Released: September 23rd, 1979
Highlights: I Should Have Known Better, The 15th, On Returning, Map Ref. 41°N 93°W3
Much like The Stooges, the MC5, the Sex Pistols, and the New York Dolls, Wire was a punk rock band that rather than fading away slowly, burned out quickly. In their case, the interval between 1976 and 1979 was all that it took for the quartet to burst into the scene, put out three influential records, and call it a day. Sure, anyone who knows of the group’s history will point out that they would eventually return into the fray nearly one decade later in 1987 and go on to publish more than a dozen new works. However, by the time of their comeback, not only was the whole punk rock explosion a distant sight in the rear-view mirror, but Wire itself was – naturally – quite a different band.
Unlike their short-lived punk rock peers, which used their brief careers in the genre to pound mercilessly at the same style of music, Wire went the other way and took advantage of their concise classic run to cover a lot of ground. Their legendary debut, “Pink Flag”, was not just purely punk to the core; somehow launching into twenty-one tunes in thirty-five minutes, the album was actually defined as the genre’s operatic suite. Released only a few months later, “Chairs Missing” was still quite direct and focused, but it had firmer song structures and – more notably – a heavy dosage of experimentation in dark sparse songs that signaled post-punk was the new tendency in rock.
Coming out one year later and serving as the third piece of that puzzle, “154” – a number that refers to the amount of shows the band had played up to that point – is another type of animal altogether. A quick glance at the duration of the record’s thirteen tracks is enough to reveal that Wire is, here, dabbling into material that is rather different: none of the tunes are shorter than two minutes and more than half of them go over the three-minute mark, which is – for those who had written “Pink Flag” – the equivalent to progressive rock running time. Of course, such lengths could indicate Wire has actually become a standard rock band that writes normal songs, but listening to “154” reveals that is far from the case. This is an album that is more artistically ambitious than all of those that preceded it, digging even deeper in the experimental direction of its predecessors.
“154”, similarly to “Chairs Missing”, can be safely labeled as a post-punk album. There is a deal of irresistible pop catchiness to it, which does the favor of bringing accessible counterpoints to its otherwise mostly confrontational nature, but through most of the way the record checks all of the boxes expected out of the more somber spectrum of the style. “154” is cold, dark, industrial, disturbing, and distant. It does not display these qualities to the extreme of contemporaries like Joy Division or The Cure, because Wire simply does not have the serious and dramatic artistic inspirations of Ian Curtis or Robert Smith. Nevertheless, those defining elements are certainly in the package, albeit in a very distinct format, which ends up doing the album a whole lot of good.
Ultimately, what makes “154” unique is the same set of ingredients that turned “Chairs Missing” into a notable work, with the difference being that they appear more prominently this time around. This is threatening and mechanical post-punk that goes hard on synthesizers, keyboards, and – especially – guitar effects to create a peculiar atmosphere. But instead of going for such oppressive environment via the meticulously constructed path taken by other post-punk bands of the sort, Wire shuns those approaches and bets on a more basic road. What the band is doing here is essentially taking the do-it-yourself punk ethos and applying them to somber post-punk. Although much of the material is daring, nothing is pulled off in a musically ambitious way. “154” is, therefore, as basic, raw, and stripped down as it gets, using that punk spirit not to play fast-paced rock and roll, but to create experimental music.
In general, the best cuts in the album are those that match wild sonic trips with strong melodies, serving as a perfect middle ground between straightforward punk and boundary-pushing music. “I Should Have Known Better” is a cavernous track that anticipates the early releases of Echo & the Bunnymen; with cold narrated verses that reach subdued despair in the hooky chorus, it moves forward at a mechanical pace, with the song’s central beat being mostly provided by the guitars, as the drums focus on adorning the ominous soundscape with clicks. “The 15th” is melodically gorgeous; built on a layer made up of a pair of guitars, one quite clean that plays arpeggios and another drenched in noise that forms the base, the track uses synthesizers to put together what is the closest Wire has ever gotten to a post-punk ballad. With sparse instrumentation, the lengthy “A Touching Display” plods in a threatening way with dissonant guitars and drones that make it a distant offspring of The Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs”. “On Returning” follows with a fast-paced progression filled with alien keyboard sounds that frantically build to a culminating emotional release. And similarly drenched in effects, “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W3” is a lighter poppier tune that flirts with new wave.
On the more purely experimental side, none of the tunes match the greatness of these five songs, but interesting results emerge nonetheless. “Two People In a Room” has a relentless paranoid groove that, in two minutes, features talking, shouting, and an attempt at a more melodic passage. Likewise, “Single K.O.”, which carries an iconic riff as its central hook, shows the members of Wire are still masters at packing unpredictable undefined structures into short running times, given this is a free-flowing composition that keeps attaching itself to different melodies as seconds pass. Finally, “Blessed State”, probably the album’s only relaxing song, has entwining guitars that – in a less technically proficient way – recall Television, since the two play contrasting arpeggio-based lines that clash in beautiful synergy.
As it happened with “Chairs Missing”, however, the downfall of “154” and the factor that keeps it away from being an equal to “Pink Flag” is the fact that Wire’s experimental detours – as commendable and inspiring as they were – fail to be totally productive with a considerable frequency. “The Other Window” and “Indirect Enquiries” are horror movie material of surrealistic musical quality, but are not exactly appealing as songs from a studio record. “Once Is Enough” and “40 Versions” have potential thanks to their interesting guitar lines, the former heavy and the latter nigh electronic, but disintegrate into chaos before they are able to build on their ideas. Lastly, “A Mutual Friend” reaches a satisfying melodic conclusion, but it takes a while wandering through dull experimentation to get there. Because of these weaker moments, “154” is far from being the stone-cold classic it could have been given the stylistic uniqueness of its construction. However, be it due to its influence on future generations or as a consequence of the bridge it builds between punk rock and avant-garde music, listening to it is not just generally enjoyable, but also key in understanding the changes rock went through when the spark of punk started to fade.