Graded on a Curve:
Chairs Missing

Celebrating Colin Newman, born on this day in 1954.Ed.

While the punk genre has its share of great albums, and the same can surely be said for the refinements, expansions, and disruptions in post-punk’s playground, the list of those having excelled at both is short indeed. If any outfit makes the cut, it’s Wire. Having delivered the UK class of ’77 a cornerstone LP, their next two full-lengths helped to define the sound of post-punk; they remain amongst the finest records the styles ever produced. Out now through the band’s label Pinkflag are special edition CD books of all three, 80 pages each and sized like 45s, featuring text by Jon Savage and Graham Duff plus additional tracks. Here’s our look at 1978’s Chairs Missing.

The enduring stream of adulation awarded to Wire’s debut Pink Flag can mask the fact that the esteem wasn’t instantaneous. As the printed observations in these CD books helps to clarify, the band was strikingly distinctive as part of the whole ’77 punk shebang, as they garnered a pocket of fervent advocates, including then Sounds writers Jon Savage and Jane Suck, but overall, Wire existed as just one outfit amongst many, and this lack of a microscope of expectation surely allowed for creativity to flourish without the hinderance of unnecessary pressures.

If somewhat ambivalent to the punk tag at the time and in retrospect, it’s pretty apparent now that Wire benefited from their emergence in connection to the sheer tumult of the time. Just as importantly, they weren’t anointed the saviors of its essence, the crucial destabilizers of convention, or the inevitable deliverers of what comes next.

Simply put, making rock music is hard. Making rock music that will produce an immediate audience reaction (and critical response) is harder. And making rock music under outsized expectations has been the end, literal and figurative, of many a band, resulting either in breakups or a nosedive in quality. At the very least, the avalanche of attention will irrevocably change the music.

To quote Colin Newman from this CD book’s text regarding the making of Chairs Missing: “I remember being so excited to just go into the studio. This is the point in Wire when we were the most united as a band.” Absorbing this record’s 15 tracks for the umpteenth time with this statement and Graham Duff’s making-of essay in mind, what once struck me as the sheer brilliance of innovation is now augmented with an aura of relative ease in the act of creation.

Not to give the impression that there wasn’t a number of ears eagerly awaiting Wire’s next move. When Chairs Missing arrived, some listeners, as represented by a portion of the press reaction, were underwhelmed or betrayed by the introduction of keyboards, synths, and early analogue sequencer, a curious reaction given all that’s happened since (both in Wire’s history and post-punk in general). The New Musical Express’ assessment of the record was that it suffered from Pink Floyd-ism.

Try to catapult yourself back to the era, and it can be easier to understand that many who’d been struck by Pink Flag’s unique spin on the punk style had expected them to become more aggressively thrashy in the fallout that was 1978. Instead, their refusal of orthodoxy and the forging of their own path rubbed some the wrong way. I’m not saying I agree (no way), just that this response is comprehensible.

In 2018, Chairs Missing is an essential post-punk document: if you love the style, you either already have it or you need it, and this edition, with its 31-track bonus disc, digestibly informative text, and sharp design (plus more of Annette Green’s terrific photos, often in color) make it a smart purchase, even if you (like me) have largely curbed the acquisition of CDs. Hey, it can be filed with the 7-inches, and in fact would sit very nicely next to the Nine Sevens box from earlier this year.

If you missed or passed on that limited Record Store Day item, a large portion of its contents are here, and they make a strong case for Wire as an underrated singles band, and I’m not just talking about the smoothly unusual excellence of “Outdoor Miner.” No, on disc two, there’s the non-LP 45 “Dot Dash” b/w Options R” (offered in its original form and from the band’s fifth demo), and I agree with Duff’s observation that the A-side’s sheer catchiness not impacting the charts is hard to fathom.

That “I Am the Fly” didn’t chalk up large sales isn’t surprising, but its wonderfully strange plunge into the subversive remains a powerful wedding of form and content, and it aids in carrying forth the outsider spirit introduced on the first LP. If Chairs Missing registers as unstressed in its making, that doesn’t mean its relaxed in attitude, with opener “Practice Makes Perfect” (the flipside to the “Outdoor Miner” single) suffused with structural tension that gradually gets partially released through Newman’s increasingly unhinged vocal; the music doesn’t waver, and the echoey clouds of backing voices connect as mocking.

Ties to punk are still very much extant, e.g. “Men 2nd” and especially the ripping “Sand in My Joints,” but more often, there’s a retention of the genre’s attitude combined with an expanded but still rough approach, as exemplified by “Being Sucked in Again” (which has always sounded buoyantly robotic to me), the big riffs and rhythmic bash of “From the Nursery,” and the crunchy and keyboard-spiked glide of finale “Too Late.”

However, the LP is more noted for its abundance of slower tempos, more nuanced textures and subtler moods and themes (lyrics being one of Wire’s consistent strongpoints). Tracks such as “French Film Blurred,” with its nimble build-up, “Marooned,” with its enveloping drift, “Heartbeat,” with its engaging refusal to fully satisfy expectations, and “Used To,” with it’s organic minimalism and shades of art-pop, don’t have direct ties to precedent, besides Eno maybe, with the use of synths and keys (played by producer Mike Thorne) well-integrated and decidedly non-pop-inclined.

At 1:08, “Another the Letter” is one of a handful of tracks retaining the band’s adeptness at working in miniature, though its rhythmic precision, stabs of guitar and swirls of Oberheim sequencer make it something quite different. To the other extreme, side two’s adroitly shifting opener “Mercy” nearly reaches six minutes; it’s arguably Chairs Missing’s highlight, and hearing an earlier version, when it was titled “Finistaire,” is one of this set’s many pleasures.

Ditto the handful of tracks deemed as being too close to the sound of Pink Flag, which is the complimentary opposite of another Chairs Missing highlight, “I Feel Mysterious Today,” a song left off the debut, as it was considered too “next level.” It and every album cut gets at least one alternate version, really making this edition a useful illumination of the recording process. The experience is accented by the non-LP tracks, including the two versions of the terrific “Underwater Experiences,” which deepens the proper album’s recurring nautical theme.

For a long time, I’ve considered Wire’s second to be the lesser, by a very slim margin, of their first three full-lengths, largely because it was neither a sterling example of punk’s possibilities, as Pink Flag continues to be, nor an abundantly fruitful straining against post-punk’s rapidly ensconced conventions, which is 154 in a nutshell. As it helped to establish the genre’s parameters, Chairs Missing often felt like “just” an exquisite post-punk album experience, but the wealth of goodness of the bonus material here really shoots this edition into the upper echelon of quality.


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