The history of The Fall is not that of a group of artists, but of a show business act. Mark E. Smith hasn't fired over 60 musicians because of "artistic differences" -- he's given folks the boot because they couldn't hack it, couldn't play or tour like professionals. Misanthrope, iconoclast, asshole -- whatever you want to call Smith, he's first and foremost a consummate performer, a top-flight ham. He's been able to record over 25 albums during the last three decades because he can sell the simplest of rock songs with his attitude, his vitality, his ability to entertain. A recap of The Fall's many, many lineup changes, tours, radio appearances, and releases isn't an account of Timeless Music forged through struggle, conflict, and perseverance. For all its details and events, The Fall's story is simple: Mark E. Smith continually tries and fails to find other musicians who believe equally, as he does, in sonic deconstruction and unabashed showmanship.
How else could you explain Live at the Witch Trials, The Fall's fully-formed, instant-classic debut album? Before releasing the record in early 1979, Smith had already cycled through more bandmates than most frontmen ever will, but judging from the remarkable tautness of his first LP, he hadn't been struggling to find his voice. When he began making music in his late teens, Smith already knew what he liked: The Velvet Underground's mantra-like repetition, Van Der Graaf Generator's art-rock dynamism, Camus's dim view of human nature. He needed little time to channel these influences into a unique sound; he needed a bit more time to find a group of folks who could get with his program. To this day, he still hasn't been able to do this, but for the single day The Fall spent recording Witch Trails, Smith had a band -- and a damn good one at that.
Though not as relentlessly good as Hex Enduction Hour, The Fall's first record is as good a place as any for neophytes to begin exploring the band, and it's an essential album -- especially in this expanded edition, which is replete with crucial singles -- for the already converted. Unlike most bands who arose in Britain's post-punk era, The Fall were more interested in riffs and hooks than in identity politics and the avant-garde. So their best records are the ones with the greatest number of cogent, energetic rock anthems, albums like Witch Trials.
Good tunes -- rollicking licks, spastic drum rolls, and breathless refrains colliding into one another -- is all we've got here. The Fall strip away rock's illusions of grandeur -- texturally, their early music's anemic, every instrument scraping and scrawling -- so that we can focus entirely on its combustibility, its cultural and compositional potency. No shame in show business when the show's this captivating.