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speakerpic flag England - Full Moon 154 - 04/09/09

Speakers' corner
Wire's 154th

Following up our retroscope series of 2006 and 2007 - here's the New Speakers' corner! Luna Kafé's focused eye on great events, fantastic happenings, absolute milestones, or other curious incidents from the historic shelves/vaults of rock. This moonth's article focus on a 30 year old classic and a very special favourite of mine. Another one. But, hey, 154 was released in September 1979 -- why do a piece on it now, in early April? Simple: 154 was given it's title because this was the the number of gigs the band had played up to that point. And, since this is our 154th issue of Luna Kafé...



Sagres, Portugal, 1986. Wire's 154 was one of a few tapes brought along to make the soundtrack for the inter-rail trip of the summer of 1986. Leading to Sagres, via a short stop in Paris (after an all wet Roskilde Festival, Denmark). And then to England, via Lille. This was the summer of the 'Festival Of The Tenth Summer' at GMEX, in Manchester, July 19th - the 10th anniversary of the year punk broke. (The festival was organised by Factory Records - it has even got its own catalogue number, FAC 151!) Which brought me to see the Smiths -- and turned me into a huge fan of theirs. And John Cale -- a God himself. And New Order -- well, they happened to be a bunch of boring farts. But, back to Sagres, and Wire. The heat, and 154. Maybe it was the Portuguese heat in combination with Wire's ice-cool, almost arrogantly cool sound and music. And some shots of Absinthe.

Wire's third album 154 is a masterpiece, no doubt. In fact it's a piece of art. From the careful stomp of the opening "I Should Have Known Better", a long time favourite album opener, to the evenly soothing closer "40 Versions", the album shows a nerve rarely found in rock. Wire demonstrate magic and mysticism, arrogance and aggression (with a soft touch). Even though there are rough guitars, rhythms and vocals, they have a softer, more intricate side found in their song writing and performance. I guess Wire was the first 'post-rock' band around, years ahead of its own genre tag. Art-school gang Colin Newman (vocals, guitar), Bruce Gilbert (guitar, voice) and Graham Lewis (vocals, bass) shared the song-writing, while drummer Robert Gotobed (!) added simple, yet remarkable and different drum patterns. Minimal input, maximal effect. Another important person was producer Mike Thorne, who also produced Pink Flag and Chairs Missing, making this a smashing trilogy. Thorne makes also a perfect garnish with his keyboards and synths. His discret parts simply helps lifting everything to another level. There are a few guest contributors on the album, and the most curious addition to 154 must be the bass voice of Hilly Kristal, owner of CBGB's, New York City.

While listening to 154 I got this feeling that some of the songs, with their lyrics, of course, could've been short films, like "I Should Have Known Better", "The Other Window", "On Returning", "A Mutual Friend", "Indirect Enquiries", and "Map Ref. 41°N 93°W". And, speaking of the latter, the album's curious single choice, with the mystic title and its strange lyrical content: Is the story true, that EMI wasn't very keen on spending money on ads in the music papers promoting this single? The story behind the song came to life during Wire's first visit to the USA in 1978: Bruce Gilbert got some of the idea on a daytime flight with perfect visibility, between the Rocky Mountains and the plains of the Mid-West (the map.ref. is the very centre of the Mid-West - there's even a place called Centreville nearby!), he's once told. The former geography student and map enthusiast had the most magnificent overview of the epic, visual 2D landscapes. Some months later he had a similar experience while travelling by road in Holland. And, there's a song for you. But maybe not a hit type wanted by EMI. That said, Wire wasn't a band for the masses. Or, for EMI in the first place.

Contemporary experimentalists/innovators from the British post-punk/new wave scene of 1979, such as Joy Division, Magazine, the Stranglers, The Fall, PiL, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Gang of Four, the Vibrators.... well, if you're asking me they're all sidelined (with the exception of Joy Division's exceptional debut, Unknown Pleasures, in June 1979 -- check a later moon for more. And, Magazine's Secondhand Daylight is a more than decent runners-up) by Wire. Yes, another detail: When the LP was released in September 1979 the first editions of the vinyl album had a 4-song (one track written/co-written and produced by each member of the band) EP included, with quite experimental content. These tracks were later included on the 1994 CD issue (Harvest), but the remastered 2006 release by Pinkflag does not contain any extras. Simply because, according to the band, such additions dishonour the "conceptual clarity of the original statements." I couldn't agree more. I only played the 1994 CD once, since the extras disturbed the album's balance and atmosphere.

Yes, because 154 is conceptual. The entire construction of the record, the editing of the album, the number of the songs is genius. The songs themselves are brilliant. It's so good as a whole (13 songs) it's hard to pick favourites. It's even harder to spot weaker parts, since there aren't any. Anyway, I've mentioned the opening "I Should Have Known Better" (by Lewis) as a fave, as is "A Mutual Friend" (Lewis/Newman), "The 15th" (Newman), "Two People in a Room" (Newman/Gilbert), "Blessed State" (Gilbert), "Map Ref. 41°N 93°W" (Lewis/Newman/Gilbert), and "40 Versions" (Gilbert). Last but not least, the amazing "On Returning" (Lewis/Newman).

My feeling is that 154 can be summed up with a few line from the lyrics to "On Returning" and a few lines (edit) taken from "40 Versions". Wire's universe is set in a future dream. Both a scary and pleasant one at the same time. This is art-pop, if not noise-pop-art.

"I never know which version I'm going to be, I seem to have so many choices open to me.
I've got forty versions all dying to get the part, and so with a change of mind comes a change of heart.
I never know which version I'm going to be, I get the feeling my mind is deceiving me."
("40 Versions")

"An evening of fun in the metropolis of your dream. An evening of fun in the metropolis of your dream. An evening of fun in the metropolis of your dream..." ("On Returning")

Copyright © 2009 Håvard Oppøyen e-mail address

You may also want to check out our Wire articles/reviews: Nocturnal Koreans, Wire.

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