Trying to figure out the best way to spend my self-imposed monthly allowance for new music, I quite luckily stumbled across this album going for a wallet-busting $30. Being an avid Wire fan now for a mere (but important) six years, I had to reshelve the new Q and Not U and the latest Pretty Girls Make Graves albums that I had intended to buy. Because I had only heard that this release existed, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect in terms of sound quality. Going at a bootleg price, I was concerned that it was one of those half-assed “live” albums released mostly by foreign labels (that are theoretically not governed by our copyright laws), in which either neighboring discussions can be heard with more clarity than the actual band or the worshipping screams are so loud that the overall sound clamors, overbearing the music. Realizing that EMI was behind this extremely hard-to-find release, I figured that a major label (especially one that is now the home to David Coverdale and Garth Brooks, though also to Neu! and Kraftwerk back in the day) would not risk their potential profit if it was of poor quality.
I first heard Wire while at another audiophile’s house. He was in the middle of one of his listen-to-my-record-collection ambushes (of which I’m sure I’ve been an instigator in my own right, imposing my musical tastes upon unwilling, yet appeasing, friends) when I reluctantly sat back to absorb yet another record — it was Wire’s Chairs Missing (which garnered a coveted 5-star rating from allmusic). I was instantly hooked and Wire quickly became in my eyes one of the greatest rock bands ever to don instruments. So you can imagine my surprise in coming across this album!
The disc begins with several selections from their infamous first show at London’s The Roxy on April 1, 1977, a set that was part of a punk festival documented by EMI for the Roxy London WC2 compilation. While Lowdown and 12XU were included on the compilation, others (in addition to the two included on the comp) were remixed, rerecorded, and put out on Wire’s first album, the universally praised Pink Flag release (another 5-star endeavor). There were five additional tracks that Wire played at that gig that had not been released before Behind the Curtains. Though their musical inexperience — only Newman and (early member) George Gill had experience with their instruments at the time of the Roxy gig — was not fully apparent on Pink Flag, it is fairly evident on the Roxy tracks. The best of the live bunch is Wire’s cover of J.J. Cale‘s After Midnight, an emotionally-charged, frantic number rendering lead singer Colin Newman’s lyrics nearly incomprehensible. The other four, including the amusing Mary is a Dyke and the raucous Too True, are piercing three-chord numbers that, taken alone, are not groundbreaking. Viewed in the greater context of Wire’s accomplishments, however, they not only are significant in revealing the band’s roots, but also are simply good punk rock songs whose raw energy is one factor that makes this release compelling.
The album is also graced with a handful of demos that never appeared on other albums. Though these songs are for the most part not as striking or innovative as those that appear on Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, or the more post-punk 154, they are essential from the point-of-view of any completist. Indeed, a fair number of these songs are manifestly more “punk” (as that term meant in 1976 or 1977), and less art (or post-) punk, as most critics view their music today. Consider especially the bah-bah-bahs of Love Ain’t Polite, the poppy Oh No Not So, or the harmonized Stepping off too Quick, each of which clocks in at well less than 2 minutes in length.
The most curious element of this album is the twenty or so alternate outtakes of Wire’s more well-known tracks from their first three albums. I have a great fondness for such demos, because they shed light into the collective mindset of the band prior to the final recordings. A fair number of these tracks are merely the foundation of what was to come, but the band was evidently experimenting with various sounds. In I Feel Mysterious Today (which originally appeared on 1978′s Chairs Missing), for example, Wire presents a stripped-down and faster-paced version of the original. Absent are the layers of jangly guitars, the droning sound that accompanies Newman’s chants of “I feel mysterious today / Everything is humming loudly,” as well as the downward spiral into sonic chaos that is induced at the end of the two-minute long original. In their stead, are more upbeat percussion, nearly comical humming, and a more controlled climax.
The changes between the demo and album versions of Another the Letter, though, are without a doubt the most dramatic. Upon my fist listen, I didn’t even recognize the song until the chorus kicked in. The outtake opens up with a pounding percussive rant, and is followed by a Gilbert guitar lick that sounds more akin to Stephen Malkmus circa 1989′s Westing than Gilbert’s distinctive sound from the first studio albums. Backing up Gilbert is Newman’s cleanly strummed rhythm guitar — a rare sound on Wire’s first three albums. Most significantly, the earlier version lacks the frenetic arpeggiated keyboard line that looms in the original, making the latter one of Wire’s most menacing — and creative — songs.
If this is your first exposure to Wire, Behind the Curtains may not be the place to begin your exploration of their music. I would recommend either of the first two albums (see allmusic’s reviews hotlinked above) and you can check out what the band has said about certain of its Pink Flag hits here. Consider that bands as seminal and diverse as Minor Threat and R.E.M. (among others) have covered Wire songs on major releases. For music collectors, though, Behind the Curtains, in the words of Kevin Eden, Jon Savage, and Jon Wozencroft (the drafters of the liner notes), “reveals their rougher side, unhinged, loose-leaf.” Given that the studio recordings and their live sound are so dissimilar, Wire has been aptly described as a “candle burning at both ends and vulnerable to blackout.” In sum, buy this record — or don’t — but make sure that Wire is part of your music collection if rock is your thing.