Review Summary: The second Wire album is a perfect cross between the forcefulness of punk rock and the ornateness of art rock: witty, intelligent, powerful and inspired. A definitive post-punk landmark of guitar rock.
Produced by Mike Thorne
UK chart: 46
US chart: did not chart
When I was a child, my school would hold a party just before the Christmas holiday. It was the usual jelly and party hats affair but one thing that always stuck in my mind was a game we played towards the end of the day. A circle of chairs facing outwards would be erected in the middle of the main hall and a playing card would be placed on each seat. Everyone sat on a chair. The object of the game was to navigate the circle and reach your own seat again, using a connection with your card to the one on the seat next to it. Or something.
Hmm....that didn't really go anywhere, did it? However, this is one of many introductions towards Chairs Missing
I thought of when writing this review, where many different views can be taken when approaching this key post-punk album.
is forty-two minutes in length with fifteen tracks, including two singles, the near-hit Outdoor Miner
and I Am The Fly
, the latter shamelessly ripped off by Britpop bandwagon-jumpers Elastica. The songs are a mixture of brutality and beauty, shock and awe, guitar crunch and synth washes and lyrical insight and inspired nonsense. The barebones punk rock of Pink Flag
is fleshed out via keyboards and synthesisers and the excellent musicianship of Bruce Gilbert, Graham Lewis and Robert Gotobed is brought out a little more as post-punk began to rise from the ashes of the Sex Pistols.
The opener Practice Makes Perfect
is a statement of intent: the foreboding bassline, the guitar thrash and the siren-like synth set up Colin Newman's friendly cockney nag as he speak-sings clippedly "Practice makes perfect yes I can prove it - business or pleasure, the more that you do it!"
and that is the concept of Chairs Missing
- a guitar music embellished with new ideas with enough grounded production (Thorne also produced Pink Flag
) and vocal familiarity to keep the audience "in" on the whole thing. If the lyrics don't hammer it home, the "final girl" like synth wail at the finish will. A long song by the standard of Pink Flag
at over four minutes, the brevity and wit and the progression and intellect is on its way.
A track-by-track review is tempting but unsuitable, as I could write at great length about the next song, French Film Blurred
, a hushed guitar pop tune with genuine lovely moments and Another The Letter
, a circular, video arcade-like synth riff which gradually builds up into quiet chaos before an abrupt finish and ruin how to appreciate this album. Because Chairs Missing
is an intelligent rock album that is open to every interpretation imaginable, punk rock fan or not. Colin Newman's vocals speak in a post-Lou Reed manner, appropriately enunciated, whispered or stentorian. The production allow this to sink in and leave enough space for the band to expand their sound without turning into Yes. Chairs Missing
begs to be listened to as a whole, which isn't too much to ask, considering the weightier expectations of Howard Devoto and Ian Curtis.
Newman's "say no more" vocal style and the band's new directions may well be the Great Leap Forward for Wire, but it's Bruce Gilbert who makes this album into a rock classic rather than just a post-punk classic. One of the most underrated guitarists in British rock, he showcases fifteen different ways the electric rock guitar can go and Thorne is generous enough to make it sound close and intimate rather than remote and cold. Steve Albini, the embodiment of indie rock cred, covered Heartbeat
with his former band Big Black, in the studio and live with Gilbert and Lewis. Incidentally, it's a shuffling quiet-rocker complete with fret squeak and distant crashing symbals. Huh. Some other names from the post-Pistols guitar godhood canon that owe some debt to Gilbert and this album are Kevin Shields, whose now-functioning band My Bloody Valentine covered the snappily-titled "Map Ref. 41 °N 93° W" for a tribute album which, alas, appears on Wire's third album, 154
and Fugazi's Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto. Of course, the current wave of pauxst-punk bands like Bloc Party, Maximo Park and Futureheads too.
The one-two punch towards the end of the album are formed by the two aforementioned singles. Outdoor Miner
is a lovely jangle-pop song with gorgeous harmonies, typically vague lyrics and a great singalong chorus. It was a no.51 single in the UK and another Huge Hit In A Parallel Universe along with Gang Of Four's "At Home He's A Tourist" and Magazine's "A Song From Under The Floorboards". The funny thing is the single version was extended to include a keyboard part, only Wire could get away with something that perverse. I Am The Fly
is a spasming guitar riff and snipped Sarf Lahndan-accented sneer, and another great singalong chorus and excellent mechanical handclaps. Do you know how many good records become great records with mechanical handclaps? Go on Mr. Producer, turn on the handclap machine. You know you want to.
I Feel Mysterious Today
is a great rock strut and sums up the achievements of the album with Newman's knowing vocals and strange observations: is it ever appealing to stand on the ceiling?"
before Graham Lewis' undulating bass winds up like a catapult and Newman spits "did you ever conceive that you too can leave exactly when you LIKE?"
. It's that opening and closing of doors, the juggling of ideas and - yes - the moving of chairs to get a different view which allows you to hear a different album each time, demanding to be heard in its order despite no overall theme or concept in its tracklisting. Indeed, the band can barely fit all four minutes and eleven seconds of the closer, the aptly titled Too Late
, where Gilbert unleashes an awesome guitar masterclass and Newman keeps up with him, repeatedly asking "is it too late to change my mind?"
before the entire band join in and it becomes slam-bang punk rock crunch with synth pieces like pneumatic drills punctuating the noise. Newmans gives up, the guitars die down and you're left with a groaning noise before the album ends.
What is Colin Newman asking if he can change his mind about? Whether Men 2nd
, a skittery, jangly mood piece with a comic shout of "Women and children first!"
should come before the suitably dry, atmospheric, spacey mood music of Marooned
? Or whether the whole album should be scrapped and they should start rehearsing "Glad All Over" again? I don't know.
I do know, as does the band, that Practice Makes Perfect
, which is where we came in, and where we appear to be.
"I Feel Mysterious Today"
"Practice Makes Perfect"