While download sales continue to be available via the usual streaming services, we have hit trouble with our physical CD distribution. We hope to have an alternative soon. You can also still stream our music as usual.
While download sales continue to be available via the usual streaming services, we have hit trouble with our physical CD distribution. We hope to have an alternative soon. You can also still stream our music as usual.
Wire at the Stereo Society
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Wire at the Stereo Society
Wire 1977-1979 by Kevin Eden
Much has been written about the birth of British Punk and the explosion of groups that occurred.
One thing, however, still remains to be stated again. Wire were NOT Punk. Let’s make that official once and for all. While no-one, including the group themselves, would deny that Punk was not an influence or that they used the Punk network as a platform from which to propel themselves into the public limelight; very few can deny that what Wire did within three years took them further from Punk than any other group even dared dream about.
Whilst the Sex Pistols imploded, the Clash embraced America, Buzzcocks became pop, Siouxsie & The Banshees became Goth, Punk became New Wave, Wire became…. Became what exactly? Jon Savage has amusingly called them ‘the jokers in the pack’.
Three albums, all unique, all individual and so many ideas racing for attention that it was no wonder that by the end of 1979 the members of Wire were looking towards other outlets to fulfil their creative desires.
But where did it begin and who were these four young men?
Think Of A Number
Born 18th May 1946 in Watford, Hertfordshire, Bruce Clifford Gilbert’s background was one of a strong musical family. His mother had been a part-time jazz singer and the family home contained lots of records along with an upright piano. The fascination for the latter had the 7 or 8 year old Gilbert jamming his head against the sound board and reaching up to hammer away at the bass notes!
Another early ‘experiment’, at the age of 14, was when his parents bought him a tape recorder. Hearing Duane Eddy’s Peter Gunn on the radio, Bruce decided to record the song three times and splice it together to create his own extended version!
An interest in the visual arts led him to St Albans Art School and onto Leicester Polytechnic where he transferred from Graphic Design to Fine Art. However, still disillusioned, he left and by 1971 had begun painting his own large abstracts and making ends meet with a number of part time jobs.In 1974 Bruce landed himself the job as audio-visual technician at Hemel Hempstead College of Further Education, which in turn led him to the same job at Watford Art School.The art school sound studio was set up for Film students but it also became a natural magnet for students wanting to experiment and record music. Along with another student, Ron West, Bruce began creating his own musique-concrete sound collages (the Finnish Sahko label released Frequency Variation in 1998). Two students who fell in with Bruce and the studio were Colin Newman and George Gill.
Colin John Newman was born on 16th September 1954 in Salisbury, Wiltshire. By the age of 7 his parents had moved to Newbury, Berkshire.
A keen music fan from an early age Colin befriended Desmond Simmons whilst at grammar school. The duo quickly cultivated a number of ‘groups’ as an outlet for their burgeoning talents such as The Tyres and CN’D’s. Following Desmond’s tuition on guitar Colin’s parents eventually bought him his own acoustic.
From grammar school Colin went to Winchester Art School and then onto Watford Art School to study Graphics/Illustration; believing that art school was the place to be to form a group. He kept up his ‘musical studies’ by sharing a flat with Desmond who had moved to North London to study History of Art at Middlesex Polytechnic.
In 1975, Colin moved to Watford, to share a house with a number of students, one of whose number was George Gill; also a guitarist. The two naturally gravitated to the college studio, run by Bruce Gilbert. The idea of an art school group, ‘Overload’, to play at the end of term party sprang into life with Bruce, Colin, George and Ron West providing the main ‘musical input’. Ron and Bruce’s girlfriends, Francesca Casaveti and Angela Conway respectively, provided the backing vocals. Despite the consensus that the performance was a disaster the seed had been sown.
Bruce went back to making his own sonic experiments in the studio but realized that he had to play guitar if he was to continue. Colin carried on writing his own songs, but by the first half of 1976 a new musical force was raising its head: Punk. Inspired by having seen the Sex Pistols and buying The Ramones first album Colin and George seduced Bruce into forming a new group. But they needed a bass player and a drummer.
Born Edward Graham Lewis on 22nd February 1953 in Grantham, Lincolnshire into a military family (his father was in the R.A.F.), it wasn’t until the age of 11 that the Lewis family settled in Newcastle from where they originated.
Although aware of music through the radio Graham did not get a record player until aged 16 or 17, by which time he had made his decision to go to art school.
Having completed his Foundation year at Lanchester Art College he applied to Hornsey Art School in 1971 to study Textiles. After a disappointing first year Graham transferred to the Fashion Department for his 2nd and 3rd years. He finally graduated in 1975 and spent the next 18 months as a freelance fashion designer.
During his time at Hornsey Graham had become the Student Union’s Social Secretary and was responsible for booking bands into the college’s hall. He had also started tinkering with a home-made bass guitar, but with no real direction in mind.
Whilst in his 3rd year Graham met a student from Middlesex Polytechnic called Angela Conway who suggested that Graham should meet Bruce Gilbert. Having met and found they had similar interests and musical tastes Bruce suggested that Graham come over to Watford with his bass to ‘do something’ with Colin and George. For Graham the experience was depressing, ‘a failed experiment’. On top of which Colin and George were completely abusive towards him.
A week later Bruce was on the phone asking if he’d like to do it again! At this point Graham was also aware of the rise of Punk and believed that something new and interesting could be created. All they needed was a drummer.
Robert Gotobed (nee Grey) was born in Marefield, Leicestershire on 21st April 1951. Having been sent to a number of private schools up to the age of 18 it was only as a teenager that a real interest in music began to emerge.
With no knowledge or formal training in music Robert left school and drifted to London where some of his friends were living. With a slight detour in 1971, to study Humanities at Thames Polytechnic that only lasted two terms, Robert then spent the next four years doing odd jobs and agency work finally finding himself living in a squat in Stockwell, South London. A fellow squatter suggested Robert become the singer in a R’n’B group, The Snakes, he was forming. Robert agreed and the group played for about a year, recording a single Teenage Head, before fellow members Nick Garvey and Richard Slaughter went off to form The Motors.
In the meantime, Richard had built a rehearsal studio in a house across the road and Robert realized he wanted to play drums. With no assistance Robert taught himself the rudiments by copying from records.
A few months later Robert was invited to a party. Dressed entirely in black with a large red paper flower in his lapel he attracted the attention of Colin Newman. Colin’s voice was hoarse from singing through a small guitar amp and Robert quickly realized that Colin had been briefed on him being a drummer. Colin invited Robert to come to Watford to rehearse. Robert reluctantly agreed, despite the fact that he felt he had no real talent as a drummer.
The line up was ready: Colin Newman – vocals, George Gill – lead guitar, Bruce Gilbert – rhythm guitar, Graham Lewis – bass, Robert Gotobed – drums.
But what about a name? The Geezers. A Case. The Wires. Wire.
Flying The Flag
By the summer of 1976 the five members of Wire were rehearsing and writing material on a regular basis. Colin, with George, was the only one with any musical knowledge so was able to take the raw ideas and hone them into a structure before presenting them back to the group.
In August 1976 Wire recorded a set of demos in Nick Garvey’s basement studio in Stockwell. It’s obvious from the recordings that the group was still trying to find a direction. They were raw, brash, ramshackle and abrasive. Shouting was the order of the day. Even a song like Feeling Called Love, which would appear on their first album, was overlain with George’s histrionic guitar solos.
Other songs recorded at this session were Prove Myself, Mary Is A Dyke, Bad Night At The Lion, Outside The Law, Gimme Your Love, Midnight Train, TV, I’m Lost, Johnny Brown, After Midnight, Bitch and Roadrunner.
In retrospect it is no surprise that they did not feel ready for a public performance until the 2nd December. Through Graham’s old Student’s Union connections a gig was acquired at The Nashville Rooms supporting pub rockers The Derelicts. The following night they appeared at the Students Union bar of St Martins School of Art in front of some very abusive art students. The plugs were pulled after 20 minutes!
By now rehearsing four days a week, in the basement of a cafe owned by Lou Panetta, Wire’s sound was becoming more controlled and formulated.
In January 1977 Andy Czezowski, the owner of The Roxy Club in London’s Covent Garden, offered them their third gig, supporting The Jam. Adopting pseudonyms was de-rigeur. If it was okay for Johnny Rotten, Dave Vanian, and Howard Devoto, then Colin could become Klive Nice and Graham Hornsey Transfer.
Sounds reporter Dave Fudger wrote:
“… they’re noisy, messy, and raw, they have a healthy indifference to the audience caring more about what they’re trying to do than what their reaction is, and they had the arrogance as support band to refuse to go on until there was a big enough crowd in the hall.”
When asked for another gig Andy Czezowski replied, “Come back when you’ve improved.”
It also became apparent that Wire required someone to take control over booking gigs, driving the van and the day-to-day logistics; in short, a manager. Andy Czezowski had offered but to him Wire were no different than other bands around at the time. Wire required someone who knew where they were coming from.
A manager was found in the shape of Mick Collins, an old friend of Bruce’s. Mick had done some promotion and management beforehand, albeit in the shape of folk groups. Turning up to a rehearsal wearing a white linen suit Mick was suitably impressed and offered his services, despite George flicking lighted cigarette butts at him!
With an isolated gig in Watford in mid-February George then broke his ankle, apparently attempting to ‘acquire’ some equipment, and was laid up for 3-4 weeks. The four-piece Wire began to write new material that suited their new stripped down sound and with an almost completely new set of material, including Lowdown, 12XU, Mr Suit, Strange, Brazil, Three Girl Rhumba and 106 Beats That, it became clear that there was no future role for George in the group. Whilst no one could deny that George’s enthusiasm and energy had given them confidence, his ability to play guitar solos over every song had become more than enough to bear.
Wire were back at The Roxy at the end of February, with George’s leg in plaster. This was to be his last performance with them. Following this gig they were promptly offered £35 to come back and play two nights as part of a ‘punk festival’ to be recorded by EMI for an album documenting the event.
Arriving at The Roxy Club on 1st April 1977 Wire were met by EMI’s Mike Thorne, the A&R man responsible for the recording of the two [five – Ed] nights. Mike asked if it was okay to record them and if they needed to borrow his guitar tuner. The former was fine they said, but the latter would only add to their problems – like playing in time. Also on the bill were Eater, X-Ray Spex, Buzzcocks, Johnny Moped, Smak, Slaughter & The Dogs, The Unwanted and The Adverts.
Reviewing the Saturday night performances Jon Savage wrote for Sounds:
“Next up are Wire; they short-circuit the audience totally, playing about 20 numbers, most around one minute long. The audience doesn’t know when one has finished and the other is beginning. I like the band for that… good theatre. Image wise they look convincingly bug-eyed, flash speed automatons, caught in a ’64 mod time-warp. As to songs: I’m really not sure – there seems to be some scheme of things, but this is buried in the poor sound and the limitations of the format. I caught the words to two songs, which I knew already: Three Girl Rhumba and One, Two, X, U (sic), which was the best of the set. There were glimpses of genuine originality: I’ll hold. The audience only really got interested when the bass player blew his stack at a heckler.”
For Wire’s two performances they played The Commercial, Mary Is A Dyke, Too True, Just Don’t Care, Strange, Brazil, It’s So Obvious, Three Girl Rhumba, TV, Straight Line, Lowdown, Feeling Called Love, New York City, After Midnight, 12XU, Mr Suit and Glad All Over.
A few days later Graham and Colin went to see Mike at EMI, where they chose Lowdownand 12XU for inclusion on the Live at The Roxy album. Mike also proposed that they sign to EMI. To prove his enthusiasm and commitment he arranged for a demo session in EMI’s basement studio on 4th May where The Commercial, Mr Suit and Pink Flag were recorded.
Two further sessions, at Riverside Studios, on 25th May and 12th August yielded Reuters, Different To Me, Ex-Lion Tamer, Mannequin, Champs, Start To Move, 106 Beats That, Fragile, Surgeon’s Girl and Field Day For The Sundays.
In the meantime, the Live at The Roxy album had been released in July to critical acclaim.
Jon Savage’s review in Sounds was obviously the writing of a convert:
“Wire sound as though they’re aiming for something interesting: ‘Lowdown’ is too much of a monotone drone, but 12XU is a classic in embryo – a great riff exploding the tension of the verses. Produce it!”
Mike Thorne’s conviction about Wire was enough to convince Harvest boss Nick Mobbs about the urgency of signing the group. He was particularly concerned that Wire would jettison the songs recorded as demos in favor of newer material that they were already writing.
On the 9th September 1977 Wire signed a contract with EMI for an initial fee of £25,000, with a further £15,000 to follow, on or before 1st February 1979, should the contract be renewed. The minimum commitment for Wire was to produce two albums within the first 18 months and one album during the further yearly renewable clauses.
Later that month Wire and Mike Thorne were ensconced in Advision Studios for a six week session that would become thePink Flag album. Mike’s curriculum vitae had already included production work for folk-rock chamber group Gryphon, French group Telephone, a live Soft Machine album and the Live at The Roxy album.
A five hour meeting at Mike’s flat, with Wire, had produced not only a list of the tracks they were to record but also the running order. Pink Flag was, if not a concept album, certainly one where every attention to musical detail was as important as the sleeve artwork.
Recording the basic tracks (guitar, bass, drums and lead vocal) ‘live’ in the studio Mike then proceeded to either add further guitars or replace and overdub the vocals and any other part of the group sound that he felt needed improvement. This would include adding his own piano part to Reuters (albeit buried in the mix), adding the sound of fire escape percussion to the end of Strange, bringing in Gryphon’s Dave Oberlé to sing backing harmonies to Mannequin, and asking Kate Lukas to play flute on Strange.
With this kind of day-to-day discipline and the space to experiment Wire saw for themselves what the studio could offer, what kind of alternative landscapes could be made to enhance or change a song and, above all in Mike, a willing and able collaborator.
Harvest (EMI’s subsidiary label) were keen to see its quick release and the album was on the streets by the end of November with Mannequin released as a single a few weeks earlier. Feeling Called Love and 12XU appeared on the b-side.
Critical acclaim was universal. Dave Fudger, already an undying supporter, wrote in Sounds:
“I can’t recommend it enough. It’s hard not like anything you’ve heard and it’ll leave its mark for a long time.”
Phil McNeill, in New Musical Express:
“They’re good. Recommended even. A great Christmas present.”
And C.B in Melody Maker:
“Not for the narrow-minded – this album throws down the gauntlet. But it’s well worth picking it up.”
With Pink Flag released Wire were booked to support The Tubes on their UK tour. A far cry from the small clubs they had become used to, Wire were expected to present their sound to 15,000 seater venues such as London’s Hammersmith Odeon, Manchester’s Free Trade Hall and Newcastle’s City Hall.
All of Wire agree that despite the volleys of abuse (and objects) they got from audiences the experience gave them the facility to sharpen their set. The support they received from The Tubes stage crew showed them the possibilities of lighting and other visual effects.
With The Tubes tour over Wire finished off the year with a few smaller gigs of their own and, on 14th December, recording a further demos session for their second album at Riverside Studios. Practice Makes Perfect, Oh No Not So, Culture Vultures, It’s The Motive, Love Ain’t Polite, French Film Blurred, Sand In My Joints, Too Late, I Am The Fly, Heartbeat, Underwater Experiences, Stalemate and I Feel Mysterious Today were recorded.
On 18th January 1978 Wire entered BBC’s Maida Vale Studios to record their first John Peel session. With Pink Flag still warm it came as a surprise to listeners that out of the four tracks recorded only one was from the album: 106 Beats That. Out of the remaining three Practice Makes Perfect and I Am The Fly marked a distinct change in the groups sound – more subtle, less direct and more controlled. Culture Vultures seemed to be a ‘son of ‘Pink Flag” type song and would only be played live for a while before being dropped and never officially recorded. Practice Makes Perfect would appear on their second album whilst I Am The Fly would be released as their second single in February with Ex-Lion Tamer on the b-side.
Also in February Wire undertook their first headlining UK tour, taking in 21 venues.
Reviewing their 2nd February gig, at London’s Marquee Club, Dave Fudger (again) wrote:
“This Marquee gig… revealed what extensive rehearsal and heading their own tour has done to the band’s confidence; a more commanding, relaxed Wire communicated better the group’s musical message.
Wire’s strength used to lie solely in their music, but now they seem to be well on the way to shaping the vehicle to animate their art.”
Angus MacKinnon, of the New Musical Express, wrote of their 22nd February gig at London’s Lyceum, supporting XTC:
“… I still happen to rate Wire as by far the most innovative, nonconformist and generally compelling UK unit to have surfaced in recent months.”
Allan Jones for Melody Maker:
“… their music makes few concessions to current fashions, occupying a left-field space entirely its own.
It’s disturbing, and never allows the listener to fully relax: but it’s not entirely without humor, and, more importantly, their preoccupation with terse, violent salvos (which allows them an unusual freedom) is never self-consciously experimental. It is a perfect setting for their inventive and original lyrics. A band of substantial promise.”
Wire spent the majority of March on the road before heading back into Riverside Studios on 14th April, with Mike Thorne, to record some further demos. Dot Dash, French Film Blurred (re-written), Options R, Finistaire (aka Mercy), Marooned, From The Nursery, Indirect Enquiries, Outdoor Miner, Chairs Missing, Being Sucked in Again, Mend 2nd, Another Letter (sic) and No Romans were recorded.
The end of April and beginning of May were taken up with a further nine gigs.
Having chosen the songs from the two demo sessions from 14th December 1977 and 14th April 1978 Wire then joined Mike Thorne in Advision Studios to record their second album; Chairs Missing.
It was apparent to all of them that this album was a different kettle of fish to Pink Flag. Wire themselves had learnt to play their instruments as well as become efficient in the use of effects pedals. In doing so the songs began to take on a different complexity; to become less direct and more layered. Mike’s response was to push the production even further and he was asked to add more of his keyboards to the overall mix. In essence he was becoming a fifth member.
Once more Mike got the group to play the songs as they would live and then proceeded to take each track apart and effectively rebuild them with any ideas that were thrown into the pot.
In June the first fruits were released; the single Dot Dash with Options R on the other side.
Through a connection of Mike Thorne’s, Wire were invited to play four nights at the prestigious New York C.B.G.B’s club, with the supposed aim to then play a few gigs on the West Coast. The latter failed to materialize through Capitol Records (Wire’s US label) lack of promotional backing.
However, three warm up gigs in Plymouth, Liverpool and London preceded the trip to America. Performing live with Wire at London’s Lyceum gig was Mike Thorne, on keyboards.
Dave Fudger (yet again) wrote for Sounds:
“… the music has the same spell-binding qualities that are Wire’s stock in trade and in performance represents a sizeable step forward, yet another ‘new wave’ [sic] band successfully absorbs the synthesizer, although visually the band still remain stubbornly two-dimensional, albeit highly animated but still not breaking through a barrier behind which they seem to be running through a number of low-key routines that generally have little to do with either the subject matter of the songs or the attentions of the audience, as Jon Savage might say: a strength and perhaps a weakness, who knows?”
Wire were booked to play two shows on the first two nights at CBGBs (14th and 15th July) but due to some visa mix-up they arrived late to do the first set and agreed to play the second set, besides being jet-lagged. Two further shows on 20th and 21st July completed their visit.
What America made of Wire was reported in Soho Weekly by Roy Trakin:
“I found Wire’s theories a touch too confining, their approach a bit too three-chord conventional without the redeeming qualities of either humor or humanity. I realize these guys are intentionally cold; I’m complaining less about their frigidity than I am about their intentionality – it’s just too damn obvious. At the same time, of course, the lyrics are impenetrable, repetitive snippets of information: the shorthand of future shock. Wire is, at once, too easy and too hard, and the combination of the two left me wearied rather than enlightened.”
In the Westsider, Jon Young wrote:
“In person Wire maintained their image and were more serious than the record. The metallic agitation had been honed to more of a buzz. Songs were harder to distinguish, the insistence becoming desperation. Wire were poker-faced, somber and looked liked unhappy lab technicians. Whilst their music is opaque, harsh, and probably too unpleasant for most people, it works like a frightening but enthralling sleight of hand.”
What Wire made of America was highlighted in an interview Graham and Bruce made with Andy Gill for the N.M.E. on 16th September:
“We must point out that they didn’t expect us to play,” says Lewis, ” but we thought, We’re here, so we might as well. We went on with gear we’d never used before, and played at the equivalent of eight a.m. English time. It was pretty frantic. Next night, Saturday, we played two sets, and the reception was amazing. Incredible.”
“They wouldn’t let us go,” adds Gilbert.
On 20th September Wire spent the day in BBC’s Maida Vale studios recording their second John Peel session. Instead of airing four songs from Chairs Missing, to promote the album, Wire recorded four ‘new’ songs that would not be officially released for another year: The Other Window, A Mutual Friend, On Returning and Indirect Enquiries.
Also in September it was announced that Chairs Missing would be released that month and Wire would undertake a month long UK tour starting on 29th September.
Press reviews of the album were, once again, predominantly favorable.
Geoff Barton, of Sounds, wrote:
“Wire are in a position to… calculatedly conjure up an ambience that disturbs, disrupts and distorts.
In these post ‘punk’ days Wire reign supreme…. Accept this dose of disease. And enjoy it.”
Melody Maker’s Ian Birch:
“Chairs Missing carries over the Pink Flag crew virtually wholesale and does so without diminishing any of the magic formula… Together they carve out a sound that is simultaneously lean, forthright, compacted and challenging.”
The only dissenting voice was Monty Smith in New Music Express:
“… it is fraught with fraud fears and a debilitating preoccupation with stylistic devise; Wire require synthesizers like Liverpool need a replacement for Kevin Keagan.
At their best… they convey controlled derangement better than most anyone. But when the weedy specter of Syd Barrett looms large over their work, Wire become hopelessly entangled in precious bathos.”
Following the UK dates Wire spent the first half of November in Europe, playing 9 dates, returning to finish the end of the month with a handful of gigs.
Of their Venue performance of 16th November Giovanni Dadomo of Sounds wrote:
“I like their abruptness, the way they don’t take an idea any further than it wants to go, even on occasions, only half the distance.”
Maureen Paton of Melody Maker:
“Only connect, they said. Put your thinking cap on. Wire’s is the music of a thousand crossed lines, intercut with visits to the analyst – and hard work it is too if you want to make a thesis out of it. Don’t bother: they’re enjoying themselves playing with words and with music, and they’re very good at both.”
Adrian Thrills. from the New Musical Express was obviously not impressed. He didn’t mince his words writing:
“Watching Wire on stage is like sitting in on a disinterested group wandering aimlessly through a unspectacular repertoire in a dimly-lit rehearsal studio. Wire border on unlistenable, listless tedium.’
Think Of A Number
January 1979 saw the release of Wire’s fourth single; Outdoor Miner with Practice Makes Perfect as the b-side. Although Outdoor Miner appeared on the Chairs Missing album the single version was slightly longer through the inclusion of a middle-eight keyboard solo.
This single looked like the one to break Wire into the UK singles charts, despite its subject matter. However, at the end of January, the music press reported that the British Market Research Bureau (BRMB) had pulled the single from the provisional charts because “officials became aware of the possibility that inducements had been offered for the sales of the single to be exaggerated in chart return shops.”
Although EMI denied any suggestion of hyping it was clear that all was not well with Wire and EMI. Despite this setback Wire were booked to support the reformed Roxy Music on the European leg of their Manifesto tour. As a warm-up Wire played eight gigs in February, three of them in Belgium.
Whilst in mainland Europe Wire were invited by the German TV station WDR to perform live on their ‘Rockpalast’ show on 14th February. The footage shows Wire performing more sharply and tightly than ever and gives an insight into why many critics perceived them as cold, sullen and morbid.
Upon their return to the UK Wire’s Birmingham gig on 22nd February had Rick Joseph of the N.M.E. writing:
“Without exception, they are the most humorless, morbid and unpleasant band I have seen. Their stage act is a miserable study of alienation. They looked as happy as lepers with boils…
Their set is a loud, monotonous assault on the senses, almost entirely a low-register, unmelodic ponderous dirge of unvarying rhythm and snarled, catatonic vocals, not unlike a file of Sherman tanks passing through a tunnel.”
Throughout March the Roxy Music tour took in 16 dates in 19 days. Despite the high profile Wire themselves found the tour an unsavory experience. As support group they were on a hiding to nowhere with a predominantly Roxy orientated audience. The Roxy Music road-crew gave Wire a hard time with the use of lighting, therefore restricting the amount of stage space they could use.
In typical fashion Wire complied with every demand and in doing so managed to condense their set from the scheduled hour down to 45-50 minutes by playing the songs faster and with very few gaps between them. With audience opposition mounting throughout their set Wire would end on the quietest song they had; Heartbeat, with 8,000-10,000 people whistling and baying for blood.
During the tour news came through that Wire were to be asked to support for the UK leg. They declined, leaving The Tourists to do the honors.
In April and May, Wire were back in Advision Studios with Mike Thorne to produce their third album; 154. The title for the album had come from Roberts’s diaries. He had jotted down every gig they had played and at the time of recording the album he reckoned Wire had played 154.
The recording of 154 was to be the hardest yet. With their creative juices on overdrive each member of the Wire saw the possibilities of what the recording and mixing process could do to their songs. Mike Thorne’s own ideas also knew no bounds with the addition of his own keyboard arrangements, Hilly Kristal’s bass vocals on 40 Versions, Kate Lukas on flute, Tim Souster on electric viola and Joan Whiting on cor anglais. However, despite the creative tension, the personal wear and tear had paid its toll and it was no surprise that by the end of the sessions Mike gave notice that he was not prepared to work with them any more.
In June, A Question of Degree and Former Airline were released as a single, along with the announcement of a 13 date UK tour.
The idea of touring was usually meant to be used as promotion for a new album (despite the fact it wasn’t due for release until September). Wire however, as contrary as usual, performed 60-70% new material.
Reviewing their Newport gig of 4th July Hugh Fielder of Sounds wrote:
“As a promotional tour for their fourth album, Wire’s latest series of gigs are a useful affair. There’s just one minor snag; they don’t actually release their third album until September.”
With the tour over Wire braced themselves for the album reviews. They needn’t have worried. Nick Kent in N.M.E:
“… with 154 Wire have delivered a fearsome punch that instantly moves them back into the forefront of rock’s new music vanguard.
154 simply makes 95 percent of the competition look feeble. Don’t go for anything less.”
Jon Savage wrote in Melody Maker:
“The album is a musical tour-de-force… The overall effect is almost of an embarrassment of ideas: unusual in a field where most have only one good idea which they recycle forever…. Within the limits they’ve set themselves, and despite occasional overreaching Wire still sound like a group of four people who enjoy what they are doing, who are still moving forward.”
Hugh Fielder in Sounds:
“Wire get their five stars for unwavering commitment to their own beliefs… As long as they maintain that commitment then they can have mine too.”
In all the reviews no-one remarked on the free 4-track EP that was given away with the first 20,000 copies. Wire had gone to EMI with this idea in the hope that it would eventually lead the label into accepting the proposition of setting up something akin to Brian Eno’s Obscure label so that each member of Wire could find an outlet for their more experimental work. Needless to say, this plan fell on deaf ears.
The same month Wire recorded their third John Peel session. In typical manner Wire chose to utilize the 15 minutes with one piece of new music; Crazy About Love, instead of recording songs from 154. This piece came out of a rehearsal jam session and for Wire the use of this time to perform a new, and interesting piece of music was far more important than trying to make inferior versions of tracks off the album.
In October a new single, Map Ref 41?N 93?W, was released. The b-side, Go Ahead, was the first Wire track to be put out that was not produced by Mike Thorne. It was recorded at Magritte Studios along with Our Swimmer and Midnight Bahnhoff Cafe.
At the beginning of November Wire announced that they were to make initially three (later four) appearances at London’s Jeanette Cochrane Theatre, in a show called People In A Room, performed in conjunction with students from Central School of Art on 9th, 10th, 11th and 13th November.
The frustrations of touring had become too much for them so the concept for the four evenings performances involved each member of the group presenting a ‘performance art’ piece to be followed by Wire themselves.
Despite the fact that Wire were still signed to EMI, the label themselves were going through their own internal problems with the recent takeover by the Thorn Group. Wire’s own response to the lack of interest and support being given them was to pursue their own creative direction.
Each evening the audience were met in the foyer by a video camera which relayed images of themselves to the auditorium. Bruce then took to the stage and performed Tableau using a small trolley and an empty glass. Pushing the trolley about the stage Bruce would then come to a standstill, someone would come out and fill the glass with water. Bruce would examine the water with a light-pen, before drinking it and then pushing the trolley about, repeating these actions for about 15 minutes.
The only variation was on one of the nights when a member of the crew replaced the water with pochine. At the end of the 15 minutes Bruce was well and truly warmed up and finished his section by lying face down on the trolley!
For A Panamanian Craze? Graham’s video screens came back on, whilst on stage Robert and Angela Conway danced together with a pair of tights on each others heads and oranges in each foot of the tights. As this took place Graham went to the foyer to tell Mick Collins what he had previously seen. He then proceeded back into the auditorium to watch Robert and Angela before going back to Mick Collins to once more inform him what was going on. All of these absurd events were being relayed, via the video camera, back onto the stage screen.
Colin’s An Unlikely Occurrence then took to the stage. This involved 15 guitarists with 5 each playing the chords of E, A and D respectively. Three of the four nights went smoothly with the sound surging and rolling in waves of chords. However, on one of the nights the power failed and the guitar sounds died. All that could be heard was the sound of jangling strings as the guitarists carried on until the power came back on with an enormous swell of sound.
Roberts The Decorator concluded the first half of the evening with some action painting.
With a short interlude Wire then took to the stage performing an entirely new set of songs, bar three: Crazy About Love, Remove On Improvement, The Spare One, Two People In A Room, Lorries, Underwater Experiences, A Blessed State, Ally In Exile, Over My Head, Our Swimmer and On Returning.
The music press had a field day. Dave McCullough wrote in Sounds:
“Wire are pretentious, serious, aging, decadent, extravagant, naughty, contagious, zippy, trippy, and Observer color supplement.
Wire are Tom Stoppard, Ian McKellan, Melvyn Bragg, they’re paid up members of the late 20th Century artistic mediocrity. Oh, we’re just steeped in art, dahling! Yes, but you’re unforgivably mediocre.
The rub? The Jeanette Cochrane revelation showed that Wire have a space to play on stage and an audience willing to listen. The frightening thing is maybe Wire don’t know what to do with that space, and they thus spend their time wallowing in unartistic self-doubt.”
Paul Tickell of Melody Maker:
“Wire’s People In A Room tells the usual sorry experimental tale of arty types overestimating the flexibility of rock as a good medium. But what a good idea it must have seemed to the band and their resourceful friends.”
Rick Joseph in the N.M.E. seemed more susceptible:
“Wire may not be everybody’s bag of dolly-mixture, and it would be bad news if their attitude was to become prevalent. They are destined to be misunderstood and unwhistled-along-to. They belong in some twilight zone where the boogie ends and the woogie begins.”
Whilst Chris Westwood of Record Mirror saw some of the relevance of Wire were trying to achieve:
“I did feel Wire elevating themselves while practicing something instinctive, of their own interests; the connotations of free expression aren’t necessarily hierarchical. Are they?
But at least it wasn’t rock and roll…”
Nothing was then heard of Wire until the beginning of February 1980 when the following announcement was put in the music press:
“Due to internal and corporate problems currently besetting EMI, there has been a breakdown in communication between the company and Wire. In addition to this, the company’s reticence to consolidate future plans and projects has led to Wire taking advantage of the fact that they are no longer under any contractual obligation to EMI.”
In the three years that Wire were under contract to EMI they relentlessly pursued their own dogged path, both live and in the studio. Reading through the contemporary reviews the schism between playing live and producing records is quite marked. Wire were two creatures albeit inextricably linked.
The lyrical and musical content of their output had marked them out from day one as something different. What other groups of the late seventies were singing about insects or dismembered hands!
By not conforming to public and corporate desires Wire, ultimately, marginalized themselves from the mainstream and any commercial success. However, in doing so they not only remained true to themselves but also created a body of work whose legacy and influence is still being felt and more importantly still sounds stimulating and surprising today.
By the end of 1979 it was clear that Wire were doing a lot of soul-searching. They had played on, what was to them, a disastrous support tour. Recorded their third album and in the process lost their producer and almost torn themselves apart. Promoted the same album by playing new songs live (not a new Wire tactic) and recorded a new 15 minute long track for a John Peel Session. With all of this going on their label was also going through its own problems. Those people at EMI who were initially supportive towards Wire had all left or moved therefore leaving a huge void.
How Wire were to proceed in the wake of all of these events does, with hindsight, look suicidal. However, Wire were never a group to go for the easy option and perhaps they were all aware that the group in itself was not enough of a creative outlet. Colin has remarked that during the recording of 154 he was writing songs for his proposed solo album. And Graham and Bruce had already begun some home recordings that would find their way onto their first Dome album.
Having decided that touring was out of the question, but to provide some kind of live event that would be interesting and funny, Wire created People in A Room. Their paymasters were not impressed by the goings on. Were they supporting a ‘rock group’ or a theatre company?
In creating their ‘performance art’ shows at the Jeanette Cochrane Theatre (and at the Electric Ballroom in February 1980) Wire attempted to break the mould and bring something new and vital to an outdated concept such as a ‘rock’ show. In doing so they confounded their audience and critics alike. Needless to say the norm for concerts these days is for theatrics and absurd performance (cf. Pink Floyd tours, U2’s Zooropa and Zoo TV tours and the Rolling Stones Voodoo Lounge tour). Granted what Wire did was on a small budget. But at least they tried.
With EMI’s oversight at not renewing the contract and Wire’s reluctance to be shackled by what they saw as corporate narrow-mindedness the writing was already on the wall when the February 1980 announcement came through.
Wire were prepared to continue as a working unit and attempts to acquire a looser arrangement with other labels such as Charisma, Automatic and Factory were made. They had Our Swimmer and Midnight Bahnhoff Cafe (along with a faster re-recorded version, 2nd Length) to tout around, but either the budgets were too low or the same demands that EMI made were being offered.
On top of this Colin wanted to record his own album and Graham and Bruce had their own plans with Dome and other projects. As Colin succinctly put it: “It’s a standard Wire tactic; if it all gets too much, we just stop, and hope they all go away!”
And stop they did! It would not be until June 1985 that Wire would perform live again. But that’s another story itself.