that would otherwise have pushed the kit forwards was now pushing the stool backwards. So I just pulled it forwards a couple of inches after each song. Again, not a big problem – until the last song, which was very loud and very long. I think it was our cover of Jonathon Richman’s Roadrunner.
I was edging backwards as usual but, due to the intensity of the song, faster than before. Back I went: then a bit further…
Suddenly, I was gone. The drum-stool tipped off the back of the platform and the drummer followed. The ridiculous spectacle was witnessed by everyone in the room, with the exception of my three colleagues who were, of course, facing the other way. But not for long. I can still see their bewildered expressions as I stuck my head up over the edge of the stage. Where’s he gone? Oh, there he is – bloody drummers…
They kept thrashing away at their guitars (what else could they do?). I clambered back up to the kit and the pulsating Roadrunner resumed. I was bruised but otherwise unscathed – apart from my pride, that is: and that’s the one that can take the longest time to heal.
Let’s wind forwards nine months to March 1985. We’re supporting The Fall again, in Hammersmith Town Hall. By this time the two groups had done a few shows together. We weren’t bosom buddies but the relationship was congenial enough.
There are positives and negatives to being the support band. Yes, it gets you access to a wider audience; but generally it’s an audience that’s at best indifferent to you. You’re not the act that they paid to see. Then again, we did have our own little hard-core following by this point. Not enormous, but enthusiastic. What they lacked in voluminosity they made up for in volume.
The chief disadvantage of the support slot, however, tends to be the sound. Forgive my cynicism, but I’m convinced that there was sometimes a deliberate ploy to ensure that opening act’s front-of-house sound was inferior to that of the headliners in order to whip up the audience’s enthusiasm for the main band and make them sound that much sharper.
As for the monitor sound, whilst close attention was paid to every detail of the main act’s requests for their fold-back mixes, nobody gave a toss about what the opening musicians could or couldn’t hear. And of those musicians, the very lowest in the monitor pecking order was, inevitably, the drummer.
I once did an American tour with David J and Max Eider, supporting the young, up-and-coming PJ Harvey, whose drummer’s kit was about the size of my living room. Their sound-checks took forever. We were often left with less than half an hour to set up our gear and try to get a half-decent sound, both for the house and the stage. It was very frustrating.
But, once again, I digress.
Back in Hammersmith, my repeated requests to be allowed to hear the singer just enough to have some idea of where we were in the song, or indeed which song it was, fell, inevitably, on deaf ears.
Despite this, our set went down well. Our small but intense fan-base had ensconced themselves in front of the stage and their beaming faces were in stark contrast to the stony, sulky demeanours of the row upon row of post-punk nihilists behind them: no self-respecting Fall fan would assume any other expression.
Nonetheless the gig was, for me, an ordeal. It’s not possible to enjoy playing drums when you can hear neither the singer, nor the guitar, nor the bass, nor even your own voice. In spite of the cheers at the end, I was pissed off – seriously so.
I picked up my sticks in one hand and my beer in the other and stomped off the stage ahead of my colleagues. Behind the main hall there was a long municipal corridor with several identical doors. I reached the one which I believed to be our dressing room and, having no free hands, kicked it open. I kicked it aggressively, as you do when you’re fresh off stage and in a mood like that.
It wasn’t our dressing room. It was The Fall’s.
Crouched behind the door, Brix Smith was making the final adjustments to the tuning of her new and very expensive semi-acoustic guitar. The door sent both guitar and guitarist flying. There was, as they say, a moment of stunned silence.
I muttered something inane like ”Shit. Sorry. Wrong room”.
Brix got to her feet and stood facing me. The puzzled look on her face suggested she was considering what level of retaliation this merited. Then her expression changed to one of decisiveness and she thumped me.
It was a decent right hook with a bit of an uppercut: she’s shorter than me, so it had a diagonally upwards trajectory. With both hands full, my defensive guard was pathetic. Plus, she had the element of surprise. Nor am I much of a brawler. Her fist connected with the left side of my chin.
It was by no means a full-force punch: it was intended to punish but not annihilate. I sensed that she’d done this before and knew just how much power to use given the nature of the offence and the physique of her opponent. It didn’t knock me over but it staggered me. The point had been made.
I decided to leave it at that. I said ‘sorry’ again and retreated.
We made up later. Their set had been a storming success and the back-stage vibe was one of lager-fuelled bonhomie. Pat was keen to congratulate them afterwards and, rather timidly, I tagged along. With some trepidation, I approached Brix. One good thing about having a relationship start with a punch on the face is that it can only get better. There were mutual apologies which turned to laughter. She was lovely.
Later that year she put me on the guest-list for their Hammersmith Palais show. They were fantastic that night, perhaps the best Fall gig I ever saw. She’d left a couple of back-stage passes on the door. After the concert I had another beer at the bar and waited for what I considered a decent interval (I’m all for the punk open-dressing-room policy but I think it’s polite to give the musicians a few minutes to come down at the end of a show before invading their space).
I finished my beer and made my way backstage to The Fall’s dressing room. I knocked on the door and then opened it – but very, very carefully…
Owen Jones, August 2020
• For more on The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy, please click here
• For The Imp of Groeningen, also by Owen Jones, please click here
• For more on Owen’s current band, Shakespeare and the Bible, please click here
The photo of Mark E Smith and Brix Smith is © The Ransom Note.