The School of Rock provides some cruel but fundamental lessons. Writ large at the top of the syllabus under the heading Know Thy Tour Mates is the following maxim: Going out on tour with the Fall is no guarantee of ending a tour with the Fall.
Typically, it's been the Fall's own members who are subject to the capricious whims and drunken judgment of the band's infamously foul-tempered founder Mark E. Smith; there have been more than 40 personnel changes since Smith founded the band in 1977. But as Charlotte's the Talk recently discovered, just sharing a bill with the Fall puts you in harm's way.
In case you missed it: On May 8, the Talk was kicked off its tour with the Fall after just four of 24 scheduled dates. The night before in Phoenix, AZ, the Talk's Justin Williams had climbed onstage and fired a banana peel at Smith's head in mid-set. A mini-tussle in the parking lot ensued, which, like an NBA fight, featured more posturing than punching. Smith returned to the stage, finished the song and then walked off for good, retiring with his keyboardist/wife, Elena Poulou, to their tour bus.
Why would Williams hurl a projectile (albeit a biodegradable one) at Smith in the first place? The short answer is because he's Mark E. Smith, and that's what people often do: They hurl things at him. During the brief-but-disastrous Fall tour of the US in 1998, keyboardist Julia Nagle (Smith's girlfriend at the time) reportedly smacked him in the face with a hotel telephone. A week later, Smith was arrested after a New York gig on misdemeanor domestic assault charges for allegedly punching, kicking and choking Nagle (the charges were later dropped). The other dates featured onstage fisticuffs and bottle-tossing between band members, and of course wholesale resignations and dismissals.
In the Talk's case, the internecine warfare in the Fall camp spilled over in Phoenix. There, between acts, Williams learned that three of the Fall's five band members and the tour manager were quitting and returning to England after that night's gig. After only three dates they'd allegedly a) been threatened by Smith with a corkscrew, b) had ashtrays dumped on them, c) watched their tour-bus driver get a beer bath from Smith and d) generally been given the Mark E. Smith treatment.
Williams followed up the banana incident with a late-night post on the Talk's MySpace page, which by the next morning was making the rounds on Internet music sites. Under the subtle subject header "FUCK MARK E. SMITH HE SUCKS," Williams recounted his side of the incident and apologized to Fall fans while making it understood he'd been driven to it by Smith.
You almost can't blame Williams. In the heat of the moment, with the tour at an apparent end practically before it began, the banana peel and public declamation probably felt like good ideas. (Kudos to Williams for reintroducing produce tossing to the performing arts; nothing says "you suck" like rotting fruit and vegetables.) But if Williams had done his rock & roll homework, he might have opted to hang on to both the banana peel and the "send" button.
As one seasoned fan wrote in a Fall fan Web site, "Obviously, the boys in the Talk ... thought the tour was over when they heard the band was quitting. Why not throw a banana peel at MES? Of course, we know better."
Sure enough, the next morning, according to the Talk's MoRisen label chief Chuck Morrison, the Fall's label, Narnack, asked him if Williams and Co. might be willing to continue the tour as Smith's backing band (Narnack denies an offer was made). But as the temperature rose on the proceedings -- Williams was receiving death threats from the Fall's legions -- Narnack label mates the Cairo Gang were called to fill in, allegedly because they had previous experience with the Fall's songs. The fan site suggests otherwise, as this review of the May 9 gig in San Diego suggests:
"I saw the Fall show last night (if you can call it that) ... The new backing band hardly had any knowledge of how the songs were played and ... the worst moment of the show came on the second song (!), when Elena and Mark played/sang the rocking 'Pacifying Joint' while the rest of the band strummed on 'Midnight in Aspen' -- that's right two songs at one time."
In other words, business as usual in the Fall camp. You can't blame either Morrison or the Talk for wanting the exposure, but this is surely not what they had in mind.