In May 2000, following a successful string of dates across the US, an English band played a sold-out show at Irving Plaza, one of New York’s premier mid-sized venues. While there was nothing inherently remarkable about that, it was remarkable that the band in question—Wire—had, on the surface at least, done little to merit a packed house. They had no new album; it had been a decade since they’d last toured and recorded (as Wire); they’d never achieved any popular success in their on-again/off-again 23-year history (during which they’d worked together for less than ten years but never officially split up); and, live, they had been an infamously unsafe bet, often performing only unfamiliar material, sometimes in an uncompromising performance-art mode.
And still, the fans came, everybody from 16-year-old punk wannabes to the elderly—David Bowie was there. Even the scalpers outside the show were asking who this band were as punters eagerly snapped up remaining tickets.
In 1976, when punk kicked over the statues of dinosaur rock and stuck a safety pin in the bubble of insipid chart-pop, Wire emerged as one of the more challenging and innovative acts of the period, recording three landmark albums between 1977 and 1979: Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154. Much of the continued interest in Wire derives from those releases, which not only secured the ongoing commitment of first-generation fans but also earned the band a privileged—yet commercially unrewarding—place in the pantheon of alt. rock, revered by music critics and musicians alike. Henry Rollins, Boss Hogg, Big Black and even REM have covered songs by Wire; a 1995 tribute compilation, Whore, saw My Bloody Valentine, Lush, Mike Watt and Lee Ranaldo, among others, playing their favorite Wire tracks; Blur and Menswear translated the group’s early sound to their own variants of ‘90s British guitar pop; and the likes of Elastica dispensed with any creativity and simply plagiarized Wire’s material.
In England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage dubbed Wire “the jokers in the pack,” an epithet that neatly encapsulates the group’s aesthetic on the first three albums as well as their approach to live performance: namely, a playful distance from the punk scene and an identity that shifted shape from context to context, offering ironic postmodern re-readings of pop and rock conventions. Whereas much of punk’s revolt quickly became mired in clumsy politics (The Clash) and caricature (Generation X), it wouldn’t be overstating the case to say that Wire were among the only real subversives. Their reconceptualizations of song structure and content and their expansion of the possibilities of performance pushed rock in directions that many of their contemporaries in the class of ‘76 would have been hard-pressed even to imagine.
A testament to Wire at their most uncompromising is found on the oldest of the present crop of Mute’s re-releases—Document and Eyewitness—a collection of live recordings that capture the inglorious end of the band’s first creative phase. Although the CD features Wire in a relatively conventional mode on tracks culled from 1979 performances in Montreux (opening for Roxy Music) and at the Notre Dame Hall, the centerpiece of this album is the bizarre set recorded on February 29th, 1980, at London’s Electric Ballroom.
While fans were, by now, clued into the fact that they probably wouldn’t be hearing any familiar songs, on that fateful night they got even less than they’d bargained for. Not so much a rock concert as an evening in the Theater of Cruelty, the event makes for distinctly uneasy listening: Wire’s almost unlistenable racket punctuated by the comments of a sarcastic compere and a barrage of abuse and bottles from the crowd.
To read the liner notes, which transcribe a series of stage directions accompanying specific tracks, is an odd enough experience: “Vocalist attacks gas-stove”; “Woman enters pulling two tethered men and an inflatable jet”; “Vocalist accompanied and lit by an illuminated goose”; and finally, “Vocalist eats two loaves and then blank scrolls are unrolled.”
With that, Wire went their separate ways for five years and immersed themselves in numerous solo ventures. Guitarist Bruce Gilbert and bassist Graham Lewis collaborated on projects such as Dome, Duet Emmo, and P’o; guitarist Colin Newman divided his time between producing acts like the Virgin Prunes and recording his own albums; and Robert Gotobed served as an occasional drummer for other acts.
Having reconvened in 1985, Wire recorded and toured consistently for the next four years and the Mute re-releases covering that period attest to a continued evolution, yielding material that was worthy not only of critical acclaim but also of popular success. Wire received the former but the latter would remain elusive.
The 1986 Snakedrill EP—included on the CD release of their 1987 “comeback” album The Ideal Copy—marked the beginning of Wire’s new era as what they termed a “beat combo.” The EP whet appetites with the surreal, looping “A Serious of Snakes” and the droning, addictive one-chord wonder of “Drill,” a track that would subsequently take on a life of its own in numerous live and studio revisions that continue to this day.
Much like Snakedrill, The Ideal Copy bore many of the avant-pop traits that Wire had forged on their first three albums: textured assemblages combining discord and harmony, catchily delivered abstract lyrics and compressed economical beats. At the same time, it also marked a departure from previous formulae. Taking the first steps toward what would be Wire’s almost complete immersion in a rapidly evolving digital environment, The Ideal Copy boasted more expansive production, a more fluid and less dissonant sound, and even the incorporation of dance beats, as demonstrated on standout tracks like “Point of Collapse,” “Ahead,” and “Ambitious.”
Nevertheless, Wire’s return met with a lukewarm reception from some. Having previously championed the band’s capacity for ongoing self-reinvention, some critics were now hesitant to allow Wire to evolve and chose to use the eight-year-old 154 as a yardstick of achievement. But, of course, to say that The Ideal Copy was an inferior album in comparison with 154 doesn’t tell the whole story since that measuring device is, after all, one of the more accomplished and influential alternative rock albums of the last 25 years.
If The Ideal Copy made a modest case for Wire’s ability to produce intelligent, quirky and often danceable pop, then A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck (1988) declared that talent explicitly. More accessible with its melodic, layered guitar arrangements, its hypnotic beats, its entrancing sonic textures and its characteristically opaque, yet totally catchy lyrics, this is the album that should have brought Wire commercial success. Tracks like “It’s a Boy,” “Follow the Locust” and “The Queen of Ur and the King of Um” were smart deviations from the increasingly bland pop-rock norm of the ‘80s, and the singles “Kidney Bingos” and “Silk Skin Paws” begged radio air-play.
The closest Wire came to reaching a popular audience, in the United States at least, was an ill-advised spot opening for Mute label-mates Depeche Mode in front of tens of thousands of teens at the Rose Bowl in June 1988. Then there was another near miss with the single “Eardrum Buzz” that occasioned an infamous in-studio appearance on MTV’s 120 Minutes. If ever a song was made for MTV then this was it: edgy pop with horribly contagious stick-in-the-head lyrics and a very funny, offbeat video.
“Eardrum Buzz” would subsequently appear on 1989’s It’s Beginning to and Back Again (IBTABA for short), a reworking of the hackneyed concept of the “live album.” For IBTABA, tapes of live material were taken into the studio, not to be simply enhanced and mixed for release but, rather, to be stripped down, sometimes to one element—for example a drum beat or a bass line—which was then used as the starting point for a rebuilding of the track. In the process, new elements such as vocals, guitar parts and keyboards were grafted into the mix. Versions of “It’s a Boy,” “The Finest Drops” and “The Boiling Boy” from A Bell Is A Cup, as well as “German Shepherds,” are the better examples of this approach, according to which pop formulae were prised apart, stretched out and reassembled, thereby forging an innovative compromise between the original texts of performance and the possibilities afforded by recording and production technologies.
With IBTABA the beat-combo period that had begun with “Drill” came to an end and Wire’s flirtations with a nascent techno sound and its attendant beats burgeoned into a fully declared romance fashioned from synths and sequencers on Manscape (1990). However, Manscape stands as somewhat of a nadir in the Wire corpus—Colin Newman himself describing it as a “really good record,” albeit “badly recorded [and] really badly mixed.” Much of the band’s creative edge is blunted in this arguably overproduced affair that sees the embrace of newer technology yielding for the most part unremarkable, although vaguely danceable results.
A stunning exception is the 10-minute “You Hung Your Lights in the Trees/A Craftsman’s Touch,” one of Wire’s finest songs of the Mute era, and certainly the finest track on the album. But while its haunting trance-like collage of understated beats, samples, synth, emotive vocals and melodies showed what Wire could achieve with computers, the rest of the album suggests that the band had not completely translated their creative process to the electronic playground.
Feeling that—as a drummer—he no longer had a place in such an environment, Robert Gotobed bowed out of Wire after Manscape. Before his departure was officially announced in 1991, however, The Drill was released. Comprising nine versions of the same song (“Drill”), this project saw Wire in one of their more idiosyncratic moments.
“Drill” had grown organically from the sessions leading up to Wire’s live comeback in 1985 and quickly became a staple of live sets, undergoing myriad reworkings in format and in length (from five to 30 minutes) from performance to performance. Prior to Manscape in 1989, “Drill” was used as a guinea pig of sorts; six different renditions were recorded by way of an experiment intended to feel out the new computer technology with which the band was working. These versions featured on The Drill anticipate and are, unfortunately, little better than the minimal noodling of certain variants of contemporary electronica. Nevertheless, “In Every City?”—a 1990 rendering that creates a curious hybrid of “Drill” and Wire’s 1977 punk anthem “12XU”—is an unqualified success. Also included on the CD is a driving 12-minute live “Drill” that showcases its hypnotic mantra-like charms.
Following Gotobed’s exit in 1990, the remaining members of Wire had toured as a three-piece with pre-progammed drums and bass. This set the tone for their next release, the wryly entitled The First Letter (1991) for which they marked the absence of their drummer by dropping the final vowel of their name, thus becoming Wir. For the most part, The First Letter is precisely what Manscape could have been, a superbly executed, computer-assisted rethinking of Wire which incorporated both slick singles-material and more dense experimental fare. Continuing on from where “You Hung Your Lights in the Trees/A Craftsman’s Touch” left off, the haunting, downbeat “So and Slow It Grows” was another mega-hit-that-never-was. Equally promising were the circular groove of their ode to the Financial Times Stock Exchange, “Footsi-Footsi,” and the grinding “Take It (For Greedy)” on which Wire even managed to sample their 1977 masterpiece “Strange.”
Despite such an accomplished, innovative project that raised considerable interest in the band’s next move, Newman, Lewis and Gilbert returned to solo projects, reconvening (with Gotobed) only once for a brief live set to celebrate Bruce Gilbert’s 50th birthday in 1995.
The last of the Mute re-releases, The A List, is a greatest hits collection for a band who never had a hit. The A List brings together previously available material from their ‘85 to ‘90 period, the bulk of it drawn from the CD versions of The Ideal Copy and A Bell Is a Cup. For those who already own the rest of the catalogue, there’s little to recommend this CD. Of course, for the incorrigible completist, The A List is another indispensable acquisition.
By way of a coda, it has come to light that, while in Chicago on their US tour, Gilbert, Gotobed, Lewis and Newman stopped in at Steve Albini’s Electric studios. A version of the tour set was recorded and a new release looms. To plagiarize a Wire title, it’s beginning to and back again.