‘The 70s Album We Enjoyed the Most Making’

We mark the 40th Anniversary of Wire’s Chairs Missing with a lot of adjectives from Tim and insightful comments from Colin Newman

Chairs Missing

This month, Chairs Missing, the second album by the English band Wire, turns 40. Stunning in August of 1978, it seems even more gorgeous, monumental, and exceptional today.

Colin Newman, Wire’s primary (though not exclusive) vocalist and co-guitarist for 42 years: “For me, Chairs Missing will always be ‘The ‘70s album that we enjoyed the most making,’ and we were the most united as a band on. That’s what makes it special for me.”

For Wire fans new and old, Chairs Missing is pop dusted with simplicity and science, the sound of brutal and soft machines collaborating to make sparkling music that is still rooted in pop. This absolutely unique, very nearly flawless blend of ice, steel, feathers and sugar condensed into silvery melodies and blurring, multi-layered astral/ambio punk, is very close to being the perfect album from the perfect band. Chairs Missing sounds like four young men building a foundation for the artrock of the future: here you can hear the roots of everything from Sonic Youth to Arcade Fire to Stereolab to Radiohead to the Feelies, all of it is dictated in it’s own strange, cubist drinking hot cocoa language.

Chairs Missing sounds like nothing that came before, and even if it is predictive of the post punk that followed, it still sits in a space all it’s own: It’s tightly wound, buzzing neuro-folk. Perhaps no Wire LP is more diamond-like, more jaw dropping, lusher, cool, strange yet beckoning than Chairs Missing (though I’d venture that Wire’s last four LPs – 2013’s Change Becomes Us, 2015’s Wire, 2016s Nocturnal Koreans, and 2017’s Silver/Lead – very nearly equal the achievement of Chairs Missing).

Listen, I admit that I get a little whacky when discussing Wire. After all, I consider Wire one of the very greatest acts of the rock/pop era, and certainly their remarkable consistency – the albums they have made in the 2010’s are as good as the astonishing albums they made in the 1970s – makes them virtually sui generis. When I think of Wire, and especially Chairs Missing, I see a set of child’s alphabet blocks, brushed with pastel colors, on a black and white floor that collapses into all horizons, like a Brunelleschi Opium nightmare; vapors emerge from the parallel lines, silver-blue projections from Metropolis; voices disappear instantly, like they do on an airplane, even as melodies linger; and a roar, like a perfect refrigerator drone, wraps around the whole space, whose only border is Dali-esque clouds and the imagination. Got it?

“Wire is really not actually a punk group,” says Colin Newman. It is always a joy talking to Newman; he is articulate and ready and eager to examine any aspect of his legacy, and since his speaking voice is so very similar to the sometimes cool croon, sometimes agitated bark of his records, it amuses me to actually hear that voice on the other end of the phone line.

“Wire is actually a progressive…(pauses)…you can’t even really put ‘rock’ on the end of that because Wire isn’t really a rock band. Wire didn’t really learn how to be a rock band until probably the last decade.”

Remarkably, Chairs Missing came just eight months after Pink Flag, an album that was a revolution within the revolution of punk. Wire’s debut album exaggerated the brevity of punk, totally removed the rama-lama Ronson/Thunders/Wilko boogie that had remained prevalent in 94% of the first-generation UK punk bands (reducing the guitar roar to a high-stacked harmonic blur), and replaced the dogmatic slogans with artful bulletins that fell somewhere between Tristan Tzara and Phillip K. Dick. Pink Flag seemed to morph the simple glee of the Ramones and the strange planetarium-ism of Piper at the Gates of Dawn, all within a rhythmic framework that was decidedly influenced by Krautrock’s square-ness.

Yet album number two, Chairs Missing, sounds virtually like a different band: One still committed to bulletins, to continental angles and Dada shocks, but now filtered through an almost Eno-esque textured but steely studio artistry.

Newman: “In many ways, Chairs Missing is actually the first Wire album. It’s hard to really put this simply, but Pink Flag was really the product of time and place; it was September of 1977 – Pink Flag was the state of the Union Address by Wire – that’s where we were – we had only six months earlier parted company with (founding member) George (Gill), we had developed a set of material because we needed a set of material to play live, and then we recorded it. We had played three and a half gigs before we did Pink Flag. Although it’s strong, it does have a sort of tentativeness to it, due to the fact that we haven’t really gotten to the point where we could say, ‘Well, this is what we are, this is what we have discovered.’ Pink Flag was about recording the songs that we had, and making a record that sounded like us. Whereas Chairs Missing was about reinventing the whole thing from the ground up. It was a big, big step between the two records. Chairs Missing is the point where we arrived and said, Oh, so this is Wire, this is what Wire is.

“Chairs Missing is probably my favorite Wire album of the ‘70s,” Newman continues. “And I think that might be true of – well, of not all of the band – most of the band. 154 is complicated; and nobody in the band thinks Pink Flag is the best record we made in the ‘70s, let alone ever. I think Chairs Missing was one of the easier Wire records to make, actually. Everyone was in a good space, there was a yet to be a dawning of any kinds of rivalries or camps within the band, we were just a bunch of people making a record together. And it was fantastic fun.”

Chairs Missing replaces Pink Flag’s tick-tock roar with a heartbeat and a slow, tensed boil of ambience and composed noise. At times it anticipates the devil-choir of Glenn Branca (who must have had “Mercy” somewhere in the back of his brain when he composed The Ascension); other times it predicts the urgent chime and purr of the Feelies or more pastoral R.E.M; but mostly it just finds a unique vocabulary for progressive electric rock that abandons all the expertise and replaces it with intent and an inventive mind that is informed, in equal parts, by English folk and mesme-spacerock.

40 years later, Chairs Missing still, remarkably, sounds new. That’s possibly because it just doesn’t bloody sound like a rock record: It’s devoid of the reverbs, effects, and drum and vocal levels that we are accustomed to, and at times it sounds like it was recorded and mixed on an airplane: it has a sealed-in quality which somehow emphasizes the warmth of the music and the pulses and buzzes of the guitars and extended harmonic hums and drones. It sounds, somehow, like an electric ensemble vacuum-packed in an aluminum cigar tube floating in the bluest of warm pools.

Newman: “For a start, nobody was really interested in a guitar sounding like a guitar. That was a great thing about guitar pedals. And you could blur the distinction between what was a guitar and what was a keyboard. People thought that sounds that actually were made by guitars were made by keyboards, because the listener assumed – and I am doing air-quotes around this – ‘that synthesizers did all the sounds you didn’t recognize.’ That was the 70’s ways of thinking: if there is a sound you didn’t recognize, it must be from a synthesizer. And that was, for sure, not the case, especially on Chairs Missing.

“We lost a lot of the natural ambience off the drums because, basically, the drums ambience got sacrificed for more overdubs. That’s a big difference between Pink Flag and Chairs Missing Pink Flag had very few overdubs, apart from ones that boosted the sounds that were there originally, and the big, multi-track guitars on “Strange,” but that’s just one part, overdubbed, it’s not another part going over it and complimenting it. With Chairs Missing you had the multi-tracked instruments, but you also had lots more parts, and that was in part because – and this is the big difference between Pink Flag and Chairs Missing – I started playing guitar. Well, I did play a bit on Pink Flag, but I certainly wasn’t the main guitarist. Whereas by the time we got to Chairs Missing, Bruce Gilbert and I were taking equal guitar duties, because it sounded more interesting with two guitarists. It meant that Bruce didn’t just have to ‘play the chords,’ he could develop interesting parts and then interesting sounds to go along with those parts.

“Yeh, the vocals are a bit quiet, compared to a more standard record, but, that’s part of it, and, in a way, submerging the vocals a little bit within the texture prefigures a whole lot of other groups, My Bloody Valentine, whatever, who twenty years later were doing similar things with vocals. When the vocals are too loud and have a lot of reverb, when the vocals sound separate from the music – personally, I dislike that. Now, how Chairs Missing ended up like that, I don’t know – we didn’t mix it – (producer) Mike (Thorne) mixed it, with Paul Hardiman – but definitely I think he felt he had to represent what we’d cut – and there’s a lot of information there in the tracks, there’s a lot of stuff happening in the arrangements, and to bury all that under an over-loud vocal would have been not very popular with anybody, including me.”

As for the tracks themselves, these strange bursts of wit and romance, rage and nature, I have always suspected that “I Am the Fly” was the basis of the Knack’s “My Sharona.”

Newman Laughs. “Don’t know about that, but ‘I am The Fly’ is a football chant. It has that quality, the chorus quality, of drunken blokes singing on the way back from the pub. It’s kind of moronic. I think the chorus on ‘I Am The Fly’ is kind-of terrible — I like the verse and the riff, though I am not sure about the rest of it. I think I am allowed to be critical of my own work.”

Many people are very drawn to “Outdoor Miner.”

“Not to blow my own trumpet too much, but when I’d written it, I thought to myself, this sounds like a bit of classic British pop. I remember people would come up to me during that period and say, blimey, you’ve done it, you’ve written a song in that vein that people are struggling to try to write in, and you’ve done it. I thought it would be a hit. I didn’t understand the kind of things that constitute why people buy records, but I thought, well, it’s a catchy tune, that should be a hit! If you were making any comparisons with ‘Outdoor Miner’” it would probably be the Kinks, or somebody like that. It’s harmonically nothing like that, of course, there’s nothing about it that you could say is like any particular Kinks song, but I have always had a great love of classic British 60’s pop.”

And where does the title Chairs Missing come from?

“Oh, it’s Bruce!” Says Newman. “Bruce is always big on phrases – one of the phrases he used, which he always claimed was some kind of colloquialism but no one I have ever met has ever heard it before, was a description of someone who is not all there mentally as ‘having a few chairs missing from their front room.’ It means unhinged, basically. We have said this in countless interviews, and never come across anyone else who has heard this phrase (laughs). I don’t know where Bruce got it from.”

I’ve realized that many of the albums people associate with the foundation of Post Punk (PiL’s Metal Box/Second Edition, the Cure’s Three Imaginary Boys, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures) came after Chairs Missing; it is as if people, in their mental calendar, do not realize that Chairs Missing came first. I suspect it played a far, far bigger role in the expansion of people’s musical minds and the foundation of Post Punk then it is credited for.

“Of course there was no such thing as Post-Punk at the time,” Newman answers. “No one would talk in those terms, but we had different waves of influence. Certainly the first set of musicians who were influenced by Wire were British, and included people who don’t sound anything like Wire, but they said they were influenced by us. Cabaret Voltaire said to us, We think you’re the only group around that’s interesting right now, and we had heard that Joy Division were very, very taken with Wire when they started – I doubt you would get them to admit that now – and the Cure as well; Robert Smith famously said during the 1980s that he would stop the Cure if Wire started again…(laughs) but he didn’t. I think Wire gets under-credited in general. Chairs Missing was not well received at all – Pink Flag had gotten great reviews in Britain – terrible reviews in America – Chairs Missing didn’t even get released in America. I think only one British publication, Sounds, gave Chairs Missing a positive review. And that was by a guy who specialized in heavy metal. I think, in general, people thought we had lost it.

“I think Chairs Missing has quietly grown in stature to a point where, at least in terms of the re-releases this year, it may be slightly ahead in terms of the reviews,” Newman continues. “I think that’s interesting. We just did a bunch of classic album t-shirts, and I was gearing up to sell a lot of Pink Flag t-shirts, and the majority that were ordered at the beginning were all 154 shirts. You can never, ever second guess what people like about Wire. It’s totally fascinating. But I do think the albums are equally regarded now – I think that era of, ‘It’s all about Pink Flag and the rest is rubbish’ I think has, for the most part, passed, unless the person writing is a dyed-in-the-wool punk rocker.”

 

Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYO DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice.

One thought on “‘The 70s Album We Enjoyed the Most Making’

  • September 7, 2018 at 10:56 am
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    “Chairs Missing” as a phrase is immediately understandable…
    There are dozens of variations I have heard.
    A few drawers short of a bureau…
    A few books short of a library…
    A few bricks short of a stack…
    A few cards short of a full deck…
    Often improvised for whatever you wanted to say…

    Reply

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