The Fallís Totally Wired: The Rough Trade Anthology (Essential) is pretty much everything I want rock-and-roll music to be: furiously inventive, hyper-verbal, abrasive, dissonant but catchy, oozing personality and attitude, full of the daring leaps that transmute base repetition into art. Itís a cheap two-disc set surveying the creative peak (1980-í83) of a band whoíve been around for 25 years and released well over 50 albums. An úuvre that big badly needs a starting point; this is it.
I first heard a lot of the songs on Totally Wired close to 15 years ago, and they scared and confused me. There was something curdled and tense about the performances: the guitars of Craig Scanlon and Marc Riley were fearfully out of tune, and the rhythms limped or staggered most of the time but fell into spiky shapes when they had to. And then there was That Voice. Mark E. Smith is the only person whoís been in every incarnation of the Fall, and heís not what youíd call a singer, exactly. He sounds inhuman and oracular as he rants about something he canít be bothered to explain; heís got a pronounced Manchester accent and a habit of enunciating the last consonant in every word so hard that it becomes a syllable of its own.
The really unnerving part, though, is the bandís blind, unbalanced momentum ó like a truck rolling down a hill with only its left wheels touching the ground. The early-í80s Fall play as if they were so far into their own music that they had no sense of anything outside it. (One consequence is that the old material hasnít dated; it sounds just as weird as it did the first time around.) Smithís lyrics in those days were elliptical and harshly poetic, mostly about bizarre subjects for songs: a burned-out comic-book writer, time travel via “a pair of flabby wings,” “the new Puritan.” Sometimes they made no sense at all ó “Prole Art Threat” appears to be some kind of metaphysical spy-thriller chase scene, but thatís as much as they reveal. The songs kept getting stranger, too: the final tracks on Totally Wired, from 1983ís Perverted by Language, are the bandís bleakest and gristliest, slowed to a crawl and as unstoppable as entropy.
The Fall arose in the world of punk, but they werenít of that world; when I first heard these records, they were sui generis. Since then, a few bands have picked up their cues: Pavement fans are directed to Totally Wiredís “New Face in Hell” and “The N.W.R.A.” to note where “Conduit for Sale!” and “Two States” originated. The commercial fortunes of the Fall rose with late-í80s college radio hits like “Big New Prinz” and “Hit the North” and then fell again, but the cult formed by these songs remains: Camden Joy & Colin B. Mortonís recent novel Pan is set at a legendarily disastrous 1998 Fall show and mostly inspired by the 1981 song “Leave the Capitol.”
Still recording and touring, though Smith regularly fires and replaces the entire line-up, the Fall have continued to put out fine material over the past couple of years. The import-only The Unutterable on Eagle and The Marshall Suite on Artful are both worth seeking out. The new 2G+2 (Action), on the other hand, is weak Fall by any standard. It was originally planned as a single featuring three new studio tracks, then later padded out to album length with nine live cuts from last yearís US tour (including one of the studio songs with different words). The current Fall are a bunch of loud young kids who could be in any band, really: they grind away at each numberís single riff without any seeming interest until itís time to stop. And Smithís voice has deteriorated: if he was once an oracle, heís now the half-decomposed head of an oracle, barely able to form recognizable words. Everything about the package suggests that the Fall have grown careless and arrogant.
So why do I still care? Because despite its considerable flaws, 2G+2 isnít boring; if anything, time seems to have tightened Smithís resolve to sound like himself and nobody else. Heard as a part of the grand arc of his career, this disc is a gesture of uncompromising independence. The studio recordings sound rawer and cruder than the Fall have in decades, and the on-stage chaos is Smith refusing either to mellow with age or to coast on the glories of his wired youth.