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Wire at the Stereo Society
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Wire at the Stereo Society
No blind spots, in the leopard’s eyes
Can only help to jeopardize
The lives of lambs, the shepherd cries
This single was never going to be a Louie Louie or a Born In The USA, even though you can clap your hands to it. The music was written by Colin after Graham had given him lyrics about the intense domestic problem facing the serpentine miner, an insect which lives in a leaf and eats its chlorophyll. Graham’s lyrics are anxious about the possibility of the roof falling in. In our rather hermetic Wire bubble, this didn’t seem particularly unreasonable at all. We didn’t think that this absence of common knowledge with the audence was an issue.
In all the furore over punk and New Wave, it’s often overlooked that simply-structured songwriting underlies all the bluster and iconoclastic noise. Verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middlebit-verse-chorus worked 50 years before and still delivered then, as now. But the Sex Pistols or the Damned, or Brucie or other successful honest writers, didn’t rely this much on an image of a chlorophyll gourmet.
Wire had delivered poppy, inviting music before. Outdoor Miner lines up after Fragile on the first album, Pink Flag, but is slightly longer, 1:45 compared with 1:18. We found ourselves in the extraordinary position of being asked by the record company to lengthen the track for release as a single. Normally, tracks turn out longer than the radio-friendly ideal of four minutes or under, and have to be cut in the face of screaming protests by the artists. If anything, Wire were just a little bemused.
The original song as recorded for Chairs Missing had an abrupt two-bar intro then straight into the first verse. A chorus, a second verse, and then we were into the singalong second and last chorus. The suggestion came in for ‘maybe a piano solo’, which pushed me into the idea (as at the start of my synthesizer and keyboard playing with them, I was a shrinking violet). We copied the 24-track master tape and then added in a verse portion for the piano to ride over, followed by a third chorus (also with large vocals).
The piano additions quicken the pace of the tune, lifting the track before the corresponding point where vocal loops (aaaahs) had previously entered. (Vocal loops are created by recording a steady sung note then splicing the two ends of a short length of tape together in a repeating loop. Practice Makes Perfect, on the same album, also uses this technique very effectively.) The piano part was actually quite difficult to play, being more a strummed guitar imitation than a smooth piece of pianism. The edits and extras were completed quickly, and the mix delivered to EMI. They liked it a lot.
The single got its own very stylish cover, and even a special edition in white vinyl. So what if the sound back then of colored vinyl was inferior to that of black? It certainly looked nice: in the spirit of Colin’s nice white Ovation electric guitar. The public thought so, since they started buying them in alarming quantities. The single ascended to #51 in the UK charts. So much for esoteric. The BBC unofficially gave the nod that if it went up the next week, they would run it on the big long-running show ‘Top Of The Pops’. Since sales were improving steadily, I felt justified in planning my on-camera outfit.
At the time, the so-called ‘chart shops’, whose sales were monitored, saw a constant battle of wits between the chart measurers (at the time the British Market Research Bureau) whose credibility depended on finding an accurate reflection of all sales from a very small sample, and the record companies who wanted to enhance, or ‘hype’, the chart position to increase a single’s visibility. It was a quite simple process: go into the chart-reporting store and buy six copies with a company credit card. Nothing suspicious here, mate. Have one for yourself…
Dodgy music biz practices came in waves in the UK, and this was crest time. Everybody was doing it, which was perfectly understandable with the sieve-like security of the BMRB. The only problem for us was that EMI was the one that got caught when standards had to be seen to be upheld. The single was deleted from the charts for that week, which meant that it would have a hard time meeting the BBC’s rising-position criterion. Had that ‘Top Of The Pops’ appearance happened, the single would have almost certainly entered the Top 20 and launched a visible ‘commercial’ career for the group. EMI thought that was a real possibility, otherwise they wouldn’t have put in the effort. Unfortunately, that was that, despite the record company’s (rather unconvincing) denials. The exclusion made them instantly invisible.
It’s still a nice record. And would have been perfectly at home in that place and time. It would have been even nicer, though, to have heard people gathered near the juke box down the pub bursting into song along with the chorus:
He lies on his side
Is he trying to hide?
In fact it’s the earth that he’s known since birth
Granted, Louie Louie is a lot more easy on the memory.
– MT July 2000