Cutting the Stone Out
A Personal View of Wire by Stephen Harper
I love a ballad but even too well, if it be doleful matter merrily set down; or a very pleasant thing indeed, and sung lamentably
-Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale IV. iv. 189-92.
In the summer of 1989 I discovered a record which affected me more deeply and lastingly than any other. The inscrutably titled A Bell is a Cup Until it is Struck seemed a record of contrasts, at the same time intellectual and trippy, political and mysterious, quirky and angry. The group responsible rejoiced in the austere name of Wire. If their approach to music at first seemed brutal, their lyrics were enticingly cryptic and refreshingly cliché-free. Over the following years, as I acquainted myself with Wire's previous and subsequent recordings, I became increasingly excited by the group's rigorous and innovative approach to the creation of both words and sound.
Wire were formed in London in 1976. After some early line-up changes which resulted in the departure of the hot-headed George Gill (the band's original frontman), a final line-up emerged which consisted of Colin Newman (vocals, guitar), Graham Lewis (bass), Bruce Gilbert (guitar) and Robert Gotobed (drums). Although the members of the group have emphasised the necessity constantly to take on new creative roles, this division of musical labour persisted with only minor variations throughout the band's life. The demise of the group in 1993 was barely noticed by the music press. Around this time there was a brief revival of interest in Wire among British independent bands, some of whom closely mimicked the sounds and structures of the early records. Recent rock critics, however, have often dismissed the group as art-school elitists who disappeared up their own backsides during the 1980s. Yet the public interest in Wire (and their numerous current projects) remains strong for many. Their enduring appeal for other musicians is attested by the release, in 1996, of the deliciously diverse tribute album Whore. As the contributions on that record suggest, Wire are still influential and inspiring. And they remain, in the opinion of many enthusiasts, the most underrated musical and poetic artists of their time.
Two books about Wire exist: Kevin S. Eden's Everybody Loves a History and Alessandro Libutti's Exploded Views. Written in Italian with a highly dubious English translation, Libutti's book contains some basic biography (mostly culled from Eden), some revealing interviews with the four band members, and some well-intentioned, but ill-judged translations of Wire lyrics into Italian. Kevin Eden's illuminating biography (mainly comprising interview material) appeared in Serious Art Form publications in 1991. There is therefore hardly any need, at the moment, for another Wire biography. Despite drawing liberally from Eden's work for background information, this article offers only a critical commentary on Wire's songs. My aim is not so much to discuss what the various members of Wire think about their music, but to introduce Wire to a wider audience and to try to assess the achievements, with the benefit of several years' hindsight, of Britain's most compelling and innovative band.
This article risks hyperbole and solipsism. Although it is a labour of love, championing one's heroes is always dangerous. One is particularly nervous when writing about Wire, whose members have often made plain their distaste for criticism which seeks to foreclose interpretation of their work, or which attaches too great an importance to its meaning. Yet Wire's admirable determination to avoid being pigeonholed by others has allowed too many commentators to dismiss the group as aloof, pretentious or ludicrous. Such treatment is unfair. Like them or not, Wire deserve serious consideration from anyone interested in modern music. No matter how open-ended and playful their songs were, they created music of formidable range and beauty, which addressed powerfully and humorously social absurdities and political issues. My intention here is to offer a personal view of Wire, exploring the uniqueness of their art without reducing the meaning of the songs to simplistic statements or detracting from the magic of the music.
My discussion of Wire's output falls into three sections. The first deals with the period between 1977 and the band's first separation in 1980. The second considers Wire's output as an independent four-piece band in the mid to late 1980s, after what the Wire faithful call the 'reunion' or, with pseudo-religious zeal, the 'reformation'. The music from this period poses particular problems for discussion, since many tracks exist in several versions; where possible, I have discussed these in the order in which they were first recorded. The final section discusses the period after 1990, the date which effectively marks the end of Wire's 'beat-combo' phase and the beginning of their continuing experimentation with new technology. Pleasant as the task would be, I have not dared to cover all of the projects which the members of Wire have been involved in over the years, especially since the band's final album-length recording in 1991. Nor do I discuss the many performances and exhibitions staged by Wire and their numerous collaborators. In this sense, this article describes only a part of the Wire story. Those seeking a wider view of the group's collective and solo activities are directed to Eden's biography.
One final caveat: rock journalists and writers are often better able to discuss the words of a song than its music. Wire's heavy reliance on words in much of their work makes criticism of the band both easier and more troublesome. Some of modern music's shrewdest practitioners and theorisers, such as Brian Eno and Colin Newman himself, have rightly warned that the meaning of a song is seldom vested in its lyrics. Indeed, both Eno and Newman long ago abandoned the song format in their own work (the latter now provocatively declares that "all the songs have been written"). By 1981 Newman had already produced a purely instrumental record that is utterly compelling (the ironically-titled The Singing Fish). Even Newman's two brilliant albums of songs—A-Z (1980) and Not To (1982)—both rely far less on lyrics than anything in Wire's extensive canon.
Nevertheless, some kinds of song depend on verbal meaning more than others. It is, in the words of an early Wire track, a question of degree. By balancing his verbal pyrotechnics with political and social insights, Graham Lewis, in particular, created exciting and thought-provoking songs, and continues to do so in his several solo projects, including He Said and H.A.L.O. Lewis's literary leanings have never compromised his music. And while the power of much of the recent instrumental music by Colin Newman or Bruce Gilbert cannot be denied, the importance of lyrics in most of Wire's work is reflected in Lewis's remark, circa 1991, that "it's not rock and roll, it's poetry".
I. Practice Makes Perfect: 1977-1980
Even during their formative years, Wire possessed an artistic maturity which set them apart from most other English bands of the period. The Jam and The Clash often seem crude and adolescent by comparison. Neither of those bands was able to develop in a positive direction, nor has much of their music stood the test of time. Wire were anxious to avoid the mistakes of such groups. Their combination of twisted musical idioms and their eccentric method of lyric-writing, pioneered chiefly by Graham Lewis, promised an experimental development and guaranteed the songs a rather longer shelf-life.
Although Wire never considered themselves part of any particular musical scene, their first album Pink Flag (1977) contains a riot of low-tech songs about politics (Pink Flag), the media (Reuters, Field Day for the Sundays), love (Feeling Called Love) and sex (12XU)—the major concerns of punk music. The twenty songs on the record are too short and fast, however, to be placed confidently within the punk genre, and are better seen as mangled sixties classics. Perhaps this reflects the ages of the band members (Gilbert was already over 30, the others in their mid-twenties). Most of the songs, while not without interest, are too insubstantial to break new ground. Despite their remarkable pace, Surgeon's Girl and Brazil are little more than enjoyable sketches. Rather, it is Strange—which evokes a generalised sense of menace—and the much-covered 12XU (the album's defining song) that set the ambiguous and disturbing tone characteristic of Wire's later work.
Released in 1978, Chairs Missing is Wire's second album. The title, a popular euphemism for a condition of mental impairment ("he's got a few chairs missing"), is telling. More than anything on the no-nonsense debut album, the record's opening track, Practice Makes Perfect, announces that Wire are a few notes short of an octave. The pace has slowed down considerably, and the general atmosphere is disturbing rather than openly aggressive. Although the inclusion of tracks like Sand in my Joints and Too Late show that Wire had not abandoned the formulae of their first album, the band were interested in doing something different this time. New structures and rhythms emerge, especially on Practice Makes Perfect and Being Sucked in Again (a beautiful version of this song, by Polar Bear, features on the tribute album Whore). Even where the music is simple (Former Airline), the sound is crazily jarring. Particularly outstanding is French Film Blurred which moves from neurotic narrative into a harmonically glorious yet obscurely mournful chorus. Such emotional inclusiveness is barely detectable on the debut album.
Chairs Missing's two classic insect-related songs, Outdoor Miner and I am the Fly, were justly selected as singles. The first grew out of Lewis's fascination with a particular kind of insect, the serpentine miner. As such the song marries a pristine pop sound and the kind of weird lyric that would have appealed to Syd Barrett. While Barrett was a poetic blunderbuss, however, Wire always remain in perfect control of their madness. I am the Fly, with its unforgettable staccato rhythm, questions the punky petulance of 1977 which had, in the space of a year, become irrelevant and commodified, a mere excess of attitude: "I can spread/More disease/Than the fleas/Which nibble away/At your window display". Quirkier than anything on Pink Flag, the song, like so many of the tracks on Chairs Missing, points forward to Wire's later experiments in rhythm and irony. 154 (1979) is the final album of the first period. As on Chairs Missing, the song titles of 154 are more abstract than those on Pink Flag: A Touching Display and On Returning, like A Question of Degree, suggest distance and irony. The Other Window, which tells of a man averting his gaze from a dying horse, is one of the few Wire songs containing anything like a linear narrative and attests to the group's ever-present concern with the universe of cruelty. As Blessed State has it, "Oh what a pearl, what a well-made world".
The Kafkaesque Indirect Enquires, versions of which appear on both 154 and on Wire's first recording for the Peel Sessions, is more typical Wire territory. The song shows how little the band were concerned with telling stories at this time. The confusing narrative style of Indirect Enquiries mirrors its subject matter, which describes a fruitless attempt to locate a person in London. The song evokes the paranoia of city life and anticipates the anxious anonymity of the information age. Many of the lyrics are impenetrable, resembling nothing so much as the clues to a crossword puzzle. "Lying prone, hiding in a column/Between Sale and ZDRK/Sky, sand and moorland/Shepherd's delight" says Newman, apparently referring to the sequence of letters and colours which emerge when the four London telephone directories are stacked in a certain order. Indeed, even when they are very specific, the meanings conveyed by Wire lyrics are seldom readily accessible. Fortunately, however, Indirect Enquiries works very well as a slice of metropolitan menace even without an understanding of the specific references to telephone boxes and directories.
Wire's final releases in the 1970s are an excellent John Peel session and the live recording Document and Eyewitness (more material from this period can be found on the 1996 curiosity Turns and Strokes), recorded at Notre Dame Hall in 1979 and The Electric Ballroom in 1980. CD buyers also got two studio tracks—Our Swimmer and Midnight Banhof Cafe—which are classics of minimalist guitar crunching. The latter song looks back to French Film Blurred, using the simple but effective technique of alternating up-beat pop hooks with gloomier minor-key verses.
The songs from Notre Dame Hall possess an astonishing raw energy. Ally in Exile is as tense as its title and Witness to the Fact thrills with its weird chord progression. Go Ahead gives the unvarnished truth about Wire's increasingly strained relationship with EMI. "We thought of ourselves as geniuses", recalls Newman. Unfortunately, Wire were considered eccentric untouchables by their paymasters. This belief gap between band and label is most apparent in Electric Ballroom tracks such as the protracted, patience-testing 5/10—not without charm to die-hard Wire fans, but a decidedly uncommercial sprawl to unsympathetic ears. The hostility of the Electric Ballroom audience was matched only by the revulsion of the record executives. Perhaps these reactions were justified: the lack of discipline and structure in the Electric Ballroom tracks explains why few of these songs impress like those on Newman's contemporaneous solo effort A-Z. Nevertheless, Wire, in typical style, had done their own thing, regardless of the consequences.
II. Brueghel's Cut Corners: 1985-1989
The early 1980s were a busy time for the members of Wire. Newman had recorded A-Z, The Singing Fish and Not To, produced records and traveled in India. Gilbert and Lewis, meanwhile, had recorded and performed numerous projects under various monikers. The Dome records were followed by Duet Emmo's Or so it Seems, and the near-legendary P'o album Whilst Climbing Thieves Vie for Attention. In 1985, after Newman's painful return from India (his first marriage had failed and he had hepatitis), Wire came together again to embark on the second phase of their career. The reunion was far from harmonious, however, as Wire struggled to find a new group sound under the burden of critical expectation carried over from their first period.
The first product of this difficult time is the four-track Snakedrill, on the Mute label. Musically speaking, little of Wire's previous work prepares the listener for this record. Wire never cared to overwhelm the listener with power chords or sheer volume, and the 1980s musical ethic is sparser than ever. Guitar strumming is generally abandoned in favour of Gilbert's minimalist picking (a distinguishing feature of Wire's late '80s guitar texture). But the real secret of Wire's new sound lay in what was omitted rather than what was added. Gone are the grating low-fi noises and crashes which haunted Chairs Missing and 154. Gone too are the cymbals, which Gotobed discarded as irrelevant.
Snakedrill was the re-formed Wire's first recording. Whatever problems existed within the re-formed group, musically Wire were quickly finding their feet. The fabulous A Serious of Snakes experiments with sparse musical textures from a stripped-down instrumental palate. Influenced in part by cinematic techniques, Lewis was experimenting with textual cutting, combining the darkness of Kubrick with the sharpness of Roeg (Bad Timing is one of Lewis's avowed influences). Aggressiveness and restraint are kept in fine balance. The lyrics of A Serious of Snakes are fragmentary, and at once casual, arcane and threatening. The chorus, for example, consists of some idiosyncratic terms of abuse, such as 'tulip', which in medieval iconography carries connotations of stupidity and folly. The music, meanwhile, has a grooviness that is absent in Wire's earlier records. In the original version of Drill, like the many subsequent versions of the song, the emphasis is on rhythm, texture and sound rather than melodic surprises. As a result, the track seems rather skeletal in comparison with A Serious of Snakes and the charming Advantage in Height, which follows it. Nevertheless, it is an interesting musical experiment which resulted, several years later, in The Drill album.
1987 saw the release of eight new songs, recorded at the Hansa studios in Berlin, under the title The Ideal Copy. Regarded by many as Wire's finest and most representative piece of work, a sense of nervousness pervades this record, from the edgy minor chords of Point of Collapse to the twitching textures of Still Shows and the suitably schizophrenic atmosphere of the 'cold war' song Over Theirs. Despite this, the record remains accessible. An insistent synth motif makes Ahead possibly the first Wire song to achieve anthemic status, although Wire shun the pomposity and banality of the average stadium band. This is ice-cool pop laced with sexual outrage and political indignation: "Someone is taking you, someone has taken me". Musically, Madman's Honey recalls the accessible and quirky pop of Outdoor Miner, but it is an altogether more referential piece. The dreamy chorus, which is about the experience of becoming mad, invokes the medieval image of Fortune's Wheel, whose capricious rotations determine the changing fates of human beings: "How does it feel/With one turn of the wheel/You reach the living end?". There are still more esoteric references in the song. "Master cut the stone out,/My name is Lubbert Das" is a translation of the inscription above Hieronymus Bosch's The Stone Operation (alternatively titled The Cure of Folly) which depicts a surgeon removing an object (apparently a tulip rather than a stone) from a patient's head. This entirely fictional operation was performed by medieval quacks as a cure for madness. Indeed, Bosch's painting is an elucidation of human gullibility (in medieval Dutch literature, the name 'Lubbert' designates persons of unusual stupidity). It is not too far-fetched to regard the painting as a metaphor for Wire's artistic program, insofar as Wire's canvases depict the folly of society. Like Bosch, Wire are concerned less with individual foibles than with moral and symbolic types, from hedonistic yuppies to the homeless.
Such an interpretation of Wire's 'message' may not find favour with everyone, especially those (such as Newman himself) who have expressed impatience at our culture's obsession with meaning. Again, it is worth remembering that the meanings of Wire songs are seldom fixed. Ambitious evokes numerous sexual and political scenarios. The chorus of Still Shows, meanwhile, compounds ambiguous phrases to create a sense of cultural confusion: Cutting the rabbit/Pressing skin/Selecting gear/Tearing about. Does this song describe the exotic life of an Eskimo (as the musical style suggests) or the chaotic daily schedule of a Western businessman? Or could it refer to drug-taking? The interpretations multiply. Nevertheless, Wire, like the moral painters of the Renaissance, keep the focus on the idiocy of everyday life and the banality of evil. The frenetic Cheeking Tongues is a case in point. While the song conflates high and low culture ("delirious vandals struggle with metres"), it is also comments wittily on the state of the nation, from the rise of the right wing to lager louts.
Despite being more homogenous than The Ideal Copy in terms of sound (beat-combo arrangements are now largely abandoned in favour of keys), the dystopic A Bell is a Cup Until it is Struck contains some of Wire's most startling poetic work. By suggesting the discrepancy between appearances and reality, the title evokes the themes of hypocrisy and illusion which run through the Wire canon.
A Bell is a Cup... presents two faces. On the one hand, it is jokey and ironic observational satire, a kind of modern Canterbury Tales. But it is also a jeremiad for the changes in social relations and attitudes brought about by Thatcherism. Perhaps more than in any other of Wire's records, we enter a world of whispered dark threats and secret ambitions. Silk Skin Paws is an artistic tour-de-force, combining a startling chord-structure with the sorts of twisted idiom ("I check up the once-over") that had become Wire's stock-in-trade. Other elements in the song remind us of the band's background in the visual arts. "Brueghel's cut corners" which "wring out the senses" recalls the moralistic reference to Bosch's The Stone Operation in Madman's Honey. "Keep your mouth shut", meanwhile, is a translation of the inscription on another 'folly painting' by the artist Quentin Massys. These images drawn from early Renaissance folly painting constitute a central theme of Wire's output from 1986 onwards, if not their entire oeuvre: the number of fools is infinite.
The record continues with oblique observations on London life delivered in hyper-dense, bile-soaked pentameter. The hedonism of the privileged is attacked. "Crack-head mirrors licking the soiled mint", drones Newman wearily on The Queen of Ur and the King of Um, while stockbrokers become "handpicked recruits/for ghostly pursuit". The record as a whole constitutes a sustained verbal assault on the iniquities of the City. Such local references, along with its dark sense of humour and predilection for wordplay, place the record in the very British tradition of Roxy Music and Eno's early efforts. Nevertheless, Wire have always been a cosmopolitan band. Finest Drops tips its hat to the 'island monkeys', that is, the drug-wasted tourists of (the then) West Berlin (monkeys appear frequently in Renaissance folly painting, where they symbolise irrationality or foolishness). Follow the Locust, meanwhile, wonderfully describes the United States as a 'gambling museum'. Such poetic gems are patiently and lovingly arranged on layers of sounds, especially on Boiling Boy, to hypnotic effect. With this record, Wire finally establish themselves as the Zen-like masters of languorous sarcasm. Another strand of A Bell is a Cup... is its linguistic excess. The highly melodic Kidney Bingos, which in many ways defines the Wire philosophy of the late '80s, exists in three splendid recorded versions. Here the banalities of tabloid journalism are compounded to ludicrous effect. "Sparkle finds rented rings/Pretty things clipped wings", closes the second verse. The chorus—"Money spines, paper lung/Kidney bingos, organ fun"—refers to the highly newsworthy practice of selling organs for money. The flippancy of the popular press, underscored by the delightfully absurd poppiness of Wire's music, is ridiculed through a technique of relentless defamiliarisation. As all satirists know, the best way to expose inanity is to exaggerate it.
Kidney Bingos shows Wire pushing at the traditional boundaries of lyric writing and raising questions about the nature of popular music. Clearly the song criticises the insensitivity and commercialism of the tabloid press; but its language is so condensed that this message can barely be perceived without reading the words from the record sleeve. Indeed, for all its grooviness, Wire's music/poetry is among the most demanding of the 1980s. One does not have to understand what Kidney Bingos is all about, but to ignore the words is to forgo much of the richness and seriousness of the song. Wire thrive on the distance between music and words. Their art is well described by the Shakespearian passage at the head of this article: "doleful matter merrily set down; or a very pleasant thing indeed, and sung lamentably". Wire's ability to combine the serious and the playful, the ridiculous and the sublime, underpins their radicalism and informs their artistic outlook.
Public Place, the final song on the record, is a beautiful minimalist dirge. This, despite its subject matter of a pigeon picking through a pool of vomit in London's Euston station: "His last mortal remains/Reflect like a private lake/In this public place". The softness of Newman's vocal, meanwhile, makes palatable the alliterative overkill of lines such as "privet-hedge pissers in anxious alleys". Indeed, if the influence of English poetic tradition is apparent in Wire's lyrics, it is particularly the old tradition of alliterative poetry, a form of verse which stresses alliterating syllables to throw up ironic contrasts (compare "the pope of pop" in Life in the Manscape).
Also in 1988, Wire released the four-track EP Silk Skin Paws. The slightly speeded-up remix of the title track here is superior to the rather tinny album version, while the rabid German Shepherds is another Wire masterpiece. Despite Kevin Eden's view that the Peel Sessions version of German Shepherds (released on Coatings in 1997) "clearly puts to shame" the other two versions of the song, it could be argued that the version on the Silk Skin Paws single is the finer. Here both the music and the sound is cleaner, while the long continuation of the sibilant sound at the end of the line "In that kind of rain where an umbrella's no use" eerily conveys the sound of rain, enhancing the sinister tone of the piece. The technique of interspersing a spoken counterpoint to the singing voice, meanwhile, opens up new possibilities in irony.
The remix of Ambitious shows that Wire could still produce glorious pop music. Gilbert's restrained guitar playing here is utterly entrancing, as it rotates a strictly limited range of rhythms and notes. The rerecording of Come Back In Two Halves is similar in effect. More laid-back than the version on A Bell is a Cup..., it reveals a group in total control of its art. Wire's next record, IBTABA (It's Beginning To And Back Again), was released in 1989. Based on live performances which were then overdubbed, or rather rebuilt in the studio, the record attests to the group's refusal to swallow the concept of a definitive or 'final' version of any song. There is a rawer, enervating version of Public Place, an unbalanced-sounding Finest Drops, and a somewhat threadbare but mesmerizing German Shepherds. The playful single Eardrum Buzz moves into new territory, however. Among the shifting meanings of the song, ideas about instinct and skill predominate: "Marco Polo has lost his way/The Louisville Lip has nothing to say". There is less semantic direction here than in many of the songs on A Bell is a Cup..., and the listener can allow ideas to drift on the rolling waves of an insistent chord structure. Some real rhythmic surprises are provided by Illuminated and In Vivo, the 12" version of which is vastly superior to the album version. Here the poetry is as perplexing as ever. How is one to know, without reading Eden's book, that the line "The chemical repeater saved the elephant's life" refers to the fact that the use of heavy polymers to make billiard balls rendered elephant culling unnecessary? The liberal's charge of 'elitism' is not far away, although Wire themselves would be the first to insist that the listener may take what s/he likes from such a song and that there is no need to understand the words. Indeed, as far as In Vivo is concerned, one could be forgiven for concentrating only on the delicious rhythms, the judicious use of overdubs and the exciting counterpoint of bass and drums.
III. It Continues: 1990-1991
In terms of theme, Wire's records between 1985 and 1991 could be said to constitute a fairly coherent body of work. It is certainly easier to make sense of any one of the records from this period if one is familiar with the others. Despite this, technological advances make 1990 a watershed in Wire's development.
Courtesy of designers Neville Brody and Jon Wozencroft, Manscape boasts the most striking piece of artwork on any Wire product, a phallic monument in the centre of a public place, the symbolic landmark of a world of chancers and climbers. Polar Bear's Eric Avery astutely observes the 'genderless' quality of Wire's music. Nevertheless, the world which Wire describe is primarily a male one. As the journalese refrain of Morning Bell has it, "the cages are full again boys/the pages are full again boys". Massively overdubbed, Manscape offers the familiar Wire trademarks of sarcasm and near-inscrutable lyrics. What is strikingly developed on this record, however, is the musical approach. The shift to a much greater use of computer technology leads to tracks consisting of a patchwork of musical melodies and motifs which often cycle over one another. Critical agreement on the record is hard to find, and while many of the Wire faithful have grown to love this record, newcomers typically find it overblown and inaccessible.
The anthemic Life in the Manscape demonstrates Newman's gift for intonation; the whispered delivery of lines like "The pope of pop drives a church of steel" has a breathtaking intensity. The band's arsenal of poetic devices even includes chiasmus (the rhetorical technique of 'crossing over'), as in: "you feel what you pay for/and you pay what you feel". No wonder Wire request: "silence please, poets at work". In view of Manscape's negative view of much popular music ("the third-rate butcher's dance-hall mix"), Life in the Manscape shows surprising optimism about the role of the popular media in the new Europe of the former eastern bloc. The chorus, "free speech and more TV" sounds vaguely ironic, but is in fact the group's last word on their hopes for Eastern Europe. In the same vein, Stampede captures the public confusion and hope following the collapse of the East German regime in 1989. "Take the Trabant to Brabant/Find security", Wire advise.
It would be a mistake, however, to see Manscape as anything other than a bitter assault on the darker aspects of life in Britain. Small Black Reptile, Torch It! and Morning Bell attack the culture of greed with mockery, fury, and pathos respectively, while Sixth Sense exaggerates the cocksure codes of the personal columns ("Edible hunter seeks credible victim/Sincerely rich seeks sceptical poor"...) to hilarious but also moving effect. Even apparently trivial and everyday activities are invested with darker meanings. Thus the editing techniques described in Patterns of Behaviour are associated with danger and death: "Erase then cut and paste/From here to another place".
The record ends with the unusual You Hung Your Lights in the Trees/A Craftman's Touch, another doomy anti-Thatcherite anthem concerning the temptations of greed and the cowardice and loss of identity which results from them. "My portrait casts its skin", observes Newman; "mile after yellow mile on the wall/thin layers, oily traces". It could be said that the song, along with the petulant Goodbye Ploy, aspires to a new level of bitterness. But this is to overlook the song's more balanced view of the relationship between sin and sinner. If Wire were traditionally concerned with attacking social climbers, here there is also a sense of sympathy for "those who could not flee", those poor people (never ourselves) who are led astray by the glitter of consumer society. Indeed, this is one of the few Wire tracks to mix moral condemnation with a sense of resignation and pity. Although recorded at the time of Manscape, Who Has Nine?, Gravity Worship and It Can't Be True Can It? were all unavailable in the UK until the release of Coatings in 1997. The last song, in particular, shows that Wire had lost none of their sense of humour. The observations resemble those of Goodbye Ploy. "Bar-room warriors work up a thirst", while others are "restlessly picking the pockets of angels". The eponymous chorus is insanely catchy, yet strangely dark. As a whole, the track makes for glorious but slightly edgy pop. Listening to such songs, one feels that a slightly less stubborn or ironic Wire might actually have become popular. If Manscape provided Wire's followers with some overdue new material, another 1990 release shows Wire meditating again on the concept of the 'version'. Throughout the 1980s Drill had been refashioned many times in a live context, and appears on several Wire releases, including the Kidney Bingos single. Clearly, the song, with its chorus "we're milling through the grinder/grinding through the mill/if this is not an exercise/could it be a drill?", had become a Wire trademark. Released in 1990, The Drill comprises several techno-boosted variations on the track. The recycling of the song in various guises is entrancing. 'Drilling' becomes a metaphor for all human activity, with social, artistic, and sexual dimensions. As Bruce Gilbert has said, "there can never be enough drill in the world".
The record has an extraordinary thematic clarity and stylistic coherence, rather like Kraftwerk's Computer World. The opening track, In Every City, is particularly beautiful, as is the 7" edit of the song. Equally powerful are the more leisurely What's Your Desire? and Do You Drive? (Turn Your Coat) in which Newman asks a catalogue of questions in mantra-like fashion. Lyrically, the record is a kind of confessor's handbook for the mercenary 1990s. The words of all the tracks on The Drill elaborate those of the original song, creating a sense of relentless moral interrogation: "What's your price?/what do you cost?/your value, profit or loss?". Or how about: "What's your promise/what's your pledge/do you dive in or cling to the edge?". Wire are as demanding as ever.
In 1991 Robert Gotobed left Wire. Like their Mute labelmates Depeche Mode and Nitzer Ebb, the group had become more overtly machine-driven. As the band relied more and more heavily on digital technology to generate their rhythms, Gotobed felt increasingly marginalised. A man whose primary interest was live drumming now found himself in a band abandoning the drumkit. What the remaining trio may have lacked in tact they made up for in humour. In a move that surely did little to endear them either to the public or to record distributors, they dropped the e from Wire and turned its initial W into a 3. 3ir (more usually Wir, pronounced 'veer' or 'Wire') was born. The much underrated The First Letter is the trio's first and final album. If the prevailing genre is now 'techno', Wire's concerns remain those of A Bell is a Cup... "Target-rich our techno trade" opines Newman on Tailor Made. As an anti-stockmarket song, meanwhile, footsi-footsi looks back to The Queen of Ur and the King of Um. There is a sense in which Wire could go no further in their condemnation of the world around them, as the poetry of violence collapses into more prosaic threats: "you've got a cat, and I've got a dog that climbs trees".
Nevertheless, the conceptual and textural innovations on the album are numerous. Particularly outstanding is Looking At Me (Stop!), which combines surreal lyrics and what amounts to a kind of rap at the end of the song. Elsewhere the main concern is with words rather than music, especially the slowbuild up at the start of A Bargain At 3 and 20 and the poetic piece Naked, Whooping and Such-Like. Ticking Mouth and No Cows On The Ice, meanwhile, are beautifully brittle songs about desperation and failure. If the philosopher Colin Wilson still holds that "pessimistic art is a contradiction in terms", he has obviously never listened to The First Letter.
At this point, however, it may seem that Wire are chronic depressives capable of presenting only the negative side of life; but this ignores their playfulness and humour and the range of emotions they are capable of engaging, even at their most cynical. On The First Letter, there is occasionally just a glimmer of optimism and tenderness. Thus Newman ends Tailor Made "searching for the truth". And could mutability motif in the refrain of Slow and Slow It Grows—"it's just for now"—be interpreted as a fond farewell to the group's former timekeeper?
Wire remain important partly because the social and political themes of their songs are still pressing. The opportunism of many in the professional classes, their clamour for property, the witless cynicism of the mass media, and, not least, the gap between rich and poor, are still evident in British society. Unlike coeval 'political' rock groups such as the Gang of Four, The Mekons or The Manic Street Preachers, Wire have never explicitly endorsed a particular political system; nevertheless, their music can often be understood as an imaginative response to the corrosive social effects of capitalism. This is not to say that Wire, like the groups just mentioned, are politically leftwing; their satire springs from the simple recognition that the world is often a bad and dangerous place which rewards, as Morning Bell has it, "the creep before the deep".
Of course, no responsible critical assessment can reduce Wire's achievement to their contribution to politics or satire. Their creativity has always consisted in a willingness to take risks in working towards new forms of expression. Talking Heads, The Cure and other important new wave bands of the '70s and '80s produced several stunning records each with their own unique atmosphere and sound. Similarly, Wire showed a constant ability to make groundbreaking records in rapidly changing technological and artistic environments. And the revolution continues. In their many recent solo and collaborative projects the music and words produced by the members of Wire are as uncompromising and rewarding as ever.
Stephen Harper, 1998