Guest Column – Heritage vs Newness by Wire's Colin Newman

Guest Column – Heritage vs Newness by Wire's Colin Newman

wireIn the new issue of Q, Dorian Lynskey speak to Wire for this month's Q Maverick interview, find a band still focused on the future who feel their biggest enemy is their own back catalogue – get your issue now in print or on digital now. To accompany the piece, and the band's just released new album Wire, frontman Colin Newman written has written Q guest column on Wire, "Newness" and his thoughts on music's "heritage industry".

Wire, as a band has always been about new things, new material, new tools/ toys, news ideas, new approaches. You could almost say it’s ingrained in the band’s DNA. That’s the way it has always been. Our first ever released recordings (on the Live At The Roxy album in July 1977) consisted of the only “slow” songs on the album (it was against punk “rules” to play slow) and a song which while maintaining a “correct” punk speed actually didn’t have any chords in the verse. Then, post Pink Flag – according to the track-listing of – 17TH FEB 1978 WEST RUNTON PAVILION, CROMER from our label pinkflag’s Legal Bootleg series <> In Feb 1978, a mere two months after our debut album – the set already had ten (of 21) that were written after the album we were supposed to be promoting! Then we quite famously threw out half of those songs before we recorded Chairs Missing (a mere three months later) and replaced them with new ones!

The point I’m making is that from the very first days Wire have been almost obsessive in their need to be doing new things. It’s always been one of the band’s strengths even if it has rubbed us up against both the “industry” and some people’s expectations of us over the years. I think the main source of that has been the fact that Wire has always firmly been an artistic venture not a piece of entertainment. Now, obviously and quite patently the two are not mutually exclusive. Plenty of art has an entertainment value and some entertainment has (often not intentionally) artistic merit but like in many things its about where you are coming from and Wire as an art project is a genuine statement of fact even if plenty enjoy what we do as if it were some kind of entertainment.

Wire's new album Wire

I suppose the way to phrase the question now would be “Why does a band approaching its 40th year feel the need to continue to push forward?” I think this question has less to do with Wire and much more to do with the context in which we all now exist. In the 80s when we didn’t play 70s material that was simple. The bulk of our audience was more or less the same age as us and we’d all grown a little older together. However the sound of the late 70s (particularly punk rock) was just about the most passe thing imaginable in the squeaky clean digital 80s. So to have gone back to that material would have only been an act of nostalgia. Tell me any band in their 30s who are interested in the nostalgia circuit! But the context is of course radically different now. Any notion of a “timeline” in music has gone (maybe forever). In that way music is paralleling technology. There is very little that is actually and manifestly new but there are endless refinements, re-contextualisations, and a scale of “improvements” ranging from slight to radical. What we have is a context where the line between new and old is quite blurred at times.

Alongside all that we have a formalisation and packaging of older artists to be part of the dread “heritage” industry. I personally see this as only one grade better than the cover band phenomenon. Artists who have decided that nothing they can produce has the same value as their classic album(s), in most cases that means something they produced in their youth. This doesn’t really happen in any other artform and is in my view a strange phenomenon brought on by that odd mixing of the timeline. The argument runs that if someone who is watching a show wasn’t even born when that material was first released then it doesn’t count as nostalgia. True, but the problem with that point is that it only considers the performance from the audience’s point of view and doesn’t actually consider the people creating that performance. This is a really important point. Popular music is a commercial art form and yet it has managed to produce items of singular beauty and emotional power and continues to do so. The industry, audience expectation and the media will tend (sometimes unwittingly) to push artists into a situation where pleasing the public takes precedence over trying to do something good of artists value. Its not a new story and this is not a commerciality versus suffering artist kind of dichotomy. Many artists have different strategies for dealing with this but in the case of older artists it can really produce something less than digestible. Heritage.

I’m good with Heritage beer, or livestock or crops some other produce but Heritage music sounds like an entitirely dodgy proposition to me!

The thing I always say is that no audience wants to see an artist they love be a bad cover version of themselves. I can’t say this strongly enough or emphasise it enough. People who aren’t in bands may assume that if you’ve once recorded a song you will be happy to trot it out ad-nauseam. From my point of view it really depends on what it is and how many times you’ve played it recently but in general I really don’t see the point in just playing old stuff because some of the audience may be familiar with it. There has to be a raison d’être because ultimately, as far as I’m concerned, if the band is not excited to play the music why on earth should an audience be excited to hear it? It’s a huge mystery to me but then I guess I’m rubbish at being an entertaner!

There is a serious point here though. There is and had been for at least 10-15 years quite a lot of short term money to be made from the classic or heritage approach. It is very tempting, especially for artists which have been languishing in relative obscurity or perhaps haven’t actually been involved in music since the dip after their initial career high. You can (depending on who) get to play to quite large audiences for decent fees, in some cases to bigger audiences and greater fees than anything experienced in the heyday. But there is a massive downside. I don’t know of anyone who pulled it off and emerged unscathed, and the main reason for that will ultimately be their motivation. I’m not saying that people will only be doing this for the money but it’s very hard to come back from nowhere and have the same motivation you had when you started if there is no challenge of new material.

In a way that’s it and all about it. It’s the new material that offers the new challenges. And It’s not just about having any old new material but new material that excites & challenges the artists concerned. Playing the “classics” is easy (for most anyhow) you just have to turn up and make a relatively decent show of it. However to keep coming up with new material, material that has strength & depth requires more than a couple of days in a rehearsal room. It requires time, energy & some kind of strategy to not bankrupt yourself in the process of putting it together. Really that strategy has to take place over years not weeks, it ultimately has to be a way of life. And believe me this is not an easy path, with Wire there has never been an easy compromise over what is the best approach to almost everything.

In fact (and I’m sure this is true in other collaborative ventures) as the artistic stakes get higher finding agreement becomes harder. Maybe that’s why it’s less common for artists of our generation to be steadfastly forward looking? It’s hard! However in the end if the members of Wire can agree on anything they will always agree on the proposition that new is best! There is ultimately for Wire and any other artists in our position no other way to go on. Either do it with a forward looking approach or don’t do it all. Colin Newman @WireHQ

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