Wire - 154

by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:2018-06-15
Wire - 154
Wire - 154

154 derives its name from the number of gigs Wire had played to date. Between 1977 and 1979 the band cut three ground-breaking records for the Harvest label. Where their blistering debut, Pink Flag, took no prisoners, their sophomore effort sought a more experimental path. For many, Chairs Missing was a somewhat schizophrenic affair, lurching from sinister Cold War Noir rockers to moody, ambient material. Their third album, 154 manages to go even further out on a limb. For what it lacks in Pink Flag’s frenetic energy, it makes up for in flashes potent electricity.

On the catchy, ‘The 15th ‘ front man Colin Newman uneasily grows accustomed to the notion of being a vocalist. In place of Pink Flag’s ragged howl is a tentative attempt at actual singing. The results, bringing an unexpected vulnerability. Like ‘Outdoor Miner’ off Chairs Missing, ‘The 15th’ has all the makings of a Pop hit. But that is swiftly subverted by the willfully obtuse, spoken word, ‘The Other Window’. Revealing a band determined to push the boundaries of their inhibitions even if it means alienating some of their audience. As an experiment, it doesn’t quite yield fruit. Giving credence to 154 being the most difficult of Wire’s early albums. But the doomy, ‘Single K.O.’ shows just how far Wire had come since their debut. Where much of Pink Flag felt like it was cut live, here the band isn’t shy about embracing all the wizardry the recording studio has to offer. Layered synths and backing vocals take front stage to any gritty guitars. The end results are a positively hair-raising track, letting the listener know there’s no going back. If that weren’t enough, the warped ‘A Touching Display’ is virtually unrecognizable from the band that cranked out ‘Ex Lion Tamer’ or ‘Strange’ on Pink Flag. This is truly uncharted territory and frankly, not many records at the time sounded so willfully unhinged outside of PIL’s Metal Box. Next to ‘A Touching Display’, the darkest moments of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures sound like Bubble Gum Pop. By comparison, Wire sound positively demonic here.

On ‘Mutual Friend’, 154 hits on positively desolate territory while perversely groping after melodic glimpses of light. Its music that simply defies categorization and what’s more it’s intentionally not designed for all markets. Few bands influenced by Wire have delved into this side of the band. Elsewhere, ‘Once Is Enough’ finds them at their most ferociously abrasive. In terms of Wire’s natural Pop inclinations, ‘Once’ is a willful exercise in sabotage . Close on the heels, however, ‘Map Ref 41 Degrees N 93 Degrees W’ (coordinates to an open field in Idaho) beautifully returns to Pop oriented territory. A penchant that keeps 154’s attempts at swimming too far from shore from heading out to sea. Despite any ‘Indirect Enquiries’ into the dark undertow, Wire are cynically waving, not drowning.  

“I never know which version I’m going to be,” Newman sings on ’40 Versions’. Something which sums this album beautifully. This is an album like an onion, with many layers. And the deeper the cut, the more it’s likely to make your eyes water. Without a doubt, 154 is the most obstinate of Wire’s classic late 70’s output. Any tendency toward conformity is defiantly subverted. The result is an album that makes art out of self-sabotage. It's not an easy album to like. Nor does it want to be liked. It’s a record that purposely, barely holds together. It's Wire at their most uncompromising and unsettling. After this, the band would call it the day.  While they would later re-emerge, they were never quite the same. 154 marks the end of an era.

Like many others, I’m weary of the re-issue game. But shelling out for this re-master is the only way to lend an ear to some rather tempting extras. So, be warned. The band will not be offering any of that loot for download. If you’re a Wire fan you’re not going to be able to resist. If you’re looking for an introduction, hit Pink Flag first.

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