Wire 1978
Photo: Annette Green / Courtesy of pinkflag

Wire Finally Embrace the Old, Forbidden Bootleg ‘Not About to Die’

Not About to Die is a bootleg cassette of scrappy Wire demos recorded in the late 1970s that circulated in the early 1980s. It’s finally an official release.

Not About to Die (Studio Demos 1977-1978)
24 June 2022

Not About to Die was a bootleg cassette of scrappy Wire demos recorded in the late 1970s that circulated among EMI employees in the early 1980s. Wire were in the middle of hashing out some ideas for what would be their second and third albums, Chairs Missing and 154, respectively, but Not About to Die was considered to be nothing more than a work-in-progress that was certainly not for sale. While some rock bands have tolerated bootleg recordings being passed around among their fanbase, plenty of groups have tried to seize the cassettes so they can sell the music themselves. The story of a Replacements roadie confiscating a fan’s recording device only to have the band sell copies of said recording comes to mind.

But Wire never seemed too keen on Not About to Die’s existence. They had no problems with Document & Eyewitness, a warts-and-all live show known for being especially confrontational, but they ignored these demos for decades until now. With a remastered touch and some new artwork, Wire’s label Pinkflag has made Not About to Die an official release.

In terms of post-punk rock ‘n’ roll, the “punk” side of Wire’s inner equation was doing most of the heavy lifting in their early days. By the time the band recorded these demos, their sound was in a state of flux that only proper studio time could fully capture. Songs that appeared on Wire albums like “Being Sucked in Again”, “On Returning”, “Once Is Enough”, and “Two People in a Room” unsurprisingly sound like late 1970s stripped-back post-punk. The pieces are there; they just needed that extra boost to make them a little less punk.

Not About to Die still has some surprises, like an adrenaline-fueled thrashing of “The Other Window” where Colin Newman takes the lead vocal instead of Bruce Gilbert’s spoken-word performance. An early version of “I Should Have Known Better” appears as “Ignorance No Plea”, replacing the final product’s dramatic gloom with some rhythmically primal pounding backing up Graham Lewis’ sprechstimme. “Indirect Inquiries” sounds nothing like how it wound up on 154, stripping away all of the song’s subtleties and nuances and replacing them with clanging guitars.

Tracks that Wire recorded professionally but were released as b-sides are represented here with “Options R” and “Former Airline”. “Underwater Experiences”, the song Wire recorded and performed many times over the years without committing it to an album, is one of Not About to Die’s more sprawling moments. After spending half its time with no drums and an unnervingly quiet dynamic, it bursts into flame as Newman continually sings “Per sec / Per sec / Per sec / Per sec” like he’s stuck.

Lastly, there are the songs you would have otherwise never encountered if not for Not About to Die. The album gets its title from the lyrics to “Stepping Off Too Quick”, a two-minute song that Newman promoted as having “the best intro to any song ever”. While he may be having a bit of fun with those words, it is a noteworthy introduction. As one guitar hammers out eighth-note harmonics, the other guitar repeats an ascending triad. Just as Lewis’ slowly walking bass reaches the root, everyone bashes out the same chord while Robert Grey attacks his hi-hat. It’s all rather polyphonic for punk music, and it totally flies in the face of the rousing tune that follows: “Stepping off too quick / Not about to Die.” Think of the Replacements’ “You Lose”, introduction and all, and you’ll get the idea. “Oh No Not So (Save the Bullet)” and “It’s the Motive” both have a little too much pep for Pink Flag, but “Culture Vultures” nicely foreshadows Wire’s acceptance that they had to outgrow punk sooner or later.

It’s good to see Wire acknowledging their distant past more and more as the years go by. In the 1980s, they refused to play a single note from Pink Flag. Fast-forward to the 21st century, we’ve had a reissue of Document & Witness, a 33 ⅓ entry for Pink Flag, and now an official release for Not About to Die. While it will certainly scratch a collector’s itch, it’s just not nearly as essential as it is interesting. A reissue of Behind the Curtain, a compilation of a few early demos and mostly non-album tracks, would be a more comprehensive and therefore much more welcome entry into Pinkflag’s catalog. Until that happens, there’s always “Stepping Off Too Quick” to come back to.

RATING 6 / 10