REVIEW: Colin Newman, A-Z (Beggars Banquet) -Eric Hsu

By the time Wire made _154_, Colin Newman had clearly become tired of pop and touring and the life surrounding it. Having exhausted the punk idiom with the amazing Pink Flag, he wanted something new and didn’t know how to get there, so all he could do was sabotage what he knew. On the strangely compelling single “Map. Ref. 41N 93W” he came up with the most unmemorable single title in history and insisted on sneering “chorus” everytime the chorus returned. Wire struggled for a few months longer, but collapsed into self-indulgent experimentation before eventually reuniting (and recovering) in 1987 with The Ideal Copy.

A-Z was Colin Newman’s first solo album, released in 1980, and in some ways the fourth Wire album after _154_: drummer Robert Gotobed and producer/keyboardist Mike Thorne from Wire play on it, and Graham Lewis even contributes words. But instead of providing any kind of missing link, between _154_ and The Ideal Copy, it feels more like the logical progression down the spiral from _154_. The record is a collection of sounds, the sound of Newman trying to tear things down to find something new in the ruins. “I’ve Waited Ages” begins with a one chord new wave groove that Newman undercuts with strange distracting noises, a mishmash of competing atmospheres and “the most stupid words I could possibly write” as he later reflected.

The song “& Jury” exemplifies Newman’s style of creating through negation and contrariness. Newman sings the chorus as oddly as possible: “you are the judges too” by emphasizing and holding the syllables “-ges too”. Of course the title never appears literally in the song, only noticible in its absence and the fact that the chorus appears to refer to it. A strange effect, slightly unsettling, but at best a formal effect. Newman’s urgent and desperate singing communicates only its own tone in the absence of supporting music. The same inflection that was so effective interrogating “How many dead or alive?” on Pink Flag sounds like just another effect singing “Order in order”.

His self-destructiveness extended to refusing to tour to support the record and his vetoing their single choice of “Order for Order”, which had some kind of cohesiveness in its sheets of looping cries, and insisting on “B” which is a new wave groove, again sabotaged with unsettling noises and screams, like a riot at a disco, but not nearly as fun. Beggars Banquet, who had just had a massive hit with Gary Numan’s “Cars”, were feeling receptive and indulgent towards bizarre approximately new wave music, and let Newman have his way. Of course it bombed critically and commercially, and his solo career never recovered.

The piece I find most affecting is the bonus track of Newman’s piano demo for “Alone”, which was atmospheric enough to inspire This Mortal Coil to cover it. It’s telling that this simple piece gets straight to the heart of that feeling of lonely yearning that’s swamped by the full soundscape version on A-Z. This re-release collects a couple of singles “The Classic Remains”, which sounds like a carnival with indigestion, and “This Picture”, actually a not bad horror movie soundtrack piece, and tacks on a couple of Wire-ish sounding demos. Every song has something interesting about it, which is usually immediately crushed by other overdubs. In the end, this record is interesting more as a document of decadence and musical confusion than as music in isolation. It’s the sound of new wave being cut up from the inside as it swallows punk up.