Graded on a Curve:
Wire, 154

Most bands are fortunate to get in the ballpark of a single masterpiece during their existence, but from ’77-’79, and right out of the gate with their debut, Wire produced three in a row. In the process, they delivered a blueprint for minimalist art-punk (from which many have swiped but never bettered) while becoming one of the defining acts in the emerging genre of post-punk. Those three records are currently available from Pinkflag as CD books, each with loads of worthy bonus material and all with written contributions from Jon Savage and Graham Duff; the standalone vinyl and bookless CDs are available July 6. Today, we conclude our coverage of these releases with thoughts on 1979’s 154.

As the final studio album before Wire’s first hiatus, 154 inevitably registers as a culmination. However, if the byproduct of chances taken, repetition disdained, and unsurprisingly, friction between band members, the album’s experimentation with and extension of rock and pop form ultimately transcends the tag of post-punk, with its contents remarkably cohesive and betraying no signs of strain from creative differences.

For an outfit who stated they’d quit because of a dearth of new ideas, 154 is loaded with them. If it’s a taste of the band at the end of their tether that you desire, then the live recording Document and Eyewitness, revised and expanded in 2014, is the release to check out; fascinatingly flawed but in this writer’s view somewhat underrated, it stands as the true end of Wire’s first period.

But don’t let’s lose track of the subject at hand. 154 easily extends the brilliance established on Wire’s prior releases by unveiling another major spurt in development, though the sheer intensity of invention did them few favors. The reality of all this rapid-fire progress? Wire was simply moving too fast to cultivate their listenership, and by extension, disappointment from their label EMI was certain. Furthermore, as their sound was at odds with the general trend toward post-punk refinement (e.g. New Romanticism), the response from critics could often be indifferent, perplexed, or even hostile.

Those with a fondness for the rawer, punkier aspects of Pink Flag might disagree that 154 isn’t a polished affair, but the continued integration of keyboards and synths, if in some ways foreshadowing the sound of the band’s return to activity in ’80s, was no concession to the marketplace. Instead, it was an attempt to grow their sound in equal measure to the strides they were making as songwriters and sonic builders, again in tandem with producer Mike Thorne.

As Wire weren’t striving for obscurity, the songwriting is often foregrounded on 154. Opener “I Should Have Known Better” possesses a tangible pop undercurrent, and as pinpointed in Graham Duff’s text for this edition, nods in the direction of goth to come, mainly through the vocals of bassist Graham Lewis. Yes, reminiscent of goth but not with a capital G, because at lyrical core it’s a relationship song, though as the norm for the band, the words elude the hackneyed for the realms of the intriguing.

The intertwining guitars of Colin Newman and Bruce Gilbert, the subtle heft of Lewis’ bass, Thorne’s keyboard atmosphere, and maybe most of all Robert Grey’s deft touch with the cymbal; in terms of instrumentation the song is first-class, and the assured inventiveness doesn’t suffer even when they chose to raise some racket, as they do in “Two People in a Room,” the track somewhat predicting the controlled aggressiveness of ’80s underground rock (Duff mentions hardcore, but I think it’s a better fit with the stuff that came after, especially from Chicago).

Regarding sonic building, it’s “The Other Window,” featuring Gilbert’s recitation (his first lead vocal), Newman’s chorus backing (not the word, really), the wiggling instrumental abstraction, and the delayed entrance of Grey’s drums, that stands out. But of course, the writing of songs and the architecture of sound isn’t a swinging pendulum here; to varying degrees combined throughout the record, they are in roughly equal evidence in the superb “Single K.O.,” the song again featuring Thorne but also the atypical timbre of Kate Lucas’ flute.

Additionally, Tim Souster (a former teaching assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen) adds electric cello to the exceptionally moody and nearly seven-minute Lewis-sung “A Touching Display.” It’s matched well with the foreboding tension of “A Mutual Friend,” where the cor anglais of Joan Whiting provides temporary respite and deepens the palette. Contrasting, “On Returning” and “Blessed State” tilt towards rock; both feature Newman’s lead vocal, but the latter offers a fine ascending backing turn from Lewis.

Having debuted as a lead voice on Chairs Missing, Lewis gets three opportunities here, with the pop tendency of “Should Have Known Better” becoming more pronounced in the almost buoyant “Blessed State.” But in pop terms, 154’s highlights are “Map Ref. 41ºN 93ºW” and “The 15th,” both utter gems of advanced melodic construction. Only the former was actually released as a single; naturally, it didn’t chart.

Getting to hear earlier takes of both tunes courtesy of this loaded 3-disc edition is a treat, though neither eclipse the album versions. In agreement with Duff’s observation, this is generally the rule with the demo material, which doesn’t mean it’s disappointing. To the contrary, the real benefit of the prior versions is how they underscore a reality that over time has threatened to become something of a platitude; specifically, the breadth of Wire’s achievement in just roughly three years.

“Indirect Inquires” is perhaps the best example, with its first incarnation appearing on the bonus disc of Chairs Missing. By the time of the 6th demo for 154 (which constitutes the third disc here) the song is, along with “The Other Window,” a prime example of the band’s willingness to halt a song’s progress and return to its foundation in pursuit of a different direction. This wasn’t a constant however, as “40 Versions,” if naturally rougher and not as layered in its demo form, isn’t markedly different from what closes the album.

Except that Grey’s contribution is replaced with a rhythm track of gated noise, an unusual maneuver given the confluence of aspiration and ego that’s found in serious, artistically motivated bands. And yet not so odd, considering Wire’s modus operandi. To quote Gray: “All that concerns me really, is what works best within the song itself.” The drummer cites it as one of his favorites.

The contents of this collection’s second disc make it a splendid pickup for recent converts, corralling “A Question of Degree” b/w “Former Airline,” the B-side “Go Ahead,” both versions of the “Our Swimmer” single, the first offering the standout flipside “Midnight Bahnhof Café,” and the EP composed of the band member’s solo tracks that was tucked into the initial pressing of 154.

The non-album “A Question of Degree” 45, similar to the earlier “Dot Dash” single, doesn’t easily slot into the LPs that surround it, which only reinforces the constant forward movement. The rest of disc two finds Wire creating without the assistance of Thorne to distinct and often vibrant effect. Overall, and even more so than Chairs Missing, most everything on and surrounding 154 sounds like it could’ve been recorded last week. I base this statement on the number of times I’ve noticed folks assuming they’re hearing a new recording. In a sense, those introductory observations are exactly right.


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