Thursday, June 01, 2006

To Whom It May Interest #1: A Word Or Three About Wire

To Whom It May Interest,

I’ve been simultaneously reading two books at once for the past month or so. One is a biography about Elvis Presley and his rise to superstardom. The other is “Mainlines, Blood Feasts & Bad Taste” by Philip Seymour Hoffman…er, I mean Lester Bangs. A couple weeks ago, I was paging through Bangs’ compiled ferocity and observation and found a review of Wire’s second opus, Chairs Missing. Direct quote from the man himself:

“Wire. Think about that word and what it has meant in your life, perhaps even the lives of your ancestors. Then think just how hot you’d be hoppin’ to get a chance to hear a group whose sound might live up to such euphonious appellation! Wire. The Sound of the ‘70s. Flat. Dead. Dull. Thud. Mud. Plod. Sod. But mebbe with a whiplash on the counterstrike.”

Now, having myself only recently opened the door to the wonderful world of Wire’s initial trio of recorded bliss, my reaction to the review was chockfull of “you don’t know what you’re talking about”s and “what the fuck do you know”s and blahblahblahblah. However, being someone who’s had the benefit of seeing the lasting affects of Wire and their opusX3, it’s easy to see how someone, even the beloved Lester Bangs, can miss the point. Wire is one of a handful of bands that saw that punk rock’s demise was going to arrive as fast of most of its songs ended. Granted, punk rock’s influence on everything rock-oriented that’s emerged in the last thirty years is undeniable, but it seems like the vision and spirit of it all probably lasted about a year. As usual, once commerce takes a stranglehold of art, it’s all down hill from there.

When ’77 ended, it was all about evolving, birthing New Wave, No Wave, Hard Core, Post-Punk and so on all through the ‘80s when, once the ‘90s began, alternative music became the first choice thanks to Seattle and the plaid-clad Grunge fad. If you want a basic idea of what the hallways sounded like in any college boasting its own radio station during that time, turn your attention to Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154.

Like the Talking Heads, Wire’s origin began at art school. Through their stylistic approach to minimalism and pop music, they managed to stay ahead of what would ultimately prove to be punk rock’s evolution. The three aforementioned records document their output between 1977 and 1979 and have recently been reissued by Wire’s Pinkflag label. According to some of the reviews I’ve read, their highly creative output petered out after 1979’s 154 and Wire went through a routine of breaking up and making up all through the ‘80s. Their last record, Send, was released in 2003.

Pink Flag, the first of the series, is their most unpolished and well-known, its own “12XU” having been covered by Minor Threat and “Three Girl Rhumba” essentially outlining Elastica’s hit, “Connection”. Out of its twenty-one tracks, six of which clock in at less than a minute, it almost reads like a testament to the “less is more” ideology. It sounds remarkably complete despite seeming stark and quick upon first listen.

Starting things off with the distortion-clad “Reuters”, Colin Newman, lead vocalist and guitarist, exerts ‘tude sans arrogance and emotion sans schmaltz. This song alone sums up the output of a slew of bands, most of which are now stuck with the shitty tag of “emo”. Time’s been kind to Pink Flag and even more kind to its follower, Chairs Missing.

Within the first guitar strum of “Practise Makes Perfect”, you can already tell that Wire was shooting for something new. Less than a year after Pink Flag, Chairs Missing broke drastically from Wire’s foundation and managed to confound everyone, fans and critics alike. Not necessarily departing from their aesthetic, but adding a healthy dose of distortion and electricity nonetheless, Wire employed the synthesizer, opening themselves to the possibilities of electronic music. The high-pitched whine of the ultra-fast “Another The Letter” and the somber church organ of “Marooned” are two contrasting examples of how this element worked in their evolution.

Newman, for the most part, sheds the polite snarl and tries his hand at harmony, giving these songs an air of introspection and emotion. “French Film Blurred” and the light and poppy “Outdoor Miner” are treated with soft vocals, the latter song featuring an “all together now” chorus that repeats until its climax. “Being Sucked In Again” and “I Am The Fly” however, play like Pink Flag tracks, exuding the familiar ‘tude and the minimal guitar strum. But even those songs shows signs of Wire’s growth, “Being Sucked In Again” opening with long guitar chords and keyboard noise.

Ending with the high-speed static of “Too Late”, Chairs Missing wound up acting as the crossroads to 154.

Beginning with the very moody and atmospheric “I Should Have Known Better”, this record caught me by surprise. Wire had made yet another jump and basically defined the sound of the ‘80s one year before the decade’s inception. Well, they defined the sound of the ’80s that was worth remembering anyway. Up until I’d heard 154, I always accredited the Talking Heads and X with having basically started the era. Not to say that they don’t still deserve the credit, but the list of bands that came out of 154 is absolutely astounding. Out of the three, this is the one that seems to get the least amount of praise.

Holding true to the songwriting expansion that the keyboard and distortion granted them, Wire exchanged minimalism for atmosphere. With the aforementioned “I Should Have Known Better”, the mesmerizing spoken word of “The Other Window”, and the desperate noise of “A Touching Display”, Wire exhibit mood like never before, creating soundscapes that range from beautiful to morbid. Even their guitar-driven rockers like “Two In A Room” and “On Returning” rely on emotion as opposed to the structure of Pink Flag or experimentation of Chairs Missing.

For me, the record’s jewels are the beautifully catchy “The 15th” and the closing “40 Versions”. For those two songs alone, 154 was a worthy acquisition.

Anyway, to anyone into music, I’d recommend picking these three albums up as soon as you can find them. 29 years later, they’re still catchy as hell, very well done and they don’t sound old at all. Had Lester lived to see their influence spawn a shitload of bands, his opinion probably would’ve been a little different.

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