h, this is a groovy, num-bah...”
The Fall, more than almost any other band of their time, was an entity unto itself. Armed with kazoos, production for which the phrase “militantly lo-fi” could’ve been invented, a stubborn sense of amateurism, and led by one of the most unusual frontmen in rock ‘n’ roll history, The Fall waged a Rowche Rumble against the conventionality of punk, king and country, and even against their fans (as documented on the Totale’s Turns (It’s Now or Never) live EP.) Like their peers, fellow post-punk paragons Wire and Public Image, Ltd., The Fall immediately spotted the limitations of the music sweeping the nation, and inverted it, intellectualized it, and expanded it. With a number of changes in sound matched only by the number of changes in the band’s lineup, and a back catalogue that would take even the most rabid newcomer years to traverse, being a fan of The Fall isn’t a casual friendship, it’s a lifetime commitment. And like with all relationships, that commitment needs a starting point.
The Fall clearly contend Totally Wired: The Rough Trade Anthology to be that starting point. Two discs and 140 minutes long, Totally Wired takes the listener through a period that many consider to be the band’s most fruitful, their ‘80-’83 tenure at Rough Trade records (which would later bring epochal 80’s band The Smiths to Britain, presupposed in the liner notes to be one of the reasons for The Fall’s eventual departure.) This period was also documented in the 458083 A-Sides/B-Sides style compilation Palace of Swords Reversed, but not as thoroughly. Palace contained basically just the singles, but Totally Wired has it all—at least one song from every EP, single, or album (live or studio) that The Fall released on the Rough Trade label. However, as it is with many similarly sprawling “anthologies,” this is both a good thing and a bad thing. Virtually all of the material here is fabulous, essential work, but it is messy, poorly organized, and ultimately, heavily flawed.
The first disc, however, is mostly exempt from these problems. Rightly kicking off with the seminal title track, a spastic purge of pure awkward energy, with the quintessential Mark E. Smithism “you don’t have to be weird, uh-to be wired,” the first disc is simply a blast. It draws a wavy, non-chronological line through the evolution of the Fall’s Grotesque (After the Gramme) year, through the cow-punk of “Container Drivers” and “Fit and Working Again,” the sloppy punk of “Pay Your Rates,” and the near new-wave of “How I Wrote Elastic Man” and “Leave the Capitol,” stopping for the occasional anomalies (the bizarre girl-group pastiche “That Man,” the appropriately harrowing Smith & Guitar “New Puritan.”) This was The Fall at their most basic, and at their least pretentious. The disc breezes by at a clip, a delectable snapshot of The Fall in their transition, essentially, from punk and rockabilly to post-punk and new wave.The second disc is more problematic. It starts out promisingly enough, with a stomping, ten minute live rendition of the war shanty “The N.W.R.A. (The North Will Rise Again),” which transitions smoothly into “The Man Whose Head Expanded,” the most pop-oriented single they had done to date, complete with moody synths, a casiotone keyboard loop (that is, until Smith memorably commands them to “turn that bloody-blimey space invader off!”) and some actual singing on the chorus. The contrast between the two is evident, and makes for a wonderful launching pad into a disc that fails to deliver. The main fault can be traced to the near total overlooking of what many consider to be The Fall’s definitive moment, 1982’s Hex Enduction Hour, excluded from the collection as it was recorded during a brief stop-off at Kamera records and technically not part of the “Rough Trade years.” As some consolation, the collection sports live recordings of the two best songs on Hex, “Hip Priest” and “Winter,” from the album A Part of America Therein. Although they are certainly interesting, they are poor substitutes for the real thing, especially “Winter,” whose addictive bass-led chug is reduced to a lazy drawl on the poor recording.
The disc overcompensates for the lack of Hex tracks by including virtually all of 1983’s Perverted By Language, which for all its many virtues, was very much an album, and whose songs work rather poorly out of context. Whereas the great majority of the first disc was filled with three or four minute ditties, most of these songs push six, seven minutes, considerably dragging down the second side of the disc. Several of the songs are among The Fall’s best, like the bouncy “I Feel Voxish,” the ferociously unstoppable “Tempo House,” and the gorgeous “Hotel Bloedel,” which features a duet between Mark and The Fall newcomer (and Smith’s new bride) Brix, who unlike the great cliché of usurping women marrying into a (relatively) famous band, actually helped rebirth The Fall’s sound for a new wave of fans. But it would not be until The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall and This Nation’s Saving Grace that Brix would really drive The Fall on down to Cruiser’s Creek, and Totally Wired’s defense of Perverted By Language as a “transitional album” is not really appropriate. By the end of the shaggy-dog joke of a song, “Eat Y’Self Fitter,” one really feels the disc’s 80-minute length.
The Fall was one of the best bands to come out of the Madchester renaissance that was the late 80’s and early to mid 80’s, and Mark E. Smith was the center of it all. Whether he’s squawking his way through “New Face in Hell” and “Smile” or commanding his band of rebels and miscreants through “The N.W.R.A.” and “Rowche Rumble,” he always holds it all together, and keeps Totally Wired fascinating till the very end. But The Fall was never one to do something the easy way, and so Totally Wired makes for a very frustrating introduction to (what else?) the wonderful and frightening early world of The Fall. Getting the simpler Palace of Swords Reversed and all the original albums would probably be better advised than this brilliant, epochal, but extremely difficult collection.