The Upshot: Final Swans meets first Gira solo album in reissue coupling.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Originally released in 1995, The Great Annihilator was the last Swans studio album before the band’s dissolution for fifteen years. (1996’s Soundtracks For the Blind was comprised of multiple recordings from various sources and time periods.) With the regular band (leader Michael Gira and stalwarts Jarboe, Norman Westberg, Algis Kizys, Clinton Steele and Ted Parsons) joined by then-Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin, the music is at its most percussive, as might be expected with drummers as hard-hitting as Rieflin and Parsons. Yet, at the same time, the record also finds the band at its most symphonic, with sweeping arrangements combining the repetition of minimalism with the bombast of gothic expressionism. Which is a fancy way of saying Swans has refined its sense of dynamics, so the shifts from ambience to explosion feel more like natural progressions and less like shock treatments. Though the record continues the group’s drift in and out of accessibility, Gira’s love of drone and obsession with the effects of addictive personalities keep the songs from coming close to mainstream alternative. Though mostly ranging from brooding ballads like “Blood Promise” and “Killing For Company” to thundering doom rockers a la “I Am the Sun” and “Mind/Body/Light/Sound,” the record also stops off for the sarcastic social commentary of “Celebrity Lifestyle,” the ethereal wisp of “Mother’s Milk” and the primal scream of “Mother/Father.” Ambitious, varied and imaginative, The Great Annihilator is one of Swans’ very best.
While recording The Great Annihilator, Gira simultaneously worked with Jarboe and Rieflin on Drainland, his first solo album. Though the record features prominent acoustic guitars, atmospheric keyboards and percussion low in the mix, the contrast with its sibling isn’t as stark as you might think. “Low Life Form,” “If You…” and “I See Them All Lined Up” run on similar fuel as TGA, with noisy drones and Gira’s frazzled moan right up front. “Blind” and “Unreal” crank the volume and chaos levels down for a take on gothic balladry rooted in twentieth century urban tension instead of nineteenth century drama. There’s also another sore-thumb swipe at celebrity culture with the sneering “Fan Letter,” but it’s easily balanced with dark nights of the soul like “Why I Ate My Wife.” Though technically a solo album, the music could easily slide into The Great Annihilator without disruption, making this reissued coupling perfect sense.
DOWNLOAD: “I Am the Sun,” “Killing For Company,” “Why I Ate My Wife”
The Upshot: British popster gets the anthology treatment.
Wow, I can’t even call this guy a blast from that past as that would imply that I’d heard of him before, which I hadn’t (sorry, had to come clean). Shame for me too, ‘cos he’s really good and this 28-song collection goes through all of his bands: Guy Darrell & the Midniters, GD and the Winds of Change, but most of the songs are under just his own name, plus a few as the Guy Darrell Syndicate.
His biggest hit was 1966’s “I’ve Been Hurt,” which was a cover of American beach music avatars Bill Deal and The Rondels; reissued in 1973, Darrell’s version struck gold a second time. But no matter the incarnation, the guy’s stuff is all solid, and most of it isn’t just solid but very good. Just nice rock/pop songs and if he reminded me a bit of anyone on our shores maybe a touch o’ Del Shannon, especially on dreamier cuts like “Blessed” and “My Way of Thinking.” Later on you’ll hear covers of Sam Cooke’s “Cupid” plus a few numbers written by the songwriting team of Elton John and Bernie Taupen (you might have heard of them), Paul Simon and even a cover of Dylan song (“It Take a Lot to Laugh, it Takes a Train to Cry”).
If you’ve yet to hear this guy check him out, an underground gem to be sure and of course longtime fans need this one as well. Go!
DOWNLOAD: “I’ve Been Hirt,” “Blessed,” “My Way of Thinking”
The Upshot: Monumental and a hell of a lot of fun!
BY BILL KOPP
John Lee Hooker was one of the most important blues artists of his – or any other – generation. With a style that managed at once to be thoroughly authentic and somehow commercial, Hooker’s output has become part of the American musical lexicon.
After a stint on a smaller label, Hooker signed with Vee-Jay, for whom he recorded a substantial number of singles, including the 1962 hit “Boom Boom.” But – as best as I can tell, and I could be wrong on this – Hooker didn’t seem to have had his Vee-Jay era work compiled on an album, at least not during the time he was signed to the label.
Whiskey & Wimmen: John Lee Hooker’s Finest corrects that. And even if I’m wrong – even if there’s a Vee-Jay album release in the period 1955-1965 that spans this material – the vinyl LP Whisky & Wimmen is an essential compilation. In addition to excellent sound – clearly drawn from master tapes, which is never a given when we’re talking about the work of classic blues artists – the set boasts detailed annotation (who played on what, release date, chart position if any). And if that weren’t enough, a nice essay from blues historian Bill Dahl, plus some vintage photographs, rounds out a winning set packaged in a study gatefold sleeve.
The instrumental accompaniment on some of the tracks – “I Love You Honey” from 1958, for example – is delightfully loose-limbed. But that quality only adds to its appeal. Whether he’s backed by a band, or (as on several cuts) only by brother Earl on bass, John Lee Hooker delivers tour-de-force performances on vocal and guitar. The music on Whiskey & Wimmen is both historically monumental and a hell of a lot of fun. If you appreciate Hooker even a little bit, and if you own a turntable, this record should be a no-brainer purchase.
In 1976, the Grateful Dead returned from a more than year-long hiatus, when they didn’t tour and played only a few shows. As most people do after a lengthy vacation, they came back re-energized and ready to take on new challenges. The group was working on what would be its poppiest album to date, Terrapin Station, had a slew of new songs that would become Dead standards, and was tighter than usual from all the studio time.
All of this culminated in a legendary run of shows in May 1977, four of which are captured in a new 11-CD set Get Shown the Light, that many fans cite as being among the best they’ve ever played. The selling point is the first commercial release of the band’s performance at Cornell University’s Barton Hall on May 8, 1977, which is also available as its own 3-CD package. This concert was one of the better sounding and more easily available shows of the pre-Internet tape trading days, so for many fans who grew up with the Dead in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it became the epitome of a what a great Dead show sounds like. To this day, it still tops many lists of the band’s best performances, although there are others who say that has as much to do with its ubiquity as its quality.
Get Shown the Light, gives each side ammunition for their argument. There’s no doubt Cornell is a great show. The version of “Morning Dew” that closes the second set is one of the Dead’s most powerful performances. Energy is high throughout and there are also excellent versions of Dead classics like “Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain,” “Not Fade Away,” and “Jack Straw,” among others.
But every show in this set has equally strong highlights, from “Terrapin Station” and “The Music Never Stopped” at Boston Garden the night before Cornell to “Help on the Way/Slipknot/Franklin’s Tower,” “Comes a Time” and “Sugar Magnolia” in Buffalo the night after. All of the shows in this set could easily become a part of any Deadhead’s regular rotation. A concert in New Haven on May 5, 1977, which is often seen as a prelude to the other three shows in the box, would be a career highlight for many bands, featuring a fiery version of “Sugaree” and a gorgeous “Peggy-O.”
With this set, these four landmark shows are given the treatment they deserve. It sounds great, with separation between the instruments that allow you to hear what each member is doing and how the parts lock together. If there’s a revelation here, it’s Keith Godchaux’s piano, which I don’t remember ever hearing so clearly before.
Forty years later, with nearly every Dead show available at your fingertips, these four performances still stand out.
DOWNLOAD: “Morning Dew,” “Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain”
The Upshot: Timeless-sounding pristine pop and indie rock revived for limited edition vinyl.
BY FRED MILLS
Tony award-winning actor Michael Cerveris (2004’s Assassins, 2016’s Fun Home) initially broke through, public image-wise, starring in Sweeny Todd and Tommy on Broadway and, later, Hedwig and the Angry Inch in London, New York, and Los Angeles. All along, though, he never abandoned his rock ambitions—the latter three plays certainly didn’t do anything to scare him off—and over the years he’s been spotted in British band Hinterlands, American outfit Lame, and Bob Mould’s “Dog and Pony Show” touring band. Most recently, he released solo album Piety and a live record, as Michael Cerveris & Loose Cattle, North of Houston: Live at 54 Below. (The latter is particularly entertaining, loose and twangy, and with a handful of choice covers, among them “Wagon Wheel” and “Pinball Wizard.” Yes, that “Pinball Wizard,” done Americana style.)
2004, however, saw his solo debut, dog eared, which went on to become a critical favorite, notching press kudos everywhere, such as at Magnet magazine, which lauded the “Anglophile balladry and fuzzbox raunch recalling Big Star and Guided By Voices in equal measure…call it sloppy art for sloppy hearts, it’s damned swell.” As produced and mixed by veteran studio whiz Adam Lasus, the album featured the performing talents of Corin Tucker, Janet Weiss, Ken Stringfellow, Steve Shelley, Norman Blake and Joe McGinty, Laura Cantrell, Anders Parker and others, so it was also a bit of an indie rock super session.
Despite all that wattage, it’s clearly Cerveris’ unique musical vision, a gorgeous, at times lush, collection of pristine pop and indie rock that hits the sonic sweet spot over and over. From the gently luminous, strings-laden “Disconnect,” which suggests Miracle Legion teaming with a chamber quartet, and the slow-burn anthemism of the Fannies’ “Can’t Feel My Soul,” with its vivid nods to Big Star and R.E.M. (it includes guests Stringfellow, Shelley, McGinty and Corin Tucker); to the strummy, hummable, giddily upbeat title track that’s powered by a memorable melody and is awash in tingly vocal harmonies (listen to it HERE at Blurt), and seven-minute closing song “Golden” which is pitched as a kind of mini-symphony very much in the vein of Brian Wilson; dog eared is indeed a masterpiece, ultimately timeless and fully justifying its reputation as a cult classic. Should Cerveris ever opt to go the perform-a-full-album touring route, there’s no question it could potentially be one of the year’s most talked-about.
For this reissue, archival label Azucar (which most recently resurrected Ken Stringfellow’s 2001 gem Touched) has pulled out all the stops, pressing it up as a 2LP/180-gram vinyl limited edition (of 400) in a gatefold sleeve. There are also bonus mono mixes of “Two Seconds” and “Disconnect,” not to mention a pair of tracks (“Eleven” and “Monkey Tennis”) that you won’t find on Spotify.
From externals to internals, a 5-out-of-5-stars release, and a must-own.
DOWNLOAD: “Can’t Feel My Soul,” “dog-eared,” “Another Time,” “Disconnect”
The Upshot: 1997 gem, newly expanded, and loaded with hooks and ‘tude.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
The Muffs may have been out of the spotlight for a decade, but they’re certainly making up for lost time. They turned is an absolutely stellar reunion album in 2014, with Whoop De Doo, and have spent the past couple of years touring, making up for lost time. On top of that, Omnivore Recordings has been religiously re-releasing their earlier efforts, the latest being Happy Birthday To Me.
Originally out in 1997, the songs here hold up remarkably well two decades on. Cramming this record with more hooks than their first two efforts, this was the band’s first album without an outside producer. Turns out they did just as well on their own. On a song like “Pennywhore” (one of the catchiest tracks the band ever wrote) or “You and Your Parrot,” you can’t help but wonder why The Muffs weren’t just as big as their labelmates Green Day (to be honest Kim Shattuck had better lyrics than Billy Joe and the boys).
The re-release, like Omnivore’s earlier offerings, includes a number of previously unreleased tracks. In this case, the UK single “Pace” and half a dozen demo versions. Revisiting their back catalog, The Muffs prove once again that they should be treated like Pop Punk royalty. All hail the monarchy.
DOWNLOAD: “Pennywhore,” “Crush Me” and “You and Your Parrot”
The Upshot: Expanded reissue of 1989’s Flowers in the Dirt is the sound of Macca picking himself up after taking some hits on a remarkably diverse (read: hit or miss, and at times downright bizarre) album, now expanded into the usual multi-disc and now-obligatory multi-vinyl iterations.
BY GILLIAN G. GAAR
The 1980s was a decade of mixed success for Paul McCartney. McCartney II (1980) offered a rare glimpse at his quirky side, while Tug of War (1982) showcased him in fine form. Then things got rocky. There was the decidedly lackluster Pipes of Peace (1983); the success of the “Say Say Say” single (due to his paring up with the biggest star in the world at that time, Michael Jackson); the debacle of the Give My Regards to Broad Street film in 1984 (though the soundtrack yielded a good single in “No More Lonely Nights”); and the puzzling Press (1986), which peaked at #30 (his lowest charting release since — well, ever) and failed to even go gold.
So McCartney took his time before releasing his next major record (he did bang out an album of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll, Choba B CCCP — “Back in the USSR” — initially released in Russia only in 1988; worldwide release came in 1991). He even reached for a little outside help on his songs, collaborating with Elvis Costello. The extra effort paid off; 1989’s Flowers in the Dirt was certainly McCartney’s strongest album since Tug of War, and set the stage for his return to live performance.
At the time, much was made over the McCartney/McManus (Costello’s real name) songwriting team. But with one exception, the best songs on Flowers are McCartney’s. That exception is the album’s first song (and single), the poppy “My Brave Face”; it’s about a romantic breakup, but as a song about loss, it’s become more poignant since the death of McCartney’s first wife, Linda. The rest of the pair’s numbers aren’t as successful. In interviews at the time, McCartney loved to say how the collaboration on “You Want Her Too” (where both McCartney and Costello vie for the attentions of the same woman) echoed that of the positive/negative interplay with John Lennon on “Getting Better.” But frankly the McCartney/McManus number sounds forced and drags. Similarly, the Irish-gospel of “That Day is Done” is a painfully slow dirge. Though “Don’t Be Careless,” is interesting because it’s so bizarre; McCartney tortures his voice into a high register as he describes paranoid visions of his loved one being “chopped up into two little pieces.” Substantially darker than “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”
On his own, McCartney comes up with good, strong material. “Put It There” is trademark McCartney, a simple, lovely number about a father passing on his wisdom to his son. The funky “Rough Ride” is surprisingly lustful if you take a closer look at the lyrics. Yet the man who once championed “Silly Love Songs” now viewed the subject from a perspective that’s decidedly bittersweet. The gentle “Distractions” is about how love subsides in the face of day-to-day life, while “We Got Married” makes the observation, “It’s not just a loving machine, it doesn’t work out if you don’t work at it.” Even the ostensibly catchy “This One” is somewhat regretful in its admission that we don’t often take the time to tell a loved one how much they mean to us.
The rest is more of a mixed bag. “Figure of Eight” is pleasant, but unsubstantial (oddly, McCartney chose this song to open his 1989/90 shows, instead of something more instantly recognizable). The vaguely reggae-ish “How Many People” is an agreeable let’s-make-the-world-a-better place tune. The closer, “Motor of Love” is a dreaded power ballad, sounding even worse due to those awful ’80s production techniques (e.g. processed drums). The original bonus track, “Ou est le Soleil” (“Where is the Sun”) is a bit of fun, McCartney indulging his penchant for dance rock (cue the extended remixes!).
There’s a 2-CD/2-LP version that includes eight original demos between McCartney and Costello, especially interesting as they include demos of songs that didn’t appear on Flowers (“Playboy to a Man” is nicely high spirited). And for the truly indulgent experience, there’s a 3-CD/1-DVD box set, also featuring a 112 book about the making of the album, and some other goodies. The most fun item is a cassette, featuring three of the McCartney/Costello demos. The set’s other CD features even more demos. But someone made the boneheaded decision to have the original Flowers era B-sides and remixes (four of “Ou est le Soleil”!) only available through download, not on a fourth CD. In a bizarre non-interview with SuperDeluxeEdition.com, McCartney’s manager Scott Rodger apparently indicated (SDE’s Paul Sinclair noted, “To stress, these are not direct quotes from Scottand these aren’t necessarily the exact questions I asked, but I’ve created the questions and answers below to try and simplify and clarify the points of view”) that there was a belief that people are more excited about streaming, hence there was no need to have a fourth CD in the set. Wrong. As the commentary on sites like amazon makes clear, people spending over $100 bucks on a set (Flowers’ Super Deluxe is retailing for $117.99 at amazon), would much, much prefer to have everything on CDs (with accompanying downloads available, but not featuring any exclusive material). There are also some complaints that not every Flowers era B-side was used.
The DVD is stuffed as well, featuring the numerous videos created for the tracks, back when videos still mattered (including a truly embarrassing one for “My Brave Face,” about an avaricious Japanese collector of Beatles memorabilia); footage of McCartney and Costello working in the studio; and the documentary Put It There. In short, a comprehensive look at Paul McCartney’s professional life in 1989.
Flowers in the Dirt is Paul McCartney picking himself back up after taking some hits. What else could you expect from Mr. Thumbs-Up? You can knock him down, but he’s always going to get right back up again. Good on ya, Paul!
“We weren’t immediately lauded as the best thing since sliced bread”: Four decades on, a Wire gig—not to mention a new album—continues to be “an event. To mark the recent release of Silver/Lead and the band’s DRILL Los Angeles festival, we cast our minds back to the British band’s boisterous beginnings via an archival interview with vocalist Colin Newman, originally conducted in 2006. (Scroll down for list of upcoming DRILL shows in Europe.)
BY FRED MILLS
Late last month, Wire—original members Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, Robert Grey (aka Gotobed), plus guitarist-since-2010 Matt Simms—released their latest studio album, Silver/Lead via, as is their custom, via their own Pink Flag label. Yours truly, in a (cough) succinct review, observed thusly:
Silver/Lead, with its immersive sonic immediacy and lack of abrasiveness, plus rich, colorful melodic schema, has a near-irresistible appeal, Right from the get-go, the grand power chords, monolith-like drums, and belching synth lines of “Playing Harp for the Fishes” signal a cinematic ride ahead. Vocalist Colin Newman, figuratively perched at the lip of the stage, fairly leans into your face to dramatically intone words that feel more like commands than lyrics. Later on, with “Sleep on the Wing,” a brace of chiming, echoing guitars and undulating keyboards conjures a purposefully dreamy, kosmiche ambiance. Even the album’s quote-unquote “pop single,” a three-minute, hooky romp titled “Short Elevated Period,” has an almost Phil Spector-esque wall-of-sound vibe.
It almost as if Wire set out to make a concept album without actually calling it a concept album, so consistent is the sound throughout, and with subtly recurring melodic themes—compare, for example, the similarity between the main chord progression of “Playing Harp…” and the closing title track. However, given how inscrutable most of the lyrics (penned largely by bassist Graham Lewis) are, some almost haiku-ish or like a series of non sequiturs, it might be hard to make that concept claim stick. The musicians themselves might be aghast at such a label anyway. (Or maybe not. Stay tuned, or scroll downward.)
Still, the four gentlemen are nothing if not bloody minded. Unlike most of their peers from the class of ’77, they never quite knew when to stop, having indulged numerous hiatuses that weren’t true hiatuses (they would play on each other’s side projects), created a musical collective (Pinkflag.com eventually becoming the official URL) that operates more like a club house than a project, and announced the proverbial “new direction” numerous times while still maintaining a detectable through-line across 14 studio albums and more than a few live releases. Four decades on, with studio album number 15, Wire continues to thwart expectations and defy pigeonholing,
I count myself among the Wire faithful who were with the band practically from the start, having scored a copy of their 1977 debut, Pink Flag, which against all odds had been released in the States on the EMI imprint Harvest. That their U.S. label was one normally associated with British prog and avant-folk artists was an irony lost upon no one—but then, even at the outset, Wire’s art-punk seemed more aligned with the Krautrockers and experimentalists of the day than the safety-pinned brigades, a notion that was seemingly confirmed on ’78 sophomore platter Chairs Missing, and even more so on 1979’s 154. Those three albums continue to inspire fans, and it’s likely a new fanbase was created in 2006 when Pink Flag reissued them in America, additionally releasing the 5-CD box set Wire: 1977 – 1979 containing three original albums plus a pair of previously unreleased live discs: Live at the Roxy, London – April 1st & 2nd 1977 and Live at CBGB Theatre, New York – July 18, 1978.
It was on the occasion of that box that I found myself on the horn to London one afternoon, talking to Colin Newman for Harp magazine (for whom I was managing editor and also author of the publication’s “Indelibles” column, which discussed key and classic albums). What follows here is an extended draft of the Wire installment of that column; after that, if you have some extra time to waste, you can read the entire, unfiltered, previously unpublished interview. What was originally going to be about a 20 minute conversation with Newman soon stretched to the better portion of an hour, and he was genuinely one of the most outgoing and gracious musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing.
Incidentally, Wire just marked the 40th anniversary of the abovementioned Roxy performance, which as it turns out was the band’s official live coming-out party. (There had been a prior performance at a college under a different name than Wire.) Elsewhere on the BLURT site you can view a photo gallery from DRILL Los Angeles by longtime contributor Susan Moll. We’ve faithfully covered the band in our nearly nine years of existence, and if you have even more time to waste, just enter the term “wire” into the search box on the right-hand side of this page and dive right in. Happy birthday, lads.
APRIL 1, 1977, LONDON: Wire is onstage at the Roxy club, nearing the end of a 17-song set – which, in a flourish of Ramones-like economy, will clock in at barely 25 minutes. Caustic sexual diatribe “12XU” is followed by the fuck-you society rant “Mr. Suit.” Then, with barely a pause between tunes, the band catapults into a cover of the Dave Clark Five’s “Glad All Over.” Shorn of its feel-good vibe and delivered at breakneck speed, the ‘60s pop chestnut is reinvented as a punk anthem steeped in irony.
Clearly, this band Wire will be greeted as an upstart conquering hero here at this grotty punk venue (the Roxy was previously a gay club located in London’s Covent Garden section), which has chosen April 1 and 2 to showcase the cream of up-and-coming British combos for a two-day “Punk Festival.” Wire’s in good company, too, sharing a bill with the likes of X-Ray Spex, Slaughter and the Dogs, the Adverts and the Buzzcocks.
“Glad All Over” throttles to its conclusion, and then – dead silence. Nothing. Stunned disbelief on the part of the Roxy audience, outright indifference, or….?
“There wasn’t anybody there!”
Wire vocalist Colin Newman chortles heartily. Three decades after his band’s official debut as a quartet, his memory, in 2006, of Wire’s early days remains fresh. All the more remarkable, given his band’s fractious career that’s seen more than its share of breakups, reunions, extended hiatuses, and concurrent solo careers.
Part of Newman’s good mood is due to his having recently completed long-after-the-fact postproduction work on live tapes of the Roxy shows – originally recorded by EMI, two Wire songs would be included on 1977 punk compilation The Roxy London WC2 (Jan – Apr 77) and he’s now high-spiritedly framing the scene.
“On the first night we were the opening band – the opening band on a five-band bill in a club holding 100 people,” explains Newman. “That’s pretty lowly! So it has to be pointed out that the reason it’s so quiet between songs is because no one was there [yet] that night. In fact, because the Wire tracks on that live Roxy album were so quiet, a lot of people thought they’d actually been recorded in a studio! On the second night they’d moved us up on the bill because they thought we were quite good, but we still weren’t that high. I think we were still behind X-Ray Spex, who were newer than we were.
“You wouldn’t have imagined anything was happening at this point. It all just sort of happened, really. Less than six months later we were recording Pink Flag.”
Ah. Pink Flag. Nowadays it’s hard to imagine a modern musical milieu without the DNA strands of Wire and its debut LP winnowing around in the mix – on both sides of the Atlantic. Over the years American heavy hitters as sonically diverse as R.E.M., Mission of Burma, and the Minutemen have enthusiastically cited Wire’s influence, while the current crop of UK neo-postpunkers — Futureheads, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Githead et al — could do worse than to simply sign over a portion of their royalties to Newman, guitarist Bruce Gilbert, drummer Robert Gotobed (nee Grey), and bassist Graham Lewis. (Ditto that: In 1995 Britpop upstarts Elastica literally nicked the angular, loping intro to Pink Flag’s “Three Girl Rhumba” and, upon grafting it into their own “Connection,” took the Wire influence directly to the bank; the matter was subsequently settled out of court.)
The road to Pink Flag was paved with, not so much fortuity or luck, as sober-headed deliberation. The group initially began life at Watford art school in 1976 as Overload; lasting one gig, Overload then gradually morphed into Wire after fellow students Newman, Gilbert and guitarist and principal songwriter George Gill recruited Newman and Gotobed, although Gill’s tenure came to an end after only six gigs when the other four determined that pointed, streamlined tunes with an eye towards maximum initial impact trumped Gill’s more traditionally-minded material steeped in solos and extended choruses.
One fortuitous stroke did occur when producer Mike Thorne, who’d overseen the Roxy club recordings for EMI, took a liking to Wire. At Thorne’s urging, EMI offered a contract, and by the fall the band was hard at work in London’s venerable Advision Studios, crafting Pink Flag with Thorne at the helm. EMI no doubt thought it was getting a one-two-three-FOWAHH! punk band for its cash, although in hindsight, signing Wire to its progressive imprint Harvest and not EMI proper has to go down as one of rock’s great Freudian slips.
“Wire were not a punk band,” Newman vehemently maintains. “Any attitudes that would be coming from [punk], we would be of the opposite direction. Secondly, you have people who were really, really serious about the music. To have a record with your name on it, that’s a serious thing and you’re not gonna blow this chance. You’re gonna do it really properly.”
Newman adds that while at this stage the musicianship in Wire wasn’t quite up to, say, Yes or Genesis standards, a lot of thought and strategy went into the making of Pink Flag. “There were a bunch of people with points to prove, including Mike Thorne,” he says. For his part, Thorne proposed that Wire could draw from both the heavy metal and pop fields in order to make a record that was simultaneously accessible and true to its creators’ art school-fueled leanings. The massive wall of guitars – a pair of two-chord sequences overdubbed eight times — that greets listeners’ ears on opening track “Reuters,” for example, reflected the metal aesthetic (Newman recalls band members exclaiming, “Yeah, we like that!” at the playback). Elsewhere, while the album is dotted by numerous cuts that speed abrasively past in under a minute, more tuneful material such as “Ex-Lion Tamer” (a joyful, lyrically absurd romp) and the title track (a kind of upside-down take on Chuck Berry, and one of several overtly political numbers on the album) clearly speak to Wire’s and Thorne’s hunch that the band could be, as Newman puts it, “pop and avant garde at the same time.”
(Newman hastens to point out that, seriousness of intent aside, a lot of humor could be found in Wire: “It was extremely deadpan and all done with a very straight face, so a lot of people didn’t understand that there was humor in it. But listen to the Roxy thing – absolutely hilarious! You understand something about Wire that you can’t necessarily understand listening to Pink Flag. I mean, same band, in the same way, in the same style, doing ‘Glad All Over’?!?”)
Journalist Simon Reynolds, in his insightful 2005 post-punk post-mortem Rip It Up And Start Again, cites Pink Flag’s key attributes: “21 bursts of abstract fury in just 35 minutes,” “enigmatic lyrics and non-linear dream logic” and “songs as exquisitely etched as a finely honed haiku.” Similar plaudits greeted Pink Flag in the UK upon its release in late ’77, and Wire soon found itself doing photo sessions for all the British weeklies. A tour supporting the Tubes further exposed Wire to the masses, and Newman recalls the sense of momentum that began kicking in.
“We did a series of Saturdays at a pub called the Red Cow in Hammersmith. It held 200. We started off the first Saturday with it half full. The second Saturday was three-fourths full, and on the third it was completely full. That fourth Saturday there were as many outsiders who couldn’t get in as there were on the inside. I remember my friends would be like, ‘Wow – this is really happening, man.’ Everyone who was in a band would come and see us and tell us how much they loved us – Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire. A Wire gig was definitely an event.”
Wire’s reception over here was a bit different. Thanks to Pink Flag being released by EMI in America, the band enjoyed a leg up, distribution-wise, that many of its contemporaries weren’t privy to. The record did find its way into stores. Yours truly, however, working in 1977-78 for a record store chain’s distribution center, distinctly recalls spotting several cartons of Pink Flag promos earmarked for the warehouse’s dumpster. Upon rescuing a handful of LPs (I still own a sealed copy) I opened one and played it over the in-house stereo; the looks of horror and outright hostility that warehouse workers immediately directed at me suggested that elsewhere in the American heartland, at that very same moment, similar reactions to Wire might be taking place. As Newman drily puts it upon hearing my anecdote, “We weren’t immediately lauded as the best thing since sliced bread.”
Wire didn’t do itself any favors by only coming to the U.S. once during the seventies, and high profile though a five-night residency at CBGB (in July of ’78) may have been in theory, in practice it rendered the band non-starters on these shores. EMI didn’t even bother to release its second album in America. So for the most part it would be up to college radio and the loose network of punk fanzines to get the word out on Wire; both Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus trashed the album, in Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, respectively, so Pink Flag would have to settle for having a delayed, halo effect upon American youth. It would take the hardcore movement of the ‘80s – the SST Records camp, the DC and Boston scenes – to fully appreciate Wire’s minimalist, rejection-of-rock-dogma, approach.
Meanwhile, Wire went about its business at home, touring extensively in Britain and Europe and recording two more groundbreaking albums with producer Thorne, 1978’s Chairs Missing and 1979’s 154. Each represented a huge step forward for the band: Chairs Missing, compared to its predecessor, was lush with keyboards, borderline psychedelic and contained the near-hit single “Outdoor Miner”; 154, densely textured and cloaked in atmosphere, prefigured in places the ambient techno scene of the ‘90s.
Comparing the recording of each album, Newman recalls the debut as being “quite fraught. It wasn’t necessarily grueling but there was a lot of frayed tempers when we were recording the backing tracks. If Robert didn’t keep a steady speed Graham would stop playing and then they’d have a fight and the sticks would go flying across the room. Chairs Missing was fun, and because we could play better we found it easier to put the backing tracks down and there was also more overdubbing. That’s an exciting thing to be able to do, when you first start to get the whole feel of overdubbing, adding parts that were not done in the original and taking a track somewhere. That was obviously a key to how then things developed in the following album.”
Yet by the time of 154 Wire had effectively divided into two camps, the defiantly avant-garde Lewis and Gilbert and the Newman-Gotobed contingent, who Newman says was “still interested in retaining a really broad canvas for the band.” Thorne was stuck in the middle, attempting to extract singles-oriented material from the band in order to appease the powers that be at EMI.
Everything came to a head during the making of 154, says Newman, partly as a result of EMI’s demands, partly due to the band’s collective bloody-mindedness, and to a large degree the byproduct of diverging agendas among the members themselves. “Personal relations in Wire have always been very, very difficult. We’ve never been friends and it’s never been an easy kind of thing. Chairs Missing had been joyful and sunny and the joy of a band discovering they could really play and then just taking that and pushing it further in the studio. Whereas working on 154, it had some very horrible moments, ambition pushing it in different directions.”
Not long after the release of 154 Wire embarked upon an ill-fated tour with Roxy Music that found the group, much to EMI’s displeasure, quitting the tour after only a few shows. Tension between band and label was further fueled when Wire did a series of performance art-heavy concerts in November ’79 that barely featured any of the new 154 material. The following February Wire announced it had left EMI, citing a “breakdown of communication” (e.g., EMI wouldn’t fund some of the group’s ideas for promoting Wire – among those ideas, filming videos).
Wire played a concert on February 29 at London’s Electric Ballroom. Again heavy on multimedia content and performance art, the show was recorded for posterity and eventually released by Rough Trade in 1981 as the Document and Eyewitness album. By that point, however, Wire had been absent for over a year. It would be four more years before anyone would hear from the band.
“I look back now and I think… pfffttt, we were pretty damn arrogant, you know?” remarks Colin Newman, of Wire’s burning desire to keep moving forward artistically at the expense of its own commercial fortunes. “We just didn’t give a stuff about what anybody thought. We just felt it was obvious we had to do something else. You’ve got to remember, we were in the first serious, postmodern critical era in terms of what rock music was about. We could say, ‘But what happened to Pink Floyd? Why did they become rubbish?’ Well, they got rubbish because they just did more of the same, but weaker, adding water to their formulas.”
The members of Wire, always determined not to get painted into a Floydian corner, remained musically active during the first half of the ‘80s, Newman issuing string of solo records, Gilbert and Lewis teaming up in various guises (Dome, Duet Emmo He Said, Cupol, Lewis/Gilbert), and Gotobed doing session work. 1985 saw the four men resume operations as Wire for another five years, and then again in 2000, the latter reunion yielded 2003’s stunning Send and a lengthy tour (documented on the CD/DVD package The Scottish Play: 2004). In the fall of 2005, however, Bruce Gilbert gave his notice that he was leaving Wire for good.
“This last version if Wire, the version that did Send, was supposed to be the version that was built to last,” muses Newman. There’s a long pause, followed by an equally long exhalation. “It didn’t happen. That was a great album and that whole thing should have gone some place. Actually, the timing of these re-releases, it was supposed to be Send, and then the re-releases, and then a new Wire album, all like a virtual circle. But it just hasn’t happened.”
Newman diplomatically declines to go into specifics, simply saying, “It’s an incredibly sad story. There were moments when maybe something could’ve been done, but I don’t really know. But anyway, I don’t want to talk it down. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved.”
Indeed he is. In addition to spearheading the Pink Flag America reissues of Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154 and penning each disc’s liner notes, Newman has overseen a 5-CD box set, Wire: 1977 – 1979. It includes the three original albums housed in mini-LP sleeves plus a pair of previously unreleased live discs: Live at the Roxy, London – April 1st & 2nd 1977 goes all the way back to the beginning, with both Wire sets from the Punk Festival, while Live at CBGB Theatre, New York – July 18, 1978 documents one night of Wire’s 1978 CBGB residency. The limited-edition box is available exclusively at Wire’s website, www.PostEverything.com).
“I probably care more than I should,” says Newman, acknowledging his role as de facto curator of the Wire archives. (2004 also saw the release of Wire on the BOX: 1979, a live DVD/CD package.) “Some people in Wire may be nervous about going too far, and it’s the infuriating thing about Wire which makes the internal relationships very difficult. But I just think that Wire deserves, in this late stage in its life, to receive adulation. The amount of love that Wire gets for what it’s achieved, and what it’s achieved in more than one incarnation, well…
“We’re not going to turn into some kind of squidgy, sentimental thing and all of a sudden do ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ or something like that, you know what I mean?”
The just-reissued Doors debut from 1967, expanded to include a mono mix (for both CD and LP) and a key ’67 concert, not to mention a recent 10” vinyl box chronicling the band’s pre-fame 1966 setlist, might turn you inside out.
BY FRED MILLS
Fifty years on, all the children are still insane—now, more than ever, and perhaps more than anyone is comfortable with acknowledging. Enter The Doors, as fresh now as it was a half-century ago, alternately testing and serenading America’s youth. This is a fact not in dispute: The self-titled debut of the Lizard King & Co. remains as iconic a release as any from the post-British Invasion rock era, perhaps the defining moment for the underground-on-the-verge-of-going-overground.
How many times can Elektra (via the WEA group’s stalwart keepers of the archives, Rhino) return to the Doors well? How much time do you have?
But this 50th anniversary box is no marketing afterthought. Sure, you probably are not lacking for the original stereo mix of The Doors; by 1967, that’s how most of us would have first heard the LP anyway. A second CD containing the so-called “original mono mix,” while not essential, finally makes that mix available in digital formats so fans don’t have to track down original vinyl mono LPs. (For a younger generation, this may seem slightly archaic, but even by the late ’60s albums were still being pressed in both stereo and mono, and there is a collector camp that prizes mono over stereo. Although, admittedly, they are not rare, as a quick glance at Discogs shows several copies available for as little as $10.)
Vinyl nuts such as yours truly, of course, will appreciate the opportunity to own a pristine mono-mix LP here despite the easy availability of used vinyl copies. Neither it nor the CD mono version are particularly revelatory, but there’s always some fun to be had with the old A-B test between the mono and stereo mixes of records from this era.
CD3, recorded live at venerable San Fran venue The Matrix in March 1967, is perhaps the chief draw for completists; we are advised that this comes from the recently discovered original, professionally recorded, tapes, as opposed to the third-generation dubs that comprised a 2008 release of the Matrix tapes. The Doors estate, via its Rhino-distributed Bright Midnight imprint, has been nothing if not generous with its archival offerings over the past decade and a half, and discoveries do indeed continue to be made, such as the London Fog May 1966 10” box that surfaced not long ago (see below). So even if you own the 2008 Bright Midnight version of the Matrix ‘67 or an earlier bootleg version (yes, there are several couple), this concert recording essentially becomes the proverbial “definitive” one. The eight-song set very nearly replicates the original LP’s 11-song tracklisting, only lacking “I Looked at You,” “End of the Night,” and “Take It as it Comes,” and with the latter arguably the only essential song among those three, Live at the Matrix emerges a must-own live representation of the band on the cusp of greatness, the debut LP having only been released a few weeks’ prior. Listen to Morrison’s growls, howls, and yowls during “The End” and dare to differ.
The box also boasts a full-sized hardback book featuring journalist David Fricke’s liners and tons of photos. As an artifact, it’s flawless, so even if some might argue that musically speaking, it’s for completists only, there’s no question that it merits a solid “5” out of 5 stars. Ride the highway west, baby…
… To the prior year.
Allow me to introduce the latest in a long-running parade of posthumous Doors live releases, London Fog May, 1966. It summons from the mists of time a proverbial “recently discovered” live recording of the band, expertly cleaned up for the modern digital ear, in order to give acolytes a sense of what Jim Morrison, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek, and John Densmore actually sounded like, onstage, around the time they were recording their debut album for Elektra Records but had yet to burst upon the national scene.
And it’s neither time capsule nor curio, but rather a valid projection into the collector-archival ether that should hold up for future generations. Vintage, if hard-edged, blues apparently dominated early Doors sets: Here, a lengthy workout on Willie Dixon’s “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” and a remarkably serpentine, sensual Muddy Waters’ “Rock Me” showcase not only Morrison’s intuitive embrace of the blues’ primal imperative, but his bandmates’ agility as translators of same. Also in the mix are covers of Big Joe Williams, Wilson Pickett, and Little Richard. Seminal Doors originals also make surprise appearances: a somewhat hesitant “Strange Days” (which would go on to be overhauled and polished in the studio to provide the second album’s title track), and a rowdy-bawdy-bluesy “You Make Me Real,” which subsequently went into hibernation until 1970’s Morrison Hotel.
Time capsule: well, actually… yeah. Rhino has pulled out all stops for this box, which houses both a CD and a 10” vinyl disc of the nine tracks, plus an assortment of memorabilia that includes reproductions of the evening’s setlist from the London Fog, a postcard and drink coaster from that Sunset Strip dive, and photos of the evening Nettie Pena, a UCLA Film School student who Morrison, also a student, enlisted that evening to document his band’s performance on a small reel to reel deck. In those photos, the musicians seem impossibly young, as yet unjaded by stardom, yet clearly determined as artists. Talk about a snapshot. (Pena, who also wrote a review of the gig, discloses that she cannot locate an additional reel of tape from the show that contained the band doing a 15-minute “The End,” but promises that if it ever surfaces, she’ll immediately pass it along to the Doors camp.) Worth additional note: a passionate remembrance in the CD booklet penned by Ronnie Harran, who at the time of the show was booking the nearby Whisky A Go Go and, acting on a tip, came to check out the Doors during their residency at the Fog, ultimately returning to the Whisky, eager to book them at her venue. Everything is housed in a 10-inch, thick cardboard box—pure collector catnip. Just the effort alone that’s been put into this project demands an above-average rating for archival releases; the mesmerizing music guarantees it a perfect score.
Commentary, artifacts, and nostalgia aside, London Fog May, 1966 ultimately brings the Doors—pardon the inside joke—reverse full circle. Prior to Morrison’s death in 1971, the group had reinvested itself in the blues that had originally spawned the combo back in the early ‘60s (as Rick and the Ravens), tackling both vintage material and primal original compositions on Morrison Hotel and on swansong L.A. Woman. And while it’s impossible to say if the Doors vaults have finally been combed clean (as this obsessive Doors collector’s CD library can testify, the band and its archivists have been diligent over the course of the past decade and a half; hats off to Rhino, Rhino Handmade, Bright Moonlight, Elektra and everyone involved), there’s something fitting about celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of the band’s debut LP by listening to an early Doors set comprising the blues, soul, and ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll that inspired the musicians in the first place.
But then, of course, there’s the matter of said debut LP, from 1967, now graced with a deluxe reissue/reappraisal. Rewind this tape and start from the beginning. Is everybody in?
The Upshot: The songs are good, strong melodies and harmonies and solid playing throughout and the British Invasion band certainly had the look down pat.
BY TIM HINELY
Cherry Red and its assortment of labels just keep on keeping on and here they offer up a quintet called Five’s Company. These young gents were in college in the mid-‘60s and had released a few singles on the Pye label. They seemed on their way up but ended up breaking up when the bassist Bob Brunning ended up joining Fleetwood Mac (ever heard of them?) but they did however, get together to record an album, The Ballad of Fred the Pixie before breaking up officially.
This 26 songs comp includes all of said singles, plus the LP and and some demos a well and most of the songs were written by vocalist Edward Broadbridge but they do toss in a Kinks cover (“Session Man”) as well as a Lieber/Stoller tune “Little Egypt” but otherwise most of the tunes were written by Broadbridge. In listening to Friends and Mirrors there’s no reason why this band shouldn’t have been huge, or at least as big as any other Brit band that made it back then. The songs are good, strong melodies and harmonies and solid playing throughout and they certainly had the look down pat (apparently they were all students at a local teacher training college that was located on Kings Road). That Kinks cover rules as do many of the Broadbridge compositions like ”Some Girls,” “Dejection,” “Break My Heart’ and “I’m still Hoping.”
I’ll bet fans of the band from the swingin’ ‘60s are absolutely stoked over this release and for those of us who’d not ever heard of the band before, well, it’s another unique gem from the Cherry Red stable of labels.
DOWNLOAD: ”Some Girls,” “Dejection,” “Break My Heart,” “I’m still Hoping”
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