Monday, 19 February 2018


"So, how's the diet going?"

The question as to whether extrinsic or intrinsic motivation is the more effective, is one of those circular debates, like the nature versus nurture conundrum, that can never adequately be proven either way. Despite repeated scholarly musings over the fullness of time, in most instances, we are forced to fall back on mere anecdote to explain our conclusions or viewpoint.

For instance, take our cats: Paw Paw and Tromszo. The former was found as a stray, living in the back alley behind a ropey chip shop on Prudhoe Street in North Shields. When we took him in, he was scrawny, wild eyed and nervous. Four years on he’s placid, affectionate and content to spend most of his days indoors, snuggling up to either of us or contentedly sleeping on the chaise longue. Obviously, it’s our nurturing that has transformed his personality. Meanwhile Tromszo was born across the road as part of Misty’s 2015 litter. She’s moved literally 100 yards from place of birth to permanent residence, where she is loved and indulged, on the rare occasions she is indoors. You see most of Tromszo’s days are spent hunting, killing and devouring mice, bank voles, the occasional bird and even rats, though she draws the line at eating the slaughtered long tails. When she’s not on manoeuvres, she picks fights with other local cats, especially her timid beau Junior and fecund sister Rogue who also lives a few doors away. Surely, we haven’t taught her behave in such a way? Of course not; however, she could well have inherited such base and murderous instincts from the genes of her itinerant sex machine father Feral Errol, who is the alpha male feline Fritzl of NE30. Nature undoubtedly wins out in Tromszo’s case.

And so; motivation. Let us not confuse it with ambition, targets or goals. For instance, I want to be the best writer I can, which is why I spend a great deal of time over my blogs, polishing and refining them before inflicting them on the public. Too many bloggers publish their grammatically aberrant thoughts without so much as a cursory proofread; that is an insult to readers and a failure in their craft. Such attention to detail on my part is what I see as a major part of my ambition to constantly improve, which I’m hoping to demonstrate with this piece, especially in the time between the completion of my first draft and the eventual published version.

Moving on, my target for summer 2018 is to play social, rather than competitive cricket, in the midweek league. It is a modest target, but potentially attainable, if I can squeeze into slightly too snug-fitting whites. Hence my goal is to lose as much weight as possible before the season starts in mid-May. The NHS BMI calculator suggests a person of my height ought to be looking at an upper weight limit of 12st 9lb, which I’ve probably not been since I was about 16 and seems a ludicrously unrealistic target. Instead, I’ve set myself the goal of losing 70lb, over the whole of 2018. That’s 5 stones and, at the point of writing, I’ve shifted a stone and a half thus far. Not a bad start, but there’s still a hell of a long way to go, as I’m still very obese and simply can’t bear to look at photographic evidence of how awful I continue to look. This stinging self-loathing will continue to drive me on, as much as the positive comments, support and help I get from my wonderful friends.

My method of choice, intended to help me achieve my goal is the elite transform project, which combines 3 gym sessions a week, 3 other days of cardio “homework” (cycling mainly in my case) and a stringent no carb diet, from which I am enjoying a scheduled week off, though I’m still intending to eat properly and get as much exercise as possible. I must admit I’m looking forward to sneaking a few beers and some naughty foods in here and there, before getting back in the saddle on Tuesday 26th February for another 6 weeks and, potentially, another 15 weeks after that. If I reach my goal sooner than anticipated, great. If it takes longer to achieve, so be it; at least I’m more active and learning just what benefits even a modest amount of fitness can do.

Hence, I have demonstrated the distinctions between my current ambitions, targets and goals. But what are the reasons behind these three tangible and intangible monoliths? What is my fundamental motivation? Putting it bluntly; I wish to achieve personal, emotional and intellectual revenge on those who have judged, derided and dismissed me. Without even mentioning it to those self-appointed arbiters of my worth as a human being, much less attempting to engage these terminally hard of thinking, rude mechanicals with scabrous social media accounts in debate, I want to be able to look myself in the mirror and know I have proved the doubters, naysayers and boorish, baldy, imbarrathin reprobates, along with their lickspittle enablers, who circle me like tricoteueses bearing nests of vipers, wrong.  So, this is for you: the Winston Wolves, the Bona Drag Popinjays, the Kriss-Kris-Chris South Tyneside Superfans, the Special School Soup Kitchen and the Marden Estate Falangists, not to mention the Big Florist and her Grasses.

A fortnight before Christmas, wasting time on social media when I should have been grafting, Facebook spat out one of those supposedly tailored adverts, masquerading as a suggested group I might want to join. It was for elite transform fitness, showing a bloke crossing the finishing line of a cross country race, covered head to toe in clarts, but throwing his arms up in triumph and grinning with immense pleasure. The accompanying blurb told me this fella, we’ll call him Steve, was 44 years old and had lost 93lb in a year with elite transform; that’s six and a half stones. The before and after photos showed him to have morphed from the kind of grotesque human space hopper you see in betting shops, takeaways and Wetherspoons in all the wrong places into a confident, trim, almost radiant middle-aged bloke who was clearly adoring life. Oh, how I envied him. And for once, I actually did something about it.

I did a quick Google search to find out if elite existed in these parts, as though I’d heard of people doing such a plan and achieving incredible successes, I had no knowledge of location or anything else. Finding out that there was a local outlet in NE6 spurred me on and I sent an email asking for more details. The day after, I got a call from the bloke who manages the place, telling me in no uncertain terms what the programme consisted of and the sacrifices I’d have to make. This was the unvarnished truth and I decided, through gritted teeth, this was the ideal time for me to grasp the nettle. Luckily, as I’ll return to in next week’s blog, a certain change in my employment status had opened up a window of opportunity that provided me with both the time to do this, not to mention the readies to pay for it. Basically, it’s £260 for 6 weeks of classes, three times a week, plus a diet plan and as much support as you need, with the incentive that if you shed 20lb, you got your money back. Being honest that was only a tiny part of the reason I signed up. The fact was I really wanted to be as happy as Steve in the advert, though I’d obviously swap a game of cricket for the cross country running.

I paid my cash and on Saturday 6th January, I headed to Hoult’s Yard in Byker for the induction. Being honest, it was highly intimidating walking in there for the first time. It didn’t get any easier when my fears were confirmed, and it became clear I was probably the oldest and fattest bloke there, though there were a couple of older and a couple of larger women. Much of the induction went over my head, partly because I couldn’t hear half of what was said, because of how fast the staff spoke and their words drifting upwards to the roof of the metal and concrete box we stood in. Anxiety coursed through my veins and I doubted I’d last the distance. Still slightly disorientated, I was weighed and then left with a timetable of classes. My first class was the following Tuesday at 5.30pm. In preparation, I went to see Benfield v Coleshill in the FA Vase, then for a few pints with Harry and on to my pal Lid’s 50th birthday do on the Saturday. It was my last hurrah and I got battered.

Predictably Sunday was a write-off and Monday was a hell of a shock as it marked the start of the diet. The first thing they ram home to you is hydration; you’ve got to guzzle between 2 and 5 litres of water a day and green tea is the only hot beverage you’re allowed. Basically, as far as food goes, it’s porridge for breakfast on the days you train and egg whites when you don’t. Lunch is almost always tuna and salad, which is no hardship and dinner is 3 days chicken and veg, 3 days fish and veg and, special treat, an omelette on Thursday. Strangely enough, I’ve always hated eggs, but in this short period of time I’ve grown accustomed to their taste and probably look forward to Thursday night the most of any in the week.

The last time I went on a sustained weight loss programme, back in 2005 when I shed 4 stones with Weight Watchers, I learned the need to be both fastidious and consistent in my food consumption. For 6 weeks I’ve lived without: pork, cheese, chips, bread, pizza, curries, pasta, crisps, biscuits, cake, alcohol and coffee. Most of those on the banned list are self-explanatory and I was prepared for their disappearance. Indeed, the hardest thing to do without was coffee, as I’m a lifelong beanhead; the caffeine withdrawal headaches, and the fact green tea is unhelpfully flavourless, though undeniably refreshing, made the first week a bit of a slog. Additionally, the change of diet made a marked impression on my toilet habits. Dirty green piss that verged on displaying a tinge of brown showed straightaway that I was losing fat, though the condition of my stools that initially resembled a kind of meconium paste were less reassuring. Of course, within a fortnight, things had settled down to the extent Gillian McKeith would have stood up to applaud every time I downloaded a fresh lot of software. I digress…

The dietary element is only one part of the elite transform programme. Of equal importance are the exercise classes; even if you lose 20lb in a week, you must attend all 18 sessions if you want to claim your money back. Gulping hard, sweating nervously and fearing ridicule, I opened the door to my first session. At the time it was agony and, when I start it all over again next week, I’m sure it will be agony again. However, during the course of the 6 weeks I learned to love these punishing sessions, putting my increasing deafness to one side as I learned to follow what the rest of the class did rather than repeatedly asking for explanations. After a fortnight of falling asleep as soon as I got in from the classes, I began to deal with the aches and exhaustion, to the extent of even yearning for them on days I did not train. It was not so much that I got better, as there are certain exercises such as burpees and sit-ups whose mastery eludes me still, while my pacific nature ensures I’ll never be a natural at boxercise, but the incredible serotonin buzz that kicked in during week 2 drove me onwards. At first, I was focussed on the end of the programme and the chance to have a few beers and a curry; it was if I was doing time and couldn’t wait to be free again. Then, once I felt the euphoria of serotonin flooding my brain, I began to love the classes, however hard they were. I happily rose at 6.00 on a Monday for 7.30 classes, feeling justified and reassured when I saw Tynemouth captain Ben Debnam attending a 6.30 workout. At first, I worried about the walk back up the hill to Byker Metro being too far for me, but by week 5 I was itching to cycle to and from my classes, only to be thrown off course by the mother of all punctures at Willington Quay on Tuesday 13th February, that necessitated not only a new tyre, but a new back wheel as well. Ah well, there’s another 105 pounds I’ve lost….

I’ve not only made steps towards fitness, lost weight and inches, as well as improving my mental wellbeing. Before Christmas I was a tearful, angst-ridden emotional wreck; now I’m feeling confident, happy and almost content. I’m sleeping properly between 11 and 7 every night. My skin is almost clear of psoriasis placques and I feel wonderful. All of this has been achieved through the elite transform programme; even if I’d not made the 20lb loss, I’d have happily paid again such are the benefits I’ve gained from it.

Here’s something very telling about the elite transform programme; the trainers are simply wonderful people. The care, support and help they provide goes far beyond anything I had expected. They genuinely want you to succeed and, providing you put the graft in, they will support you every inch of the way. Never having done this sort of thing before, I was apprehensive about the attitude of others in my classes, fretting about sneering attitudes from perma-tanned, lycra-clad fitness fanatics. I needn’t have worried. At the outset, people are too concerned with their own fitness to waste energy on sneering at the old fat bloke with the ridiculous dreads.  Then, once you’ve been doing it for a couple of weeks, a genuine camaraderie and esprit de corps develops and we all supported each other through the rest of the course. For ideological reasons, I really wasn’t keen on boxercise at first, but it was absolutely key in building up trust, warmth and co-operation between us all. It is one of the reasons why I’d recommend elite transform to anyone.

When I came out after my final weigh-in on Friday 16th February, having hit the target and arranged to roll over my refund to pay for another 6-week programme, I literally could have burst into tears of joy. I felt so happy at what I’d achieved, though I was able to remain grounded as I know all I’ve completed is merely a single step on a journey of a thousand miles to my ideal weight. I’d initially expected I would have headed to Greggs on Shields Road and demolished what they had on offer, but instead I came home for a coffee and a slice of gorgeous chocolate birthday cake that Laura, who has been inspirational and the reason why I stayed on track, had made for Ann. At night, I treated myself to 4 pints of Bass in The Lodge; thankfully I hadn’t lost the taste for it. Yes, it seems wildly indulgent compared to the previous 6 weeks of eating to train, rather than training to eat, but that was nowt compared to how it used to be.

Over the week to come, I intend to go out for a beer on a couple of occasions, though I won’t be rounding the evening off with a deep fried, battered kebab meat pizza with cheesy chips. I’ll also look to do at least 50 miles on the bike, as well as fitting in a couple of games of five a side. It’ll all be very pleasant, but what I’m looking forward to most of all, is 5.30pm on Tuesday 27th February when the classes start again.

Let’s all raises our glasses (of green tea) and drink to that!

Monday, 12 February 2018

Passive Voices

The new issue of the ever brilliant The Football Pink is available from  and you really ought to buy it, not just for my piece below about the failure of Newcastle United fans to step up to the mark when it comes to the vexed question of fan ownership. No doubt the supposed anguish at the failed bid by Amanda Staveley has been replaced by passive quiescence to the established order on the back of 3 points against Manchester United.

Ever since Mike Ashley made the announcement at the tail end of summer 2016 that he was keen to sell Newcastle United, both the media and the club’s support in general have been focused almost exclusively on trumpeting uncritical encomia about the consortium led by Amanda Staveley, which was repeatedly described as “the only show in town.” Being honest I don’t know huge amounts about Staveley, other than she’s a fabulously wealthy, unapologetic, far right Tory (is there any other kind?), who dropped out of her degree after ending up in a secure hospital with severe stress. Consequently, I don’t like her politics, but I do sympathise with her earlier mental health travails. I’m also very uncomfortable with any efforts on social media, however ham-fistedly humorous their intent, to objectify her as a kind of foxy Croesus, sex symbol, as that demeans her gender.

However, as a Newcastle United fan, the most relevant thing for me about her is the role she occupies as the public face of the obscure, possibly secretive, Middle Eastern syndicate that apparently sought and failed to buy the club from Mike Ashley. I may be naïve in this, but I would hope to know the finer points of each integral element of the collective cash rich oligarchs intending to purchase my club, before any deal was complete, so I could decide whether I am happy to give them my moral support and blessing. Strangely, this appeared to be an opinion far out of step with other Magpie supporters, many of whom grew giddy at either the thought of another freebie pint and selfie with Chris Mort, or the chance to give Manchester City a run for their money next season.

Let’s be honest about this; the decade and a bit of Ashley’s ownership of NUFC, when taken as a whole, has been nothing short of a disaster. We are no nearer challenging for honours than we were the day Glenn Roeder offered his resignation in May 2007. While there have been momentary, almost illusory vignettes of joy along the way: the genuine collective effort of Chris Hughton’s bunch of lads, the unexpected swagger from Pards’ 4-3-3 set up in the season we finished 5th and the surreal joy found on those occasions when the team really clicks, and we remember it’s Rafa Benitez managing them, all too often it’s been a litany of embarrassment and incompetence on and off the pitch: Sports Direct Arena, the Keegan court case, Shefki Kuqi replacing Andy Carroll, Pards headbutting Mayler, Carver’s press conferences, drip fed bullshit via Sky Sports, Llambias streaking, Kinnear bladdered on Talk Sport, transfer inaction and the constant sense that the club is being run as a cash cow for Ashley, like a down at heel market stall knocking out snide gear for the gullible and brainless.

Bearing in mind everything I’ve just said, I can understand exactly why so many Newcastle supporters will accept any takeover, regardless of who is behind it, as a preferable state of affairs to Ashley’s continued presence on Tyneside. I accept it is not just the servile sheep in the Sports Direct anoraks or the social media superfans who incessantly shout down, deride and abuse anyone who dares voice anything other than unblinking, unthinking loyalty to Benitez first of all, and now Staveley, who feel like this, but enormous numbers of ordinary, normal, proper fans, grown sick to the back teeth of seeing their club made a laughing stock and used as a punchbag by shady, shiftless shithouses. I am fully aware that in a capitalist world, dirty money is universal and clean is scarce, though I do not expect that a person as well-regarded as Staveley, would seek to surround herself with fellow travellers that are the likes of Somalian pirates, Russian Mafiosi, South American drug lords or construction company executives making literal and metaphorical killings on the back of the World Cup in Qatar. Obviously, the nature of international trade links means that if one were to unravel the minutiae of every major world business deal, there would be many unpleasant skeletons in the cupboard; realistically and pragmatically, that is the kind of ethical compromise one is forced to make. Is that essentially any different to calling out Ashley over his shameful employment practices at his Shirebrook warehouse? I’m not so ideologically pure as to demand 100% ethical investments from those trying to buy the club, but there are certain standards of decency and probity that must be adhered to. Agreed?

At this juncture though, we must pause to sadly note that during the labyrinthine, glacially-paced takeover discussions, any recognition of the concept of fan ownership was now seen as about as relevant an item on the current agenda as proportional representation is to the Brexit Omnishambles. There isn’t a journalist, fan or interested party who has shown any awareness of, much less any inclination towards vouching for an expression of fan ownership in Newcastle United going forward. That’s not just a shame or a pity; it’s a disgrace and a betrayal of the founding principles of Newcastle United’s Supporters Trust, who first coalesced in the wake of Kevin Keegan’s forced departure in September 2008, which was little over a year into Ashley’s disastrous ownership.

Both NUST, whose relevance and profile flatlined sometime around mid-2010, and the loose amalgam that is NUFC Fans United who stepped into the void created by NUST’s abeyance, have said from the very outset they wanted, nay demanded, an element of fan ownership in the club and fan representation on the board. Or at least they used to say that. Sadly, you’d have to look pretty closely at the small print on their websites for any mention of fan ownership or representation in documents and postings made since takeover talk began around October time. Sure, Fans United, and to a lesser extent NUST, do wonderful work with the NUFC Foodbank, as well as supporting the other praiseworthy initiatives by mirror-image supporter groups regarding flag displays in both the Gallowgate and Leazes at home games, but for the good of the club, wouldn’t it be preferable for them to advance an agenda that urges and possibly enables the average fan to be more of an active participant than a passive volunteer? However, the unfortunate and unavoidable truth that history tells us about Newcastle United and fan ownership, is that the support’s attitude to the owners, when real power is within reach, has never been characterised by decisive action, but by the adoption of a mien that can be at best described as obsequious and at worst servile.

Three times in their history, Newcastle United have been the subject of actual or potential share issues. Following the establishment of the club, after Newcastle East End took over the lease on St. James’ Park on 9th December 1892, Newcastle United was set up as a private limited company on 6th September 1895. The original share capital raised was the nominal amount of £1,000, with individual share certificates sold at the princely sum of £1 each. The club traded on this basis for much of the 20th century, dominated by the ownership of the McKeag, Westwood and Seymour dynasties, whereby one or other scion of those storied families would, in due course, accede to the titular stewardship of what Gordon McKeag referred to as “the family silver,” with little or any credible opposition to the status quo. Hearing the Leazes sing “Westwood is a pirate” or noting the Seymour’s got AIDS graffito on Boot Boy Alley betwixt the Gallowgate and East Stand was about as far as it got in terms of organised protest back in the day, until unreconstructed venture capitalist John Hall, freshly minted with barrowloads of unearned new money from building the Metro Centre, formed The Magpie Group with the ultimate intention of taking control from L’Ancien Regime on Barrack Road, with a vague promise to “give the club back to the fans.”  To do this, in fact to do anything, he needed to get his hands on enough of the old-style shares to earn a place at the directors’ table.

Now, if the British government could manage to lose hundreds of classified documents about the Northern Irish peace process, the Exchange Rate Mechanism and a paedophile ring involving many Tory MPs during the past 30 years, it’s fairly likely that a football club that had been kicking their ball around on a public park off Walker Road ten years previously, wouldn’t have compiled and maintained detailed or even vaguely accurate records pertaining to club ownership. Hall and his pals, including unfunny comedians Bobby Pattinson and Spike Rawlins, went around buying up shares from aged spinsters in Jesmond and Gosforth whose well-off mercantile fathers had been small investors in those late Victorian days. The fundamental problem for the would-be takeover bid members was not all the share certificates could be located. For every original certificate found gathering dust in a Lever arch file in the bottom drawer of a period dresser on Holly Avenue or Rothwell Road, another half a dozen were probably in locked deposit boxes under the watchful care of solicitors unaware as to the precious nature of the contents with which they had been entrusted.

To solve a seeming impasse, in an almost revolutionary gesture of ambition, McKeag and the rest of the NUFC board launched plans for a potential share issue in November 1990, to raise funds for the club. A semi-glossy brochure was prepared and mailed to all season ticket holders (approximately 5,000 in those days), fans who’d even bought a pencil sharpener in the club shop, and all potential business investors in the north. Included in the pack was a postcard to be returned by all those who expressed an interest in investing. I sent mine back, of course, but not many others did. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the project failed to get off the ground in a hideously embarrassing fashion; so low was the level of potential interest that the board pulled the plug on the whole scheme, reflecting not only the low stock of the club in those days, but the reluctance of fans to do anything tangible to move the club forwards. It has cost something like £100k for the whole failed project; the kind of money Newcastle United were spending on players in 1990/1991.

While Newcastle United had suffered the indignity of failing to meet the reserve price and being withdrawn from auction, the fans had simply failed to step up to the mark. Sitting on the concrete steps of the Gallowgate chanting “Sack the Board” or muttering into their pints while boycotting the game was a far easier option than activism or organisation for the overwhelming majority. Being honest though, the late 1980s and early 90s were pretty lousy times on Tyneside; Waddle, Beardsley and Gascoigne were all sold to fund the building of the Milburn Stand, while the team nosedived to relegation in 1989, lost a play-off to Sunderland in 1990, had an average crowd of 16k in 1991 and were 2 games from demotion to Division 3 in 1992 until the Kevin Keegan cavalry rode into town to save the day. In a kind of Faustian football pact, Keegan’s arrival was only made possible when John Hall, who bought 72.9% of the club for £3 million in 1991 from the utterly discredited McKeag family. What happened in the next half a decade is the stuff of dreams and nightmares; half a decade of near perfection on the pitch, underscored by a bitter remembrance of heroic, if not tragic, failure and an unbreakable bond of unity off the pitch that fissured fatally when Keegan left in January 1997.

Capitalists, by nature and by definition, are not philanthropists. Their loyalty is always to the profit motive and their personal pocket, so after the sporting adventure of the Premier League saw the stakes getting even higher than one family could sustain, John Hall decided to float Newcastle United on the stock exchange as a public limited company. The machinations behind the scenes in preparation for this move sickened Keegan and he quit in early 1997, tired of less than subtle interference in the day to day running of the team and a whispering campaign allegedly orchestrated by Mark Corbidge, a man hired by Hall to facilitate the floatation. Stunned fans still sought to get behind the new manager Kenny Dalglish and pledged money for shares in a flotation that was vastly oversubscribed in the early spring of 1997. In my case, these were the only shares I had ever sought to own; I bought them not out of avaricious desire, but to reinforce that indefinable sense of belonging one has to one’s club.

This was not an equal sale; indeed, some investors were considerably more equal than others. Although less than half the shares were sold to the Hall family, the majority holding went to his business partner Freddy Shepherd. Any notion of a democratically constituted, fan owned club was blown out the water by the final figures, which revealed that the Hall and Shepherd axis owned more than 76% of all shares, effectively blocking any moves by shareholders to significantly influence the club’s direction. Certain motions came up for debate at each AGM, but in spite of such appallingly indiscreet scandals as the Toongate sting in early 1998, Shepherd and Hall’s dauphin, his eldest son Douglas, were effectively fireproof.  It was akin to the Trade Union block vote that controlled the Labour Party conference in the 1970s and early 80s; there was debate and dissent in the room, but when the votes were weighed in, nothing ever changed.

Having made his pile, John Hall stepped down as NUFC chairman and was replaced by Shepherd, with the Hall family still represented on the board by John's son “my boy” Douglas. In December 1998, after buying a 6.3% stake in the club for £10 million, the media group NTL considered a full takeover of the club, though this was later dropped after issues raised in April 1999 by the Competition Commission, which had been brought in due to government concerns about football clubs being owned by media companies. Rather ironic considering how Mike Ashley’s only mode of communication is through infrequent, soft-touch interviews on Sky Sports

For the next few seasons the club struggled on, with Douglas Hall the sometimes absent and always silent eminence grise of Newcastle’s board and Freddy Shepherd the anguished public face of the club, giving a public performance that often resembled a synthesis of Peter Finch’s role as Howard Beale in Network combined with Al Pacino’s portrayal of Tony Montana in Scarface. Regardless of managerial appointments, from the good in Sir Bobby Robson, the bad in Graeme Souness and the banal in Glen Roeder, the backstage story was always one of a race for profits and a struggle to balance the books. Misjudgements that bordered on incompetence left the club on the brink of a Leeds United style financial meltdown. Thus, it was no surprise to football financial analysts when, in the summer of 2007, Mike Ashley purchased the combined stakes of both Douglas and John Hall, through the paper company St James Holdings, with a view to buy the rest, by making a written offer to all shareholders. Resistance was futile, and Ashley owned 95% of the club by 11th July 2007, forcing the remaining shareholders to sell their shares. I got back the exact amount of money I’d invested 10 years previous; and since that point there has been no kind of fan ownership or representation on the board of Newcastle United.

Whether Amanda Staveley and her consortium or Mike Ashley and his shower end up with the reins of power at St. James’ Park, is immaterial as it seems the support have no desire to be anything more than willing serfs, paying handsomely to be entertained by those they continue to make even richer with each passing week. That’s a very, very depressing thought, but what is worse, it’s demonstrably the truth.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Kill Yr Idols

Amidst the usual cacophonous clamour from Sy James' Park, news came last week of the continuing investigation into deeply troubling reports of racism and bullying by Peter Beardsley towards the Under 23 players under his tutelage. I've penned a piece about this that will be in issue #25 of Stand that comes out this wyou really ought to buy -:

In February 2006, the Newcastle United fanzine I was writing for at that time asked me to pen a profile for the Tyneside Legends feature they ran in each issue back then.  Previously the likes of Colin Veitch, Jackie Milburn, Hughie Gallagher, Malcolm MacDonald, Kevin Keegan and Chris Waddle had been the subject under the spotlight, so the onus was on choosing a pretty special individual. Being given free rein, there was only ever one choice for me; Peter Beardsley. Looking back now from a dozen years distant, I have to say my piece was more than just uncritical; it was fawningly hagiographic, but I would defend my approach and my words to the hilt, as Beardsley is the single greatest footballer I have ever seen in a black and white shirt. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much of a chance that I’ll see his equal turning out for NUFC at SJP in my lifetime.

At around 3.30pm on Friday 17th March 2006, as we lolled around the office counting down the minutes until the weekend granted us freedom, I took a call on my mobile from my mate Gary who, at the time, was Newcastle United’s press officer. I presumed it was to firm up which non-league game we’d be watching on the Saturday as Newcastle’s home game with Liverpool was a Super Sunday pick. Au contraire; Gary said there was someone with him who wanted a word with me. Blow me down, within seconds Peter Beardsley was on the other end of the line, thanking me for what I’d written about him, in very humble terms I might add. We talked for about 5 minutes, not that I really took in what was said, which is possibly the only time I’ve had a positive response to one of my articles!

I cannot claim to know Peter Beardsley, but I have subsequently met him on numerous occasions; some positive, such as at Newcastle United community foundation events, some sombre, like Pavel Srnicek’s memorial service and some utterly coincidental, as he’s often to be found using our local Sainsbury’s and the Post Office at Four Lane Ends. On every occasion our paths have crossed, I’ve taken the chance to have a few words and he has been polite, friendly and eager to talk; a normal middle-aged bloke in an NUFC trackie, who just happens to be the most gifted footballer to come out of the North East since World War II. And yet, sadly, this does not tell the whole sorry story of why Peter Beardsley is back in the news and in grave danger of having his reputation denigrated by a litany of accusations against him that hint at disgraceful conduct, involving bullying and racism in his role as Under 23s coach with Newcastle United; a position from which he has currently agreed to take an extended period of leave.

Before this storm blew up, I was all set to write a piece suggesting NUFC’s pitiful record in bringing through young talent from our academy, and the frankly appalling results in almost all competitive fixtures by what are effectively the reserve sides at the club, could only be improved by dispensing with the services of Beardsley and his fellow coaches, who must take the blame for a dismal record of stagnant underachievement that outstrips even Rafa Benitez’s questionable performance with the first team. Obviously, as Peter would say, this raises the issue of whether absolutely top-notch players simply can’t cut it as coaches, as so much of their game was based on instinct rather than teaching. For instance, we could all take cello lessons and, if we practised properly, could managed to saw a tune out of the beast, though it’s a racing certainty none of us would find out we’re the next Jacqueline Du Pre.  When it comes to the upper echelons of sporting or artistic excellence, instinct rather than coaching is the essential factor that makes for genuine genius.

If one looks at the England team from the 1990 World Cup, the collective CV of those who went into management is somewhat less than impressive: Shilton, Pearce, Butcher, Robson, Waddle, Barnes, Wright and Gascoigne have all failed in every job they’ve had, while the rest didn’t even bother going into management. I suppose you could argue Bryan Robson and Stuart Pearce had some positive experiences at Middlesbrough and Man City respectively, while Terry Butcher, after his hilariously calamitous failure with Sunderland, kept popping up everywhere from Brentford to Inverness, achieving variable rates of success. However, the point is, of the 22 players who were involved with England’s best international performance since 1966, not one of them won a single honour in their post playing career.

And yet, that isn’t the story that I have to tell. Peter Beardsley has not only failed to guide and develop the young players under his command, with Paul Dummett being the sole NUFC academy product to make it into the first team squad, he has also apparently demotivated and denigrated certain others by means of a targeted campaign of vicious, verbal abuse that can only be viewed as bullying. Additionally, his use of casual racism, under the specious guise of “banter,” has resulted in complaints to the club’s senior management which precipitated Beardsley’s enforced period of gardening leave. To be frank, the club had no choice when 5 U23 players attested to Beardsley, who had taken the squad to an outward-bound centre to use a military style obstacle course, asking 2 African youth team players who were struggling with the task, “Why are you taking so long? Your lot should be good at this.”

Recently, stories have emerged about the toxic, fetid atmosphere and culture in Chelsea’s youth team set-up under the stewardship of Graham Rix and Gwyn Williams. Clearly Rix, with a criminal record that saw him serve time for sexual relations with a girl under the age of consent, has a considerably lower standing in the game than Beardsley. However, regardless of his reputation, the sheer hatred revealed by the unending torrent of racist abuse doled out to teenage lads who simply wanted to be footballers, made me feel almost physically sick when reading it. Rix and Williams came across like a pair of 1970s National Front boneheads screaming abuse from The Shed. I have no doubt that such behaviour cannot be tolerated in any civilised society; not only were the words and phrases meant to wound and humiliate, they betrayed the kind of Neanderthal attitudes I thought had died out 40 years back. This wasn’t “banter;” this was hatred. In contrast, Beardsley’s comments, though they show stupid, indefensible ignorance, like a kind of low-carb Jeremy Clarkson with flat batteries, reflecting terribly on someone who played some of his best stuff with the likes of John Barnes, Andy Cole and Les Ferdinand, don’t reek of the same vile hatred as Rix and Williams display. Indeed, without trying to understate the seriousness of these utterances, Beardsley’s crass and moronic words pale into insignificance when compared to his alleged conduct in the case of Yasin Ben El-Mhanni, on the basis that the former were a result of ignorance and the latter targeted abuse.

Born in London to Moroccan parents, El-Mhanni was signed from Lewes in summer 2016. His on-line presence is such that he was famous among those connoisseurs of ball-juggling wizardry who still pine for FIFA Streets, mainly as a result of his show reels on You Tube. It should be pointed out that El-Mhanni is no raw kid; he’s 22 and spent time as a trainee with both Barnet and then Aldershot Town, without making the grade at either.  Despite his CV extending to a meagre 4 appearances for Farnborough and 11 for Lewes, in his entire career, he had trials with Watford, Bournemouth, West Brom, Crystal Palace and Chelsea, where he scored on his debut as a trialist for the reserves, before agreeing a deal to come to Tyneside. He has appeared twice for the first team, both in the FA Cup, making his debut in 2017’s third round replay success at home to Birmingham and the fourth round loss to Oxford United. In both games, he displayed sublime flicks and control, but zero end product and was withdrawn around the 70-minute mark. When subsequently questioned about El-Mhanni, Beardsley had this to say about him -; He’s got unbelievable ability, but without being negative, he needs to learn the game. If I’m being honest I can’t take any credit for bringing him in. Steve Nickson [Head of Recruitment] and his staff are the reason he’s here, because he’s obviously got a talent which they saw, and we’re just trying to enhance that and make it better.

Now, without being cynical, reading between the lines, this would suggest Beardsley didn’t sign him, didn’t fancy him and didn’t know how to develop him. This is of no surprise to me, as a friend whose son endured a frustrating 3 years at Newcastle’s academy, where he felt Beardsley’s version of coaching actually impeded his progress as a player, because of the constant barrage of negativity directed towards anyone he didn’t rate, presumably in the hope of driving them out of the club, had this to say -: He (Beardsley)has always picked on the most vulnerable players and never the big names in the academy.  This (El-Mhanni) is just the tip of the iceberg. It could be Newcastle’s version of the Harvey Weinstein scandal as loads of former players will be coming out of the woodwork, especially because the club knew exactly what he was doing, including Rafa, but they all just buried their head in the sand. With the racism thing, I suppose he’ll claim it is his humour, because he thinks it’s ok. Basically, he thought he was untouchable, but he’s an evil little, back-stabbing bastard; the absolute definition of a bully.

While such sentiments may be coloured by personal involvement in this instance, as it must be hard to remain neutral when considering the case of one’s son trying to make a career as a professional footballer, the fact that El-Mhanni has made a formal complaint about Beardsley, which is quite separate to the allegations of racism, and additionally taken out a grievance against the club, shows that he is extremely upset with the situation. The basis of his complaint is that he has been forced to endure incessant, personal verbal bullying from Beardsley, almost from the moment he signed for the club. Anecdotally, I do know that many of the U23 players think that El-Mhanni is more of a circus act than a footballer, but this does not hide the fact Beardley’s conduct is completely unacceptable. In my personal playing experience, I’ve seen the effects of bullying on a couple of players who simply gave the game up as they fell out of love with it at one club, and I’ve also endured it myself at another club where I was involved on the committee, where the closing of ranks and spiteful innuendo caused me great upset.

Bullying, at every level and for every conceivable reason, is wrong. It isn’t character building, it isn’t part and parcel of the game and it certainly isn’t “banter;” bullying is abuse, plain and simple. Whether the perpetrators accept it or not, they are the abusers if a victim feels they are being bullied. There is no hierarchy of abuse in football; those who suffered sexual abuse from the likes of Barry Bennell are victims whose story must be told. The tragic revelation that NUFC legend Gary Speed is one of 4 players coached by Bennell who have subsequently committed suicide is a simply heartbreaking revelation that hints at the heart of an immense darkness in our game.

While Peter Beardsley will always remain a footballing hero of mine, like the revelations post mortem of Philip Larkin’s reactionary attitudes, I will have to separate the professional achievements from the man himself. If he is found guilty of either or both the accusations against him, he has to go. Sack him for gross misconduct, even if he’s just about to turn 57 and is a club legend; he has to face retribution for his acts, whether he accepts responsibility or not. Ironically of course, if his current job was examined on purely footballing terms, he’d not have a leg to stand on if his was sacked for his performance in the role, which will soon see my beloved Newcastle Benfield pitted against Newcastle United Under 23s in the semi-final of the Northumberland FA Senior Cup. I sincerely hope he isn’t afforded the equivalent of a loaded revolver in a locked room, though this is Newcastle United we’re talking about and if any club can respond in a dysfunctional manner, it’s Ashley’s circus up Barrack Road.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Mark is Dead

Unlike those who had their responses already stored on their Google drive, I didn’t immediately rush to publish my response to the death of Mark E Smith, a man who meant more to me than just about any other creative human being during the period 1979 to 1996, mainly because I knew I needed adequate time to process exactly how I felt about the passing of a man I had semi-worshipped. A week on from his death, I now have an understanding of my feelings and would like to articulate them, without apology for their length.

The first and primary emotion I have is a slow-burning, deep and abiding, impotent anger at how his addiction to alcohol blunted the effectiveness and neutralised the genius of his artistic powers, by making his acerbic and imaginative wordplay almost unintelligible, as his slurred delivery receded to a bit part in the dull, functional Killing Joke lite bluster that the final, enduring, proficient and resilient incarnation of The Fall specialised in, for large periods of his later career. The drink was responsible for everything bad about him; the degenerating health, his shambolic appearance, like a pugilistic Wilfred Bramble and the maddeningly self-destructive urge to distance himself from anyone he came close to. Musicians, partners, fans; you name them, he’s pissed them off.  

Secondly, and more importantly, there is a profound and unshakeable gratitude to his memory that borders on veneration for the times he bestrode the musical landscape like a colossus, while piloting a previous, glorious version of “my lads,” who were, without question, the finest band in the world, almost from their inception until the early 1990s. Literally no other band in the world could ever have come up with “Winter” or “The North Will Rise Again;” the symbiotic genius of Smith’s words and the band’s sparse, angular accompaniment was a rare folie a deux that defined a time, a place and a mood like no other English band I can think of.

The scornful contempt I feel for so much of The Fall’s post-millennium output is an obvious and highly personal reaction to the visceral sense of betrayal I felt at MES’s obstinate embrace of every possible wrong choice in life, both musical and personal, from the mid-1990s onwards. I’d believed in him. I’d trusted him. I’d venerated him and then, around 1996, he displayed more than just feet of clay; he showed his evil side and it was repulsive. I don’t think I have ever forgiven him for sacking Craig Scanlon, betraying Brix for the second time and leaving Steve Hanley in an untenable position; people who’d given the best years of their life to him and received nothing in return other than bile, scorn and condemnation. These acts didn’t just diminish the band, they diminished him as a person as his querulous ego and insatiable thirst trumped both his genius and hitherto charming contrarianism.

It took a while for the music to deteriorate to the same level his persona had, but once it did, there was no coming back, though I do admit that the flashes of breath-taking genius that all too rarely manifested themselves post 2000 shone like diamonds in the mouth of a corpse. Mark’s death has robbed us of the chance to experience any further contradictory peaks and troughs of emotion at his maddening, yet endearing, bombast. All we have is grief. All we have is anger. All we have is as loss as profound as that we felt after the deaths of David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed. He was worthy of being held in such storied company, such was the regard I once had for him.

I have written about The Fall many, many times before: for Paint It Red, Leeds Other Paper, The Biggest Library Yet and for PUSH. I’ve done a couple of interviews with the great man himself, reviewed gigs and albums, as well as providing overviews of what The Fall meant to me. Elsewhere on this blog you can find posts outlining my recollections of the first time I saw them live in June 1980, an analysis about why they meant so much to me, as well as a review of the last, and final so it turned out, time I saw them live in 2012. You can read my thoughts as follows -:

During the course of their career, the 70 plus line-ups of The Fall released 33 studio albums, of which I bought 32; the odd one out being last year’s New Facts Emerge.  In addition, before the quality control mechanism went out the window and seemingly dozens of random gigs of variably quality were churned out on CD with little fanfare and even less information on the sleeves, there were 6 live and part live / part studio albums that must be considered alongside the rest of their oeuvre, on account of the brilliance of performance, appearance of rare songs or radically reworked versions of tunes that would later be released. When considering those 38 albums, I can unequivocally state that the first 15 albums the band released were works of unarguable genius, containing barely a wasted second of material. They would be essential items in any respectable record collection. After a false step at the end of the 80s with the intriguing but flawed ballet soundtrack I am Kurious Oranj and the contractual obligation of Seminal Live, the band got back in the saddle with another set of releases well worthy of your time, as of the next 7 albums, 3 were brilliant, 2 excellent and 2 very good. However, 1996’s The Light User Syndrome was their first turkey, though sadly not their last. Its dire quality caused consternation as suddenly, The Fall had become mere mortals, in a year when the stories of Mark’s increasingly erratic behaviour became worryingly frequent as opposed to just tiresomely predictable in the years to come.  Other than 1999’s The Marshall Suite, which is a classic, the remaining albums rarely had more than 2 or 3 tracks that made you leap out the chair the way the first eleven had done. In fact, from 2000’s The Unutterable to 2010’s Your Future Our Clutter, the predominant response on hearing them was boredom, such was the repetitive dullness of the samey content. I honestly don’t think I listened to any of them more than twice.

Live, I attended 21 gigs by Das Gruppe, as MES called them, in either Newcastle, sunderland, Belfast (while a student in County Derry), Leeds (I was living there), Edinburgh (Ken, another Fall fanatic, drove), London (John Peel’s 50th birthday party in 1989) or South Shields (a no-show in that seminal year of 1996), meaning I saw 20 performances by them. Obviously, I could have seen them more often, but sometimes circumstances dictate the contrary.  While they did that great spot on The Tube in 1983, played the Riverside in October 1985, Newcastle Uni in 1987 Whitley Bay Dome in 2000 and the “new” Riverside in 2015, I couldn’t be at any of them as I wasn’t in town; hell, I wasn’t even in England. The first three I was over the water in the north of Ireland, the next one I was working in Slovakia and the last one, their antepenultimate Newcastle show, I was in Glasgow at a union conference. For a long time, the Guildhall gig of June 30th, 1984, on account of my mate Geoff getting married that day, and the Radio 6 Sound City festival of 2015, when all the tickets were ring-fenced for the great and the good, stood out as the only times they’d been in my city and I’d been forced to miss them. Then I abandoned The Fall.

In some ways, unlike the profound dislike I had for their recorded output in many instances, this was a rash decision as so often their live performances were still vital, essential entertainment. Sure, I’d seen a couple of boring shows, but only one dismal performance, at The Sage in 2005 when it became clear Mark’s drinking was more than a lifestyle choice; the last time I’d seen them, at a festival in Hoult’s Yard in July 2012, they were utterly splendid. However, the seemingly unbreakable bond of trust I’d placed in The Fall had shattered forever after the 1996 fiasco at South Shields Customs House, where Smith wouldn’t even take the stage and missing these late gigs didn’t particularly prick my conscience. The last twice they played Newcastle, in April 2016 at the Academy and October 2017 at the Boiler Shop, both venues where I’d never seen them before, I simply didn’t bother getting tickets. The gigs were on Monday evenings after work and I was in no doubt I’d probably see them again at some point. In the event, the Boiler Shop was the second last gig he ever played.

So, how on earth did I discover The Fall? Like so many other sounds of the late 70s, in common with a million others around the country, John Peel was the key. I’d known the name The Fall but missed out on their first 2 singles Bingo Master’s Breakout and It’s the New Thing as well as the debut album Live at the Witch Trials. It was the third single Rowche Rumble and second album Dragnet that set the heather blazing and hooked me, as both were played to death by Peel, who also had The Fall in session in October 1978, either on Monday 23rd or Wednesday 25th; I’m not sure which, but I’m certain it was the day before or after I’d seen The Buzzcocks on the Love Bites tour, for which gig I still have the ticket that dates it Tuesday 24th October.

The autumn of 1978 was possibly the most crucial period in my life, in terms of forming my musical tastes; in addition to The Fall, I also discovered Gang of Four, The Mekons, Subway Sect, ATV and a dozen other post punk outfits between September and Christmas. In the same way The Rolling Stones, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath had seemed tame and dated to the original punks, the English first wave of The Sex Pistols and their dull glam rock, The Damned and their musical reimagining of the Bash Street Kids, the pompous self-indulgence of The Stranglers and the dreadfully conformist commuter belt pop pap of The Jam, said absolutely nothing to me. Only the varied and experimental Buzzcocks offered a glimpse into what could be possible if imagination, innovation and a sense of daring were present. Then suddenly, via Rough Trade and Fast Product, here were a load of other bands prepared to sing loudly and out of tune in a regional accent, who made no bones about their lack of competence (the impossibly talented Gang of Four excepted) and who actually had something profound to say, which often came from a radical perspective and seemed to be jabbing a metaphorical index finger right in my chest. Rowche Rumble and its immediate successor, Fiery Jack, weren’t songs to spit and pogo to; these were songs that were there to convert you to the boundless possibilities enshrined in the creative word. Mark E Smith wasn’t just a quotable Mancunian poet, it seemed to me he was a visionary who used his voice as an instrument and he spoke directly to my heart and my soul. It is no wonder that Smith admired the work of William Blake; they were soulmates. Only Bob Dylan, who I similarly adore for his work between 1965 and 1978, had previously touched my heart and soul in the way The Fall did. The biting satire and surreal flights of fancy declaimed atonally by the Minnesotan and Mancunian sent my head in directions I’d never known before; it was if I’d discovered hallucinogens, opiates and amphetamines in my teenage bedroom, without ever seeing drugs never mind taking them. My life was changed forever. As the b-side of Rowche Rumble so eloquently put it, MES saw the madness in my area.

The first album I bought the day it came out was Totale’s Turns on May 14th, 1980; an auspicious Thursday, about 3 weeks before my O Levels. I remember it because it was a TUC Day of Action against the cuts and policies of the Tories under Thatcher, called after 1 year of her rule. Obviously, I didn’t go to school and spent the day mooching round record shops in the town, buying this album, ensconced in a plain, white cover defaced by dismal, spidery handwriting, from Listen Ear on Ridley Place. Absorbing it back home up in my bedroom was akin, not to a spiritual experience, but an initiation rite. On hearing Smith ask one bemused punter “Are you doing what you did 2 years ago? Yeah? Well don’t make a career out of it,” I understood what it meant to be a Fall fan and the dedication it required; contempt for hypocrisy, cant, conformism and just about everything that was safe and comfortable. That whole album dripped bile, including not just a live set, but the hitherto unreleased gem That Man and the frankly terrifying manifesto, New Puritan. It was as radical and provocative as anything the Vorticists, Dadaists or Futurists had said 50 or 60 years earlier, written with the same flair for the killer phrase and refusal to be cowed by the yoke of political uniformity. Mark E Smith called throughout his life for aesthetic rather than economic revolution. It was art, but not as we knew it.

The summer of 1980 saw The Fall settle on what I would always say was the classic line-up: Mark E Smith (vocals), Steve Hanley (bass), Craig Scanlon (guitar), Marc Riley (guitar), Paul Hanley (drums) and Karl Burns (drums). Other than the telepathic understanding of bands such as Teenage Fanclub, Yo La Tengo or Dirty 3, I struggle to think of a set of musicians who complemented each other as perfectly as they did. As alluded to in the links above, in the lee of the death of Ian Curtis and the shockwaves it sent through my generation, I experienced my first Fall gig on June 26th, 1980. It was a ramshackle, unyielding and deeply persuasive experience; they seemed to own the copyright on bare-knuckle creativity. You couldn’t argue with this band. In July they released How I Wrote Elastic Man and in September Totally Wired came out; a pair of powerful and pugilistic catchy pop songs that are among their best work. And then, just to show they could never allow the listener to settle, the wholly unsurpassable genius of Grotesque; After the Gramme was released in late October. Certainly, there was still the odd pop moment, the fabulous keyboard-driven New Face in Hell (the story of a radio ham murdered by the state, with his neighbour framed for the slaying) and the frenetic country and northern psychobilly of Container Drivers, including the incredible observation that “Communists are just part time workers,” but there was also incredible experimentation in the shape of WMC / Blob 59 as well as the first truly great MES narrative song, introducing us to the allegorical everymen father and son team Roman and Joe Totale,  whose title perhaps described The Fall’s raison d’etre in those days; The North Will Rise Again.

The endlessly repeated Peel sessions, as well as catch-up purchases to plug the earlier gaps in my collection kept me going until 1981 and the release of the didactic discourse that was Slates. A mini album with 6 absolute killers, it knocked me sideways, showing the band could get even better: the almost austere Middle Mass gives way to the menacing An Older Lover, before Prole Art Threat, the nearest thing I’ve ever heard to a two-chord train crash, other than Dead Joe by The Birthday Party, comes hurtling by. Those three words described the force and impact The Fall had on the world; prole, art, threat. And then side 2 got even better Fit and Working Again includes the incredible lyric “I feel like Alan Minter.” I’ve no idea what it means, but it is brilliant, as is the mammoth grind of Slags Slates Etc before that infamous northern chip on the shoulder hoofs the Kensington white rastas running for taxis right in the bollocks; Leave the Capital. So, so brilliant and this release made up about a quarter of the set the next time I saw them on October 27th, 1981, at the impossibly seedy, low-ceilinged strip joint, Hofbrauhaus Bierkeller, underneath Newcastle’s (then) only gay club, Rockshots. I managed to get sat right on the stage about a yard from MES as they played songs I’d never heard but spent 6 months repeatedly singing in my head until the imperious Hex Enduction Hour was released.

Recorded partly in a disused cinema in Hitchin and partly in Iceland, released as the war over Las Malvinas was about to break out, it boasted 60 minutes of punishing, brutal genius. Can any other album have made its intentions so clear as the opener The Classical, greeting the listener with a cheery “Hey There Fuck Face?” There was, in my opinion, The Fall’s greatest song, the bleak, narrative Winter, with its astonishing tale of the mad kid who’s just got back from the backwards school Christmas party and looked like a victim of a pogrom. Coleridge was reimagined in the delightfully damaged Jaw Bone and the Air Rifle. Steve Hanley ought to have had an Oscar for his bass on Who Makes the Nazis? Then he should have had another for the next 7” release, Look Know. Riding the zeitgeist of summer 1982, the band quickly released the follow up Room to Live; Marquis Cha Cha talked about the South Atlantic imperialist misadventures and Papal Visit, with MES scratching out unlistenable violin parts, was done to wind up the families of the “Wythenshawe Jesuits” Hanley, Scanlon and Riley. For me, it was the drunken lurch of Joker Hysterical Face and the bass driven bile of Solicitor in Studio that really hit the high notes.

I alluded earlier to some important live releases; after Totale’s Turns, a tape only bootleg of the band at the Acklam Hall in Ladbroke Grove in 1980, a venue where I’d see them almost a decade later for Peel’s 50th bash, imaginatively entitled Live in London came out in March 1982. Despite the lousy quality, it’s a brilliant document of the evolving genius of the band, but it is dwarfed in sound and musical quality by the magisterial A Part of America Therein 1981; go listen to the power of Deer Park, or the crazed MC who is upstaged by Smith’s kazoo on the opening NWRA to see what I mean. After that there’s the live album and a half from New Zealand, Fall in a Hole that captures exactly the feel of a live show, as it was recorded one night in Wellington. It’s also the very last Fall release with Marc Riley in the band, as Smith fired him on a whim, on the day Riley was to get married. Ironically, brilliant though Marc Riley is, the Kicker Conspiracy / Wings double A side single in 1983 is probably the best 7” the band did, now down to a five piece. The fact New Puritan and Container Drivers from the 1980 Peel session came as a bonus disc helped as well.

Having ended relationships messily with former Fall associates Una Baines and Kay Carroll, Smith then branched out into untried waters, marrying Brix Smith, a Bostonian who joined the band. Back as a six piece, I saw them do the declamatory, doom laden masterpiece Smile on the Tube one Friday evening in autumn 1983. Here was I in the kitchen of a student slum in County Derry while The Fall played my home town. No worries; I bought Perverted by Language as soon as I got home for Christmas. Simply stunning; as Brix couldn’t really play it was back to the bang crash thud of the early days on Eat Y’self Fitter, but the highlight was Steve Hanley powering through Tempo House with his finest bassline yet, while Smith tells us “the Dutch are weeping in four languages at least.”

Where could they go from here? The answer, unexpectedly, was to move further into the mainstream. Brix, as well as making MES smarten himself up with Armani jackets and Paul Smith shirts, brought a pop sensibility to 1984’s Oh! Brother and CREEP singles, as well as the decidedly tuneful Wonderful and Frightening World album. The opener, another Hanley bass winner, Lay of the Land saw The Fall on the Old Grey Whistle Test, accompanied by Michael Clark, his dance troupe and a pantomime horse. Wonderful and Frightening indeed.  That’s a phrase I could have used about Belfast at the time. A gang of us hired a university mini bus and drove down one Saturday to see them play Queen’s University. A great gig, though I was still shaking after being asked “are you a violent man?” by a somewhat menacing customer in The Hadfield Arms (then known as South Belfast’s most decorative IRA pub) when trying to see the football scores on Grandstand. We drew 1-1 away to Coventry incidentally.

Heading into 1985, the superb double A side 12” single of Cruiser’s Creek / LA (the only Fall song John Peel didn’t like) somehow ended up on the video jukebox in the pub where I worked; suffice to say, they were the most popular choice of the whole year. The album This Nation’s Saving Grace combined as many grimy, attritional traditional Fall numbers as pop ones and didn’t suffer from the departure of younger Hanley (Paul), to be replaced by ponytailed, Buggles specs wearing multi-instrumentalist Simon Rogers. Truly, he was the first of the million musicians who played with The Fall that I regarded as a hired hand.

In 1986 I graduated from university, came home to Newcastle for a month, then moved to London. During that month the doleful, insistent 12” Living Too Late was released. It appeared Karl Burns had left, and Paul Hanley returned for this release only. He’d vacated the drum by the time I saw them at The Riverside on June 12th. Simon Wolstonecroft was behind the kit and I got as good view of him when being slung off stage by the bouncers after invading it to hoof a few steps during City Hobgoblins. My time in the arid South East saw me working nights, so I hardly saw a gig in my time there or plays; consequently I missed Smith’s dramatic debut with Hey Luciani!  But I bought records avidly, including that one, though Bend Sinister was one of the best. Tracks like US 80s/90s and Realm of Dusk actually were sinister numbers on a bleak disc of monochrome angst. A tough listen, but a rewarding one. Around then The Fall started releasing cover version singles; Mr Pharmacist, There’s A Ghost in My House, Victoria. I didn’t particularly get this decision, other than seeing it as a rather cynical attempt to break the charts that the earlier incarnation of Mark would have regarded with abject contempt. Perversely, though logically by Fall standards, all of them featured far more compelling original tracks that I much preferred.

There wasn’t an album or a gig to be seen in 1987 but, having moved to Leeds as a postgrad, there was a superb gig at the Uni in March 1988 and The Frenz Experiment album the same month. It’s as beautiful and rewarding as any of their releases and the best since Perverted by Language. The title track is beguiling and beautiful, while Oswald Defence Lawyer and the autobiographical Carry Bag Man are worth the price of admission alone. After this Simon Rogers left to be replaced by Marcia Schofield on keyboards for the ballet soundtrack I Am Kurious Oranj; there’s some quality stuff on there, like Jerusalem and Cab it Up and I definitely enjoyed the live show with Michael Clark and pals but having bought this album on cassette to get 3 bonus tracks (crap instrumentals typically) I’ve never truly engaged with it. The same band ended the decade with 1989’s contractual obligation, Seminal Live. The live side I can take or leave, but the wacky studio side, including the insistent Dead Beat Descendent, melodramatic Pinball Machine and gloriously pretentious Mollusc in Tyrol is a great listen. It was also the last album Brix Smith played on during her first stint, as her and Mark’s marriage split saw her quit the band, to be replaced, scarcely believably, by Martin Bramah, back on board for the first time since 1978.

I saw this line-up for the first time at John Peel’s 50th birthday party on August 29th, 1989 at Subterrania in Ladbroke Grove. Two new songs, a clutch of old favourites and a Gene Vincent cover for the guest of honour showed me the band were in rude health. After their set, I saw “my lads” hanging around the upstairs bar, sans MES, so spoke to a Fall member for the first time ever, giving 10 seconds of gushing effusive praise to which both Steve Hanley and Craig Scanlon responded with thanks and raised glasses. It seemed to me, as we headed towards a new decade, the third of the band’s existence, The Fall were ready to show how vital they still were.

I wasn’t wrong, as 1990’s blistering Extricate album, made by the same line-up as had played Peel’s bash the year before, though augmented with at least 5 guest musicians, preceded by the genuinely innovative single Telephone Thing, in collaboration with DJ act Coldcut, was an album utterly without weakness. The song that stopped the world in its tracks was Smith’s paean to his recently divorced ex-wife and deceased father; Bill is Dead remains the most beautiful and chillingly fragile number in the band’s entire catalogue. For the first time ever, MES gave us honest, transparent, emotive lyrics and we loved him all the more for that, especially as I noticed at their March 10th gig at sunderland Poly, he’d taken to performing with his lyric book on a lectern.

One of John Peel’s most oft quoted remarks about The Fall was that they were “always the same; always different.” Smith proved this in late 1990 by sacking Bramah and Schofield and replacing them with violinist Kenny Brady for Shift-Work, another excellent, melodic album that could have been Extricate II. It was crammed with highlights; Idiot Joy Showland railed against Mancunian baggy E culture, Edinburgh Man reflected on his recent move to the Scotch capital (presumably to get away from the Hacienda lot) and Rose, a gorgeous love song of acceptance and farewell to Brix. Strangely they didn’t tour this album, though they played a few festivals and their August 1991 Riverside gig was a Reading rehearsal and the nearest to a greatest hits set I’d come across. Ironically, the next night Teenage Fanclub played the same venue and I knew from that night on I had found a democratic band, as opposed to a dictatorship, that I would love ever more. Musically and attitudinally so different to The Fall, Teenage Fanclub have sustained me ever since. They are now, and have been since Mark E Smith’s antics enforced The Fall to drop the baton, the greatest band in the world.

Smith had shown on Telephone Thing an interest in dance music and the potential of samplers and other technological innovations. Consequently, Kenny Brady got the heave-ho and Dave Bush, on keyboards and programming, joined the band for 1992’s skull-crushingly oppressive Code: Selfish.  An utter departure from anything they’d done before, it was a triumph with the disconcerting Birmingham School of Business School and the unlikely near hit single Free-Range nailing down an almost Ministry style aural assault. Their live performance at Newcastle Poly on March 21st was notable for a few reasons; firstly, they now played with intro and outro tapes, as well as an element of pre-recorded, pre-programmed percussion and keyboards. Secondly, I met Mark E Smith for the first time in my life.

Early in 92 I’d done a phone interview with MES for Paint It Red magazine, in which he’d extolled the virtues of cigarettes and called for the imprisonment of all vegetarians. He also mentioned he was about to marry for the second time (a brief, disastrous relationship with the ethereal Saffron) and indeed so was I, for the first and only time. On the spur of the moment I asked him if The Fall would play our wedding reception and he said he’d think about it. He mentioned we could have a chat after the Newcastle gig. With barely sustained excitement, Sara and I were led backstage about 30 minutes after show time. The band were sat round one table, drinking and eating, while Mark sat by himself chain-smoking at another. He was politeness personified, apologising when a stray swear word slipped out, giving out endless bottles of Holsten Pils and inquiring about our up coming nuptials. The wedding gig never happened because they were doing a round of European festivals, but on the morning of our wedding, a telegramme arrived at Sara’s parents stating; “Apologies for our non-appearance. Keep your nerve. Your pals Mark E Smith and The Fall.”

Indeed, the next time we saw them, on May 6th, 1993 at Newcastle University, MES presented us with a bottle of wine as an apology. He needn’t have bothered as the gig and that year’s album, The Infotainment Scan, were riches beyond belief. The cutting, sardonic assault on supposed suburban dandies on Glam-Racket and incredible reworking of Lost in Music were truly magnificent songs. The Fall continued to set the bar at a height other bands simply could not reach, a standard that was maintained on 1994’s Middle Class Revolt; now even louder with Karl Burns back as second drummer. Angry classics filled the album; particularly 15 Ways, You’re Not up to Much and Hey Student! Unfortunately, the only Fall gig I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for was their Riverside show on 3rd June, as we were on the 6.00 train to London for a wedding next morning and I couldn’t settle on concentrate. My malaise must have rubbed off on Smith, as it was after this he famously described the iconic Newcastle venue as “a Youth Club run by Communists.”

If you wanted to pin down the start of Smith’s decline, the failure of his second marriage and asking Brix to rejoin the band would be as good a place as any to heap blame. Of course, that isn’t to say the album as a 7-piece, Cerebral Caustic, wasn’t up there with the very best; The Joke, Don’t Call Me Darling, Bonkers in Phoenix are 3 sure-fire classics that bear the stamp of Brix’s pop sensibilities. As the band didn’t play Newcastle for over 2 years, it was impossible to assess group dynamics though. The live and curios album Twenty-Seven Points that came out late 1995 and includes one of my favourite Fall songs, Noel’s Chemical Effluent, bore no hint of the stormy waters that lay ahead. 

The news in early 1996 that the unsurpassable guitar great Craig Scanlon had been summarily sacked was a shock. Even more so the album that followed, The Light User Syndrome, bar Cheetham Hill, was dross. Dave Bush had been replaced by Smith’s latest flame, Julia Nagle. Too many changes, the loss of a key member and a growing problem with drink and drugs for the dissolute singer was a recipe for failure. It got even worse in October that year, when a drunk and belligerent Smith refused to take the stage at South Shields Customs House, resulting in the law being called and the whole gig descending into the realms of farce. I talked to a frazzled Steve Hanley that night who seemed stressed to buggery by the whole thing. By the end of the next week, after the apparently worst gig they ever played at the Assembly Rooms in Worthing, Brix had left for good, sickened by Smith’s conduct towards her and the rest of the band. Before too long many others would leave as well.

1997 saw the release of the uninspired and uninspiring Levitate album that continued the sad and eventually more regular trend of only one decent track per album; in this instance, the brilliant Ol’ Gang.  There was a tour in November. They pitched up at Riverside as part of it and it was a passable evening, though it’s the first time I’d noticed people leaving a Fall gig early or drifting off to the bar. Unfortunately, the old gang had soon had enough; after one debacle too many during a New York show in April 1998, Steve Hanley and Karl Burns left the band for good. Two years on from the low watermark of 1996, the shit finally hit the fan and The Fall ceased to be a functioning band; from then on, they became Mark E Smith’s hired hands, spending two decades going through the motions. Sadly, I have to concede that some of those motions were more than enjoyable, as that tiny flame of creative genius had not been utterly snuffed out.

Out of absolutely nowhere 1999’s The Marshall Suite was a solid gold classic and probably their last essential album, with Touch Sensitive the most joyous, uproariously good time number Smith had been involved in since That Man back in 1980. In late summer 1999, my mate Ken and I took a hike up to Edinburgh to see the band play a converted church as part of the festival. I didn’t know who the musicians were, but they made a glamorous racket and sustained an almost inaudible Mark (it could have been the mix) throughout.

A month after the Edinburgh, I moved to Bratislava for 2 years, teaching English as a foreign language. I got hold of 2000’s The Unutterable, but other than the ersatz spoof rockabilly of Pumpkin Soup and Mashed Potatoes, I know nothing about it, other than Smith and Julia Nagle had split up as she didn’t appear. Indeed, he’d already hooked up with Elena Polou, though she wasn’t in the band as yet. On October 9th, 2001 Sara and I received our decree absolute; the same night I saw The Fall play a brilliant gig at The Cluny, beginning with 1985’s I Am Damo Suzuki. It made me relatively optimistic for the release of Are You Are Missing Winner, but other than Bourgeois Town and the charmingly ramshackle My Ex Classmate’s Kids, it was disappointingly thin fare. Even worse was 2003’s Country on the Click which, bar the Theme from Sparta FC, which is not only a superb track, but also made MES a few bob, in the same way as Touch Sensitive did from being used on a car advert, after the BBC picked it up for Final Score, resulting in the infamous afternoon when Smith read the football results out and accused Ray Stubbs of “looking like one of the murderers in Strangeways.” While you had to laugh at that, the news that Mark had broken his hip falling on some ice after a damn fine gig at the Tyne Theatre, where it all began for me in 1980, in February 2004, was no laughing matter. Neither was his curt and mean-spirited interview on Newsnight the night John Peel died in October 2004. MES had evolved into a nasty drunk.

12 months later and Fall Heads Roll came out, by now featuring the latest Mrs Smith, Elena Polou. Many Fall fans claim Blindness to be Mark’s finest song from after 2000, but I just don’t get it myself. In fact, it’s another album I doubt I could recognise a song from, probably because only a week after getting the album, he disgraced himself with a shit show and petulant storm off stage at the Sage in October 2005. This time you could hear booing directed at the man we’d all fallen under the spell of so many years before. He was looking old, haggard and seemed to be either oblivious to his unacceptable behaviour, or wilfully, obstinately seeking to piss off the very loyal devotees who’d long defended him. It was the drink, the drugs and his deteriorating health of course, but such explanations cut no ice when you’ve wasted £20 on a ticket and the same amount on a night out, only to have it thrown back in your face. The CD went back in its box and hasn’t been taken down from the shelf these past dozen years or more.

However, a dog always returns to its puke and when Reformation Post TLC came out in early 2007 I dutifully bought it, listened to it twice and then filed it away. Another one I don’t know any of the songs from. A year later and The Fall were on at Newcastle Uni on Smith’s 51st birthday; March 5th, 2008. They were supported by the delightfully eccentric I Ludicrous and put in a good shift, though I only recognised Theme from Sparta FC and White Lightning, which were the encores. The majority of the set was the Imperial Wax Solvent album, from which only 50-Year-Old Man rose above the mediocre, which is more than can be said for 2010’s Your Future Our Clutter. Again, I’m in a minority here; I find it to be anonymous, wearisome and derivative, but it’s hailed as one of the best of the later albums. Personally, I prefer the unexpected mini-revival of the next two releases.

I finally had the chance to take my son Ben to see The Fall on November 4th, 2011. He was 16. He got pissed. Smith was 54. He got pissed. One of them was very late and had to be carried through the door. It wasn’t the bairn. Smith never got to grow old, but he certainly learned how to do things disgracefully. It was a superb night (my mate Raga’s first Fall gig since June 1980 in fact), with a random version of Psykick Dancehall thrown in for good measure. Again, I left feeling optimistic and subsequently felt vindicated by the encouraging Ersatz G.B. album that followed. Despite his voice now being accompanied by a bizarre whistle on account of his lack of teeth, Smith does a brilliant job on Nate will Not Return and the chunky, stolid I’ve Seen Them Come. Elena gets in on the act with the vaguely pastoral Happi Song, which justifies her time in the band for that alone.

In July 2012, I saw The Fall for the last time, headlining a festival at Hoult’s Yard off Walker Road, where I now go to the gym ironically. I hadn’t planned on this, but my mate Knaggsy, whose band supported The Fall on June 12th, 1986 at the Riverside though he’d not seen them since, got a couple of freebies from work. It was a triumph. They played Container Drivers, I got to shake Mark’s hand and he almost chinned a bouncer. Even better, 2013’s Re-Mit was a gem of a release. Sir William Wray, Hittite Man and Jetplane could easily punch their weight in a Fall top 50, I kid you not. The year ended on a further optimistic note with The Remainderer EP.

Were The Fall back for good? Sadly not; 2015’s Sub-Lingual Tablet starts off so promisingly with Venice with the Girls but deteriorates into another anonymous set of unintelligible lyrics over thudding, repetitive techno rock. It allowed me to go to Glasgow in May that year for a union conference and miss their gig with a clear conscience. 2016’s Wise Ol Man EP was another phoned-in thudathon by numbers and I accordingly absolved myself of the need to attend the 2016 Academy gig. Now the seal was broken, I didn’t even buy what turned out to be the final Fall album, 2017’s New Facts Emerge, though I suppose I will now, but I’ll never make up for missing that final appearance in October 2017.

Now Mark is Dead. What happens next? There can no longer be a band called The Fall; even with granny on bongos, without Mark the show is over. The inevitability of death, in whatever manner, is the tragedy of the human condition. As we grow older, our heroes for our youth, who were 10 or 20 years older, will all eventually die. We have their music, their books or their achievements on the pitch or cricket field to remember them by. With Mark E Smith, his decline was so marked and so expected, it can never be thought of as a shock. Rather, it is a jolt; a sharp reminder of our mortality and all he achieved, especially with “my lads” at his back. For 40 years nigh-on, The Fall have been my constant musical companions. I do not expect this to change as all those years I loved, adored and worshipped the band were the best times of my life. Goodnight Mark; you were The Fall.