N.B. This post falls into three parts: Part one, a bit of background as to how I was introduced to Wire; Part two, some fairly dull stuff about the albums and which songs I like; and Part three, which, I think, is fairly amusing. I’ll leave it to you to decide which parts you want to read. Thanks for reading.
My musical journey for the first eighteen years of my life is pretty simple to record. The Beatles and Abba, then Johnny Cash, then, in my early teens, ska/two-tone and, finally, my spiritual home of electronic music. By the time I bought my first Tubeway Army single (“Are Friends Electric?”) I think Wire’s first incarnation was already finished, having produced three albums, which I’ll come to later.
At university I met @theashleyjones and so began my romance with the guitar, which would ultimately lead me to bands like The Smiths, The Wedding Present and The Pixies, although many years later. Without this new love of the guitar I would never have been ready to embrace Wire.
In the months immediately following my graduation I returned to Kingston and once again took up with my friend Bill Dolan. Bill was living in a shared house in Teddington and, after work, I would regularly go ’round to Bill’s to chat, drink, smoke dope and listen to music. Bill had a couple of mattresses and I would regularly crash out there in the early hours of the morning. One of my strongest musical memories is the day I bought Talk Talk’s ‘Spirit of Eden’. We put it on as we were winding down and, somehow, it ended up on repeat. Every time I woke during the night, some part of the album would be playing, so I would think I’d been asleep less than an hour. It was disconcerting and disorientating. And wonderful.
It was during this period that Bill first played me Wire’s The Ideal Copy. I knew of Wire by reputation but Punk and New Wave remained a closed book to me. Furthermore, as with so many of my enduring favourite albums, I was initially unimpressed. Oh, I loved, really loved, Ambitious, and then, a little later, Ahead, but it would be a long time before I made the transition from finding Feed Me dirgy to a thing of beauty. And longer still before I realised the strength of the album as a whole.
(It will become relevant later that, as a private (and weak) joke, I would often sing the Ahead lyric “A monkey caught stealing” as “A monkey called Stilling”. Stilling was a lad in my class at secondary school.)
I must admit I was initially disappointed by the next album A Bell Is A Cup Until It Is Stuck (although I loved the title) but the band completely redeemed itself in my eyes with It’s Beginning To And Back Again, which in some respects remains my favourite album by Wire. As I understand it, the album is collection of live recordings that were then worked on in the studio. It’s a brilliant album although the stand out tracks – if you want to dip in – are, for me, the laconic German Shepherds and then Illuminated. Actually, the latter is an odd choice because it’s also the answer to the question “Can you play me one track that would make me think you have appalling taste in music?” You just have to give it some time, OK?
At this point my love affair with Wire, waned. There was Manscape, which was one of the last albums I bought on vinyl and rarely played, followed by The First Letter, released as Wir (after Robert Gotobed, the drummer, left). However, years later, with both The Ideal Copy and It’s Beginning To And Back Again well established on my regularly played albums pile, I found both these albums on CD and started playing them. Both are fantastic (if a little patchy in places), each containing moments of musical beauty, such as You Hung Your Lights In The Trees/A Craftsman’s Touch.
And so, there I was, happy with my Wire collection. I picked up copies of the first three albums: Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154 and gradually found my way ’round them. The riff on Three Girl Rhumba will be familiar to Elastica fans and there is pretty much instant pleasure to be found in tracks such as I Am The Fly, 40 Versions and Map Ref 41 Degrees N 93 Degrees W.
The astute (by which I mean remaining) reader will have realised that Wire had an early period – the three seventies albums – and then a resurgence in the eighties. At this point, at the very start of the nineties, the band appears to have dissolved once again.
It is Wire’s third age when my love for them really blossomed and not just for musical reasons. At first, 2002’s Send seemed a leap too far from their previous work – a relentless wall of electric guitar noise – but like many other great prolific bands – from the Beatles through to, say, Blur – the band’s underlying creative strength shone through the musical style of the songs. The opening track In The Art Of Stopping is a great example. I’ve listened to it so many times now, it sounds melodic to me, yet on first listen it seemed like the distorted grandchild of the German Motorik school.
Despite my love of Send, I’m not sure I would have wanted another album in the same mould, so I was delighted when the third Read and Burn ep appeared (the first two formed the basis of Send). In many ways the ten minute long opener 23 Years Too Late embodies everything I love about the band. It remains my favourite song by them.
The following album, 2008’s Object 47, featured more songs which might be described as being in the same vein, although it would be misleading to imply that Wire ever repeat themselves. (Indeed, so contrary can they be that it is an accepted wisdom that they will never play any song that is requested at a gig.) One Of Us features one of my favourite lyrics, the fatalistic “One of us will live to rue the day we met each other”.
If you’ve stuck with me so far, things get a bit more interesting now, the list of albums and my favourite tracks mercifully coming to a close and a bit of story to finish. Last year, November 2011, Wire announced a gig at the Lexington in London. I’d never heard of the venue but decided to go, buying a single ticket, which is not unusual for me. By sheer coincidence, around this time contact was re-established between me and Bill after, God knows, maybe twenty years. Now a distribution manager for Cargo Records, Wire were (and are) a client of his, so we decided to use the Lexington gig as our reunion.
Those intervening years disappeared with a single “All right, man” as we reverted to our teenage selves, bought some tins of lager from a corner shop and took the train to the gig. I don’t think we spent the time ‘catching up’, just chatted as we always did. Approaching the venue, we hid our remaining beers behind someone’s bins and went in, me surrendering my ticket and Bill swooshing in on a wave of guest listiness. The venue was tiny but the sound was good and Bill and I were able to stand at the bar whilst still being able to see Colin Newman’s fingers on the fretboard. I suppose I had hoped for some keyboards but the two guitars, bass and drums format worked perfectly, playing a mixture of material I knew and songs from their new album, Red Barked Tree.
Afterwards, Bill and I went backstage and met the band. I was strongly against this – I’ve an aversion to meeting people who have a mythologised location in my mind and also I have a clear idea of what a twat I can be – but Bill was gently insistent. They turned out to be a lovely, humble, low-key bunch of men. They listened politely to my gushing thesis on how they inhabit their songs, with, I remember, specific reference to Drill, showing only a hint of the enormous relief that they must have been feeling as I mumbled my way to an incoherent lack of meaningful conclusion.
Once it was clear that I wasn’t going to start talking again, Colin came over and took out a copy of the new album and a pen. He proceeded to sign it To Fenner. “A monkey called Stilling”. Colin Newman I’m having a little tear just thinking about it now. I can’t remember much after that. Bill and I successfully recovered our beers and headed back to New Malden, while I periodically took out the CD and tried to comprehend what had just happened. (I had, mercifully, already forgotten about The Drill Thesis. That came back to me this evening along with a hot flush.)
Since then, Wire have bought me some more very happy memories. In February this year, I went to see them at Scala with @jwatton, @moonbolt and @theashleyjones and Bill, ever generous arranged for Ash to get a photography pass.
I took to mentioning Wire more on Twitter, which resulted in a very enjoyable tweet up on November 16th at the Academy 3 (my favourite Manchester venue) with @twothreedesign, @thatandywhite and @sparker04. Andy has proper punk/New Wave credentials, having been a fan At The Time in the seventies and, indeed, he was the one of us who threw himself into the melee in front of the stage while we all maintained a less visceral appreciation from the bar at the back of the hall. Andy also took some photos of the band, including this accidental shot of Graham Lewis’s feet.
To be honest, I thought that would be it for me and Wire this year, but then The Hand Of Bill intervened once again, when he invited to me their gig at XOYO on November 22nd, kindly arranging a guest pass.
After the gig – notable for the finest live versions of Drill and Boiling Boy that I’ve heard – I decided that having previous alerted Wire to my status as one of those very earnest fans best avoided, I would play a cool hand this time, perhaps be one of those rather interesting characters to who make a positive contribution to the post-gig atmos. Someone, to whom, ultimately, they might feel comfortable giving a nod.
With this in mind, then, I took the peculiar step of deciding that I would ask them for photos of their feet, thinking, perhaps, more of getting a smile from Andy than my recent plans for redeeming my reputation amongst these chaps whose approval I craved.
In fact, it went particularly well. Perhaps thirty-five years of people explaining to them how they inhabit their songs has left the band members susceptible to a more novel approach or perhaps they recognised me and took the opportunity for a reasonably non-verbal engagement but all four members acceded to my request. Here they are, then: (l-r) Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, Matt Simms and Robert Gotobed.
Frankly, that would have been a good place to stop and accept that my place in the Wire inner circle is actually about 100 meters outside of it (just next to the bar, happily). But, for one last time (so far), Bill stepped in and announced that Colin would be giving us a lift home in the tour bus.
You don’t need to look away, there is no further horror. In fact, the journey back south of the river was very pleasant. Colin shared out some whisky and we talked about the gig and I managed to limit my contribution to my view that they had played excellent versions of Drill and Boiling Boy, which people nodded at kindly, and I think I even shook hands with him as they dropped us off.
There’s no real conclusion or moral to this story, it’s just been a complete self-indulgence really. But I would like to thank, Bill, of course, and also say that whilst my aversion to meeting my heroes hasn’t abated, I would like to state for the record what a lovely bunch of men go to make up Wire.
PS Here’s a playlist containing all the above tracks.