As one will sometimes, earlier this month I went with Kajsa to a Record Expo, this one out there in the hinterland of Danbury, CT, where we had been once before, almost 20 years ago, to another Record Show. That time, I was weaning myself of vinyl. This time, it’s all the rage in my listening. So I availed myself of plenty used vinyl at bargain prices of $5 or so. But one record I picked up with a somewhat higher price tag was Wire’s third album, 154. I had to have it.
I didn’t know Wire when they were releasing their first three LPs—Pink Flag (1977), Chairs Missing (1978), and 154 (1979)—and didn’t hear anything by them but for a couple songs my friend Tim laid on me from the later Eighties albums. Now, in the music critic world, it’s the first three that have all the rep, being seen as the arty version of punk. Whereas in the latter Eighties, Wire seems much more of the order of New Order. Not that that’s bad. But on those first three LPs they were rather different. And each of the three albums is rather different from one another. When I finally got around to them in the early 00s—led there largely by online encounters with people talking them up—I found the second album most to my liking. It’s the one that’s not as punk as the first album—which is a distinctively minimalist version of punk—and it’s the one not as dark as the third album, which starts to have a nodding acquaintance with Joy Divison-like vibes of psychic distress. Chairs Missing is dominated by the Wire sound I like best—oddly processed guitars—spiced with surprising hooks. Vocals that sound deadened of all affect but that catch your ear with their precise phrasing.
Wire were an arty bunch, beginning as art students who learned to make little mini-soundscapes that seem to grasp just how disaffected we all were in the early Eighties. Which is a way of saying that I eventually got up to speed with this kind of thing, but not in the late Seventies, no. I’m pretty sure I heard a few songs from those first 3 LPs on the radio in my Philly days, c. 1980, maybe even on tapes from my friend Harvey, and even if not there were other bands around who were trying to sound like this. Cool, vaguely cybernetic. Like that song about “longitude and latitude.” Or today’s song, which I’m almost certain I knew without knowing what it was. “O what a pearl / What a well-made world.” That’s the part that I remembered, and that’s the part that strikes a chord as I listen now—for the first time—to Wire on vinyl. And here they are on TV.
That “pearl” part is a bit of joke today too because one thing that listening to all this vinyl has inspired is the need for a new cartridge. After thinking I might go with a Sumiko Pearl (which I had back in the day—through most of the Nineties probably), I opted instead for the good old Shure model that I’ve been listening to ever since I returned to vinyl several years ago. And what a “well-made world” it is, though not a “pearl,” yuk yuk.
Anyway, the song’s title, “Blessed State,” suits my mood too—for reasons mostly having to do with the joy of listening: Holy globe / Eternal home / Sacred sphere / So glad I’m here. Which is like saying “I’m glad to be where I am.” “Home” has already come up in these posts—from other big guns of that time, John Lydon, and from David Byrne and Brian Eno—and so why not, this late in the game, throw in another track that can keep common currency with those guys. It’s all about some space of the mind, a platonic space perhaps, where all that is shines with the immediacy of being. That’s what I’d call a blessed state. You mean like “happy to be alive”? Yeah, I guess.
It could almost be like being in love, you might say, but that’s not the kind of song Wire records, and that’s fine. There’s a blessed state that’s more like utter detachment and such a feeling feels good. That’s the feeling I get from the upbeat Wire songs—like “Outdoor Miner”—and that’s what I want to take a moment to consider here. It feels urban and remote at once.
I’m going to be enjoying this vinyl “promotional only” copy of 154 because it’s a well-made little world that lets me straddle two eras—the New Wavey era it dates from and the “my kid comes of age and goes to art school” era when I first acquired it, and where it took its place with the likes of Guided by Voices, who owes these guys an admitted debt, as do others I'm fond of, like R.E.M. and The Feelies, who have covered them, and The Cure.
So add Wire to this late phase of aural nirvana with new components. And let’s not forget “the fatal gift / Of a well-timed lie.” Because things are never so hunky dory as all that, are they? Which reminds me of a Paul Westerberg song I happened to hear on an ippid playlist a night or two ago: “It’s a wonderful lie / I still get by on those.”
Oh what a pearl. “I feel mysterious today.”