40 Versions of Wire
40 Versions of Wire, by gwilliamrex
April 1, 2017 marked the 40th anniversary of the legendary London band Wire and their first performance at the Roxy in London. From the nascent days of punk through to what remains of a commoditized music industry today, Wire remain an artistic enigma with their insightful, challenging, thought-provoking music and DIY spirit.
The original foursome of Graham Lewis (guitar), Bruce Gilbert (vocals, bass), Colin Newman (vocals, guitar) and Robert Gotobed (who now goes by actual surname “Grey”) (percussion) formed in 1976. This four-decade long journey includes a few periods of musical hiatus (as Wire), multiple side projects of varying artistic merit and a couple of personnel changes.
To acknowledge the musical brilliance of Wire and educate those not familiar with the scope of their music, I have prepared a list of 40 songs by Wire, or their various side-projects that have impacted my listening and enriched me immensely over 38 of these years.
The formative influence of this band on artists that have followed belies the fact that Wire has never had significant record sales. R.E.M., Sonic Youth , The Cure, Guided By Voices, Blur and many others have publicly acknowledged this influence.
This list is not intended to be a “best-of” Wire, so there is no need to remind me of the many brilliant tunes I will undoubtedly overlook. A best-of list would seem contrary to the spirit of Wire’s ever evolving approach to their art. For that reason this is a tiny retrospective of some (and just some) of the Wire music I most admire and other tunes that I believe inform their history. For that second reason, I have listed the tunes chronologically.
1. “12XU”- The Roxy London Jan-April 1977 (1977) (Harvest)
My first exposure to Wire was on this early punk compilation that included such other punk hits as “Orgasm Addict” by the Buzzcocks and “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” from X-Ray Spex. With thrashing guitars and the robotic chanting of both the song title and “Saw you in a corner kissing a man”, Wire announce their arrival with aplomb. Studio versions of this song are later released on Wire’s first LP and as a fragment appears on the controversial “Document and Eyewitness.” This record and the first three Wire albums were produced by Mike Thorne.
2. “Mannequin”- Pink Flag (1977) (Harvest)
A debut album unlike any other. On the cover, a lone pink flag flies against a blue sky backdrop. Inside are 21 “punktuated” tracks. Most of them range in length from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Mannequin takes a shot at the shallowness of the notion of beauty with this retort: “Well you’re a waste of space, no natural grace. You’re so bloody thin, you don’t even begin.” An auspicious and most promising start. To this day the Wire website is called “pinkflag.com.”
3. “Ex- Lion Tamer”- Pink Flag (1977) (Harvest)
A great song foreshadowing a strange personal experience. In the late 1980’s I attended a Wire (Mach II) gig at St. Andrew Hall in Detroit. I did not know who the warm-up act was going to be, and they were playing as we entered. I found myself singing along to a band I knew was not Wire, but playing a Wire song. Turns out the opening act was a Wire cover band from New Jersey called (wait for it) – the Ex- Lion Tamers. They toured with Wire who would no longer play those early songs and would play the Pink Flag LP flawlessly from beginning to end, complete even with the same pause length between songs. Turned my brain to mush for a few minutes to say the least.
4. “Outdoor Miner”- Chairs Missing (1978) (Harvest)
A quintessential pop song about an unlikely subject- the life cycle of the Serpentine Leaf Miner insect. The most covered Wire song with versions by artists such as Lush, Flying Saucer Attack, Luna the former Echo + The Bunnymen producer Ian Broudie’s Lightning Seeds. In 2004 American label Words-On-Music released a 19-song LP entitled “A Houseguest’s Wish: Interpretations of Wire’s “Outdoor Miner.” My favourite version is by Typewriter who is actually Mark Bandola of the under-appreciated Lucy Show. Efforts by Harvest EMI to promote this song onto Top-Of-The-Pops failed spectacularly.
5. “Used To”- Chairs Missing (1978) (Harvest)
Existentialism in pop. For me, Wire songs are often observations of the minutiae and randomness of life and the human attempt and ultimate failure to try and put these observations into a logical, rational order. “Does nausea ensue when you chance upon a memory of someone you used to know?”
6. “Mercy” – Chairs Missing (1978) (Harvest)
A rumbling bass riff introduces a caustic heavy rhythm describing a life in isolation. Powerful. The music on Chairs Missing was more melodic than on Pink Flag. Often referred to as “art-punk”, Colin Newman claimed they weren’t “arty,” just “doing fucking art.” ( Simon Reynolds “Rip It Up And Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984” London: Faber & Faber, p 159.)
7. “I Should Have Known Better” – 154 (1979) (Harvest)
Not the Beatles tune. No poppy smiles, or left- handed bass here. This is the bitter end of a relationship filmed in black and white. Note:
The judgment is harsh, I offer no plea
I should have known better
Than to become a target
Albeit a target that moves
You don’t feel warm, I pass close by
Indeed. With lyrics like those, this is “Love Will Tear Us Apart” for the Kafka crowd.
8. “Blessed State”- 154 (1979) (Harvest)
A perfectly melodic tune Bruce Gilbert describes in “Read & Burn- A Book About Wire” by Wilson Neale (Jawbone Press 2013) as about “the horrors of existence.”
9. “Map Reference 41 degrees N 93 degrees W- 154 (1979) (Harvest)
For many years, and perhaps still, my favourite Wire song. Supposedly the co-ordinate is somewhere in the middle of the state of Iowa, the geographic centre (“center” for those readers in Iowa) of the continental United States. A soaring pop song of timeless magnificence.
10. “40 Versions”- 154 (1979) (Harvest)
The inspiration for the (obvious) title of this article. A cryptic, brooding, sinister take on schizophrenia (perhaps) or some other curse of mental instability with haunting lyrics like “I never know what version I’m going to be; I get the feeling my mind is deceiving me.” Of over 110,000 songs in my vast indie collection, I can assure you with confidence that this is my favourite song to use “Niagara Falls” as both a noun and as a verb in a rhyming couplet.
11. “Our Swimmer” – Document & Eyewitness (1980) (Rough Trade/ Mute)
After 3 brilliant and diverse LPs in as many years it appeared Wire had self-imploded due to the always inevitable “creative differences.” The pop sensibility of Colin Newman was in mortal combat with the experimental inclinations of Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis. “Document and Eyewitness” is an almost unlistenable live cacophonous mess. For example, you can hear angry attendees enraged that they were not hearing their fave Wire tunes. The band give it right back to the audience. A snippet of “12XU” is played to give a nihilistic middle finger to both the punters and the music business. Our Swimmer is one of the few tolerable tracks on this release so I have included it as an artifact. After listening to Document once and filing it away, I never thought there would be another Wire release. Thank goodness I was dead wrong.
12. “Alone” + “Alone On Piano”- A-Z (by Colin Newman) (1980) (Beggars Banquet)
Colin Newman released three accomplished solo albums in short order following the first Wire hiatus. They are Wire albums in all but name. Alone and Alone On Piano from this debut are standouts.
13. “B”- A-Z (by Colin Newman) (1980) (Beggars Banquet)
Although not as good a tune, also check out the Clockwork Orange-like video for the track “B” here:
I was reminded of this video a few years ago when it was shown on a loop at the Museum Of Contemporary Art in Chicago as part of an exhibition entitled “Sympathy For The Devil: Art And Rock And Roll Since 1967.”
14. “Rolling Upon My Day- Dome 1 (By Dome) (1980) (Dome Records)
Noise merchants Gilbert and Lewis released numerous records under various iterations. Four or five of them were as Dome. (See Cupol and Duet Emmo under “obscure incomprehensible sounds” in the dictionary at your aural peril.) I find the Dome albums mostly industrial background noise, but, bizarrely, this track is one of my all-time favourite tunes – period. After a repeating, annoying machine-like squalor goes on way too long, a pristine pop tune emerges with Gilbert singing addictive lyrics about feeling something “altogether divine” in his fingers, toes, breakfast, clothes, sofa, chair, toothbrush and even in his hair. Mesmerizing, as is the video, where the industrial chaos follows the lyrics….
15. “Fish 5”- Provisionally Entitled The Singing Fish (by Colin Newman) (1981) (4AD)
Newman appears to have a fascination with the animal world. There are references to insects, snakes, locusts, horses tangled in barbed wire, throughout. The tracks on this 1981 release are entitled Fish 1 to Fish 12. I picked this tune randomly as the album is instrumental.
16. “You Me And Happy”- Not To- (by Colin Newman) (1982) (4AD)
Newman re-mastered and re-released his first 3 LPs last year on his own Sentient Sonics label. They had been originally on Beggars Banquet/ 4AD. I recommend these 3 LPs, both for the quality of the music and the numerous extra tracks included. He has also released “Commercial Suicide” (Crammed) in 1986, “It Seems”(Crammed) in 1988 and another mostly instrumental album “Bastard/ Voice EP” (Swim) in 1997.
17. “Ahead”- The Ideal Copy (1987) (Mute)
After a five year hiatus Wire reform in 1985 and two years later give us the exceptional The Ideal Copy. This album spawned a number of dance- floor monsters. Ominous bell ringing followed by the pulsating bass line at the start of track 2 “Ahead” punctuates the return to form. Along with “Ambitious,” this is dance music for the digital isolation age.
18. “ ‘A Serious Of Snakes’ ” – The Ideal Copy (1987) (Mute)
One of my all-time Wire highlights, but criminally overlooked. As lyrically mysterious as any Wire tune, it appears to evoke religious/ secular themes such as preferring crafting furniture over midnight mass, name drops Mary and Joseph and then what to many Christians might seem blasphemous:
Please send your god my very best wishes
Does he still sing? Does he still fish?
Does he still help you on your days off?
Don’t stopping that dripping, I prefer the old tortures
It’s only when you stop that I feel it.
19. “Drill”- The Ideal Copy (1987) (Mute)
The music of this track mirrors the title as it is a jackhammer of sound. The song has spawned “Drill Festivals” including one in Los Angeles this past weekend with the band celebrating the 40 years and featuring Bob Mould (Husker Du/ Sugar), Julie Holter and Laetitia Sadier (Stereolab.), among others. For something perfectly perverse, check out Suzanne Summers introducing the band on “The Tonight Show.”
20. “Kidney Bingos”- A Bell Is A Cup Until It Is Struck (1988) (Mute)
A popular club song in its day.
21. “Follow The Locust”- A Bell Is A Cup Until It Is Struck (1988) (Mute)
More tales from the animal world and in my view, an often overlooked Wire gem. A monstrous, sinuous baseline roars to the finish.
22. “Tongue Ties” – Take Care (by He Said) (1989) (Mute)
The work of Graham Lewis with some help from Bruce Gilbert, John Fryer and Brian Eno. There were two He Said albums- Hail (1986) and then Take Care 3 years later. I am partial to this album and could have chosen several standout tracks – “Watch. Take. Care”, “A.B.C. Dicks Love” and the lavish “Could You” among them.
23. “Eardrum Buzz”- It’s Beginning To And Back Again (1989)
If I remember correctly, the only new song on this LP which was essentially live re-takes of songs from “Bell…” I own and treasure a 3” cd of this infectious, if at times, somewhat cloying track.
24. “So And Slow It Grows”- The First Letter (1991) (Mute)
This was the first Wire release without the core four. Robert Gotobed departed (fortunately only temporarily) over the increased use of computerized drumming by the band. Fittingly, they call themselves “Wir” acknowledging the departure. This album is basically the end of Wire- Mach II and their last LP of the 20th century.
25. “Envelope (g-man remix)”- Full Immersion (by Immersion) (1995) (Swim)
Newman’s wife, Malka Spigel, is an Israeli musician with her own creatively successful career. She commenced in Minimal Compact before recording under her own name and for whom Newman often plays. Full Immersion is another Newman/ Spigel collaboration. Dronelike, more quiet and, at times, somewhat ambient, this is your Wire connection for late night solitude.
26. “The Agfers of Kodack”- Read and Burn 01 (2002) and Send (2003) (Pinkflag)
Wire- Mach III begins with a bang in the new millennium as the band releases Burn 01, 02, 03 and album #10 – Send. Much to my surprise, the music on 01 and Send is the most direct and punk-like since Pink Flag. A stunning and welcome return to an initial sound.
27. “Drive By”- Art Pop (by Githead) (2007) (Swim)
The most recognized name on the Spiegel/ Newman spectrum is the tersely named and still active Githead. With the Newman imprimatur, there have been four full-length LPs released by this ensemble. The line-up includes two of Spiegel’s Minimal Compact mates- multi- media personality Robin Rimbaud (aka ‘Skanner’) and percussionist Max Franken. This song is a cryptically worded take on the modern condition with lyrics like:
You are overloaded in your inbox today,
You understand nothing in your inbox today
Misinformed creationists, culture thug arsonists
Theocratic imperialism, misogynistic ostracism.
28. “23 Years Too Late”/ “No Warning Given” Read and Burn 03 (2007) (Pinkflag)
Okay, I am cheating but after you listen to these two blasts on the final Read and Burn EP you will thank me. 23 Years is 10 minutes of glorious Wire rhythms and curious couplets that appear to this listener to be a snapshot of Europe. Bloody mesmerizing. No Warning Given is another Wire classic.
29. “One Of Us’- Object 47 (2008) (Pinkflag)
Who ever heard of anyone “retiring” from a rock band? Well, guitarist Bruce Gilbert did. Admittedly, he was already 30 years old when Wire formed. The first Wire release following his departure was the 47th release in the band’s discography to that point. This is the first track of many choice selections. Check out the video for One Of Us where, over a classic, propulsive, Wire beat, Lewis smugly narrates yet another relationship breakdown, perhaps to the death:
Can I make it plainer?
I misjudged your intentions
That beggars many questions
What happened to our plan?
The one that we began?
Are you an also-ran?
Declining, and divining
One of us will live to rue the day we met each other.
30. “Before Tomorrow”- Landing (by Githead) (2009) (Swim)
Another, of many, recommended Githead tracks.
31. “Trash/ Treasure”- Send (Ultimate) (2010) (Pinkflag)
A quintessential Wire melody reissued on a bonus CD to the original Send. Find it and listen.
32. “Please Take”- Red Barked Tree (2010) (Pinkflag)
No one does relationship break-up vitriol better than Wire. Follow this:
Please take your knife out of my back,
And when you do, please don’t twist it
Fuck Off out of my face, you take up too much space,
Move – you’re blocking my view
I’ve seen far too much of you…
33. “Smash”- Red Barked Tree (2010) (Pinkflag)
The past 10 years have witnessed yet another Wire creative resurgence. With a cover picture wine bottles stacked to look like teeth on an H. R. Giger creature, Red Barked Tree will become the second of six renaissance Wire LPs in less than a decade.
34. “Love Bends”- Change Becomes Us (2013) (Pinkflag)
Almost as if Wire needed to bring some finality to the Document and Eyewitness legend, most of the tracks on this album are re-workings inspired from that live album. Love Bends is one such track.
35. “Burning Bridges”- Wire (2015) (Pinkflag)
A standout track from the eponymously titled 14th album. Watch the video for a quiet reprieve from the usual Wire symphony of ordered chaos.
36. “Split Your Ends”- Wire (2015) (Pinkflag)
Classic Wire. Enough said; just listen.
37. “Nocturnal Koreans”- Nocturnal Koreans (2016) (Pinkflag)
The title track of an eight song album of tunes apparently culled from the Wire LP recording sessions that were more “appropriate” for the studio. If these are leftovers, please give me more. Compelling, as always, and like many Wire songs it has its feet in the past, but with a freshness that many bands never achieve.
38. “Swallow”- Nocturnal Koreans (2016) (Pinkflag)
More observations about the human condition with the clever rhyming couplet, “The white kids are a crying shame, They’ve got it all but parked their brains.”
39. “Short Elevated Period”- Silver/Lead (2017) (Pinkflag)
With the remaining original trio now all over 60 years of age one might think the band would at least slow down. Not so! Another generally propulsive, engaging LP Silver/ Lead lands on March 31, 2017 for the 40th anniversary. Following the opening doom of “Playing Harp For The Fishes” things turn up-tempo quickly with this infectious power pop tune dripping in the usual obtuse but clever lyrical imagery courtesy of Newman. Listen to it 3 times and it will be yours forever, especially given that the chorus is at the end of the song structure.
40. “Forever & A Day”- Silver/Lead (2017) (Pinkflag)
After 40 Versions we end with a love song? A love song? A Wire love song? Say it isn’t so? Well, it just might be. I offer the following evidence. Over a beautiful melody and sonorous groove we hear Lewis croon, repeatedly:
Ooooooh, darling I want you to stay
Ooooooh, Forever & a Day
Indeed. We want you to stay Wire. Forever & a Day will suit me just fine.
Words by gwilliamrex
[Editor’s note. For your listening edification, gwilliamrex will be returning to London from Canada for a visit next month. On Monday, May 22nd he will be presenting #gwilliamrexunderground. Follow @gwilliamrex on Twitter all day as he rides the entire London Underground system listening exclusively to UK indie tunes. The songs he is curating will be loosely themed for each particular underground line he travels and then Tweeted for your listening/viewing enjoyment. Hopefully he will play a Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine tune whilst on the Central Line for this editor.]