Beard Growing Contest

02 February, 2023

Beard Growing Contest

An extract from The Big Midweek: Life Inside The Fall. It's 1982, the band are in Australia on a long tour. Tensions are running high after a fractious start in Sydney. A jet-lagged performance at the opening show led to Mark E Smith confronting the band on a nightclub dance floor, where slaps were handed out. They're now on the road to Canberra.

Unfortunately, after a three-hour bus ride through the burning desert to Canberra, an Irish pub next to our venue gets one over on us with its Guinness, air-con and log fire.

‘Tempo House’. Backstage after the gig, our tempo’s somewhat lacking but there’s nothing stopping Kay’s. ‘What’s wrong with you lot? Where’s your commitment? I bring you over here to the other side of the world and what do you do? Sit there in the pub, getting pissed like a bunch of old codgers!’

We stand against the wall with no defence to speak of.

‘I want to see you guys playing the next gig, not playing at it! We’re not here to have a laugh, you know! What are we here for? Can any of you even remember?’

No one says a word. It’s probably the quietest dressing room in the entire universe. Once they’ve gone and the crew are loading the bus, we sneak back to the pub for another couple of pints to try to calm our nerves.

‘Fucking hypocrites! They get hammered every night.’ Marc’s livid. What’s happening to our band? Instead of acting as a unit, we’re falling out over who’s drinking what and who’s dancing where.

‘Maybe you can if all you’ve got to do is stand there and sing or shout at a promoter.’

‘I don’t care. They’re really pissing me off now.’ We sit down by the fireplace. Taking our music across the planet we should all be in our element, yet now I’m not the only one looking miserable.

‘Well… there must be something we can do as a protest,’ I say, ideas slowly materialising from the incongruous flames. ‘Maybe we could go on hunger strike?’

‘What? And starve ourselves to death? They’d love that!’

‘Well, maybe not to death…’

‘Yeah but we’re not allowed to eat anyway, are we?’

‘What about a general strike?’

‘They’d get their scabs in. Imagine it… Arthur, Andy, Conga Steve. Them lot are always hanging around the picket lines, waiting for an opportunity to get across.’

‘What if we took a vow of silence?’

‘They wouldn’t notice.’

‘Come on, there’s got to be some commandment we can break?’ I mentally run through the basic doctrines we live under, randomly wondering if there are in fact ten. Thou shalt not dance. Thou shalt not show thou art enjoying thyself. Thou shalt not enjoy thyself either. Thou shalt not become fat. That’s four. Thou shalt not be ill. Thou shalt not play too many notes (though too few are encouraged). Thou shalt not employ the use of effects pedals to pervert the natural order of the sound. Thou shalt only perform drum rolls in certain circumstance as decreed by The Almighty. That’s eight. Thou shalt not set thy amp volume above number three if thou art Marc Riley. And number ten…

‘Thou shalt be clean-shaven and stand up straight at all times!’ I proclaim, rising up to demonstrate.

Everyone stares at me, not being accustomed to such outbursts, but it strikes a chord. Marc starts to nod sagely. ‘There’s an idea. We could have a beard growing contest.’

‘Yeah, I’m going to win that, aren’t I?’ says Paul, but nobody cares because, a delicious moment later, the potential of such a subliminal tactic has registered with us all, especially with Craig, who’s looking quietly confident, no doubt already willing accelerated growth.

Day One. Light stubble. Not very noticeable but the anticipation of a forthcoming beard is sweet. It’s a gig-free day and the band has decided to visit the nearby koala sanctuary in an attempt to stay off the beer.

Eight floors up, we get in the lift, perky in the aftermath of having collectively ditched our shaving foam and razors. But then the lift bounces to a halt at Floor Seven and the doors spring back to reveal a surly-looking Mark Smith. Shit. I automatically assume the second commandment, instantaneously wiping away any traces of smile I may have been harbouring. He looks just as delighted to see us as we are to see him. I detect a moment’s hesitation and start toying with the idea of pressing the ‘close doors’ button when in he gets and we are forced to shuffle over.

Normally he’d greet us with at least an ‘Alright lads?’ but this morning there’s not a word. Everyone’s standing up straight, staring at the doors, wishing the lift would trundle down faster than this.

Seven floors takes an eternity. When we finally hit the ground floor, he slips out of the hotel’s side exit, bypassing the reception area altogether. We head out through the main doors, passing the tiny hotel bar on the way, where we spot a red-eyed Kay.

‘Where are you lot off to?’ she croaks, her voice finally forcing a natural break for itself.

‘The koala bear sanctuary,’ I say self-righteously, like a schoolboy handing his homework in on time.

‘Well, I’m coming with you,’ is what I think she says, though it’s hard to make out the actual sounds. ‘I could do with a change of scene.’ She looks unusually weary.

There’s space in the cab so she joins us in our search for local wildlife. The sanctuary’s immense and, owing to the lack of jeeps, we have to walk across parched fields, peering at the occasional gum tree in the hope of spotting an elusive koala.

I try bantering with Marc but he’s not his usual cheerful self so I leave him to stride on ahead, falling into step with Craig and Paul, who are already engaged in a highbrow debate about natural selection. I had no idea Craig was so knowledgeable on the subject of Darwinism. Paul, midway through his A-levels, seems glad to have someone around who’s prepared to have a good intelligent discussion about it all and there’s no getting a word in edgeways, even if I did have strong opinions on the origins of the platypus.

Kay and I lag behind a little, the heat slowing our pace. Kay talks in a hoarse whisper while I listen and make what I hope are sympathetic noises whenever she pauses for breath. Despite the technical difficulties, once she gets going she can’t stop. Kay and Mark running The Fall is an institution but, from what she’s saying, all is far from well in Management camp. Keeping the band growing for the past four years has been putting a real strain on their relationship, though I suppose that’s what you get when your partner’s so involved in your work. Listening to her, doubt begins to surface. It could all fall apart any day if she and Mark do…
Just as the conversation’s starting to become uncomfortable, I’m pleased to note Marc’s found a cluster of gum trees full of koala bears. The rest of us join him and we stand there, on our day off, being growled at by bad-tempered bears instead of bad-tempered lead singers. They might look cute in pictures, but they’re quite horrible when you get near them, spitting and snapping at you.

Day Two. Rough stubble. For me, anyway. Paul’s is still very light. Marc and Craig are beginning to take the lead. We’ve got an internal flight to Melbourne during which Kay and Mark are back together in smoking. Since it’s only a short drive to the university halls of Geelong, a busy port town, our two factions manage to avoid each other until the later stages of a long and difficult soundcheck. After we’ve finally got the acoustics right in this big echoing student hall, Mark Smith emerges from his hang-out at the stage side and takes charge in a businesslike manner.

‘Right, you lot! Enough of your schoolboy dicking about,’ he announces into the mike. ‘Tonight, I want the guitar on “Hard Life in Country” pure. Just like on the album. None of that showing-off rock shit that you keep adding in! Just play the fucking song in time and properly.’

The sound of a mis-strummed plectrum ricochets around the hall. I’m half-expecting another confrontation but Marc Riley doesn’t say a word. Mark Smith disappears into his own personal dressing room next door to ours after wordlessly handing me all the copies of the set list.

It’s not the most constructive mindset to be going on stage in. From the outset Mark Smith prowls around, brimming with angry energy until it’s time for the offending song, which I start with a sledgehammer bass line. Marc defiantly comes in with his controversial riff and, adding a new harshness, proceeds to bulldoze through, not leaving any gaps for the vocals and forcing Mark to climb all over it. Neither of them are prepared to give, turning this struggle of a song into an extended demolition-heap cacophony remix of something that had no foundations in the first place. On we go, minute after hardcore minute, trying to wreck the remains until Marc wrenches the last chord out and the whole thing’s finally flattened.

With relief we move on to ‘Totally Wired’, hoping we’re on firmer ground. Marc Riley’s on backing vocals but the ground’s pulled from under him when Mark Smith throws his mike to the back of the stage. One minute Marc’s totally wired; the next everyone can see he’s totally unplugged.

‘Marquis Cha Cha’ passes by without any obvious underhand tactics but halfway through the next track, bass-led ‘Tempo House’, without warning my bass sounds unbearably loud and distorted, as if something’s happened to my amp. I look round. What the fuck? It’s Mark Smith, indiscriminately twisting all the knobs! That’s it. I stop playing and walk over to him. It’s a big stage, big enough for him to see me coming. By the time I get there, he’s sloped off back to his own mike where he’s singing with a new ferocity. I reset my amp and play through the rest of the set, deciding how I’m going to deal with this.

As soon as we’ve finished the last song, Mark goes off first and I’m straight after him. The audience is shouting for more but I’m demanding my own audience in the doorway of Mark’s dressing room. ‘You shouldn’t fucking touch that,’ I tell him. He looks past my shoulder, fixing the wall behind me with a vacant glower. ‘What’s the point of me spending hours soundchecking if you’re going to fucking ruin it? I may as well not bother! I’m telling you, don’t ever EVER touch my controls again.’ I spin round, walk into the other dressing room and slam the door shut behind me, vowing to stand guard right in front of my amp from now on, no matter how big or small the stage is.

It’s a blessedly short drive from Geelong to Melbourne. Maybe the reason the promoters booked a bus this size was because they anticipated our need to sit at opposite ends of it. All of us spend the journey silently staring out of the windows at the moonlit desert, observing the herds of kangaroos, all different sizes, bouncing alongside the bus. It’s quite a sight. According to the driver, kangaroos have been known to destroy a bus, they’re so muscular. That’s why the bus has got bars on it.

We arrive in Melbourne in the small hours of the morning, worn out and bleary. Our accommodation here is an old house that’s been converted into holiday apartments. There’s a three-bedroomed apartment for the band and crew, and a smaller one next door for Mark and Kay.

Day Three. Rough. After a few hours’ kip we wake up in our new home hungry and thirsty, only to discover the kitchen’s empty cupboards; the only thing in them is a clichéd jar of congealed Vegemite. It’s nearly noon so the only sensible option is to head out to seek refreshment. We’re all looking rough apart from Paul, who’s finally entering into the noticeable-stubble stage. I never knew how much hair-growing potential Craig’s face has got. Here’s me thinking I’m doing really well, but he’s in a different league. Someone’s bound to mention it soon, but then again the band’s not talking to the singer and the singer’s not talking to the band...


To see how they got on, grab yourself a copy of The Big Midweek.

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