Nocturnal Koreans - Wire (Pink Flag)
“Nocturnal Koreans” is a five-star disc in anyone’s language. There’s a lot they don’t make clear, Wire, so I’ll say it: you play Wire as if there was a huge sign on the disc itself saying PLAY LOUD.
Also, “Nocturnal Koreans” is a record you can fuck to, over and over, with the windows open and the summer heat shrivelling your skin, or the sudden antarctic blasts skimming your bodies but you don’t stop, no, you don’t stop … then you wake up in the night, Wire still seducing you, and you’re chilled to the bone and profoundly disturbed…
Well, to be honest, quite a few of Wire’s LPs, particularly their more recent, are a bit like that…
But let’s go back, partly because people always do with Wire, and I’m getting a bit sick of seeing this. Okay, sure, if you’re familiar with Wire’s early work, like their last lp, you’ll pick up musical references to their earlier work. But that’s all they are, head-nods to themselves, like guidewires, Wire re-examining the world through their own prisms, taking a look at what they were and are along the way. You can play the game of ‘that came from here’ if you must, but you’d be a specky git trainspotter with no life except a stained mac if you did.
And it’s the trainspotters who seem to define the rails upon which the creative world runs, have you ever noticed that? They define and refine their definitions, regardless of whether the music or the intentions or the events defy the academic theory … and presto, this band are “post-punk”, this band are “proto-punk”, this band were significant (especially, it seems, when they most certainly weren’t significant outside of a number of alienated individuals who never really did anything).
Confine an art form to a rigid set of rails and you denigrate the art and the artists by reducing their talents and their intents, by confining the dream and the ambition. They made webs, you call them a spider, give them a Latin name and stuff them into a series of familial groups.
The spider just wants to make gorgeous, sensual webs and eat crawly things, and reproduce. Very sexual, spiders.
Wire, poor sods, have to put up with this mac-wearing cod-academic’s erroneous contribution to their self-definition on Wikipedia: “Wire are a definitive art punk and post-punk ensemble, mostly due to their richly detailed and atmospheric sound, often obscure lyrical themes, and, to a lesser extent, their Situationist political stance.” (for the mac-wearers: I copied this from Wire’s Wikipedia entry on 28th April 2016)
The reason there’s a “citation needed” above is ‘cos Wire never had a Situationist political stance. This is what I mean about definition: read that crap again and you realise you would now expect certain things of the band. Fuck it, then … look, Brian Wilson, everyone’s into Brian Wilson these days. Had Wilson retained his creative trajectory and youth until 2016 (lazy bastard), he could probably make a killing today. But for many years he was ignored by all but a few, another lost hippy casualty. A nothing, a nobody outside of dad-rock Beach Boys reunions … was no-one listening to Brian? Well, the odd freak, of course …
… pigeon-holing musicians is as foolish as seizing on the latest rock death and “mourning”.
‘Nocturnal Koreans’ was released the day after Prince died, so this theme does have a considerable relevance. Prince, yes, I have lps. Liked a lot of what he did, but didn’t connect as much as so many musicians. His world, see. But my, he was impressive, and it’s a shame he’s not still out there.
Bowie, I really didn’t care for; I’m not old enough to have been affected by the wave which Bowie generated around the world (though I saw it and its impact), and aside from a few LPs I regard the man as over-hyped (at a time when he stepped in to fill a gap). From about 1980 Bowie’s albums reinforce that; rot and rubbish for the most part and I really don’t give a bugger that he’s no longer out there; as far as I was concerned, the man died in 1980. Bowie’s latest, I simply can’t be arsed listening to because the man had released far too much utter crap.
Back to the topic: the very least of Wire’s albums are still damn fine records, and you will always respond to Wire. Put them on and you can’t really ignore them.
My own definition of Wire comes from their music. Wire are like their namesake: ubiquitous, they’re always around, we overlook them, yet … if we get close, we find that the wire is always buzzing, seething, carrying energy, always still yet active, coursing the data and captchas of our souls … on the one hand they seem to lie there innocently, on the other they could deep-fry our brains like a haggis in an Oban fish’n’chip shop: Wire.
Let’s return to that dreadful place they come from; England. “Viz” readers will be familiar with the fake letters to the editor sent in by outraged readers who endlessly correct pointless minutiae… rightly mocked by ‘Viz’, this is a staple of English newspapers. Sadly, the standard of newspaper writing has dropped considerably in recent times.
For many years, the English lefty newspaper ’The Guardian’ was referred to as an anagram of its name, such as ‘Teh Gnardiau’ (ie, Te Nardy-ow), as their typesetters were frequently inaccurate; of course it’s easy to forgive crappy tepsytting if the articles were good. Sadly, it seems the tables have turned; the buggers have discovered how to spell, but not how to comprehend such things as modern music.
So pity poor sod Matt Simms, Wire’s “new” (he’s been with them since 2011, longer than the well-known late ‘70s version of the band, had to undergo a most rigorous audition, too; the man has earned and deserves his place alongside Messrs Newman, Lewis and Grey) “second” guitarist, who presumably peers into the mirror each morning to discover he’s aged thirty years overnight… See, ‘The Gnaridiau’’s review is pithy, gets several things wrong, and appears to maybe have had the thing on while washing up the coffee cups and talking to someone about the Dalai Llama’s stance on fair trade emu skin. Probably the most daft assertion is that the band are all in their 60’s.
Wire’s last lux, lush, disturbing LP, the self-titled “Wire” was, as far as I am concerned, sublime pop genius. This outfit can pack the most incredibly powerful monster jackhammer, yet you can hear them holding their breaths as they restrain themselves, only really letting rip on a few … in context of either “Wire” the album or Wire live, for example, ‘Harpooned’ deserves to have an entire lp of versions devoted to it (there’s precedent for this, Wire have previously released an lp called ‘Drill’, comprising versions of that rather hammering song).
While “Wire” was easily their most quintessential, commercial lp, now comes the quivering news that Wire recorded a bunch of other songs when their did ‘Wire’ lp; last time they did this sort of thing they released the three ‘Read and Burn’ eps, and the ‘Send’ lp… anyway. You’ve got the idea. Big bastard band reining in their big bastardness and producing fabulous pop in usual extraordinary fashion, daring the charts to peer in their direction (perverse buggers that they are).
Graham Lewis explains; “The basis / backing tracks/ plus some overdubs were recorded at the same session at Rockfield. 19 tracks. When we went to the next stage of overdubbing, it was not feasible to work on everything, so there was further reduction. The 'Wire' album itself was selected based on how many tracks would fit onto a vinyl LP. My choice/ sequencing of which tracks was rather different from the other three [members of Wire, Colin, Robert and Matthew] …
I say this to point out that the tracks which now appear on “Nocturnal Koreans” were not 'left overs' but the result of extra process and work based on necessity and subjective choice. Not a ‘quality’/ ‘this doesn't fly’ basis.”
Well, it would be rather amazing if we discovered that everyone agreed within the band, wouldn’t it? I do wonder if such real-life tensions contribute to the band’s music. I suppose it must do; Wire hover sensuously, then rip at you before you know where you are.
“Nocturnal Koreans”, a mini-album at eight songs and about half an hour long. Colin wrote the lyrics to two of them, but wrote seven of the song (a nice distinction); Graham wrote five lyrics; the band are credited with the music to all eight songs.
“The ‘Wire’ album was quite respectful of the band,” explains Colin Newman, “and ‘Nocturnal Koreans’ is less respectful of the band—or, more accurately, it’s the band being less respectful to itself—in that it’s more created in the studio, rather than recorded basically as the band played it, which was mostly the case with ‘Wire’. A general rule for this record was: any trickery is fair game, if it makes it sound better.”
And the stunning opener, title track, “Nocturnal Koreans”, bears him out. Imagine if you were asked to play fragments of three of your songs backwards, at breakneck speed, then get Colin Newman to layer over it his gently savage vocal… yeah. Then they shrug themselves into a glycerine, sunny day pop which you can sing along to as if Britpop never happened (anyway, Britpop owes such a huge debt to Wire it’s absurd). Apart from that … hell of a metaphor, isn’t it, ‘“nocturnal koreans”…
“Internal Exile’”is the kind of hit you’d have bought in the ‘80s despite yourself. “Heart of gold/ no pot to piss in” … perhaps molly wouldn’t have had it on that horrible show, but you would’ve heard it at discos. Newman’s sparse, melodic vocal as the marching music ascends to heaven… of course, we’re all internally exiled from our lives these days, look what I’m doing, lovely sunny day and here I am biffing away … “heart of gold/ no pot to piss in” … indeed, quite the reverse of the mollies of the world. One begins to wonder when Tom Jones is going to do an album of later Wire songs.
I think I might go get a quick slug of whisky, I’m getting excited.
“Dead Weight” is one of those songs Wire do which, if you put it on alongside most ‘charting’ or ‘trending’ pop stuff, would make you stop, turn and listen, then scuttle for the nearest record outlet. It’s a glorious, simple pop song with what I suspect is more brutal whimsy (I mean, Wire can be the most brutal outfit you’ve ever heard; I’m not talking about that Cannibal Corpse nonsense, which turns into a constant drone akin to an old air conditioner after about two minutes, that’s not brutal, that’s a teenager’s equivalent of muzak… no… with Wire it’s implications, they’re so subtle but so damned heavy…yet they can make the most gorgeous, hovering music you’ve ever heard… and Lewis is an astonishing lyricist) … “glide like butterflies” …
“Forward Position” ends the first side, and it slows everything right down. It’s a bbc drama on a grand scale, sweeping vistas and potential air crashes. This sort of thing is ugly, beautiful, deadly. Like a storm streaming in at the beginning of something by Peckinpah.
“Numbered” is familiar in a few senses, but, no. This is Wire through the kaleidoscope of time and maturity … it’s very tempting to suggest this as single material: through that weird tropish portal, we can just glimpse 1976 Wire reducing pop and rock to its most stark, then shoving on stripped-down complexities like a bookseller ripping off the covers to do away with the tat…
“Still” is probably the most “conventional” of the songs here (ie, recognisable rock chords and basic progressions) but even so … we’re taken to another place within seconds. It’s a big, fuck-off rock sound better suited to the likes of JMC or U2 … but U238 would be more appropriate. I love Colin Newman’s hypnotic, seductive voice … just what he’s seducing us into is quite nasty… keep your ears peeled, folks…
“Pilgrim Trade”. With lyrics like: “a babel of tongues/ sucking cash out of pockets/ air out of lungs …’” I’ll leave it there. “Pilgrim Trade” is insidious, like the trade it describes… in many ways, the sheer beauty of Wire often conceals carefully pegged out obscenities…
The last track, “Fishes Bones’”… well, it’s Graham on vocals … and his wattling rage is apparent, even though he, too, holds back on the volume, aiming for the undercurrents … “Fishes Bones” I don’t want to give away, though. It’s a fucking cracker, and has the potential for one of those huge Jabberwockian workouts they’re capable, great hurricanes swooping down Cape Horn, a lull like a horror breathing in, then here it comes again.
One daft reviewer considers “Nocturnal Koreans” to be a kind of stop-gap disc. No, no, no. Now, look here. No-one can do a brilliant LP each time out. No-one. It’s not possible. But it’s not like one of those blasted Bowie LPs that even Bowie fans don’t listen to, or a Gary Glitter ballads records, or one of those Stones albums that people seem to forget rather swiftly except for about two songs… Last years’ ‘Wire’ doesn’t beat ‘Nocturnal Koreans’ - but it wasn’t supposed to. Let’s state the obvious: if Wire hadn’t released “Wire”, ‘Nocturnal Koreans’ would be hailed up and down the land, much as “Wire” was.
You recall ol’ Blinky, the mutant fish who appeared in an early Simpsons episode? Marge served him up to Montgomery Burns, he was probably a rather tasty dish… just …he looked bloody disturbing with those three blinking eyes. Wire are like that too, really, perfectly ordinary in almost every respect, but subtly, incredibly disturbing, to the point where … well, you’ve taken them in and they’re delicious, but you’re so astounded by your discovery you rebel … but you’ve swallowed them, and you’re hooked. Unlike poor Monty Burns, who spits out a bit of poor Blinky for the cameras…
It still amazes me how few people “get” Wire; they’re so far ahead of the pack. Albini got them. They’re this huge, dangerous juggernaut, like the biggest, ugliest boxer you ever saw weaving towards you at three am in a deserted street, singing like an angel … and you know that at any moment he could spot you, narrow his eyes, and beat you into the middle of next month before … weaving his way onwards, a gorgeous delicate lilt again on his lips. At the other extreme, they’re like the sailor’s Siren … and that’s enough.
On Big Black’s final tour, at the end of their last gig in the UK, Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis joined Albini and co to play on one of the few covers Big Black did: Wire’s “Heartbeat”. It’s a big heavy version, certainly no worse than one Wire themselves would do in their formative years, the late seventies when every band which didn’t quite fit the mould found themselves being described as either ‘punk’ or ‘new wave’ … these days, the all-purpose pigeon-hole is “post-punk”, a term which means nothing to me except to advertise that the writer has it, inevitably, wrong.
Wire are a band who seize you, drown you, and bring you up spluttering, glad to be alive.
And, as with any decent hostage, you go back for more.
Buy it, and a huge amount more of Wire music and gear, here. Buy Colin Newman’s own band, the brilliantly named Githead, here. Buy Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert’s solo material here. And buy Matt Sim's solo stuff here. You can thank me later.