On Returning (1977-1979)

...it's easy to listen to [a]Wire[/a]'s [B]'On Returning'[/B]...

What, no ‘Map Ref. 41:N 93:W’? Still, it’s easy to listen to [a]Wire[/a]’s ‘On Returning’ – their 1989 compilation from their three EMI albums now on gleaming, modern CD – and hear nothing less than the ultimate pre-post and post punk band.

Pick a song like ‘Ex Lion Tamer’ and, bingo! The studied insouciance, the Cockney backing yelps, spring-loaded drums, an aching chorus that peels back the heart only to sneer something about[I] “your TV set”[/I]. Two minutes and 18 seconds long. Perfect.

Only [a]Wire[/a] weren’t the perfect punk anything. They were there at the right time, and – in London – the right place too. They certainly had the skills to pay those punk bills, and then some. But they were too old (guitarist Graham Lewis was 12 years older than Paul Weller!), they were educated to a higher degree (at – ugh – art school, the very establishment most punks were trying to tear down), and those Cockney tones? Salisbury, Wiltshire, mate. Music journalists dug them, but their contemporaries in The Roxy and The Nashville thought they were complete…

The comparisons with Blur and Elastica don’t end there, natch. It’s rather depressing to listen to this compilation and remember that Damon Albarn really has made every musical move in someone else’s footsteps. He even stole the idea of writing really catchy and archly crafted pop songs from [a]Wire[/a] (maybe), as well as copying Colin Newman‘s dumbed down mockney-isms (definitely). Elastica, meanwhile, took their affection to tribute group proportions. A more anal group than Wire would’ve sued over the ‘Three Girl Rhumba’/‘Connection’ cross-over. Oh, they did.

The attraction is plain, though, and well evidenced here. Writing yearning, concise, quite brilliant tunes was not a problem for Wire. In fact, at times it sounds like this skill bored them. So much so that they used their gift to not sing about how their girlfriends had left them, or about not getting any satisfaction, or the system, man. They stretched themselves and sung instead about postmodernism and, according to these sleevenotes, “the psychic distances thrown up by travel in a free-fall, mediated landscape”. You’d never guess.

So, yes, they were very clever boys. Annoyingly so, no doubt, if you were there then. But we’re not and we can only marvel at how they nailed punk’s death on the wickedly jagged ‘I Am The Fly’ (which by complete accident sounds exactly like Elastica‘s ‘Line Up’), at ‘Outdoor Miner’‘s gentle melodic beauty (essentially a re-booted ‘Waterloo Sunset’ for the late-’70s), and so on and so on.

So many very excellent, very sarcastic and very short songs on one compilation, and still room to leave off their best one. Which is the only truly bad thing to say about ‘On Returning’, really.