WIRE, The Ideal Copy
Melody Maker, May 2nd 1987
Wire are pure luxury. Here are a bunch of superior sound technicians with an immaculate grasp of the sculptural and architectural possibilities of rock, who nonetheless refuse to deploy these gifts to any particular end.
Wire despise the uses people subject music to, detest the currency of rock discourse; driven by the desire to avoid being reduced to a synopsis, they create a vivid, blank and quite inconsequential beauty. The aim: to dazzle, rather than enlighten; build edifices, rather than edify.
Along with Verlaine's Television, Wire were one of the first instances of rock as abstract art, as an energy dislocated from any precise function or venue. Don't approach Wire looking to come away with something beyond a faint afterglow of bliss. Don't even expect to be involved; Wire music is like something that aches in the distance, something to gawp at; crenellations, cataracts, constellations, cumulus... remote splendour.
Unlike kindred spirits New Order and Saqqara Dogs, however, Wire are seldom grave enough to be a mystical experience. There is something about Colin Newman's voice, his weak Rs, that suggests facetiousness, a whimsical tongue in cheek; something compounded by the densely punning weave of the lyrics.
The Ideal Copy is not quite the resounding return we might have hoped for: it's a muted, inconclusive affair, a tentative dipping of the toe, rather than the full swim. The single, ‘Ahead’, is a blatant rip off of New Order's ‘Temptation’, blood-let and muffled and a waste of time. The title track is almost New Wave (UGH!). But, in among a preponderance of clever, clogged music, are some moments of ecstasy. ‘Feed Me’ looms like the predatory tread of a giant, echoing through some vast cavern. And ‘Madman's Honey’ pours over the ear like a cascade of nectar, shimmers like a squadron of dragonflies, is spun from the most nightingale luscious harmonies since ‘Outdoor Miner’.
On the whole, though, The Ideal Copy is a slight disappointment: Graham Lewis' recent solo LP, under the moniker He Said, was a much LOUDER and more gripping record, and it's a shame it has remained so hideously under-celebrated. ‘Mad Man's Honey’ shows that Wire are still worth having high expectations of. Buy The Ideal Copy, for this song alone.
WIRE, Pink Flag / Chairs Missing /154
Melody Maker, 1994
It's the label, Harvest, that's the giveaway; art-school punks Wire were really a psychedelic band, firmly in the lineage of twisted whimsy and nonsense noir that runs from Syd Barrett through Brian Eno's pre-ambient LPs to early Bunnymen. It just took them a little while to become what they were.
For the debut Pink Flag is very of its time, with its 1977 mock-Cockney vox and stop-start riffs. The original Flag crams 21 brief bursts of abstract fury into a mere 35 minutes (this re-ish adds a few rarities); only the deadpan absurdism of the titles – 'Ex-Lion Tamer', 'Three Girl Rhumba' – hints that these aren't rabblerousing rants but Dadaist ditties. There's a school of thought that Flag is Wire's finest moment (a few years back an American band formed just to play note-perfect versions of its songs). And certainly, at their best – '12 X U', 'Dot Dash' – Wire were playing some of the most haiku-elegant, thrillingly minimal punk this side of Buzzcocks' 'Boredom'. Elsewhere, the anorectic arrangements and stilted unsyncopated beats – which, in 1977's original context, must have seemed a refreshing renunciation of prog-rock flab and soft-rock fluency – now just make you long for some juice and raunch. Generally, the stuff that sounds best is slow rather than speedy, like the bludgeoning proto-grunge of the title track and 'Strange'.
Chairs Missing (1978) is where Wire start getting luscious, multi-textured and spacious. This is classic neo- psychedelia, its glassy textures paving the way for the likes of Joy Division, but its deadpan wit forestalling Gothic gloom. Colin Newman's feyly sung lyrics range from scenarios as vivid-yet-unintelligible as dreams, to nursery rhyme nonsense where the melt-in-your-mouth sensousness of the sound of the words is all that counts. In the first category, 'Maroooned' is like one of Eno's songs about castaways and treading-water idlers circa Before and After Science: "As the water gets warmer my iceberg gets smaller". In the voluptuous gibberish category, there's the gorgeous near-hit 'Outdoor Miner', with its honeyed harmonies and chiming Byrdsian chords skewered by lyrics like "face worker, a serpentine miner, a roof falls, an underliner, of leaf structure, the eggtimer". 'I Am The Fly' ("in the ointment") is virtually a Wire manifesto, while tracks like the Electric Prunesy 'French Film (Blurred)' and 'Being Sucked In Again' forge a whole new geometry for rock, all harsh angles and marble surfaces.
154 (1979) still has elegaic neo-psych beauties like 'The 15th' and 'Map Ref. 41'N 93'W' but is generally more bombastic and sombre, its concussive riffs and corrosively miasmic textures looking ahead to Bailter Space or even Big Black. As with other bands who came out of '77 looking to progress yet were still hidebound by punk's taboo on over-expressive virtuosity (c.f. The Cure circa Pornography), the result was a glum stodge. Perhaps the best of the bunch is 'A Touching Display', as heavy as the missing link between Joy Div and Sabbath, with a Damocles Sword of a solo. On this reissue, there's also five extra tracks of semi-ambient weird murk that looks ahead to Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis' post-Wire project Dome.
After two and a half hours of Wire, I felt a strong thirst for a dose of orgiastic self-indulgence, a 'Freebird' or 'Voodoo Chile', i.e. everything that post-punk austerity intended to banish. Still, at their best Wire created a citrus-fresh strain of streamlined, strangely arbitrary beauty that warrants the term "perfect pop". Like all "perfect pop", it seemed to hark back to an age that never existed, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the stuff that was actually selling in the charts.