Ex-Wire staffer Frances Morgan selects her favourite articles from just some of The Wire's themed issues
I’ve always liked The Wire’s themed issues. When I worked at the magazine they were one of most enjoyable things to discuss in editorial meetings, with everyone chucking in their most esoteric ideas before settling on something specialist enough to be interesting, but sufficiently open-ended for a wide range of writers to respond to. It’s harder than you might think. In all the excitement, we’d seem to forget how much extra work the themed issues required until it was too late. But right when I’d be thinking it was all a terrible idea, someone would submit a brilliant essay and the designers would present us with a cover idea that no one was expecting. The themed issues sometimes get lost in the archives, so I’ve dug a few out here.
It’s hard to isolate just one entry from this issue – it’s all about the cumulative effect, just like its subject matter – although if I had to I might pick David Keenan’s appraisal of the riff that transforms Roxy Music’s “If There Is Something”. In Praise Of The Riff consists of short entries, each one of which draws you to a different music, and to a different definition, or different framing, of what a riff could be. Looking back on it now, I wonder whether it decontextualises traditional Balinese music to compare it to Bo Diddley, or if it does the riff a disservice to hear it in Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke. Maybe, but at the time I just thought it was great that Simon Reynolds had picked “Ruckzuck” as Kraftwerk’s choicest riff (it is!), and I have a feeling that this issue is where I first came across Takehisa Kosugi’s hypnotic Catch Wave. The themed section concludes with an essay by David Toop on the riff in free jazz, which explains how hypnotic repetition helped to channel the explosive energy of 1960s free jazz; something I’d sensed from listening but now could put into words. Reading it today, I notice that David references Alice Coltrane’s Huntington Ashram Monastery, which I didn’t hear until some years later, but it is now my favourite of her recordings, not least because of Ron Carter’s bass riffs.
The word iconic is rightly banned from The Wire, but this list of wish-I-was-there gigs is a bit, well, iconic - Nina Simone, Public Enemy, Coil, Fushitsusha, Sun Ra, Jandek… but then, right at the end, there’s Thalia Zedek, just before :zoviet*france:. I remember being surprised to see a photo of her, shoulders hunched, man’s shirt, baggy jeans, playing high up on the fretboard. A former member of the bands Live Skull and Come, Zedek is quietly talismanic for me – I feel about her as men I know often feel about Will Oldham: I can return to her music when I need to and it always lets me in. As Jon Dale notes in his recollections of a 2005 gig in Adelaide, her audiences are small, 50 people tops, but when I saw her play in 2008 in a similarly underpopulated Corsica Studios, she displayed exactly the same intensity that Jon describes, with “a delivery that could switchblade from impassive to breathless in seconds”. Jon’s entry in the issue is a reminder that seismic live experiences can happen in near-empty rooms, with the minimum of resources.
This piece comes at the end of a set of essays that celebrate mixtapes, whole-album blogs, field recordings and studio-booth outtakes, and it sounds a necessary note of caution. In Mark Fisher’s essay, unofficial doesn’t necessarily mean authentic or daringly illicit; instead, what he calls the “logic of completism” has resulted in artworks that are closer to making-of documentaries. He writes about box sets like The Complete On the Corner Sessions, but the hook for the piece is Throbbing Gristle’s then-recent performance at the ICA, London, where audiences were able to sit in on recording sessions for their Desertshore album. “In the end, the urge for transparency destroyed all mystique,” Mark writes. I find this piece compelling not so much because I agree with Mark – I’m not sure about mystique – but because in the years since he wrote it, his warning has been borne out by live spectacles that supposedly ‘reveal’ the artistic process, such as PJ Harvey’s live recording sessions at Somerset House, by creative institutions’ insistence that audiences feel like they’re part of something, ‘part of the conversation’ whether they want to be or not, and by even more complete sessions, lost tapes and recorded ephemera in circulation.
The other thing I like about this essay is that on the facing page Alan Licht’s piece on studio outtakes persuasively argues the opposite, referencing the films of Chantal Akerman and Phill Niblock in his appraisal of the unofficial audio captured in the booth: “With studio control booth recordings, you experience not only the musical interplay of instrumentalists, but the sociopolitical atmosphere of a work environment,” he writes. They’re both right, and the format of the themed issue makes equal space for both viewpoints.
It’s impossible not to be drawn in by Will Sweeney’s cover illustration for this issue. While it’s ostensibly about musical histories, it’s really an issue about where new music was at in 2010 – which is to say, in a very particular dialogue with the past. You can feel the presence of Simon Reynolds’s Retromania, which came out in 2011, throughout the issue; but many of the essays here look beyond hauntology and hypnogogic pop to retro-activity in other areas of music, with Philip Clark tracing quotations in modern composition and Lisa Blanning hearing 1980s soul in new UK club music. Hard to choose one essay, but I’ll go for Keith Moliné’s musicianly perspective on the modular synth revival. Keith compares the achronological music of the 2010s to the action of patching a synthesizer, making connections across space and time to produce new sounds and genre, but he’s careful not to get too utopian about it: “The retreat from Noise into a New Age cocoon can surely offer only temporary respite. Soon those circuits will start to overheat; perhaps they already are.”
The Wire has always covered music that engages with the difficult idea of freedom, whether that’s freeing oneself from traditional musical structures, striving via radical music towards freedom from oppression, investigating freedom by exploring its obverse of power and control, or just freeing the body to dance in the liberatory space of the club. In the process it can’t help but romanticise – as I’ve just done! – music’s potential to free the mind, the ass, society and so on – and so one of my favourite essays in the Freedom Principles issue is the one that reminds you how easily ideas of freedom can be co-opted. Emily Bick’s chose to write about Freedom Rock, a classic rock compilation that came out, as Emily writes, during “the height of Reaganite swashbuckling”, in 1987, with a cringe-making advert (“Turn it UP, man!”) often broadcast during re-runs of shows from the 1970s. Emily writes, “Freedom as an adjective, especially attached to anything so tied to obvious marketing and exhortations to consume stuff, has a special American capitalist realist ring. Like freedom fries or shopping for freedom after 9/11, it’s never about freedom, but the idea of selling freedom as a means to soothe and control.” She ends the piece connecting the Reaganite 80s with the all-seeing algorithms of YouTube and the invisible workers of Amazon. I’ve made it sound like a downer, but honestly it’s really funny.