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Wire: 154

Wire's '154' album cover

Side One:
I Should Have Known Better  
Two People In A Room  (Newman/Gilbert)

The 15th  (Newman)
The Other Window  (Lewis/Gilbert)
Single K.O.  (Lewis)
A Touching Display  (Lewis)

On Returning  (Newman)

Side Two:
A Mutual Friend  

Blessed State  (Gilbert)
Once Is Enough  (Newman)
Map Ref. 41 N 93 W  (Lewis/Newman/Gilbert)

Indirect Enquiries  (Lewis/Newman)
40 Versions  (Gilbert)

Bonus 7″ record:
Song 1  
Get Down 1 + 2  (Newman/Smith/Simmons/Gotobed)
Let’s Panic Later  (Lewis)
Small Electric Piece  (Gilbert)

Additional Album Credits:
Produced by Mike Thorne
Engineer:  Paul Hardiman
Assistant. engineer:  Ken Thomas
Bass voice:  Hilly Kristal
Alto flute:  Kate Lukas
Electric viola:  Tim Souster
Keyboards & marimba:  Mike Thorne
Cor anglais:  Joan Whiting

You gained respect as we passed
Not a wave, a gestured wink

I’ve redefined the meaning of vendetta

I should have known better

The record business is retrospective and reactionary.  You make an album, do something creative, and thus trigger the follow-up process: interviews, performances on TV and radio, chat shows, touring the album material, recycling material to create a new event, be it the next single off the album (with associated remixes and out takes) or some dubious charity all-star extravaganza.  Wire cared more about their development, measured by exploration and conscious (sometimes, inevitably, self-conscious) innovation than following the getting-rich-and-famous routine.  This attitude, and its uncompromising application, provided an exceptionally creative setup for their third album.

It was to be the last we would work on together, and their last until they regrouped to record The Ideal Copy for release in 1987.  A few years after that, Robert would depart to leave the rump group called Wire.  I proposed that they would be more in character to drop the W rather than the E, but was years too late.  Wire were dead.  Long live Wire.  And other clichés.

The Wire business was growing at the end of 1978, although not without hiccups.  Pink Flag had received an indifferent release by Capitol in the US, and the most excitement I’d experienced, aside from one or two notable local enthusiasts, was from a publisher who told me about the amount of work he had put into adjusting the publishing deal to a 21-track album from the standard American ten.   Wire group portrait 1977After Capitol passed on the next one, Warner Brothers Records signed them, and would release the next album.  Coincidentally, on November 16, Wire were playing a showcase at Virgin’s prominent London gig, The Venue.  Unusually, this place presented the American model of two shows a night, whereas the British way was to do one only, reflecting pub hours and closing time at 11pm.  Everyone grumbled, but what could a fellow do?  The Warners people were in town in strength and their table was booked for the first set. 

The press the next week was uniformly critical: ‘A kind of contained chaos’/’Wire border on unlistenable, listless tedium’/’Wire may just not be a live band’.  I was playing that night, and stage was a strange place covered in brown shag carpet.  It was the seventies, remember, although this was going a bit far.  The sound on stage was completely dead, and it felt as if we were in some sort of acoustic cocoon, the audience somewhere in the distance.  The first set went very well, we thought, and we heard from Mike Collins, the manager, that the Warners people had really liked it too and were staying for the second.

The Brits didn’t quite manage to pace their social activities with a second set looming, meaning that we all had too much to drink after the first.  The second did, however, seem to be going very nicely.  I had my head down over some fancy (for me) fingering when I felt an interruption in our performance lock: something had happened, some disturbance.  Looking up, the stage seemed empty.  I listened and counted: all present.  Then I saw the back of the stage, which had once been a very elegant wall of guitar amplifiers (Music Man).  It was breached, and legs were waving.  Graham (‘always showing off’ as Colin uncharitably put it later) had been waving his bass around even more extrovertly than usual, got tangled in his cord and the shag carpet, and had fallen backwards.  Colin’s amp went with him.  He was still lying there, his head pummeled by Colin’s guitar noises, shouting to the roadie who was trying to pull him to his feet to leave him alone, that he was perfectly happy where he was.  Warner Brothers duly released 154 in late 1979.

In any case, Wire were poised for European commercial success as the second album wound down in the media.  They were the freshest thing to come out of the post-punk ‘New Wave’, and maintained an uncompromising and sometimes self-destructively ingenuous integrity.  They might have been arty, but they kept to those touted street-cred principles.  The ultimate accolade seemed to be theirs when they were booked as support on the Roxy Music European tour.  The Art School graduate/dropout tradition persisted, and here were two generations on stage on the same bill.  Wire sometimes went down well, but showbiz didn’t work easily for them.  The mechanics of big-league touring in support of an album already embalmed in vinyl both intimidated and disgusted them, although once they got the measure of them they started playing in new, provocative ways.  Just as the Lyceum fans didn’t get to hear Pink Flag, the Roxy Music fans weren’t exposed to the recycled Chairs Missing.  They got the whole new batch of songs that was the foundation of 154.  As a result, Wire came to their third album with material that had been tested in the lab, songs that had been played in before a restless and often intolerant audience.  That turned out to be an unusual (and deserved) privilege and an enormous creative springboard.

These were fraught sessions.  Perhaps we’d all been living together too long, although the experimental mood on the album was served by the conversational shorthand you develop over a long time, when fewer words are necessary to explain.  After a few quick demos to test and for the five of us just to settle in again, we went off to Advision.  It was like hearing a new group, the confidence and strength gained with the songs on the road immediately effective.  Since they were delivering so strongly, the foundation of a track which could then be pulled around and reconstructed was relatively easy to achieve, so that the overall transmutation could be greater.  (The playing intensity was still often at the very edge of what they could do, the strain of getting a reasonably flawless performance of Two People In A Room reminiscent of the nail-biting during 12XU.  There’s nothing more frustrating than screwing yourself up for the take, hitting the high tension, feeling everything motoring and then making a dumb mistake.  The higher the music’s intensity, the more a wrong move drives you crazy.)

The publishing credits on the second album show the start of the group’s splintering under way.  Many groups start off idealistically sharing credit for the writing, acknowledging that all contribute to the sound and atmosphere even if they don’t physically write the music or lyrics.  The third Wire album accentuated the jealousies that cause such splits.  It may have been that the tension contributed to the music, but it was often very hard work indeed.  Sometimes, the mood really would feel like Once Is Enough, a true piece of art-noise, almost incomprehensible at this distance, epitomized by the clangs and crashes coming from Graham, hammer in hand, rampaging round a studio full of scrap metal (which took some setting up but not much time to record).  Its sibling on the album, The Other Window, also has aggressive noises tearing you apart.  The drums which trample across out of time half way through had no relation to tempo or accent, and were simply a big, angry gesture suggested in jest by the engineer which I picked up on.  He later said that he had meant them to be played along with the track.  With Wire in experimental and mood hyperdrive, the unrelated bludgeon was most appropriate and effective.This time, we would get the vocal balance right, and it projects some of their best efforts ever.  On Chairs Missing, the vocal balance was a throwback to punk, where they would just ride on top of the instrumental mayhem.  The arrangements on 154 support the voice far better: once you’re away from the punk thrash you can work timbres far more easily for vocal support or counterpoint.

Indirect Enquiries features one of Colin’s strongest and most startling deliveries ever.  I can’t remember whether we used the vocal from the original take (as Colin and Graham got more comfortable in the studio, they were increasingly able to plant the mood of the initial recorded take back in their heads, and replaced/improved more vocals).  From his opening ‘You gained respect as we passed’, the control room was paying close attention, just as you do when he startles you on the recording.  His delivery of ‘Lying prone’, at the start of the third verse comes from another planet.  Perhaps because of the nastiness of the song, we were getting on well the day of the vocals, and the idea came up to layer  ‘You’ve been defaced’ at various speeds over the final build.  You can hear the results in the deepest, growling sounds and the highest-pitched chipmunks.  It was the end of the day, and three or four friends stopped by to pick us up, and gathered in the back of the control room.  After two takes they were out of there and in reception, even though we were laughing with the often ridiculous results, and with delight.  It must have been truly creepy.

Wire: 'Everybody book Loves A History' coverSome of the sweetest Wire things are also on the album.  Colin’s multiple vocals on Map Ref 41N 93W sound like some hyper pop song, and like Outdoor Miner before its vocal accessibility belies the oblique lyrics.  (The stories behind the words are generally to be found in Kevin Eden’s entertaining and comprehensive biography Wire Everybody Loves A History, but I took them straight, typically only hearing the background much later.)  There are some songs of relentless beauty (not, as many think, a quality excluded from the Wire credo).  A Mutual Friend introduces the extraordinary sound of the cor anglais (essentially a large oboe), following Colin’s inspired suggestion.  Also on this track is the unusual sound of a very deep bass voice, from Hilly Kristal (the owner of CBGB’s now as then, with whom I was working with, producing the Shirts whom he managed).  An extraordinary transmutation through violence into something perversely sweet takes place in the longest piece on the three albums, A Touching Display lasts nearly seven minutes, and is in two parts.  The first is moody and suppressed.  The viola has arrived.

Tim Souster was an old composer friend who had studied and played under Karlheinz Stockhausen, was utterly at home with electronic sound and played the electric viola (or had done, since he had to get it fixed for this session).  We set him up with his viola feeding three separate amps each with a time delay in its path (we had three Music Man combo models among us).  The enveloping sound in his playing area in the middle of the large studio was magic.  Four microphones, naturally.  Having heard the tape a week before, he had written the elegiac line in the first part, which we all loved.  This was the sort of intro that could set up the vocal for maximum impact, and it did just that for Graham.  Part Two is different, smashing in with a big distortion effect on Graham’s bass.  You never lose interest for the next three minutes as Tim’s multiple performances climb out of the newly-violent murk one at a time, hitting a final chord complementing bass and guitars which surprised even him (he hadn’t heard it until playback in the control room, since he wasn’t hearing the build-up of his improvised contributions).  I don’t think the chord has too simple a name, but I never figured it out, just enjoyed it.  Thus climaxed one of the most fruitful musician introductions I have ever made.  Many pints followed, naturally.

Wire 154 cover artEveryone was getting along that night.The mixing went smoothly and turned out eventually as a polished album which still incorporated their ideal experimental wildness.  About half way through, though, the personal wear and tear finally got to me.  The music may have been improved by the personal tensions.  (Many producers will actually calculatedly set up some session drama on the principle that people on edge make more intense music.  In Hollywood, when people do unspeakable things to each other, ‘It’s all for the sake of the project, darling.’)  However, this was simply too high a price to pay for it.  One morning before session I called Mick Collins, the manager and told him I couldn’t go on any further after the album.  Please don’t tell the group.  He did.  I think there was relief all round in anticipation of the end.

After 154 was released, the group carried on their experimental route for a while, notably with a series of memorable gigs, performance art rather than music, at the Jeanette Cochran Theatre, a small space in Bloomsbury, London.  They self-produced a half-hearted single, Our Swimmer, at Scorpio Studios in London, but split energetically to pursue their own solo projects which were so radically different that it seemed a miracle that these four had existed in the same room and breathed the same air for three years.  But that was the strength of Wire.  However bruising the control room confrontations, however different the points of view, a different brand of music would emerge from the tension.  Those were magic times of furious growth and learning for all of us.

I leave with a personal note from the mid-eighties, a letter to which I responded too late, after we had talked about novel ways of recording and what we might do next together.  No, it wouldn’t have happened anyway at that time.  I dimly and pleasantly remember the beer outside at the Spread Eagle pub in Camden.  It started to rain after the third pint, I think.

– MT, June 2000

Letter, BC Gilbert to Mike Thorne c1986

Letter from Bruce Gilbert to Mike Thorne