Photo credit: Mute Records
In the first part of this interview with PopMatters, Mike Thorne discussed — among other things — the making of The Roxy London WC 2 (Jan-April 1977), one of the foundational recorded documents of the punk scene in London. Some of the bands captured on that album went straight into the dustbin of music history (the Unwanted). Others managed to claim a place in the punk canon by recording classic singles or a classic album (X-Ray Spex, the Adverts). And a couple even went on to relatively illustrious careers.
In that final category were Bruce Gilbert, Robert Gotobed, Graham Lewis, and Colin Newman, collectively known as Wire. Thanks to three groundbreaking albums recorded between 1977 and 1979 (Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154), Wire have proven to be one of the most influential British groups of the last two decades.
Back in January 1977, however, they were just another band playing at the Roxy. At one point, they were even advised by the club’s management to get some serious practice if they wanted to appear at the club again. And practice they did, in a South London rehearsal space located on Thorne Road, ironically enough.
Mike Thorne first saw Wire perform at the Roxy. He was so impressed that he signed them to EMI. More importantly, he worked with the band as a producer and a collaborator on their first three legendary albums. On these releases, Thorne and Wire put rock and pop conventions through the wringer, fashioning songs into all sorts of innovative shapes and sizes, from the abrasive 28 seconds of “Field Day for the Sundays” on Pink Flag to more melodic experiments in texture and atmosphere on 154. Along the way, as Vanity Fair recently observed in its annual installment of the “Rock Snob’s Dictionary”, Wire single-handedly “cemented the word ‘angular’ in the rock-crit lexicon”.
In part two of this interview, Thorne discusses his work with Wire during the most creative and innovative phase of their career.
PopMatters: The recording of the The Roxy London WC2 (Jan-Apr 77) introduced you to Wire. What were your first impressions of them in performance?
Mike Thorne: I thought they were really good.
PM: One of the reasons I ask is because some cynics have suggested that the Wire tracks we hear on the Roxy album were doctored in the studio.
MT: No they weren’t.
PM: At the time they were a solid live band?
MT: Yes, live they were as good as you hear them on the various records. In fact, the only track that I doctored was the Unwanted’s track because it was so bad. But the only thing that I did was that I took direct recordings of the clean feeds off both guitar and electric bass, as well as recording the amp, because sometimes the amps just crap out in the middle of the performance. So with the Unwanted, something had gone wrong like that, so I just reconstituted the sound in another amp. So the performance wasn’t changed but I did catch the sound, otherwise it would have been a total mess — as opposed to a cheerful mess.
PM: Wire have always made up and played by their own rules. Was there a sense in which they were part of a scene at the start?
MT: No. They were part of the punk scene, but then everybody was. Everybody drew on it, drew on a common attitude for strength but everybody went off in a different direction. You’d never lump Wire with Buzzcocks, or certainly not with the Clash.
PM: You managed to get Wire signed to EMI in September 1977. Had the climate changed within the company?
MT: No, the whole company, well, most of the company, was very upset by the Pistols’ departure. The climate at the time, from my vantage point, was very much business as usual because I produced four albums that year including some French punks, Téléphone, so I really had my head down. When I wasn’t in the studio, I was running around the clubs, checking people out. My brief at the time was sort of a staff producer — “go out and find the acts and bring them in and produce them” — which I duly did a few times. Then I got swept away because I made some successful records.
PM: A certain amount has been made of Wire’s art-school background. Graham Lewis, Colin Newman, and Bruce Gilbert all had some training in visual art. Do you think that influenced the way they approached music? Did that sensibility translate to their sound?
MT: Well they had some of the most beautiful record covers. As you know yourself, there’s a long tradition in the liberal arts in Britain, which certainly informed Wire. It’s informed everybody from Roxy Music, Pink Floyd backwards. So in a sense that didn’t necessarily underpin their music but it did open eyes, open cultural eyes, and that was the big benefit of the art college scene in Britain, I suppose, up ’til the end of the ’70s.
PM: You produced Wire’s first album, Pink Flag, in late ’77. How technically proficient were they at that point? Graham Lewis has said that they learned to play during the recording of that record.
MT: It’s a nice poetic way of putting it and I think he’s right but, technically, we learn all the time, we all get better and better. Certainly, they were very capable when we went into Advision [Studios] to do the first recording, but I did tune the guitars all the time, I did set up guitars. But that was also partly because I wanted to relieve them of any external pressure — apart from the pressure that was on them to play and deliver — so that they achieved the intensity that they subsequently proved they were capable of.
PM: I was surprised to read about the pot smoking that went on during the sessions; it seems so antithetical to the sound of Wire on this album, which is so disciplined, aggressive, and fast. Are we to understand that it would have been even faster and more intense had they not been smoking?
MT: Oh no, I didn’t do it that way. I did know that they were very intense about it. They’d come from nowhere to sign a big-time deal with EMI, they were the first punks in after the Sex Pistols had been kicked out, they were coming in on the back of a Top 20 album — a most unlikely Top 20 album that was still up there — and they were nervous….
PM: The Roxy album.
PM: This was the first live album to get into the British Top 20 since George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh record.
MT: Yes. I’m proud of that one. Take that, you silly old hippie. So, the pot story, it’s that I used to grow it in my back garden in Stockwell and I just happened to have a jar around and I brought it in. I thought, well, as I’ve done quite often with groups — not necessarily with narcotics involved — I’m quite happy to throw away the first day of an album, just in order to get people comfortable in the studio and I just happened to bring in a jar of my homegrown. I noticed, towards the end of the day, after we’d run through all the tracks — god knows what that tape sounded like, I think we just erased it the following day — I noticed that the jar was half-gone. Bruce [Gilbert] said that he came around later thinking that they’d recorded the album and that he hadn’t been in it. But, after that, the studio fright was completely gone.
PM: How much of what you had seen watching the Sex Pistols or other punk bands recording influenced how you approached production with Wire? Did you see your role as a “punk-rock producer” as different from the kind of production that had been standard previously?
MT: The essence of punk for me was the Do-It-Yourself ethic. This had to do with kicking out one establishment, which was the priests in white coats who were around until the middle of the ’70s, the people who said “This is how you do it, lads, don’t worry your pretty little heads about it”. We realised that we were all being guided wrongly and that it wasn’t the guidance of a mature, flexible establishment, it was just “this is way the rules are”.
PM: So it was about reacting to the notion of expertise in recording.
MT: Yes. It was and this was the era of the expert LA session musician which reached its nadir or apex — depending on how you look at it — with people who could play absolutely anything and mean absolutely nothing. The punks were completely the opposite — they could barely play but they had a message, which was the attraction. So, in the spirit of just picking up the production mantle, I just went off and, because I’d got a certain amount of knowledge, I thought “yes, I can, we can do it ourselves”. I did have a certain amount of knowledge but I was always careful and continue to be careful not to hand that down like stone tablets. I just went in with a completely open mind and with a view to guiding as far as I was able to and passing on as much as I was able to also. But there was no such thing in my mind as a punk-style producer, punk was maybe a style of music but it was only a style of music because it had a certain, typical guitar sound or a certain speed and at no point in the Wire sessions would you ever say “We’d like this kind of style”. It was always talked about as “This is what we’re doing”. If you walked in and said “Let’s try and do ‘I Am the Fly’ with a kind of Motown feel”, first of all you wouldn’t survive and secondly, the whole session would come to a very quick and hysterical end.
PM: Even so, didn’t Colin Newman say something about envisaging “I Am the Fly” as sounding like a Euro-disco song?
MT: I didn’t quite see Colin’s description of it as a Euro-disco song but all sorts of odd things give rise to all sorts of other mutations.
PM: That should have been a huge single. As Colin Newman said, it would have been the ideal accompaniment for the dying fly dance that kids used to do on the Saturday morning television show Tiswas [on ITV in Britain].
MT: People used to do that at gigs — they’d lie on the floor. [Imitates a dying fly.] That was actually something that EMI thought was likely to be a hit. There was one particular marketing person who couldn’t stand any of this punk and she was in the middle of all the old-style pop music and she said “Yes, it is rather charming” and I think it was. That was quite a good characterisation of the song and so if it was winning her over, I thought, it can win anyone over.
PM: It seems a shame they never had hits with some of those early singles.
MT: Well, you know the story behind “Outdoor Miner”. It was a sing-along and it was so short on Chairs Missing that, for once, I was dispatched to create a longer version of a single — rather than a shorter version — which is hard work, so I just dreamt up the idea of a piano solo. I put that in and just cut and copied and pasted a few extra vocals on the original 24-track and it came out and was duly appreciated. Completely inscrutable words though. Nobody knew what Colin was going on about but it was a nice tune and it was a sing-along. So, the push came along and it had coloured vinyl and all sorts of fancy covers and all sorts of pushing and shoving in the traditional media. Then of course, every so often, here and in the UK, and Europe for that matter, there’s a push to eliminate the payola and the general chart hyping that goes on everywhere and that continues to go on and will never stop. Every so often there’s a bit of breast beating and a few people get pushed around and of course it would be EMI that got caught, and it would be this single and it would get pulled from the BBC’s Top of the Pops [TV show]. So that put the lid on that particular single going anywhere. Had they been on Top of the Pops, the single would have probably gone on further. I think it probably did go up [the charts] but because they were kicked off the charts, it wasn’t possible to go any further.
PM: On Pink Flag‘s release, the reviewer in Sounds commented that it was “unique” and that it would leave a mark. Did you have any sense at all that the record you’d made would become something of a classic?
MT: We thought we’d done something good but I must say that I blinked when I saw the first five-star review come through. People at EMI started being really nice to me — because I was still on staff at that time. But we knew we were doing something different. I don’t think you ever really know at the time. When we [Thorne and Soft Cell] did “Tainted Love”, for example, we sat around at the end and thought “we really enjoy this, and we’ve probably done a nice cult single here”.
PM: One of the pop songs that defined the ’80s….
MT: Yes, but we didn’t know. We thought “we’ve done a nice cult or underground single, it might make the Top 50….” That just shows how little you know.
PM: To me, Pink Flag still sounds incredibly fresh, especially in comparison with Never Mind the Bollocks, which sounds quite dated. Pink Flag sounds good now, not just as a period piece like the Sex Pistols’ stuff. Is there anything in the production that you think contributed to that?
MT: I think it comes back to your previous question about the punk-style producer. I think Chris [Thomas] had a very clear idea in his mind about what a punk record should sound like and I’m afraid the Sex Pistols record sounds like a punk record: you can’t hear the words, it’s just an assault of guitars and it sounds very dated because of that. On Pink Flag, I was certainly guilty of under-mixing the vocals, which was very much of the time, although you can hear the words. But what I was really concerned with was colour, just instrumental colour, and we were heading down the chainsaw-guitar route and there were other ways of getting it and I think the chainsaw guitars on that particular record sound very much of their time, unlike the similar instruments on Chairs Missing. But they sound distinctive and that’s because, in fact, I got most of the guitar sounds at the amp and there was very little processing or equalising in the control room. Everything you hear probably sounded like that just coming out of the amp. I got less dogmatic by the time we got to Chairs Missing but, for some reason, it felt like the appropriate approach at the time.
PM: The New Musical Express was critical of Chairs Missing, saying that Wire had turned into Pink Floyd.
MT: Set ’em up, knock ’em down!
PM: What factors contributed to the change in sound between Pink Flag and Chairs Missing?
MT: Well it was me, for one thing. I mean, they really pulled me in by the short and curlies. The line that I quote [that Bruce Gilbert said] is, “If you don’t play keyboards, we’ll get that Brian Eno in”.
PM: And that was frightening to you?
MT: Oh I was horrified. Well, I’ve never even met Brian — we have a lot of mutual friends — but he’s sort of been my nemesis. I’ve been compared with him a lot of times. Less so now, but in the old days when we were in similar art-music territory.
PM: So they were actually serious and they could have brought Eno in?
MT: Oh yes, they could have done but I think it would have been a little out of balance. But for me it was as much a struggle to play the keyboards in the studio as it was for them to play the guitar. Even though I’d studied classical piano, I’d never been used to the rigours of playing in the studio and playing to chord sheets. So that sound was there and I really just thought of the keyboards as support to everything else that was going on. I treated them as colouring rather than as anything which would step forward and it wasn’t until 154 that I thought it was appropriate for me to propose a keyboard gesture on something which was pure support. But the beauty of what happened on Chairs Missing is that instead of it being keyboards on one side and guitars on the other, every sound is a genuinely electric sound and most people won’t know whether it’s a guitar or a keyboard. I got my keyboard and the first thing I did was to put it through a distortion pedal…which has honourable antecedents. Mike Ratledge of Soft Machine used to play through distortion.
PM: Around this time, you also began performing live with Wire.
MT: Well, performing’s a generic and generous term for what I did!
PM: It was quite challenging, I gather.
MT: It was and it was even harder because on Chairs Missing a lot of the things were done in the studio and you get a chance to do it well and you can mess it up many, many times. When you’re on stage, there’s no second chance.
PM: Could you talk about your debut with Wire at the Lyceum? [In London, 1978]
MT: I only had one night’s rehearsal for the Lyceum show but it seemed in the spirit of the times. I’d got everything set up and I’d got all my chord sheets set up on little pieces of paper that actually had the staffs and the notations and the chords and little tunes where I couldn’t quite remember. I’m a little better than that now, but this was my introduction. It was definitely the school of hard knocks at the Lyceum because I’d got it all carefully worked out, together with all this switching because I only had two instruments. I had an RMI electric piano — which is basically a glorified Farfisa — and one of the very early Oberheim synths, which was only really set up for a huge bass sound in the last number and nothing else. To change sounds, I had to go through a flurry of knob twiddling and switching and with the pedals, just to complicate matters still further, there wasn’t — as you get nowadays — a light that came on when it was in circuit. You couldn’t tell by looking at it. So I had a sequence of changes where I had to switch this, turn this to here and I just notated the changes, I didn’t notate the absolute positions of everything. And this was all well and good with the set list we’d prepared but Colin [Newman] deviated from it after about two or three numbers and I was completely all at sea.
PM: A version I’d heard was that Bruce Gilbert had prepared different set lists, two being different from the other three. I remember seeing them at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London in 1985 and they ended up having to re-start one song because Gilbert was playing a different track from the other members of the group.
MT: That’s probably true as well. There was definitely a bit of that. I did a mini-tour with them and I arrived at a gig in Exeter. I drove down that afternoon and it was “if you can get there fine, if not, no problem” and so my keyboard was set up and I arrived just in time for the encore. So they said “come on Mike”, so I said “all right” and up I went then and they launched into a song I didn’t even know. It was quite entertaining, we were all just laughing ourselves stupid; there was a cheerful noise. They taught me the right amount of abandon to use onstage and just performing in general. I’ve learned that irreverence from them.
PM: You’ve said that Chairs Missing is the album you’re most proud of.
MT: I think so. I think there’s the most passion in that one. It’s not that 154‘s not up there, it’s just that Chairs Missing is special and also it was a big discovery for us all to find that sound. To get it to work like that was a huge leap. From Chairs Missing to 154 wasn’t as much of a leap as from Pink Flag to Chairs Missing.
PM: By the time sessions started for 154, Wire had been playing the material live. You’ve said that was a “creative springboard”. How did it affect the recording?
MT: Well, they worked in the songs on the road and they knew them very, very well but it didn’t stop us from mangling the recordings and re-layering the recordings that went down with 154. There was always that search, always that quest for something that could be done just a little bit further, just the extra five percent, and the live performance tapes formed a basis and the springboard for 154. But most of those tracks were changed and developed after the initial live track was put down. When you work that way, what you do have is a tremendous source of energy — which is the original live track — so you feed off that and, unlike a traditional layered production now where you put a drum machine down, it takes a while for the track to achieve escape velocity. But there, they’d play it, they’d get a good one and we’d got escape velocity. And that was the creative springboard that was provided.
PM: Wire performed a lot of the material that would appear on 154 during their stint as opening act on Roxy Music’s Manifesto tour in 1979. Did you play with them on that tour?
MT: No, I’d have had to have practiced a lot for that one.
PM: On 154 the tensions within the band came to a head. What impact do you think that had on the recording process?
MT: Not very much, except that it made my life miserable. I made the break just because I couldn’t stand it any more. It was a quality-of-life decision. But if anything, it probably made the sessions more productive, just the way that tension often does, but I simply didn’t want to function that way so I cleared off.
PM: Had the making of previous albums been more harmonious?
MT: They’d been intense but it hadn’t got — I wouldn’t say personal, because it wasn’t really personal and unpleasant on 154 — it was just that people weren’t getting along. It wasn’t vicious.
PM: Would you want to work with them again?
MT: Probably not, no. We’re all past that stage. The five of us were at a certain stage in our respective developments and we all came together and were extremely complementary and fitted very well. That mutual growth that happened is very difficult to orchestrate. We could certainly make a record together but I doubt that they’re interested.
PM: What did you think of their gig in New York last year? [May 2000]
MT: Well, I was delighted to see Irving Plaza packed and it was nice to hear the old songs again but I missed the old energy and the old incompetence and the sense that something was going to go wrong any minute, which again was the spirit of punk, it was their attitude. I thought it was very good and it sounded very efficient but, for me, I suppose, I was just hankering after the good old days.