November 10, 2015
Wire: 154 US CD 
- I Should Have Known Better
- Two People In A Room
- The 15th
- The Other Window
- Single K.O.
- A Touching Display
- On Returning
- A Mutual Friend
- Blessed State
- Once Is Enough
- Map Ref. 41ºN 93ºW
- Indirect Enquiries
- 40 Versions
- Song 1
- Get Down 1 + 2
- Let’s Panic Later
- 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.
The 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 –
Pink Flag is a masterpiece!! I didn’t care as much for the other two early albums, but Pink Flag still does it for me after 40+ years. I want to be a field day for the Sundays!! 1 2 X U!!
Big Mark – I’m still missing out nearly a decade later!
Wow. Perhaps you’d heard “I Should Have Known Better” or “Outdoor Miner” before? Wire has been covered a bit as well. It’s like first finding “The Wedding Album” and then “Rio,” or “Elemental” and then “Songs from the…” … so I wonder how often folks are new to say DD or TFF via their recent ones now, and then look back saying, “Yeah, I knew those one or two big hits, who knew?” :)
Scott Klapman – I know whereof you speak, but in this case I still could not say “oh yeah…that song” regarding early Wire. But I still need the other two albums. I’ll write a follow up if I can make that claim at that time!
I don’t know anything by Wire,except a superb cover version of The 15th” by Fischerspooner,which appeared on their first album about 20 years ago.
My friend Robin Rimbaud is in a band with Newman called Gilthead,which I do know.
Gavin – Everything I’ve ever heard from Wire suggests that they were the Post-Punk band that has stayed the truest to the ideals that formed them while developing their sound over the decades. I think their probing intellect and sonic rigor are something that you should look into. The band seemed to me as if four David Bowie’s came together to make music with much less of Bowie’s success, yet none of his flaws.
I almost mentioned that “15th” cover. It’s great. So is the Wire original. Such a creative group. They’re in a short list of mine of similar era stuff, “Stuff that I’ll always love”: Wire, The Stranglers, Killing Joke. I feel bad I don’t add Gang Of Four. Oh, and Severed Heads!
Scott Klapman – Total agreement here, except Severed Heads never did too much for me.
Of the first three albums, 154 is definitely my favorite. I love that it has a moody, icier tension to it that’s different from the other two. Also, A Touching Display sounds great loud in headphones!
Pink Flag might just be the best punk album from the uk 70s scene. Though, as punk was mostly a singles game there isn’t a lot of competition.
Chairs missing is a big leap forward in song writing and presentation , or should that be sideways, because I don’t think it’s better that Pink Flag. It contains my favourite Wire Lyric “no blind spots in the leopard’s eyes can only help to jeopardize the lives of lambs, the shepherd cries” (Outdoor Miner).
154 feels like natural growth from Missing Chairs, though personally I find it a bit harder to love than the first two albums. That said, Map Ref still moves me in an unlikely place where intellect (the lyrics) and emotion (the melody and those chorus harmonies, oh my) meet.