Record Review: Wire – The Ideal Copy

Mute | UK | CD | CDSTUMM42

Mute | UK | CD | CDSTUMM42

Wire: The Ideal Copy UK CD [1987]

  1. Point Of Collapse
  2. Ahead
  3. Madman’s Honey
  4. Feed Me
  5. Ambitious
  6. Cheeking Tongues
  7. Still Shows
  8. Over Theirs
  9. Ahead (II)
  10. A Serious Of Snakes
  11. Drill
  12. Advantage In Height
  13. Up To The Sun
  14. Ambulance Chasers
  15. Feed Me(II)
  16. Vivid Riot Of Red

I was late to the game on Post-Punk titans Wire. I never heard them until their reformation at the dawning of the mid-late 80s UK music drought that saw the output of most bands shift to house music. I saw their video for the gripping “Ahead” in the MTV 120 Minutes ghetto. It didn’t take long before I went to the local emporium [probably Murmur Records; maybe Peaches] and slapped down my $15-16 for the UK import CD of the spanking new album, “The Ideal Copy.” There was a US CD in the pipeline, since they were signed to Enigma Records domestically. Either I couldn’t wait for the US CD [which would have followed by a month or two at best in those days] or I saw it and noted that it contained one less bonus track than the UK copy did; making it my ideal indeed.

I popped it in the CD player and was rewarded with the unsettling opener “Point Of Collapse.” Treated guitars and synths swirled around the abstract lyrics of singer Colin Newman and the sturdy, machine-like rhythms of drummer Robert Gotobed. It was a wondrous blend and I enjoyed how the song’s guitar melodies and rhythm were gradually faded out to give prominence to the abstract synth lead lines that had been almost subliminal up to that point in the song.

“Ahead” was and remains one of the finest singles from the second half of the eighties. Not that there was much competition, but this track was definitely at home in the late 70s/dawn of the 80s Post-Punk period that was so dear to my heart. Colin Newman’s declamatory vocals sounded blunt and unaffected while the rigorous drumming of Gotobed marked him as probably the one drummer left in Britain who could be put on a small, exclusive shelf with Simple Minds’ original drummer Brian McGee. Both had a penchant for motorik derived rhythms that advanced a song without calling undue attention to themselves, save for the occasional tattoo that served as what passed for a fill in “Ahead.” The chugging Bo Diddley rhythm of Graham Lewis’ bass and Bruce Gilbert’s guitars had probably never been bent as far leftward as in this magnificent number. The song is based on what must be my favorite chord sequence of all time.

When the next number began, the delicate beauty of “Madman’s Honey” proved that this act wasn’t resistant to beauty for its own sake. What sounded like backwards vocal tapes of Newman singing “how does it feel?” served to add an alien counterpoint to the chorus. The pizzicato synths and gently picked acoustic guitar were certainly laying down a finely etched sound that was most eclectic for the first three tracks.

Then “Feed Me” proved that subtlety was just one extreme that this band were unafraid of reflecting. The track was built around a simple, subtle rhythm that may have even been acoustic guitars looped incessantly to form a slow, methodical rhythm that was barely there. Then the crashing, overdriven guitar power chords that defined almost the entire  song came right front and center to dazzle and stun with their tremoloed reverb. The bass gradually entered the mix in the most subtle fashion possible. Then Graham Lewis began singing. He offered a malignant baritone suggesting a queasy blend of intoxication and disease that was echoed by the random guitar noise that began snaking through the track at its mid point. Let’s say it all holds your attention very well.

After that long excursion into near madness, the next track put Lewis on an even better number. “Ambitious” was built upon Gotobed’s relentless dead-simple tattoos with repeated guitar figures and Lewis’ throbbing bassline. Very impressive, but it all faded once Lewis began singing. His phrasing here grew in power to become absolutely monstrous as the song progresses. The lyrics were chock full of juxtaposed yet unsettling phrases that gave the pleasure centers of my brain a real workout!

“Chain link rout ways
Digital time base
New hours for these days
New files engaged
Strangeness detectors
Collage charmers
Magnet behaviour
Quarks and order” – “Ambitious”

“Cheeking Tongues” was set down next in “side two” like a Colin Newman haiku shot full of cartoony sound samples looped to form the song’s rhythm as a palate cleanser before the final two, longer songs remaining. “Still Shows” returned to the slower, methodical tempo of “Feed Me” with equally unsettling lyrics that referenced skinning a rabbit; never a pleasant lyric image! “Over Theirs” gave the mic one last time to Graham Lewis for a duet with Newman; the only one on this album proper. The unsettling coda that closed the song out came as something of a shock.

wire - aheadUK12AThen the CD had another eight bonus tracks, qualifying for some sort of award for most bonus tracks back in the day. I remember a friend asking if the album was any good and should he buy the CD or the LP. I told him, do you want twice as many tracks? Go with the CD. The UK “Ahead” 12″ single had three live tracks in addition to the full length version of the song, but the US 12″ had all of that and the John Fryer remix of the A-side. It was the song recast [briefly] in Moroderspace with a sequencer prominent instead of furious guitar riffing, …or most likely a noise gate triggering off of a synth pulse simulating the stuttering of a sequencer without all of the messy rental and programming. This track only appeared on the UK pressing of this CD. “Feed Me” got the biggest changes while live with Colin Newman taking over the lead vocals instead of Graham Lewis for a completely different feel. The song’s rhythms were much more prominent than with the studio version as well.

wire - snakedrillUKEPAThen, the “Snakedrill” EP which had found the band reforming as a unit after six years apart was added to the playing time. “Drill” was the relentless keystone to this disc. In later years the band would release a full album of live variations and mixes of this one song which boasts a monolithic power second to none. I know I’ll never forget the time I saw them perform the track live on The Late Show, the old Fox Network late night talk show that was normally the roost of Joan Rovers. But the night Wire appeared, the guest host was noted bottle blonde Suzanne Somers. A more violent contrast could probably never exist on American television.

First, the band played “Drill” and it was EXTREMELY LOUD. For those of you not used to American Television, this never happens. Everything is rehearsed and locked down in stone and there are no slipups. Not this time! I have never heard sound from a television show bleeding into the red before, though Killing Joke on The Tube performing “Kings + Queens” were doing it on the bass at least. Amateurs! Every member of the audience must have had ringing ears for a week after this! That was memorable enough, but the interview that came afterward pushed this into the true realm of the bizarre and unbelievable.

The hostess was so far out of her intellectual league that one could only stare, slackjawed at the brain-melting notion that some talent coordinator must have set this meeting of the minds up for a purpose. And that purpose was my immense, personal satisfaction! While Bruce Gilbert answered her banal questions with an air of amusement, Graham Lewis was videotaping the entire exchange with a camcorder. What I would not give to see the contents of that tape now! I taped the whole thing, of course, and I’m certain that it’s out there… you know where. I have to admit that it’s not to be missed for anyone who’s not had the pleasure.

While listening to this album the very first time I felt that it was going to be among my favorites of that year and it surely was a most unexpected re-flowering of the seeds of Post-Punk right when I least expected it. Wire had returned and were giving me the sort of music that other bands, most notably, Simple Minds, were definitely not interested in providing any longer. More than anything, this album gives off the pleasing vibe of “Sons + Fascination” to such an extent because the band playing mostly real instruments and drums, but playing them as if they were machines. That gives this album a real kick. And with “Ahead,” which I was listening to today for the 300th time, I realized that one could go even further. I’m here to report that it is entirely possible to sing the lyrics of “The American” to this number. Higher praise I cannot give.

 – 30 –

 

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8 Responses to Record Review: Wire – The Ideal Copy

  1. Echorich says:

    Wire have done little wrong in over 35 years. With Ideal Copy, they did everything right. I consider Wire one of Post Punk’s foundation bands and they have remained integral to keeping the genre a valid one over 3 decades. That they ceased to exist just as Post Punk found full on recognition, points to a certain understanding that things would not last and corporate pop music would again rear it’s ugly head, swallowing the charts soon enough.
    It was then even more genius that, after each member had staked out a solo or collaborative career on the margins, they would come back together to take up the challenge of infusing the barren mid and late 80s with music of beauty, art and urgency – as long as it suited them.
    They once again saw the winds of banality that would be the 90’s and chose to sit that decade out as a unit until 2003’s amazing Send album.
    For me, they’ve been on a roll ever since.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – You’re spot on there regarding their awareness and immaculate timing. Sadly, I have not heard one note past “The Third Letter” and this needs to change. Even more amazingly, I have never heard a single note from the holy first three Wire albums!! One day I will probably snap and buy them all at once! Even though I never see them in the used bin. My cheapskate nature often works against me in this regard. Looking back today, they were probably the finest, and certainly the wisest Post-Punk band ever. But if you really want to get me gushing, you might mention the “Take Care” album by He Said.

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      • Echorich says:

        Those first three Wire albums proved the potential of Punk Rock. Where so many Punk bands still based their music in the chords of blues, sped up and then broken down, Wire approached Punk from the “art” wing of Rock with the intention of disruption. Pink Flag is rooted in Punk, but there’s a brutality that other Punk bands couldn’t even come close to creating. Wire understood white noise and repetition better than any of their contemporaries. Missing Chairs is just plain challenging to Punk Rock fans. It wears its art rock influences on its sleeve (literally) with no apology and thus moves Punk away from three chords and amphetamine vocals. By 154 and the band coming together with Mike Thorne, electronics/synths enter Wire’s sound and take it to another level. There’s a darkness that greets the listener right from the beginning, sprinkled with wry humor and full blossoming of their particular hybrid of Art Punk. 154 is essential – it’s as simple as that really.

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  2. Simon H says:

    I know you can’t truly describe Wire as ‘under rated’, at least not critically, but it does still feel to me that they have quietly managed to maintain their core integrity over a long long period in a way few other bands ever manage. Love the new album, they genuinely still feel like an act with their own momentum, definitely NOT a ‘heritage’ act!

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  3. JT says:

    Funny that you should mention He Said. I was listening to their “Hail” disc just the other day, with its essential track “Pump”, on which Lewis channels Shriekback to great effect.

    My first ever exposure to Wire was on The Ideal Copy tour ca. 1987. My friends and I heard “Ahead” on college radio, thought it was great (natch) and went to the show. Their 15-minute jam on “Drill” that night is still a legend among my peers. Fascinatingly, Wire only did new material on that tour. The opening act was The Ex-Lion Tamers, a Wire tribute band, who Wire hired to play stuff from the first three albums. This left Wire free to play new material while having the opening act on hand to appease the fans’ need to hear the classics. Being Wire virgins, my posse didn’t understand that the opening act were playing Wire’s legendary early work, and thus we paid little attention.

    This mistake was cleared up for us by Mr. Lewis himself. After the show, he was trying (with some success I reckon) to get a certain female pal of mine undressed. I ended up giving them a ride to her house, and he explained the significance of the Ex-Lion Tamers to me en route.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      JT – Yeah, I remember hearing about the whole Ex-Lion Tamers scenario and considered it a brilliant approach, but I would have been right there in your shoes as well; a Wire virgin as you so aptly put it. All I knew then, like yourself, was “The Ideal Copy” album, though I still haven’t seen Wire live. Don’t really expect to unless I can catch them in Atlanta, I suppose. From the title alone “Pump” fairly reeks of Shriekback! I need to buy that one.

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      • JT says:

        Take the 45 RPM single of any song on Jam Science and play is at 33 and you’ve got Pump! Conversely, listen to Pump, imagine it considerably faster, and you’ve got a long lost Jam Science track!

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          JT – Intriguing…! I’ll have to check that out, but first I need to get a copy of “Hail.” Not too cheap on CD, but it’s still affordable and now on the ever-expanding want list.

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