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REVIEW: Wire, Behind the Curtain: Early Versions 1977-1978 (EMI)

-Eric Hsu

During Elastica’s recent rise to fame in England, there was something of an uproar over their admitted heavy influence by early Wire (read: borrowing of major song sections), which ended in a royalty settlement and renewed interest in the band. Even now, the group Menswear is racing up the British pop charts with a song “Daydreamer” which has been widely derided/praised as a Wire ripoff/tribute. Not coincidentally, EMI has finally seen fit to release in England a generous 31-song collection of demos and live tracks from the band’s early years. The collection is a must-buy for fans of early Wire, but probably not a good introduction to the band. Newcomers to early Wire (including fans of later Wire!) are better off purchasing the actual first three (very different) albums: Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154. If you’re on a very tight budget, the CD compilation On Returning is a good introduction.

From 1977-1979, Wire released three albums which seemed like snapshots of a band in motion, each one strikingly different from the last. Their debut, Pink Flag raced through 22 brilliantly sequenced sparkling songs that had a punk surface, but the hooks and structures were unusual and the lyrics had hints of artiness that were developed in the follow-up. On Chairs Missing, Wire moved away from the chordal hooks of their debut, and began using effects and noises and producer Mike Thorne’s keyboards in a surprisingly tasteful and atmospheric way. But on their third album, 154, the effects began taking over. At this point the band began falling apart over conflicts about how much studio effects and experimenting to using in writing songs and creating material (Colin Newman, who wrote most of Pink Flag, had become cynical enough to title “The 15th” simply by its being the 15th song in a stack he had churned out, and sings sardonically “Chorus!” before the chorus of “Map Ref…”) .

The band left EMI and broke up before finding a record company for its fourth album. In 1986, amidst a flurry of praise from REM and other well-known devotees, they reunited and put out a series of albums that, naturally, were very different from their first 3 albums and refused to play their old songs on tour, hiring a band the Ex-Lion Tamers to play all of Pink Flag as an opening act (amusingly enough, one night they renamed themselves the Ex-Lion Chairs and played all of Chairs Missing!).

Before the release of Behind the Curtain, the only other official recorded evidence of the early Wire are three Peel Sessions, compilations and a horribly recorded and bizarre performance, Document and Eyewitness , which is essentially a live draft of their fourth album crossed with hostile performance art.

Behind the Curtain is fascinating listening all around, especially since the band was notorious for quickly discarding material they were bored with. The demos have a relatively solid, punky Wire sound similar to that of Pink Flag and precisely the sound of their Peel Sessions. The first six songs are live performances from their debut at the Roxy in 1977 and are a fun if rough glimpse at the punk origins of the group. There are demos for three good songs that were prepared for Pink Flag and then abandoned, although bits and pieces make it into later songs. Except for the title track, there is a notable lack of early versions of songs actually on “Pink Flag”, probably because they don’t exist, and if they did, they would sound redundant next to the album.

There is a healthy selection of demos for Chairs Missing, which has documentary value for catching the group trying to wrestle Chairs Missing atmosphere out of Pink Flag sounds and technique. The songs are different from but (as you might expect) inferior to the polished versions on the final album, which are tastefully enhanced by guitar effects and keyboards. As an exception, the demo of “Men 2nd” is slowed-down and stands quite well on its own, well enough that the whole collection was named after a line in this song. As Newman later commented, a lot of Chairs Missing songs were written at the same time as Pink Flag, but they couldn’t figure out how to do justice to them for the first album.

The real revelations are the demo versions of songs from 154. The selected songs are the strongest from that album and are stripped of the confused electronic trickery that overwhelms them on record. The songs miss the walls of harmony of the final studio versions, but the hooks are clearer and more appropriate in their guitar origins and the songs are generally more emotional. “Map Ref…” actually sounds like the awed travelogue it is and “A Touching Display” is less pompous and seems genuinely depressed.

There are also some great unreleased songs, such as “Stepping Off Too Quick”, “Stablemate” and “No Romans”, which judging from the order, seem to have been written during the second and third albums but were abandoned for sounding too much like Pink Flag. There is also a superior version of “Underwater Experiences” (previously only available on _Document & Eyewitness_), as well as straightforward versions of their singles-only songs, “Dot-Dash”, “Options R”, “Question of Degree” and “Former Airline”. These are all luckily available in their original superior form as bonus tracks, but “Former Airline” is a most interesting example of Wire’s attempts to achieve with a live sound what they eventually used tape loops and multiple tracks of screeching feedback to get.

The upshot is that Behind the Curtain is an invaluable documentary for fans of the band and fun listening to boot. The alternate versions are always interesting and the new songs are great. Most enjoyably, there is a surprising continuity of sound. For a band that mutated dramatically between albums, the performances have a certain consistency of sound and style that links seemingly different songs. In fact, the way I most enjoy listening to the CD is by shuffling the tracks randomly: the experience is like listening to a Wire concert a bit after Pink Flag, previewing the next two years worth of material. A truly enterprising Wire fanatic with a CD changer should try shuffling in songs from the first two Peel Sessions (there is little overlap between the Sessions and Curtain).

Word on the official Wire Web page is that there will be another dip into the vaults, but not before the members try to work out various solo projects. I wouldn’t hold my breath for it. I suspect Curtain is as good a look into the Wire vaults as we’ll get.

P.S. The official Wire Home page is at http://www.pinkflag.com/