Living in London in 1979 was like living in San Francisco in 1967, Seattle in 1990 or perhaps Paris in the fifties. Music oozed out of the very paving stones. The air was charged with vital sounds, green mohicans, studs, earrings and bands – The Furs, The Only Ones, The Pretenders, Elvis Costello, The Boomtown Rats, The Undertones, Simple Minds, The Ruts, The Clash, The Police, The Jam, The Pistols, The Stranglers, Siouxsie And The Banshees, John Foxx’s Ultravox, The Human League, Gang Of Four, Cabaret Voltaire, The Cure, Joy Division, The Fall, The Skids, Generation X, The Adverts and Wire. American bands were kindred spirits to these bands and fitted into the scene with consummate ease, finding a far more appreciative audience then they did if they ventured outside of major centres like New York in their home country. Patti Smith, Television, Talking Heads, The Ramones, Mink Deville, Jonathan Richman, Blondie. Punk and New Wave had taken over Britain, and I was there getting an ear pierced at Kensington Market 34 years ago.
I left in 1980 for another happening scene in a country far away, but one of the more memorable albums of those London years was 154 by Wire. It seemed to come out of nowhere. Wire had produced two original albums in Pink Flag and Chairs Missing, a kind of energetic original take on Rock and Roll, but no one expected this evolution. 154 doesn’t really sound like a London punk album to me and that’s what sets them apart. It sounds more like it was made in Budapest or Berlin, there’s something European about it, it’s closer to Bowie and Eno’s Low and leaves their contemporaries way behind with its art punk direction.
It opens with I Should Have Known Better, an eerie spoken word vocal and although it’s perfect English, it sounds like a man without a language, a man from the future. I guess it’s Graham Lewis singing and that gives the band a different feeling to earlier Wire records – he has an easy style, some kind of restraint. It’s odd but he sings it like he’s a member of Kraftwerk, it’s not the accent exactly, it’s the delivery. There’s something special in Robert Gotobed’s drums too, the song is only 4 minutes long but it’s an eternity between snare hits, no cymbals – it’s perfect.
Two People In A Room has Colin Newman also sing/speaking but shouting too and almost sounding like a dalek! (It must have inspired Sonic Youth greatly.) The 15th starts with a hooky guitar rhythm, (B.C. Gilbert?), the song reminds me of Amon Düül ll, like this could be a track off Vive La Trance. I hear so much German influence in this record and that is very strange coming from such a quintessentially English band. The Other Window is back to Kraftwerk, deadpan vocal style, a weird soundscape but created by guitars, and a poem about the death of a horse as seen from the window of a train – resignation as the protaganist on holiday switches his gaze to the other window with the nicer view. Musically the song is bizarre, short and unsweet.
The songs seem to be about, betrayal, regret, resignation, things happen to you and you are helpless to do anything about it. On Single K.O. there’s a meeting between the drums and the guitars and what sounds like marimba. An anonymous band plugs in, they all start to play and Wire materialises. A Touching display is Kraftwerk meets, Bowie/Eno without the electronics again, guitars instead. At 3.32 is the most gorgeous guitar phrase, that sound and that mood again. It grows into a perfect cacophony that sounds like trumpets and beautiful chaos for a whole other three and a half minutes – again it’s perfect, I love it.
On Returning seems to be an Englishman abroad. It’s like Lewis and Newman are two characters representing different countries but forming one complimentary land. On A Mutual Friend, a guest appearance from Hilly Cristal the man who ran CBGB’s, singing a backing vocal like a vocoder or a Gyoto monk? (Go figure?). It sounds like a cor anglais in there too but what on earth is he doing there? It’s stranger having him than the cor anglais! What’s the connection? Then I think about the American bands I mentioned and, wait for it – Connection is made!
Blessed State brings back Lewis as the singer and I just love the mood he creates, “Oh what a pearl, what a well made world”. he doesn’t have the intellectual cockney imp in him like Newman. It’s as if Newman plays it up – the working class brainbox – works for me. He’s back with Once Is Enough and you can hear why Justine Frischmann loved Wire, or you can hear Wire in her. She could never shake them off.
In my top ten of pop genius singles is Map Ref 41 Degrees N 93 Degrees W. The chorus comes from heaven. Listen to it and love it. On Indirect Enquiries, Newman’s accent is so ‘Landan’ that I can hear that Blur absolutely must have got something from this. Another talking vocal with a mad almost military backing, angular guitars, and he’s sounding like a dalek again – he really does sound like a dalek in this apocalyptic track! 4o Versions closes the album with a bass riff and weird noises, I feel like Julian Cope must know this track well.
To sum up, it sounds like an odd mind meld between some Dusseldorf art community and London art punks breaking new ground and taking us on a dark journey through their minds in the death throes of punk as the great bands evolved into something exciting and challenging, something new.