Brighton, not London, calling and it's Colin Newman down the Wire
This is the first time Colin Newman has voted in a British General Election in Brighton. The rhythm guitarist, songwriter and singer for seminal UK art-punk band, Wire, and his partner moved there from South-West London a year or so ago.
“London has its charms, it’s definitely a great city. But it’s not very practical for those who live in it. London’s big problem is cross-city transport. Everything happens in the East these days and getting home via public transport after midnight is impossible so you are in a taxi for £70.00 or on the night but for 3 hours. Maybe the 24 hour tube on the weekends will help that but it’s not all lines and and it’s only two nights a week.
“In the 90’s, where we used to live in South-West London had some culture - nightclubs, record shops etc. and we had the centre in easy reach. Now all the venues are closed not only in that area but in the centre too. No record shops in SW London either..”
The vagaries of time difference, coupled with a bit of a cold, have me quietly coughing up what feels like a largish hunk of my left lung at 8pm in Australia, while Colin’s off to vote Labour in the May sunshine.
“Britain’s become much more of a battleground. We’re in a situation now where we have forces which could destroy the country, the New Right. However, I’m not a political bandwagonist, I don’t follow any particular vessel, I’m not a Red Wedgeist… Once you start putting messages in your art, the message tends to take over."
Wire - every Wire LP should be played loud, by the way - have always mixed subtlety with sensibility in their music, and, while on the one hand they always produce something which produces an instant response, repeated listens reveal layers of meaning - often those we place there ourselves. Their lyrics are often apparently elliptic, but when you get up close, they’re … brrrrr.
For example, on the new LP, simply called “Wire”. it’s bloody terrific. I’ll do you a review in a week or so, once I’ve thrashed it to death. There’s a song called “Octopus”.
Now, right away, you’re thinking, like I did, all sorts of things. Just on the title.
Now read what I hope is the chorus:
There's always someone who thinks they've got a plan
Someone with a whip in hand, who thinks they’re a man
A rescue package that will barely save the day
Even when implemented with no further delay
and the second verse:
Predictive octopods, enchanting and seductive
Even the most mundane thoughts seem quite sensuous
This installation seem to bathe us all in sound
Picking up clues from penitential saviours
Now the song is actually based on Paul the Octopus. Remember it? The octopus that accurately predicted results of games at the African World Cup. So the entire continent had their achievement sidelined by … yeah. Humanity loves the trivial, we’re like goldfish like that.
“Modern life … when there is such a popular event, modern life says it’s okay to freeload on the back of it. The dark side of that concept is Russian criminals hacking money out of your bank account,” Colin observes.
There is always a dark side to Wire, knowing in a sort of grimly amused way. One little theory which had been clunking around in my head-filled-with-virus today is that there’s a comparison to be made between Roxy Music, and Wire. So, am I on the right wavelength…?
Colin doesn’t actually say no. Doesn’t actually say yes. “There does seem to be some common cause … I mean, Ferry’s a very mannered singer, and I’m not… Before Bryan Ferry turned Roxy into his backing band, they were a combination of high art and high fashion … and that was quite threatening, because they weren’t hippies, at a time when the hippy thing was quite strong. That meant a lot, they projected a strange sexuality…”
A bit like Wire themselves, I think, but don’t say. Maybe I was right. The band seems to have, after divesting themselves of Gill, started a fairly clear trajectory. It seems as natural now for them to be releasing their 13th LP, which Colin "was convinced even before any songs were written, that it would be their most important record".
As you can see, Wire’s lyricists Newman ("Octopus" is one of his) and Graham Lewis (he’s always written most of the lyrics) are able to seize on a particular familiar thing, respond to their emotion with other ideas and … then they make it all travel somewhere else.
Take “Swallow”, or “In Manchester” (which is neither about the bedding department nor the city) or “Shifting”; they’ve all got this unique, but instantly recognisable Englishness about them. I don’t mean the Earl Grey cuppa with a slice of lemon and the pinkie extended (which is, ahem, bollocks) but you know, you’ll wonder which band you’re listening to. Oasis’ new LP? No, more like Oasis having a brawl with Can or The Fall or an early Siouxsie B-side… and of course, nothing like any of them. “Shifting”, for example, you can hear instantly there’s this sort of soul aspect to it…
Colin pounces. “Shifting is definitely a soul song as far as I’m concerned. Especially the chorus. You might not think so first listen. But after a couple of listens…”
Yeah, I need to make this clear. Even though one of their LPs, the astonishing “Send”, smacks into you like a bear emerging from a closet (that’s the cue for all you I-94 Bar hard rock heads to go get “Send” and start diminishing your hearing), Wire always bear repeat listening. A lot of repeat listening. Like the Velvet Underground (no resemblance whatsoever) you end up hearing new stuff in there over and over. Like Colin says: “It’s the subtle stuff … they weren’t sure at first, the fans on the forums,” he says, “But more and more of them keep saying how much they love it.”
Wire the LP builds like a tsunami, each song grows on you, and you’re tugged forward. By the time you reach the album’s climax, “Harpooned “… all I’ll say is that live, they absolutely wreck the joint. It’s a fucking enormous racket at the end, you can’t stop falling into the maelstrom, it’s like entering a wormhole in space or something.
Here’s the chorus to Harpooned (which they played as the last song when they were last in Australia to great delight);
I'm worried, I'm worried, there's cause for concern
I lit the touch paper and it started to burn
I'm worried, I'm worried there's cause for concern
Ignited and cornered, there's nowhere to turn
See what I mean about the Velvets? Elegant, no?
Wire make it all look so bloody easy. I mean, really. I won’t reiterate their back catalogue (but you can get it here) so I will ask: How did it all start way back in 1976..?
“Well, through a series of accidents, really. I got thrown out by my girlfriend and moved to North Watford. I was desperate to do something, and I was asked by Bruce [Gilbert, guitar] to be in a band at the end of term - I was in college at the time. At that time the nucleus of the band was Bruce, George Gill, and me.
“After one abortive gig and a lot of practice in Newman’s front room we looked for a drummer and a bass player and found Robert Grey and Graham Lewis. The band was called Wire at the time, but it was George’s band,this was at the back end of ’76. To cut a very long story short … [there’s an awkward, slightly embarrassed pause here …] we threw George out of his own band… [and there’s another similar pause…]”
There’s only one thing to say to this, because it really is quite heavy.
Has he forgiven you..?
“No. But … he should just… move on with life. What George brought to the band wasn’t what we wanted…”
Jesus. Democracy in action, I quip, rather nervously…
“Well, a kind of democracy …Wire is not a single vision, it’s four individuals. I mean, you know, we have fights…’, he says, sounding a bit embarrassed.”
Colin then chides me gently for not having read the book about Wire, “Read and Burn” by Wilson Neate (who also wrote the 33 1/3 series book "Pink Flag"), because all this would be, evidently, familiar to me.
Democracy reminds me … are you the chap at the tiller, Colin?
“Bruce used to call me the ‘band master’ because not only would I make most of the music, the songs themselves, but I was also very organised and many essential tasks fell to me…”
I’ll butt in here to remind you that Bruce Gilbert, Wire’s other guitarist, who invited Colin into the band way back in ’76 … his departure in 2004, was, according to a recent interview with Colin, “very, very, very messy’”… I wasn’t about to bring that up.
But in 2010, I think it was, they acquired another musician, Matthew Simms. He seems the perfect fit…
“He is! And we were incredibly lucky! He was recommended by a friend, but he still had to audition, along with several others. And he aced it! Not only did he know all the songs we set him, he had all the sounds, he was really competitive. I mean, he’ll be 30 next birthday, and we’re all in our 60’s… Matthew really, really wanted it, and he worked hard for it. He’s very discerning, like I am; we have that in common. He’s also great at a practical level, organising stuff.”
Many of the interviews have fallen to Colin, however, for whatever reason. Probably because the best way to get something done is to give it to a very busy person… Colin explains, “Along the way I also acquired some skills in mixing and production. I’m a very practical person; for example, I run the label. This means that instead of being in hock to a major record company, we can keep our costs down and actually make a profit. Wire wouldn’t exist if we didn’t do it this way.”
This is a huge concept. So many bands want a major to sign them. Mostly, it must be said, for the distribution. Aloud, I recall how many punters seem to think you shouldn’t make a profit from their band.
“They can fuck off,” Colin states matter-of-factly. Then he emphasises, “Wire wouldn’t exist if we didn’t do it this way. I try to promulgate the idea as much as I can …”
At this point Colin reminds me a little of Mick Harvey, and I begin to suspect that behind the affable chap on the other end of the line, is not merely a highly intelligent man, but a very driven man, who can see what you or I would merely grunt at, then fashion an emotional world both familiar, strange, seductive and … yeah. To some extent, you have to approach Wire’s music with a bit of nouse.
I’d noticed on the lazy bastard’s encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, that Wire “are a definitive art punk and post-punk ensemble, mostly due to their richly detailed and atmospheric sound, often obscure lyrical themes, and, to a lesser extent, their Situationist political stance.”
I may have mentioned that I personally find definitions very limiting. There was not ever, as far as I am aware, a genre called ‘art punk’ by anyone in a band. And as for ‘post-punk’, again, the first time I saw it was around early 1978, and just to make life more amusing, after Ian Curtis died, someone with more words than sense described the current musical scene as ‘post-Joy Division’, as if everyone had been profoundly affected … when no, that’s not how real life works in the whirligig of society.
Naturally, I assumed Colin had tweaked Wire’s Wikipedia page, and asked about the Situationist reference. “That’s bollocks,” he declares. “I took that out, but obviously someone has a point to make, because they’ve put it back in.”
I do hope they read this. People love to hang a label on you, it makes you less of a threat, more manageable somehow, that they can stuff you into a pigeon-hole. ‘Nicky is a post-punk rocker’, you know? Academics do this a lot, endlessly defining the limitations of things when … so much interacts without limitation.
Perhaps the Situationist tag comes from misinterpreting what Wire really are about … I get the guts to say it out loud; ’You’re a mischievous bunch of bastards, aren’t you?’
“That’s entirely true!’” Colin laughs, “But it’s balanced within our art…” Phew.
I’ve read journos describe Colin’s vocals as cold and unemotional, which I’ve never understood. The man’s (thankfully) not Tina Turner or John Farnham, belting out a massive voice as if that’s always an honest expression. When a singer has a curved ramp plonked on stage so that at intervals he can run toward the crowd, bend over and squeal like a pig on a honeymoon (but not tooooo near the crowd), then run away again… just how real is that emotion..? (Yes, I’m talking about the tedious Deftones.)
“I hate people who over-emote their vocals, your singing should come from the heart, not your vocal chords…"
We’re not going to give oxygen to the international ‘talent’ shows which basically stuff people into those predetermined boxes… god help us, what are we?
Ah, I seem to have digressed a bit. Right.
Colin is usually the singer, and I have always found his voice a perfect match to Wire’s songs, and increasingly so the songs seem to seduce us, like Sirens, guiding us unsuspecting, toward the rocks the band have carefully laid. Yes, there is, as Colin comments, “Subtlety in what we do. It’s not good to spell it out. Keep people listening…”
And, given that their audience seems about to expand exponentially, are they all grizzled old punkers..?
Colin puts the comparison well. “To people in their 20’s, a big part of live music is seeing themselves on stage. It’s remarkable the effect we have on an older audience, though, which is mostly people in their 40’s.” Which argues that Wire gained a huge amount of their crowd from their classic LPs in the late 1980s.
Wire have never done a tour of their past glories. It doesn’t really suit them. They’ve always plunged forward, it’s scarier I suppose, and frankly they strike me as the sorts of folk who’d get bored ‘running through the mill’ … Wire have never had one of those parental guidance stickers, either.
But who the fuck needs them when you have unpleasant lyrics like…
I'm worried, I'm worried, I'm frightened as hell
I heard voices echo way down in my shell
I'm worried, I'm worried, I'm frightened as hell
Walls closing in, I'm feeling unwell.
Wire. Play loud, play often.
“Wire” is on the band's Pinkflag label and is distributed in Australia by Popfrenzy Records. It is released on May 15.