A BELL IS A CUP – UNTIL IT IS STRUCK – WIRE (1988)
Firstly, a health warning – listening to A Bell Is A Cup… has been known to make one of my TNPC colleagues feel unwell. I can relate to this – hearing (Shambeko! Say) Wah!’s Remember can still, more than 30 years after the event, resurrect the waltzer-induced nausea I felt the day I bought it, coming straight from the Kelvin Hall carnival. However, Wire’s fifth studio album – and the second following their 1985 reformation – is a record I’m fortunate enough to be able to listen to without the need for Anadin or a damp cloth on the fevered brow.
Not sure if the same can be said of Wire themselves. Their decision to reunite has since become pretty much expected eventually of all bands that part company ( including some that should absolutely never have added their unnecessary footnotes – this means you Beatles, Velvets, Pistols). At the time, it was highly unusual; rarer still was their flat refusal to play any of the music that had made them such a thrilling and infinitely challenging proposition in their first incarnation of the late ’70s.
They’ve since relented to some degree and their live sets are now speckled with returns to these years but this can’t be taken for granted – a plea for Outdoor Miner (or Outside Miner, as the hapless heckler named it), the closest they’ve ever had to a hit, was studiously ignored when they played King Tut’s in Glasgow in 2013.
But this wasn’t wilful perversity – while many would characterise it as such, it was simply Wire doing what came naturally to them. Genuinely uncompromising, they had little or no interest in going back over the same ground once it had been seen and done, leaving the past to be dealt with by the Ex-Lion Tamers, who would now be lost in the thickets of the dubiously-named tribute band industry but in the mid-’80s had only the Bootleg Beatles for company as they supported the no-rear-view Wire. How quickly a high-concept idea can become mainstream…
And anyway, Wire had unfinished business, having come to an inconclusive halt in 1980, and by 1985 , their prodding and goading of the commonplace was needed more than ever. While it extended possibilities and created a new language – and Wire were more responsible for this than most – punk ultimately “destrrrrooooooyed” nothing, at best knocking some things temporarily unconscious. It would be fatuous, simplistic and, in fact, wholly inaccurate to describe it as any kind of cavalry charge but there was much rejoicing at their return and the manner of their returning. Their name was being heard in unlikely but intriguing places, cited as an influence by REM and the Minutemen. It seemed odd that this most British, European and bluesless of bands found such favour in America but these bands were part of a thoughtful and open new breed who were as intent on slaying predatory old rock beasts as Wire were themselves.
But Wire had to adapt to new surroundings to an extent. Wilson Neate’s comprehensive band history, Read And Burn, tells of a fraught and fractious process in recording their “second debut,” The Ideal Copy, in Berlin, with old tensions reignited, particularly between Colin Newman’s penchant for pop hooks and the proclivity of Graham Lewis and, especially, Bruce Gilbert for more challenging, abstract sounds. Certainly, the results were uneven – Madman’s Honey (which Neate scorns with pitiless adjectives like “egregious,” “sickly,” “polite”) is, to my ears, a mesmerising work which resembles little else in popular music; conversely, Ambitious is lyrically intriguing (it donates the album’s title and its avalanche of acronyms – “CIA, DNA, KGB-” cements the notion of the band resembling a crack research group or a deep-cover spy cell. Musically, though, it’s something of a mess, Lewis’ roar of “Are you hot? Are you hot? I FEEL AMBITIOUS!” veering uncomfortably close to another Anglophiles’ favourite, Basil Fawlty and the whole thing feels dated in a way no Wire music ever should be.
A Bell Is A Cup… arrived the following year as a far more rounded and cohesive statement, with a consistency of tone which creates not monotony but instead a sense of Aristotelian unity of time, place and action. In turn, it’s their most monochrome album since their 1977 debut, Pink Flag; by 1979’s 154, they were deploying texture and colour at Matisse level but A Bell Is A Cup… seems sketched in pencil. In keeping with this, Q’s review opined that it appeared to be “based on maths,” which, like the horse’s head sculpture on the cover, brings us back to ancient Greece, a time and place where maths was not a trial for school pupils but a branch of philosophy, bound up with extensive thinking on the human condition – something Wire have always been pretty good at.
Take Kidney Bingos which, in the practice of the times, appeared as a single a few months earlier. It’s the final panel of a triptych, begun a decade earlier with Fragile and continued with Outdoor Miner, of unfeasibly melodic yet lyrically labyrinthine songs. Words, phrases are tossed out, making by turns no sense and perfect sense (“Dressed pints, demon shrinks, bread drunk, dead drinks”) intoned by Newman in the angelic voice which came to the fore on Chairs Missing and gradually superseded his “other” droll, simulated Cockney tones which are more or less entirely absent on A Bell Is A Cup.The verse, the solos, so sublimely tuneful, and: chorus! “Money spines, paper lung/Kidney bingos, organ fun.” The code is cracked and revealed as a macabre Twilight Zone fantasy (only just) of vital organ jackpots and severe medical economics, as the melody reaches an exquisite peak. At the end of 1988, I declared it my single of the year, in the face of competition ftom The Mercy Seat, You Made Me Realise and Gigantic. Depending on the mood of the day, I can still find myself standing by that decision.
Second single Silk Skin Paws kicks off the album and is sterner, more unblinking but still entrances. Like Kidney Bingos, it has a surefooted gait driven by the ultra-minimal but vastly inventive drumming of Robert Gray, aka Gotobed (his pared-down kit of snare, hi-hat and bass drum attracted considerable attention at the time; he would eventually be usurped altogether by programming before returning post-millennium). It’s steely and gossamer in equal measure, sighs as much as it hisses and has the elegant precision of a sculpture. It did not chart. But it was a very pleasant, albeit unexpected, surprise, to hear it given an outing at King Tut’s earlier this year.
Worthy of particular attention are the two closing tracks. Follow The Locust is one of Wire’s most purely exhilirating moments, hurtling on a bullhorn-force bass synth riff as Newman delivers a quizzical account of travel that resembles perpetual motion and continues their exemplary record for songs about insects. Its barreling momentum hints at some of the more uncompromising moments of their, by then, labelmates Depeche Mode and is a harbinger of One Of Our Girls Has Gone Missing, the gloriously evocative gem Gilbert created the following year with Wire associate and sometime video director Angela “AC Marias” Conway.
Closer A Public Place stands out for its stillness and air of desperate calm fending off unbearable tension. The actions switches, verse by verse, from a vignette witnessed late at night in King’s Cross railway station to the absurd but all too present menace of “privet hedge pissers” and “village boy wide men” and the strange but compelling image of “broken promises/drifted into the shape of footprints.” Meanwhile, the lead guitar soothes, the rhythm guitar snarls and a synth drone hovers like a sentry. It’s rhythmless, apart from the clatter Gotobed goads out of found percussion, similar to what’s heard on Pink Flag’s Strange (covered by REM a few months earlier) but this is no nostalgic, and certainly not an ironic, wink tipped to the past – it’s Wire finding the late ’80s every bit as “not quite right” as the late ’70s and delivering a sombre but eloquent verdict as only they can.
Nostalgia, you say? Wire’s reconvening would have been utterly pointless if that’s what it was about but this is how some would have had it; the reputation of their ’70s output is secure, close to inviolate, but their second incarnation has many detractors. I can’t help feeling that many of these misgivings relate more to a general disdain for the trappings of the ’80s, which were manifested in some of the more misguided production choices on The Ideal Copy and in Lewis brandishing a headstock- free bass and the hairstyle that no one actually called a mullet until around 1994 (“footballer’s haircut” seemed to be the preferred term at the time).
True, by ths time of their second cessation around 1992, they were at risk of becoming the dry laboratory exercise they’re seen as by some who fail to detect the drama, mystery and magic at their core. But what makes A Bell Is A Cup… such a strong candidate for reappraisal is how fresh, undated and, in fact, contemporary it sounds. It’s also makes one of the strongest cases for Wire being a vast, yet almost completely unacknowledged, influence on Radiohead. I’ve never known Radiohead themselves, or even any critics, to trace their lineage back to Wire but, in the shared values of manipulating traditional rock forms to unconventional ends, applying advanced technology to those newly mutated forms and making shrewd political observations couched in oblique terms, as well as unlikely popularity in America, I find the comparison glaringly obvious and the influence incalculable.
It was only at the time of A Bell Is A Cup… that I properly discovered Wire. I’d been aware of them first time around, catching desultory hearings of Practice Makes Perfect and On Returning on John Peel, but the only song of theirs I was truly intimate with was I Am The Fly. But the repeated citations and the quality of A Bell Is A Cup… meant that this was one of those rare occasions, as with the Velvet Underground and REM a few years earlier, when my eagerness to delve into a back catalogue came with a sure and well-founded conviction that I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Now in their third incarnation, they’re still adding to it – even without Gilbert and with the remaining original members all over 60, they’re capable of being as abrasive and compelling as ever. Just keep some of that Anadin handy (PG).