The Marquee, Wardour Street, London 1984
Shoulders hunched against the bitter night, I stood waiting in a queue of scruffy, punkish punters lining Wardour Street, waiting for the doors to open. I stared at the arched brick facade and red lowercase lettering over the door. Practically everyone had played the Marquee, from Bowie to the Sex Pistols and knowing this gave me a little surge of excitement as I followed the others into its subterranean interior, got a drink and found a corner.
Sitting there in the dark watching the others gather, mix and flirt was fascinating. English boys had all the lines. I listened to them laugh and chat and take the piss out of each other, their speech peppered with slang that was exotic and unfamiliar. English girls were intimidating, ivory-skinned creatures who seemed difficult to impress. Perhaps they’d heard all these lines once too often.
A noisy band from Rochdale took the stage and I joined the warm, chaotic press of people up front. When The Fall came on an hour later, the crowd erupted with a violent push forward and I thought my heart might keep going right through my chest. It was the first time I’d seen The Fall live and watching them walk onstage was an electric moment. Brix in a leather cap and army shirt, hair shorn at the sides with a shock of blonde fringe and Mark E. Smith so small up there in a scruffy jumper of no particular colour.
Fixing himself to the mic stand, he stared through the crowd and launched into Totally Wired, singing like a man allergic to music. Over pneumatic drums and stabs of fractious guitar, he yipped and seethed, twitchy and fretful: I drank a jar of coffee, and then I took some of these. At one point he morphed into that embarrassing uncle we all somehow own, with a pissed-up wedding singalong: My heart and I agree … To say that Mark E. Smith sings like no-one on the planet would be something of an understatement.
There is nothing comfortable about The Fall. They are sharper than a poke in the eye and every bit as alarming. Their songs generally contain some degree of danger or risk or some sort of challenge, and this is to be celebrated as we continue to steep in deathless Top 40 dross. Even those who hate The Fall can agree that their sound is absolutely and unmistakably their own. Who else could have crafted the particular piece of over-caffeinated genius that is Totally Wired?
They were well into their set by now and the front rows pulsed and reached like a giant sea-creature with a hundred grappling arms. A scuffle broke out nearby and I looked around for an escape, though I knew this was impossible with everyone rammed in so tight. I could literally have lifted my feet and been carried like a leaf downstream. With a rising sense of panic, I searched for a way out, trying to avoid the shoving frenzy going on beside me.
The fight between a long-haired boy and a few shaved ones escalated with the sudden fury of three against one. Violence between tribal factions of youth culture was commonplace at gigs back then. Punks and headbangers were scrappy and disruptive, but skinheads could be counted on for random acts of brutality. I hated the way they infected the atmosphere and destroyed the spell of the music.
I gave up trying to escape and stood by helplessly. There was a snap of fist on bone, a burst of flesh and the boy sank beneath a sea of heads and shoulders. When a surge forced me back, I used its momentum to keep going; ploughing my way to the side before the crowd heaved forward again, covering all trace of the fallen boy. From the safety of the margins I watched the last few songs, wondering if he was all right. Someone must have helped him up – I kept hoping so – or he would surely be trampled to death by now.
The band walked off. There were no encores and the crowd began its slow, self-ruining drift. I headed for the place I’d seen him last, but all I found was blood on the floor. People had scrambled through it leaving sticky prints in every direction, like a contaminated crime scene. Another fresh fight, another row, right, right, right, right and I’m totally wired…
© Maria Majsa