ALBUM REVIEW: Wire – Not About to Die


ALBUM REVIEW: Wire – Not About to Die

It’s 1977, and a slew of albums from the first wave of British punk acts are being released. We’re seeing the debuts of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, The Jam, The Stranglers and more.

While punk in the United States was already expanding upon its initial parameters at this time, with acts like Talking Heads, Television, Patti Smith, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and Blondie, for example, taking the ethos to new places, British punk was still catching up to the rudimentary introductory music from the likes of Ramones and The Dictators, as well as the Detroit protopunk music of The Stooges and MC5.

Then came another debut album in the final month of 1977: Pink Flag by Wire. Just as British punk was establishing itself, Wire were already doing their part to elevate it. While Pink Flag had the snotty and speedy punk motif on tracks like “Field Day for the Sundays,” generally, their songs were more spacious, artistic, experimental, lyrically intellectual, abstract, and more avant-garde. And punks at the time were very split on them.

With the hindsight of the band’s career now afforded to us, it’s funny that Pink Flag was seen to be as revolutionary as it was, as it’s arguably the most traditional rock or pop album that the band have ever put out. From there, Wire would expand further in their trademark minimalistic and cultivated route, which, like Sonic Youth after them, would see them equally as welcome as the musical guests for an art festival as they would at Rebellion Festival or Riot Fest.

As Wire was comprised of art college alumni, they viewed the band and the music as an expanding artistic project and saw their work more as texts than songs. With the artistic background and attention to economy from guitarist Bruce Gilbert and the pop sensibilities and knowledge of melody from vocalist Colin Newman, Wire created a very distinctive sound that lived up to their name: their music sounds like a string of metallic Wire, but it is overlayed with addictive, euphonious and pleasurable melodies. The best example of this combination would probably be their song “The 15th,” which this reviewer considers being one of the greatest pop songs ever penned.

Not About to Die is a rerelease of a once illegally distributed bootleg of demos that the band had recorded for EMI and which were circulated most likely by an employee of the company who would have access to the tapes. This compilation includes songs from the band’s two follow-up albums to Pink Flag, 1978’s Chairs Missing, and 1979’s 154, a B-side from a single, a song that was not officially released until 2020, and others that never officially made any album.

The first four tracks on the album – “Oh No Not So (Save the Bullet),” “Culture Vultures,” “It’s the Motive”, and “Love Ain’t Polite” – never made it onto a Wire studio album (beyond more than extras on special rerelease editions), and it’s easy to see why. Not that any of these songs are bad, but they are rudimentary punk numbers with typical time signatures, speed, chord progressions and cymbal crashes that would fail to distinguish the band from other contemporaries at the time and would certainly have been disregarded or completely stripped down before the recording of Pink Flag a couple of months later. They definitely would not have been contenders for Chairs Missing or 154 in the state that they appear on this album.

“It’s the Motive”, with its particular bassline and back-up harmonies of “oh”s and “ah”s, sounds more like a Clash song than a Wire song and “Love Ain’t Polite” features; some Dickies-esque fast and repeating vocalising of “bah-bah-bam.” Of the four openers, the second song, “Culture Vultures,” would give the uninitiated the best sense of what the band would sound like going forward. It is said that Wire were still learning their instruments even as they were recording Pink Flag a couple of months later, but all of the tracks present do not sound underperformed; just at a fundamental songwriting level, they feel very routine of the genre at that time.

The other songs not released as an official album track on this bootleg are “Stalemate,” “Stepping Off Too Quick (Not About to Die),” and “Former Airline.” “Stalemate” is a decent track, with an atypical for Wire catchy, repeating hooky chorus of “Stalemate, stalemate, stalemate. Applause.” It does feature some great technical drumming from Robert Gray, as always, but everything from the chorus to its ending just screams of the rock ‘n’ roll formula that Wire would rail against.

“Stepping Off Too Quick (Not About to Die)” is much more in line with the kind of song you would expect to hear off Pink Flag: beginning with slow, pacy instrumentation before switching to a punchy punk romp after a second’s pause and with abstract but emotionally resonating lyrics that make the listener piece their own meaning and which ends as soon as it runs out of words. “Former Airline” is a bass-driven rock tune with some spiralling guitar notes and distortion that doesn’t really sound like any other Wire song, but it’s certainly an interesting and likeable song.

The other songs on the album are comprised of the tracks “Options R” from the 1978 “Dot Dash” single, “Underwater Experiences”, which wasn’t committed as a studio recording until the 2020s 10:20 album, three tracks off of Chairs Missing (“French Film (Blurred),” “Being Sucked in Again,” and “Chairs Missing (Used To)”), with the remaining six being off of 154 (“Indirect Enquires V1,” “Ignorance No Plea (I Should Have Known Better),” “Once is Enough,” “The Other Window,” “On Returning,” and “Two People in a Room.”) Note that some of the tracks on this album’s names differ from their later official titles, but they are labelled as they appear on Not About to Die.

Where the album gets interesting is in comparing the demo versions of these songs with their final counterparts. When comparing any demo from any artist to the final release of the songs, there are certain consistent expectations, notably poorer sound quality, different lyrics, lack of certain frills from the final release or alterations to certain notes. While there are examples of this on Not About to Die, with songs like “Being Sucked in Again,” “On Returning,” “Options R,” “Two People in a Room”, and “Once is Enough,” which are all fundamentally the same songs as their final releases, just with little differences like the song’s key, effects, pace or, in the case of “Once is Enough,” the metallic clanging noises being absent. However, the other songs here are very different from their final releases.

Here’s how the songs differ (again, using the Not About to Die titling): “Indirect Enquires V1”’s studio version is a slow burn, full of haunt and menace that clocks in at 3:37; the demo is spry, fast and considerably cheerier and clocks in at 1:42. “Chairs Missing (Used To)”’s studio version is a droning track with a little bass flourish underneath; the demo has a jazzy rhythm section with a scrappy guitar layered over it. “The Other Window” is the most interesting and noteworthy. The studio version has an economic and unnerving crawling and delayed instrumentation underneath a spoken narration with only hints of melody that mixes gerascophobia, chronophobia and hodophobia into a tale of an old man travelling to a foreign country and not gelling with the customs, despite his best efforts, accompanied by Gregorian vocals, which feels like the auditory equivalent of a Dario Argento film. The demo, however, diminishes the effect of this track by reducing it to a surf rock ditty with traditional singing that lacks any of the thrills and tension.

The “Ignorance No Plea (I Should Have Known Better)” demo is almost similar to its final version. The main difference is that Graham Lewis seems to be doing his best William Shatner impression at the beginning of the demo, and this version builds up more and more aggression and heft as it progresses, which serves to separate the beginning and ending of the song; whereas the final version does not have this ramp up nor change in vocals and feels consistently in-line throughout.

Are the demo versions better than the final versions? A lot of this will be determined by each individual listener, but for this reviewer, the demo versions for most of the songs seem undercooked, which isn’t an issue, as the point of demos is to see what works and expand upon that before committing to a final recording. This reviewer preferred the two demos for “Options R” and “Underwater Experiences.”

For “Options R,” the song is pretty much the same on both the demo and final version, as the demo would not have been recorded too long before the recording of the version for the “Dot Dash” single. This reviewer could be swayed either way on which version is better, but they are giving a marginal advantage to the demo version for sounding just a hair rawer and more unpolished, which works really well for the messy rock song that it is.

“Underwater Experiences,” however, is totally different. The 2020 recording for 10:20 is a basal, almost industrial, shouty and abrasive rock number, which works fine, but the demo version is slow and spacious and has the atmosphere of being trapped in the steam room of a leaking submarine with a languid vocal performance from Colin Newman. The latter version serves the theme of the song much better.

Having been leaked at some point and put on a dodgy record label, it is nice that Wire can profit off the stolen demos that they recorded, but to be clear, Not About to Die is for Wire fans only and is not intended as an entry point into the band. Is it worth buying for diehard Wire fans? Well, the unreleased songs had originally been released in the 1995 compilation, Behind the Curtain and the majority of the rest of the songs have been released as bonus tracks on rereleases of Chairs Missing and 154, so the chances are that diehards have already heard what this album has to offer, provided they didn’t get a copy of the original bootleg back in the ‘80s.

What Not About to Die makes this reviewer curious about is what the seven unreleased songs could have eventuated into, having heard what a song as initially unimpressive as “The Other Window” became. Curiosity from fans is the main reason to buy this album, but, except for “Underwater Experiences,” the best versions of these songs already exist on the albums that they are a part of.

While reviewing this album, this reviewer created a playlist of the studio versions and the demos back-to-back to more accurately compare the two. This made for an interesting experience that the artists of Wire may want to look into. I feel that may be the best possible experience to have with this material, to elevate it beyond what is essentially a four-decade-old bootleg with stellar production being released to finally make money off. If Wire has full ownership of their music, they should consider releasing such a thing as a collage piece to show the building of their work.

Xsnoize Author
Aaron Kavanagh 24 Articles
I’m a writer based in Dublin. Some of my favourite artists are Therapy?, Big Black, Slint, Shellac, Morphine, Suzanne Vega, Bad Religion, Hüsker Dü, Fugazi, Mission of Burma, and The Jesus Lizard

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.