A GUEST CONTRIBUTION FROM MIKE MELVILLE
Wire. A British rock institution rapidly approaching the 40th anniversary of their first gig as a 4 piece. And, after all that time, still making great albums.
Yet, funnily enough, they were a band who remained on the periphery of my experience for so long. Definitely someone I knew I should check out but hadn’t actually managed to properly do so until a few years ago. Fair to say, since I did, Wire have belatedly become something of an obsession.
For much of their lifespan, Wire have featured only four members – Colin Newman (guitar/vocals), Graeme Lewis (bass/vocals), Robert Grey (nee Gotobed) – drums) and Bruce Gilbert (guitar).
Yet, despite a remarkably stable line-up, intra-band tensions have always played a huge part in the Wire story. Wilson Neate’s book ‘Read & Burn: A Book About Wire’ is a superb telling of their history portraying it as a struggle for control between principally Newman and Gilbert.
Of course, the outline of Wire’s story is fairly well known. The late 70s produced three classic LPs in ‘Pink Flag’, ‘Chairs Missing’ and ‘154’ on which the band pretty much invented post punk. This purple patch however was curtailed by an acrimonious split with songs written for a fourth album.
Perhaps surprisingly after several years apart the band came together again in the mid 80s. Their 80s/90s output is less well regarded than the original trilogy but almost any band would consider the run of records from the ‘Snakedrill’ E.P. to ‘The First letter’’ to constitute a decent career.
Having lost drummer Gotobed during the band’s second incarnation, the internal dynamics of the remaining three members meant that they ceased activity for a second time in 1991.
Unexpectedly the band reconvened for live shows and to produce another LP ‘Send’ in the early Noughties. Since then, although Gilbert left the band for good after ‘Send’, the band have enjoyed the most active phase of their career releasing four albums and a mini-LP since 2008 with another album due at the end of March.
After a period of operating with three official members the band finally recruited guitarist Matthew Sims as a permanent member in time to record 2013’s ‘Change Becomes Us’.
Selecting a 10 track ICA from the band’s entire career would be next to impossible for two reasons. Firstly, any career long compilation is going to feel bitty and incomplete because there’s so much to choose from and the records cover such a lot of ground. Secondly, given how short some of the earlier material was, it would be a fairly short album! Perhaps JC will give special permission for a 16 or even 20 track 70s Wire ICA at some point.
(JC adds….Yup!!! Watch this space……)
So, for those reasons I’ve concentrated on 21st century Wire with the second aim of perhaps alerting some folk to the fact that Wire remain a potent creative force.
1 Doubles & Trebles (from ‘Change Becomes Us’)
Released in 2013, CBU is something of an oddity as the majority of the songs were actually written in the early 80s for the band’s planned fourth album. That record was never made because of the band’s first split although many of the songs were captured in rudimentary form on live albums ‘Document & Eyewitness’ and ‘Turns and Strokes’. What’s remarkable is that how recognisable many of the songs on CBU are from these scratchy live recordings.
‘Doubles & Trebles’, with its air of paranoia and 70s spy craft, went by the name of ‘Ally In Exile’ for most of the intervening 30 years between its conception and its eventual recording. Its basic riff has also spawned at least one other close relative from the ‘Send’ era in ‘I Don’t Understand It’.
2 Comet (from ’Send’)
A brutal return, ‘Send’ was constructed by Newman and Gilbert largely through cut and paste sampling (‘12XU’ is apparently liberally sprinkled throughout the record!) with Lewis’s and Grey’s parts emailed in. Frantic, punk rock filtered through the Young Gods, ‘Comet’ is a black story about the astronomer who discovers a comet that will obliterate all life on Earth.
3 Smash (from ‘Red Barked Tree’)
Although ‘Red Barked Tree’ is the album that opened up possibilities for Wire, ‘Smash’ is another relentless crash and bang tune. For my money RBT, which along with ‘Send’, is probably the best 21st century Wire album.
4 Split Your Ends (from ‘Wire’)
Are there many band that self-title their FOURTEENTH album? A typically perverse Wire move for an album that refines rather than redefines their sound.
‘Split Your Ends’ is one of the poppier moments off the album yet it’s a tune that still builds up a fair head of steam. Its essence is unmistakeably Wire.
5 Red Barked Tree (from Red Barked Tree’)
Wire have always had a dirgy side to their music and ‘Red Barked Tree’ fits in even if it deals in more organic textures than the band would normally use. Newman has said that this song was a big influence in plotting a way forward for the band.
6 One of Us (from ‘Object 47’)
The first post Gilbert album opened with the chorus ‘One of us is going to rue the day we met each other’. A coincidence?
With its driving bassline, ‘One of Us’ is a propulsive opening which signifies that Wire could escape the darkness and claustrophobia of ‘Send’.
It has to be said despite being littered with great moments, ‘Object 47’ isn’t not the most convincing record overall. Yet it was a critical record proving to the remaining three members that they could take Wire forward without Gilbert.
7 Spent (from ‘Send’)
More claustrophobia from ‘Send’ with its principal riff locked into a savage loop. An unexpected encore at the 2013 Tut’s show.
8 Desert Diving (from ‘Read and Burn 03’)
In deciding what to do with the tracks that the band had worked on around Gilbert’s departure, a decision was taken to put those songs that he had had the most influence on out as a four track E.P. keeping the remaining tracks for ‘Object 47’.
In truth the album might have benefitted from a couple of the E.P. tracks although the two records do have distinguishing characteristics with the E.P. having a more languid sound. Indeed, lead track ’23 Years Too Late’ is nearly 10 minutes long!
9 Fishes Bones (from ‘Nocturnal Koreans’)
Although last year’s mini-LP ‘Nocturnal Koreans’ originated from the same sessions as ‘Wire’ it is nothing like a record of cast-offs. Rather it demonstrates that the band hasn’t lost its sense for quality control.
The band differentiated the two records by virtue of the fact that ‘Wire’ was designed to be played live whereas NK features far more studio effects.
‘Fishes Bones’ is a typically off kilter Wire tune.
10 Harpooned (from ‘Wire’)
If ‘Split Your Ends’ comes from the more accessible end of ‘Wire’ then LP closer ‘Harpooned’ is coming from the opposite direction. Musically as harsh a song as anything they’ve done post ‘Send’ ‘Harpooned’ is an addictive black hole sucking everything into it. It’s also utterly astonishing live.
11 Drill (live) (from ‘The Black Session’)
The only song Wire have played at the three shows I’ve seen them play since 2011. This version is taken from a show recorded for French radio around the time they toured ‘Red Barked Tree’.