The Strange World Of Wire, According To Wire

As Wire prepare to release Change Becomes Us and curate the Drill:London festival with The Quietus, Robert Grey, Graham Lewis, Colin Newman and Matt Simms guide Luke Turner through the inspirational near death experiences, peculiar practice and events that have shaped their decades of operation

1978: The frightening journey that became ‘Dot Dash’

Graham Lewis: I did a bit of research this morning, looking at the Wire gigography, and there’s one datem supposedly of a gig in Norwich, that doesn’t fit into my story. ‘Dot Dash’ is released in 1978, so the story pre-dates that. It involves Mike Collins, who was our manager at the time. He had quite a big BMW, and it was in the days when we carried our own PA system and lights, so we had a truck. We were travelling from the Midlands to Norwich, which means you had to cross the fens. The fens for me from childhood the stories are always about Hereward The Wake… there was a fog, and I mean the fog, where you can see at the most about ten metres, so we had this terrifying journey.

We arrived in Norwich, and in the gigography the place was called Ricky’s, which sounds about right for that time. We arrived to find the truck there, but we couldn’t play the show because they couldn’t get the bass bins of the PA system through the doors. Little short of remodelling the doors of the club there was nothing to be done, so the date was cancelled. We then got back into the car and headed back for London. We’re driving along the A11, and there’s a car coming towards us, straight on. I remember saying to Mike ‘that guy’s driving rather fast’. It was still a two-lane highway, and he was driving so close that when he finally came upon us there was a shower of sparks. He took off all of the chrome trim on the side of the car, and then he was gone. It turned out to be the source for ‘Dot Dash’. Although one is always accused of being obscure, blah blah ecetera, in this case it was ‘how can one capture the terror?’.

1978 – Baseball bat attack at the SO36 Club, Berlin

Robert Grey: It’s part of Berlin, it’s something we don’t have a grasp of, back when it was an island inside the Soviet area. Things happened that couldn’t be explained unless you lived there, and it was a complete surprise to us. We were playing when it happened, there was a commotion at the back of the room, and I don’t think we stopped straight away. Brian Grant, our manager, came to the front of the stage and we stopped. These pinball machines were in the foyer in a line, and these people ran along and smashed them all with baseball bats, and then ran into the room itself and dropped leaflets saying they hated Vivienne Westwood, and they hated the club because it was too expensive. Graham told me they were Trotskyists, but we never really found out who they were.

‘Practice Makes Perfect’

Colin Newman: It must have been written post the recording of Pink Flag, which was recorded in September. I know from the bootleg series that we were playing it live in February ’78, so it must have arrived early ’78 or late ’77. I knew immediately that it was a new direction, and I was excited about it. I came into the rehearsal room with it. It’s based on a football clap, it’s deliberately obtuse or whatever. By the time I’d played the song through, essentially demonstrating it to the band, the arrangement of the song was complete, they’d already written their parts to the piece.

The way everyone went with the arrangement was so not what you’d expect. Any other drummer apart from Rob would have gone ‘there’s the tom toms, bom bom bom-bom-bom bom’, but Rob played a reggae beat with a rim shot, Graham did this melodic bassline and Bruce arpeggiated. When we were doing Pink Flag, the songs sounded like one thing, everything followed one thing, but here every instrument is a distinct voice. There’s a complete arrangement there, with four people playing completely different things, but in sympathy with each other. That was massive for us, for me that was the beginning of the band, because we hit something special, at that point there was nothing out there that sounded like that.

There’s a certain set of people who are obsessed with Pink Flag, they think it’s the ultimate Wire album. But for most Wire fans they might put it in the top three, but very often they don’t put it in the top five Wire albums, because it’s not distinctive and different enough.

19 June 1987 – Meeting Chuck Berry, Detroit

GL: We were on the first real tour of America that Wire ever made. We arrive in Detroit and get on the Hertz courtesy coach. It’s us, our crew, and it was only Bruce [Gilbert, former Wire member] and I who noticed this extremely elegant black man who gets onto the bus at the last minute. He’s all in black with a black leather waistcoat, a briefcase and a guitar case. He sits down at the front of the bus. I remember particularly as it was the time when I was a chain smoker, and the notices on the bus said ‘thou shalt not smoke’. This man proceeded to sit down, put his feet up on the luggage rack, and light up a cigarette without a care in the world. I looked at Bruce and Bruce looked at me, and we went ‘hmm’ as we recognised who it was.

I was the last off the bus, and as I was removing my last bag our eyes met and I said ‘hello’ and he said ‘hi’. I said ‘I saw you play in Coventry in 1971, which was the gig where you recorded ‘My Dingaling’. I was on the production crew for the gig when I was at art school’. Quick as a flash he said ‘Thank God it wasn’t Croydon’. About a month ago something came up on the net, it was from a fanzine from the 70s, in which there was a photograph of Chuck Berry with Debbie Harry sat on his knee, and they’d done the Invisible Jukebox thing to Chuck Berry. They’d played him ‘I Am The Fly’ by Wire to see what Chuck thought of what the young bloods were doing. He said ‘ah there’s nothing new here, it sounds like the kind of thing Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf would do’.

Slightly later, same day…

…we got into the transport, and were driving to Detroit. We were passing Firestone, where they had one of those huge tyres that to us are a kind of pop art symbol. We were driving along and then suddenly, "BANG!", this huge rock – that’s what I presume it was – just bounced off the windscreen. Brian and I looked at each other and nobody said anything, apart from perhaps ‘fuck’. It was a necessary repression, just to keep on. As always when you’re touring, it’s very rare that you’re ahead of the schedule, you’re always on the run. It was a couple of days later we were sat around and I remember saying to Brian ‘do you remember what happened on the road near Detroit?’ and he said ‘what?’ When the rock hit the windscreen… he just went white.

Wire’s Legal Bootleg Series

CN: For me the interesting thing with the legal bootleg series is that I hear how the band sounded at different times in a way that isn’t on the records. I’ve been forced to completely change my viewpoint on 80s Wire by hearing how the band sounded live, because the band were really good live but the records were iffy. I thought the records were all very modern and techno and shiny, but we were rubbish as a band – but actually it was the other way round. We should have paid more attention to the fact that we could stand up and play that material as a band, we were really good. We’ve learned those lessons over time, and hindsight is wonderfully 20/20.

May 21st 1990, Hibernian Club London – ‘Advantage In Height’ (as heard on Legal Bootleg Series)

CN: After doing Manscape, which was all sequencers and whatever, we had to do a live set. Robert programmed the drums for the live set and then left the band, because there was nothing left for him to do. Rob is quite a purist, and we’d put him in an impossible situation. Back in the 80s, the technology – and I hate to use the T-word – the technology for making music with machines did not allow you to make music with live instruments and machines at the same town. That’s broken down now, but at the time it was really difficult. But Rob’s a pretty good drum programmer… we only did five gigs or something with that material, but it’s Wire material, not Wir, because Rob is present in the rhythms. We did some fascinating arrangements with that set up, and we brought back ‘Advantage In Height’, which has been in and out of the Wire set over the years. When I heard that bootleg, I’d never heard it sound so beautiful, it’s a completely different reading of the song. Wir never had the legs to keep going, it never felt right, so this wasn’t a period that was happy clappy or everything was forward-looking and amazing, but there are some arrangements of songs in that set… there’s a track in that set that’s ‘Kidney Bingos’ sung over music which is half ‘Eardrum Buzz’ and ‘Kidney Bingos’. It’s a seamless bootleg remix 20 years before the fact. We did it because it was a funny thing to do.

Matmos’ Elastica / Wire mashup

GL: Matmos opened for us in San Francisco once. They did an Elastica cut-up, chopping all the bits that they recognised as Wire out and did another version. It was so typically them, it was so funny.

2000: ‘Twelve Times You’ 7" & Wire’s Ongoing Creative Recycling

CN: The question we’ve been getting all the time with Change Becomes Us is ‘so you’ve gone back to old material?’ like it’s something new, but that’s what we do all the time. It’s not a new thing. There’s always creative recycling with Wire. We’ll go back, dust something off, look at it, and as soon as the band interact with it suddenly it stops being in the past.

When we started off in the new millennium at the Royal Festival Hall we played a historic set that was 70s and 80s stuff, and people said ‘oh my God, it all sounds like Wire and it sounds like now’. It’s something about the band, it’s not that Wire can be anything, but when we get hold of the material it makes it living, because we don’t have any consciousness of revivalism. It doesn’t exist within the DNA of the band, we’re incapable of doing anything in a way that would make people feel nostalgic. I think that’s something to do with that.

In the summer of 2000 we’d done an American tour and did four or five nights at the Garage and recorded them. We were playing ’12XU’. That song is a complete albatross around our necks (in the 70s that was the punk song and you’d get people shouting for it and nothing else) so we have a certain way of using it. I was attempting to mix the set from these 8-track recordings, and I got to ’12XU’ and started fiddling with it, and got the riff in a loop and thought ‘this is really funny, it’d be brilliant to make it like Fatboy Slim doing punk rock, like a drunk student disco beats’.

I made it to entertain the band so everyone would piss themselves laughing, but then we decided to put it out. I did two mixes, one that’s a bit like the song and one that’s worse, things that you shouldn’t really do in a dance track. We put it out as a 7" and someone had the bright idea that we could put it in a poly bag and seal it with a sticker that just read The problem is that sealing with a sticker is hand packing which skyrocketed the price, so in true New Order style we were losing money. That idea become the seed for the sound cycle, that we could make new pieces like that.

Early 2000s – Flying ant attack, Lisbon

RG: This was when we started playing with Margaret [McGinnis], when we did some dates in Europe. This was an exceptionally nice place. It was an art nouveau house that a very wealthy family gave to the state. It’s a gallery, with beautifully landscaped gardens outside. It’s a very pleasant place to be in, the weather was beautiful, it was warm, a nice audience. I don’t think they particularly knew our material and I’m not sure the gallery wanted a rock band. The group on before us was a jazz band with piano and double bass.

And then the ants, all these ants landing on the drums and on my face. I’m not frightened of ants, but it was the unexpected appearing. We were closer to nature than Wire usually would be. I think people outside Wire see us in different ways, and it is nice to think that we can do unusual places and be invited to unusual places. It’s nice to be outdoors or in a gallery context as well as a club in Germany, to get away from the rock circuit.

‘Underwater Experiences’ – Matt Simms’ Wire audition

Matt Simms: For my audition I was given a list of six tracks that spanned Wire’s existence. I had to suggest a track for them that wasn’t on the list, and I chose ‘Map Reference’, simply because it was one of my favourites. What I didn’t know was they were going to spring one on me, and ‘Underwater Experiences’ was that track. I hadn’t experienced anything musically like that, the power of it. I don’t think many bands have that force, and they definitely do. It wasn’t too nerve-wracking, they’re all really friendly and don’t put you on edge, from doing that track and leaving the rehearsal I felt pretty inspired and that it would be a good thing to do. I felt they could do a lot for me musically as well as I for them. I only want to do things where I feel I can bring myself to the project, that’s how I approach anything I do musically. I love ‘Underwater Experiences’, and every time we play it live it’s nuts in a brilliant way.

April 2011 – American Tour

MS: The idea of touring America is still a big dream and ambition. There were a couple of days on that tour where we played Music Hall Of Williamsburg, then I think on the same day we filmed the Jimmy Fallon TV show, and the next day we played the Bowery Ballroom. It felt very strange to be part of it, but amazing at the same time. We were touring Red Barked Tree, which I hadn’t played on, but had been in the band during its creation, and I felt that as a band it was getting somewhere interesting and we’d made good progress. I think it all naturally developed as I got more confident and comfortable, and it was probably the same for them and me. Wire have a very different audience in America, there are probably more younger people, and that hardcore influence shows over there more than here. The shows were all packed and the atmosphere was amazing.

April 14th 2011 – Rickshaw Theatre, Vancouver

RG: Everything was bad about the gig. Our greeting was a junkie living in the space by the back door, he didn’t appreciate us at all. When we got inside, the stage looked as if it had been designed by Samuel Beckett. It was cold, this unused space, and there was a bin on the stage collecting the rain coming in through the roof. With that and the welcome outside, your heart sank. The actual gig was try your best against the odds. There was a couple there who had come 600 miles to see Wire, and hospitality’s not our responsibility, but you feel for them, don’t you? It was difficult to enjoy. To cap it all, somebody – presumably the man in the doorway – scratched the van, which our insurance didn’t cover, so we had to pay to have it repaired.

Third terrifying/inspirational car incident, 2012

GL: I had a real block writing what is now ‘Attractive Space’. I was driving with my wife, with Klara [Lewis, daughter] and her boyfriend. We’d been outside Oslo on the coast for a couple of days and were driving in an an incredible storm, sheets and sheets of rain. It was a motorway, three lanes, loads of trucks… and suddenly there was a noise. One of my shock absorbers had collapsed and gone straight through the tyre, seconds later I was on the hard shoulder and I had no idea how I did it. Previous to that I had a bit of a writing block, trying to write the text for what had been ‘Underwater Experiences’, many years ago, which is very much an essence about life and death, a mix of heaven and hell, physics and theology. I couldn’t actually get to that place again, when I’d written it in 1978 it had seemed so simple and pure, somehow. After this happened, I was put back in touch. It was easy to use the word ‘miracle’. I believe in miracles, but that’s about as good as it gets. [laughs] Horrible, really.

2012: Change Becomes Us sessions, Rockfield Studios

MS: We piled into my van and drove down to Rockfield Studios. I think we were there for a week and it rained every day. Before we went there half the tracks we’d toured and played, so we had a grounding in them, and half the tracks we didn’t. It was Graham’s idea to start with those, so it was good in a way to set our target and jump in at the deep end.

‘Magic Bullet’ was the first one. I’d been touring with the band for a long time then, but the studio can be quite different, there are different ways of working, different ideas, and people voice opinions in different ways. I felt straight away doing that one that everything was going to be OK, it felt good and I felt like I was able to bring something to it. There wasn’t a lot of referencing back. We obviously listened to demos, live recordings of tracks, whatever there was, but there wasn’t any intention to recreate anything. Even though some of the tracks were formed from templates or bits existing, it felt like we were making a new record, and we were starting from the same point. There aren’t many bands who have had the opportunity to do what Wire are doing at the moment, which is perhaps why it’s hard for people to understand, but hopefully when they hear it, it’ll start to make more sense.

2013: Explaining Change Becomes Us

GL: The worst example was a very anal journalist on an email interview. Colin had first go at it, and it’s the first time that it’s really thrown it up into such stark horror, how email interviews do and don’t work. In this one, Colin answers his question which was very much about ‘what was it like to redo these tracks from this time ago [Document & Eyewitness] and why are you doing it?’ And Colin answers the question, and the next one is exactly the same but phrased in a different way. After about four answers you can see Colin just wants to go in and rip the guy’s head off. I wrote to Colin and said ‘I have nothing to add whatsoever’ because the answer is that it’s a starting point.

Meanwhile, in Berlin a week later, a journalist says ‘what I love about this record is the way you have transcended the beginnings of these tracks’ and you go YES! This man has a better answer than we have, and that’s it. Once he said that, that is the answer, the word is ‘transcend’. We’d been struggling with it through countless interviews. It’s difficult to describe, but that is what it is, when it was really successful you were just able to forget about it. We forgot about it somewhere on the road when we were playing those things live in 2011, it’s that long ago that we’ve gone through that process, we’ve transcended their beginnings or wondering whether these were old things or not, because they were alive again. And the other half of what became the album were things that we disinterred in the studio, and did in exactly the same spirit. It’s very odd in terms of the timeline, and I don’t know if anyone has been mad enough to do this before. I felt sympathetic to the people doing the interview, commiserating, because it’s a nightmare. Can we say ‘it started off as a project that was a good idea, and then suddenly we realised we had a new album’. It feels so natural to us, but it’s not a common thing.

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