Mercy, nurse, tonight
On the release of their second album, Wire were dubbed 'the Pink Floyd of the New Wave'. That might have been an ultimately flattering phrase, but it made everybody in the defended cultural compound quite jumpy. Pink Floyd were by 1978 secure music establishment, self-defined through sixties-heretical moves but nevertheless becoming a secure reference. They were increasingly seen as self-satisfied and complacent, condescending dinosaurs, and Wire didn't want to be anywhere near that. Even so, a half generation apart, the two groups had much in common: their albums all persist over time, were made with an experimental mind set, and are repeatedly rediscovered by people who weren't even born when they were recorded. Even so, that intended compliment caused real queasiness. We didn't know forward history, any more than the Floyd.
Wire had been a hit, although without selling commercially significant numbers of LPs. Their attitude, its expression through tough, competent musical work, and the support of EMI gave them considerable territorial reach, into which they grew. They found themselves bearing the torch of a reborn progressive music fired with the spirit of punk and do-it-yourself-without-the-self-serving-experts, experimenting and exploring far beyond the contemporary pastiche of Sham 69 ('Urry up 'Arry, we're going down the pub'). Punk had quickly started to imitate itself, as with any commercially successful form, but change was the only constant for Wire. The 'new wave' was evolving from the punk revolution, although none of us bore the burden of style - Wire's moves were just developmental and with the program.
As pop intellectuals will observe, 'pop will eat itself,' a saying memorable enough that a group took it for their name. People who were the real article, who lived what they were presenting and who took the genuine personal risks, tend to be swamped by the predictable flood of musical, stylistic and lifestyle imitators. Style is easier to adopt than to generate substance, and this period was one of several where the originals provoked a trendy stampede (remember 'love and peace', anyone?). Around this time I bumped into an old acquaintance at a club who had been a thoughtful, slightly ethereal artist using a classic Moog IIIc synthesizer as his, er, 'axe' and drawing other-worldly graphic music scores. He was exploring. Now, he wore a black leather biker jacket. He and his mate jostled me by way of making a strong punk conversation point among friends. Er, 'scuse me.
Chairs Missing has persisted as my personal favorite of the three Wire albums that I was involved with (buried in). It doesn't have the rough clarity of Pink Flag, or the polish and arrangement coherence of 154, but there's a spirit of newness and discovery about every moment and track which takes you on a journey relating to the one we made at the time. Courtesy of new, basic electronics, completely fresh sound effects units were making it to market. You could buy relatively cheap ($100 or so) effects pedals, typically from MXR and Electroharmonix (both of whom eventually went bust). These sounds promised a whole new world for us, so off we went. We found the promised land, at least for then. A gesture could come from a simple chord, non-virtuoso playing, and an inspired setting of some incomprehensibly-named knobs. For me too, that was liberation, since I can't move my keyboard fingers fast enough to impress so a few keys and more knob-twiddles could do more for the music.
The perception of the lyrics on the album went up a level, although the vocals are sometimes hard to hear. The punk style of having the voice riding just on top of the supporting cataclysm was still with me, and it wasn't until 154 that arrangement and mixing complemented each other in my production approach. There are several very direct, open statements, such as Marooned and the first overt love song Heartbeat (Fragile, on Pink Flag counts the best draft). My favorite line is in Too Late, a sentence that comes from a planet that I have never visited. 'She pisses icy water on poetic mornings.' Wire lyrics were capable of pretension, but this is the opposite, putting you immediately in a curious emotional space with words that are inexplicable but somehow connect.I had played keyboards on a few tracks on Pink Flag, but didn't think that my contribution warranted disturbing the rock-solid coherence of the group's sound. There is piano under Reuters as basic coloring, and more forward noises in Options R, although I listened to that track recently and couldn't hear anything I'd done (most of what I did on many tracks was just intended to color Bruce's or Colin's guitars) except the harmony to the bass on the descending line at the very end. So what if I was playing a cranky old RMI Electrapiano whose pedal could fall off onstage and require a short, discreet technical session with sticky tape. Wire said I should play synthesizers on the next album. I said, as ever, 'I can't move my fingers fast enough.' They said, 'If you don't do it, we'll get that Brian Eno in.' I said, 'OK.'
My terror of playing came from the humiliation of taking much longer than accepted by the studio establishment to get some idea realized and recorded (and the group sometimes, in their impatience bred by the immediacy of the crash guitar chord you could get just by plugging in). The ability to set up a sound so that you just put two fingers down on the keyboard and have the electronics do the rest of the ear massage was something we all understood. But I wasn't battle-hardened by Roxy gigs, hadn't absorbed the punter's advice from the floor ('that's better, now louder and faster') and I hadn't toured in support of an album. I didn't have a fraction of the front that the others had developed, and had never been on stage except to lecture on audio tech or to read the morning lesson at secondary school assembly (one contemporary had been so nervous that he threw up all over the lectern right at the start, so I can't knock the conditioning). At the end of this album recording, Wire were to play a major gig at the Lyceum in London. It was to be my Armageddon. Later, for the story of that embarrassment. On the album, I had the space to find genuinely new sounds and gestures, to think compositionally, as compared with the exercise of player chops which was most keyboard players' studio mind set. Performance, I learned that evening, is a different world.
The sound is the most startling thing for me on returning to listen (now) after 21 years. Songs like Too Late are the final sting of the departing punk style. The crackle of the guitars is often under laid and boosted by a similar sound from the RMI Electrapiano through a distortion pedal or overdriven amp. One thing we did achieve was an integrated electric sound, where the originating instrument is often difficult to figure out: no guitar heroes. What sounds like a keyboard is often an electric guitar, and vice versa. The put-down of my keyboards in the rock purist columns of Trouser Press magazine might have been because of the organ-like bits, where they probably loved the synth through the MXR Distortion+ pedal. Maybe they just hated the voice loops, bells, temple blocks, flutes, tubular bells (processed through a ring modulator in Marooned after Bruce had objected that he didn't want any bell tolling, too corny). But, sometimes, they clearly loved the punk abandon of my RMI piano. Should have told them.
On this album, the instrumental layering and replacement began in earnest. Most of the initial recordings sounded like Sand In My Joints, a wall of punky guitar over Robert's beat which would sometimes be only slightly to the left of prescribed punk practice. The group's boredom threshold was very low. One time, I was already at my post when Colin, Bruce and Graham turned up late after lunchtime pub. This was routine consumption for us all and, in retrospect, adding in the leisurely dinners we would enjoy courtesy of EMI, makes me wonder how we got anything done at all. Colin announced that the whole album had to be recorded again. 'Really,' I said with the posed detachment, a defense mechanism giving me time to think which could drive them mad. They were, thankfully, talking about stripping the stylistically familiar out in favor of something new. Used To started as a track like that, but ended as the poignant track that is the clearest anticipation of 154.As on Pink Flag, I always tried to get the guitar sounds to work at the amplifier itself, in thin air before the microphone, even when a quick turn of the equalizer in the control room would help. The equipment was stretched to the limit. Any further tone adjustment was done in the studio itself, which affected the sound much more organically after the first realization the other side of the glass and could take it correspondingly further. On the first album, I had been utterly purist about recording the guitars practically flat at the mixer, and putting in my own very hard work to get the sound working in air (as detected by the microphones, two combined to a single recorded track). Chairs Missing relaxed the attitude, or we might have had an even harder time locking all those sounds together. There are some extremely non-purist moments. The guitar solo in Sand In My Joints is played by Colin and Bruce both through the ring modulator on the classic Synthi AKS. Unless there is a sound present at each of the two inputs to a ring modulator, nothing comes out. When there are, the single final sound is one modulated by the other, usually wildly unpredictably. It was a very social occasion for the two of them, and they didn't mind my moderation (an interview would have been very different).
It was still important to play the songs complete, to get the mood and the feeling down on tape before drawing on that performance as bottled energy when we replaced crashing guitars with something stranger or more mysterious. Colin's vocals were especially convincing when the mood of a track like Mercy descended on him. His head would be solidly in the issues of the song, and it sounded solidly there, always convincing. On Mercy, we overdubbed a few vocal lines. I can hear them, such as 'raise the club', but overall they raise the intensity over the missteps that happened live.
It became almost a dogmatic requirement in my production mind to have at least one thing completely fresh and striking about a track, something you hadn't heard before. And, remember, any reference to style was totally taboo. A proposal to do a song in, for example, 'a kind of Motown groove', which I would later to find a common expression in New York studios (and must have been in London's), would cause horror and expressions of disgust. I Am The Fly, recorded for a single ahead of the album, was described by Colin before I heard it as 'a sort of disco thing.' He came close to cultural heresy, but I don't think Disco Fever was on his turntable too much.
One whole intense day was devoted to the 1:06 minutes Another The Letter. We had cast around for all the first half of the session to find a satisfactory way to nail the song, initially presented with a heavy punk accent. Lots of crashing and bashing. The only unchanged personality was Robert, whose drums were thrown into a totally strange space by our laying the whole punky thing over a sequence playing out of my Oberheim analog synthesizer. The basic tempo did get faster and faster, easy when the tempo control is a small knob rather than a sweaty drummer. Later, though, I had to attempt to play the damn thing manually on stage, with the group as usual hammering away even faster than the recording. The sound man would normally be kind or disgusted, never sure which, and turn the keyboard sound down. Fingers have their limits, especially mine.
After the album was done, Wire had a gig to play at the Lyceum, to an audience of more than 1000 who mostly looked forward to the new album. They invited me to play, which was terrifyingly wonderful (most people spend their life on stage and are only too keen to get into the green grass on the studio side let me out of my windowless room). We had one rehearsal the previous night, social drinking being the other major factor. It was one thing for Colin to open his mouth and bang away at his still fabulous-looking white Ovation guitar, although he had his fancy pedals. Mostly he led the band and sang energetically. For my keyboards, all manner of primitive effects had to be reset between songs, so I diligently made a chart of the changes I had to make based on the rigorously defined set list.
At the hallowed Lyceum, we got off to a rousing start, and my stage fright was just starting to abate after a couple of numbers. Then Colin's set list diverged from mine, after he dropped his pile of lyric sheets during a particularly active song and started announcing songs that might have been by Yes or Genesis for all I could do to fit in. My scheduled sonic changes were neither late nor early: gone. It's a bit like those dreams when you're at school and you realize you don't have any clothes on. The sound man probably eliminated me altogether, until the last number which sounded fabulous: all I had to do, out of the Oberheim synth, was to hold my finger on a continuous low pedal note from the cue until the end of the song. Managed that. Thankfully, from a different instrument. The sound must have been effective and dramatic up front - I could feel the vibration through my seat. End of star moment at the close. Johnny One-Note had enjoyed his.
Wire might have sometimes been guilty of preciousness, but they taught me not to take things too seriously when you're up there. After pulling myself slightly together, I joined in the onstage laughs. Afterwards, there was applause, I dimly remember.
MT June 2000
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