Record Review: Wire – 154

Restless Retro ‎| US | CD | 1898 | 7 72362-2

Restless Retro ‎| US | CD | 1898 | 7 72362-2

Wire: 154 US CD [1989]

  1. I Should Have Known Better
  2. Two People In A Room
  3. The 15th
  4. The Other Window
  5. Single K.O.
  6. A Touching Display
  7. On Returning
  8. A Mutual Friend
  9. Blessed State
  10. Once Is Enough
  11. Map Ref. 41ºN 93ºW
  12. Indirect Enquiries
  13. 40 Versions
  14. Song 1
  15. Get Down 1 + 2
  16. Let’s Panic Later
  17. Small Electric Piece

For years, I have begged ignorance when talk turned to the classic EMI period for the band Wire. I was an eager fan from the moment of the band’s re-emergence in 1985, but any of the large body of work by which they made their reputation was an unknown quantity to these ears. Sure, sure. I was aware of certain fan’s dismissal of the 80s material as inferior and compromised, but I always considered that to be elitism and sour grapes. To these ears, the material issued by Mute Records was exemplary work and worthy of praise and devotion. And yet, through 30 years of fandom, where every album I bought was compelling, I still had not heard “Pink Flag,” Chairs Missing” or “154.” As of last Sunday, this was no longer the case.

I was popping in Harvest Records while entertaining chasinvictoria, who was in town for a quick visit while visiting the Lower 48. As usual, we made a visit to Harvest Records and when I saw a used copy of “154” I immediately decided that the time was night to delve into Wire’s EMI era. The opening “I Should Have Known Better,” sounded not immediately dissimilar to anything from the early Mute era. In other words, it was dark, arty, Post-Punk with Graham Lewis singing lead. The main distinction was that with Mike Thorne producing, the vibe was warmer than anything on the Gareth Jones-produced “The Ideal Copy.” The one qualitative difference that I could name was that the material was far less reliant on synthesizers than what came six years later, but the overall sound was pretty familiar. The difference here was that Wire were primarily relying on guitars and effects to occupy the same space that synths did a few years later. In any case, Robert Gotobed’s metronomic timekeeping was, as ever, eerily similar to a drum machine.

The album was a familiar bland of understated art rock hooks with occasional forays into the avant garde. “The Other Window” featured B.C. Gilbert’s spoken word performance instead of anything approaching singing. “A Touching Display” proffered guitar harmonics coalescing to form whorling drones of energy presaging Robin Guthrie’s attack in the Cocteau Twins. “On Returning” was based on a guitar skank loop that was infectious for its brief 2:04 length.

wire - maprefUK7AThe one single here, the enigmatically titled “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W” was the only single peeled from this disc, but in spite of the relative poppiness on offer here, it’s relevant to note that the lyrics on this, as with all Wire songs here, were as cloistered as ever. In the realms of pop, the one tune here that went all the way to the threshold and over the line demarcating pop and art was “The 15th.” Were it not for the typically impenetrable lyrics [as shown below] it would have had a great chance to ingratiate itself into the ears of the great populace.

“Reviewed, it seemed
As if someone were watching over it
Before it was
As if response were based on fact

Providing, deciding it was soon there
Squared to it, faced to it, it was not there

Renewed, it fought
As if it had a cause to live for
Denied, it learned
As if it had sooner been destroyed” – “The 15th” [Colin Newman]

The program on this issue replicated the original UK LP which came with a four track 7” EP of extra tunes, appended here at the end of the disc. Many reissues of this album lack this material, and I understand why. As experimental as Wire get in their artistic viewpoint, these cuts were willfully so. The predominate mood was instrumental in nature, though “Get Down 1 + 2” featured spoken word/chanted sections of text. “Let’s Panic Later” was hitting uncomfortably close to The Residents in overall vibe. Had I gotten a later pressing of this album lacking this material, it might have made for a more wholistic listening experience. I understand why Wire have opted for this decision. The material on the EP was too diffuse juxtaposed next to a somber, powerful album like 154. While it does have moments lighter than anything I’d later heard from Wire, these were leavened with their consistently sober outlook and artistic POV.

Criticism I’d heard suggested back in 1985 that Wire were an astounding group who had reformed, perhaps against better judgement and produced material that did not stand up next to the past that they were so careful not to repeat; going so far as hiring another band to play that material as opening act on their “Ideal Copy” tour! Instead, what I hear on “154” 30 years later, is that Wire had a consistent point of view that was moving in a direction consistently from at least their third album forward. This material was definitely the work of the band who created the music that made me a fan in 1985. The sound here differed only in that Mike Thorne produced a consistently warmer sound than what I was used to and was also responsible for what few keyboards were on this record. This was still very much a Post-Punk guitar album. Now my brief is to obtain and finally hear “Pink Flag” and “Chairs Missing.” This time I can’t wait another 30 years.

– 30 –

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4 Responses to Record Review: Wire – 154

  1. Echorich says:

    There is no period of Wire’s career that can be dismissed as lesser than the others. That is starting off point for me when it comes to a critical view of Wire’s body of work. They were above the fray of Punk, releasing a debut album that stepped into the Punk swamp and jumped out and up onto the banyan tree that was Post Punk before they released it’s follow up.
    But it’s 154, their third album, that tops the mountain of their work over almost 40 years. Opening with the darkness from within of I Should Have Known Better, it’s a song that gets darker and more claustrophobic as the song progresses. Two People In A Room is a Krautrock influenced St. Vitus Dance of a song, bouncing off the walls – in well metered time of course. The 15th is what you get when a group of Punk influenced art school boys deconstruct a Prog pop song.
    Many of the album’s middle tracks show off the band members’ Art Rock leanings while keeping things relevant to early 80’s experimentation and avoiding the dreaded noodling that can come from amateurish Art Rock. But even with all the arty pretensions, they only allow two track to clock in over 4 minutes.
    Blessed State tugs back and forth in a wonderfully tense way in both the music and vocals. But it’s near the album’s end that Wire present, what I consider their finest moment of this almost 4 decade career. Map Ref 41ºN 93ºW is Post Punk’s greatest sing a long chorus! I dare you not to sing along and pronounce “longitude” with a hard “g” sound. And Monk, in NYC you couldn’t escape this wonderful song – on college radio, clubs, even the one forward thinking FM station, WPIX-FM would play Map Ref…all the time.
    154 makes a high placing in my all time favorite albums. It satisfies on so many levels and it still has a refreshingly powerful effect on my when I listen to it today. Wire had a few very compatible musical contemporaries, all bending Punk Rock with the influences of 70’s Art Rock and Krautrock – Magazine, Simple Minds, Siouxsie And The Banshees and PiL among them – but Wire have managed to keep a distinct path any listener can travel start to finish and understand how those first few albums relate to 2015’s brilliant eponymous release.

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  2. SimonH says:

    I find it funny that some will treat Wire’s later work as a disappointing after thought. I’ve mentioned before that here in Bristol we’ve been lucky to have them play several times over the last few years, each time my admiration for them grows and grows. They seem to effortlessly avoid the traps other reformed or ‘heritage’ acts fall foul of. I’ve always wondered, if they had chosen to, whether they could have recorded an amazing all ‘pop’ album, but just didn’t fancy it. In the end though it’s the balance between accessibility and dissonance that keeps them so rewarding.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      SimonH – You nail their allure with the last sentence. It’s that dance between obscurity and accessibility that makes their work so consistently intriguing. Even the most pop-frienfdly Wire-related album I have, He Said’s amazing “Take Care” is shot through with uncompromising threads of art rock.

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