Friday, April 07, 2006

An Illustrated Guide To...Wire

Starting another occasional series now, this one providing almost interactive guides to the backstory of some of our own musical heroes. Unofficial biographies that won't end up in The Works, if you will. As always, mp3s up for a week for evaluation purposes only, and that.

Wire came, unsurprisingly, from an art school background. Watford Art School, in fact, breeding ground of a number of leading photographers and graphic artists, where Brian Eno would give the occasional tutorial - his Oblique Strategies were formulated there - and where in 1976 illustration student and tape manipulation hobbyist Colin Newman and audiovisual technician and his occasional tutor abstract painter Bruce Gilbert (already thirty) initially formed Overload, before unschooled bassist/freelance designer Graham Lewis and non-art student drummer Robert Gotobed, who'd just split from a band that included members of future one hit wonders the Motors, joined before their first gig in October of that year. From Eno they took the idea of wondering what would happen if they ignored what everyone else was doing and went off on their own accord, guitars clean but jagged ("a deconstruction, a pisstake" according to Lewis), vocals sneery but subtly complex, look monochrome but knowingly so. EMI, apparently on the rebound from losing the Pistols to an upper management decision, snapped them up for their previously prog-friendly Harvest imprint, which must have confused those who bought the November 1977 single Mannequin/12XU and album Pink Flag, 21 tracks in 35 minutes, recorded as live wherever possible, songs stopping when they couldn't think of anything else to say, solos brutally excised, randomly contextualised wherever possible - 106 Beats That contains 106 syllables, while this much admired track was originally about a lion tamer before virtually all the lyric was changed.

Ex-Lion Tamer

Suitably confused, most reviewers considered it the work of Syd Barrett disciples rather than the snarling, experimental without losing the basic punk noise plot that left "a scale and feel of its own...not like anything you've heard and it'll leave its mark for a long time", as the Sounds review went, and would come to influence the approach of the likes of, to name but three, the Minutemen, Pixies and Futureheads in different but traceable ways. That comparison stood further ground, however, when the ever restless Newman and Lewis stumbled across a development into icier territory as displayed initially on demos recorded some months even before Pink Flag's release. Non-album singles I Am The Fly and Dot Dash passed muster as links between the two albums, the former laced with razorblade distorted guitar sounds - Colin Newman described it as his attempt at disco - while the latter worked to its own action painting made into sound rhythms, but Chairs Missing saw producer (and Harvest A&R man) Mike Thorne, who'd go on to produce Soft Cell, Bronski Beat and Blur, become their own Eno, taking to the keyboards but mixing them so they sounded as much like guitars as, well, the guitars did, and then working in numerous state of the art effects boxes and units to give the guitars distorted, unnatural sounds amid starker, more vitreous settings. Nobody knew what to make of it.

French Film (Blurred)

In the midst of all this, the still great Outdoor Miner, actually about the serpentine miner, an insect that lives in leaves. Set to be huge until caught up in a BPI chart-hyping scam after reaching number 51 with Top Of The Pops enquiring after them, it was the poppiest they ever got, at least deliberately, actually keeping to verse-chorus and featuring a piano solo in the single version. An album of 19 different cover versions, from electro to folk, was released under the title A Houseguest's Wish a few years back.

BREAK FOR YOUTUBE: Practice Makes Perfect for German TV's Rockpalast in 1979

154, named after the number of gigs they'd played up to release in September 1979 and again written and played live while supposedly promoting the previous album, is their highest UK charting album, making number 39. As well as a theme of sorting things into numbers and charts, the lyrics here often betrayed growing animosity between members, matched by the production values stepping up another gear. Often instruments would be subtly thrown out of sync while everything else would sound oppressive or just odd, cor anglais and electric viola making guest appearances, the whole atmosphere crackling with elegance through dissonance. They had another go at writing their version of consummate pop while they were about it, shearing guitar runs merged with vaulting keyboards and almost harmonies. All they really had to do to attract more attention was not give it a forbidding, slightly silly title.

Map Ref. 41°N 93°W


The actual tensions between the members were by now getting insurmountable, Wire playing it out by performance art pieces instead of proper gigs. Four night theatre show People In A Room saw the four members take a solo turn each at performances ranging from canvas painting to Glenn Branca-style massed one chord playing before everyone convened to play a 15 minute track before half an hour of new songs. After leaving EMI, which had had changes at the top and was less open to exoticism, in February 1980 they put on a one-off show at the London Electric Ballroom that mixed more new songs with Dadaist 'happenings'. Semi-official bootleg Document And Eyewitness helpfully transcribes the gist of what's going on during every song, whether "vocalist attacks gas stove", "vocalist lit and accompanied by illuminated goose" or "vocalist wears black knee length veil, 12 percussionists with newspaper head dresses, MC attempts geographical explanation". Suddenly we feel we have a letter to write to Take That's management.

Not unreasonably, Wire drifted apart for a while, Gilbert and Lewis teaming up for a number of avant-garde collaborations and producing The The's debut single, Newman making two solo albums. Eventually they reunited in 1985, declaring themselves a no-nonsense "beat combo" and promptly bringing out 1986 EP Snakedrill, lead track The Drill a taut, one chord repetitive slab of rhythm that five years later would be the subject of an album entirely comprised of different versioned inspired by its ever shifting live versions. Proper comeback The Ideal Copy took a turn for the electronic, sequencers and drum machines making widespread appearances trying to reclaim Pink Flag's territory to an extent. The accompanying tour saw them supported by the Ex-Lion Tamers, a New Jersey-based Wire covers band who would play Pink Flag in order. REM probably made them a bit more PRS by covering Strange on their Document. The mightily titled A Bell Is A Cup Until It Is Struck followed in 1988, a less hurried affair that showcased a more sarcastically poetic approach, even in this track's attempt to make sense from cryptic lyricism:

Kidney Bingos

The odd It's Beginning To And Back Again followed in May 1989, a set of live recordings deconstructed and generally messed about with in the studio, new song Eardrum Buzz nearly giving them a hit. They responded in timelessly obscure fashion when invited onto Snub TV, by attempting to play this and Kidney Bingos simultaneously. 1990's Manscape is not among their most celebrated albums, heading straight for the dance firmament. Not unreasonably Gotobed wasn't particularly keen on being relegated to programmer and buggered off, at which the remaining three changed their name to Wir for 1991 album The First Letter, which leavened the electronics mildly and sampled their own Strange. Remaining dormant as they turned into an influence, Elastica famously swiping Three Girl Rhumba for Connection, the original foursome got back together in 1999 and the following year playing the Royal Festival Hall and the Mogwai-curated All Tomorrow's Parties. It took another two years for the first new recorded material to emerge, one of two mini-albums titled Read And Burn, collated a year later as Send. An extraordinary return to earlier teeth-baring form, it richochets from miniature, heavily stripped back near-hardcore to droning, machine-tooled guitar distortion.

In The Art Of Stopping

Wire are officially back on hiatus at the moment, Gilbert off pursuing other ventures while once again, most of what's around them is in their image. Never a band with a spectacular sense of timing, Wire.

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