[This piece was originally commissioned for a booklet to be included in a 2016 box-set collection of Colin Newman’s albums A-Z, provisionally entitled the singing fish and Not To. Due to problems beyond my control in the booklet’s layout and design process, the box-set was shelved. If you use any material from this text, please attribute. Copyright: Wilson Neate.]
COLIN NEWMAN 1980–1982
Complications will give rise to new sets of rules
Asked why he chose to release a solo album in 1980, Colin Newman explains his decision in pragmatic terms: “I just did what the singer in a successful band that’s in a mess does—go off and make my own record. What else would I do? Up to that point, all I’d known was art college and Wire, and then Wire ended. It was obvious: if I couldn’t make another Wire record, I’d have to make a solo record.”
Maybe so, but there was definitely more to it than that.
Part of the story of A–Z is of course about continuity: Newman was doing what he’d always done, galvanised by Wire’s most fertile phase. However, his creative impulse was also symptomatic of precisely what had driven Wire apart; the rush of inspiration that made 154 possible also made it impossible for the band to progress.
When Wire suspended operations in early 1980, six months after 154, their reasons for doing so were ironic. They hadn’t run out of ideas, and they weren’t bereft of direction; on the contrary, the group was at its artistic apex and was producing a surfeit of material—especially since Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis had emerged as songwriters alongside Newman. “With Wire, for years I’d joked about doing a solo album,” says Newman, “but it became a reality simply because of the ambition of the others also to be part of the writing. When you’ve got more people writing, and the pieces are longer, then it’s clear that something has to give. Up to 154, everything I wrote got on a record, but that changed with 154. We could only use so much material, and I was working at a furious pace, so I had too much stuff. What else would I do with it? If Wire had continued, I’d still have done A–Z, but maybe not as quickly.”
Wire’s drummer, Robert Grey, knew that Newman had been considering extracurricular work, but he doesn’t think this was purely a consequence of the band’s inability to accommodate all three writers; sometimes there was also an unwillingness. Grey recalls guitarist Bruce Gilbert’s less-than-enthusiastic reaction to one of Newman’s offerings: “Colin had been thinking about doing a solo album for quite a long time. It had been mentioned—either seriously, or not so seriously—and I seem to remember Bruce once telling Colin that he could put that song on his solo album, because Bruce didn’t like it.”
Crucially, just as 154 had witnessed a remarkable burst of energy and a renewed sense of possibilities, it also brought creative balkanisation and estrangement, leaving the band members unable to reach a consensus regarding how Wire should move forward. “We had no common agenda about what kind of record we wanted to follow up 154,” remembers Newman, “and there was a huge bust-up between two different ways of looking at the work. You could see it as being about power, ambition, lots of different things. Bruce and Graham didn’t want to make another album like we’d made 154, but I did. Bruce, in particular, wanted to make a different kind of record, and I didn’t really understand what kind of record he wanted to make.”
While a solo album provided an alternative outlet for Newman’s material—as the available space on Wire releases diminished—it also enabled him to underscore his own identity as a songwriter. This was something Newman was keen to do: “One of the things I wanted to address was that in the ’70s, with Wire, I felt under-recognised. If you look back at interviews from that time, I tended to speak less and be asked less about stuff because of the way the composer credits went and all the rest of it. I felt I didn’t get the credit I deserved. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but I did feel there was a point to prove about it.”
Conventional wisdom holds that Wire balanced two competing personalities—one inclined towards pop, another with an affinity for experimentation—and that, by 1980, this hitherto productive tension had been rendered all but unworkable: rather than continue to engender potent, innovative music, it became a key factor precipitating the group’s split. The band members’ first moves in the wake of their separation are routinely cited as proof not only that such a division existed, but that the two factions’ approaches were now irreconcilable: with Dome, Gilbert and Lewis ventured into a more explicitly experimental, process-centred realm; on A–Z, Newman maintained a more direct connection to his work in Wire, keeping his focus on songs, often with a stronger pop orientation.
This thumbnail sketch may be partially accurate, but it nevertheless oversimplifies the artistic identity of Wire. Former producer Mike Thorne, someone with an intimate working knowledge of the band between 1977 and 1980, agrees: “It’s too easy just to say that Colin was heading in the pop direction and Bruce and Graham were heading in a more explorative direction—Colin was, too: the poles of exploration weren’t mutually exclusive.” Indeed, although Newman was Wire’s main writer, his material wasn’t exactly standard pop fare. From the outset, he merged these two seemingly contradictory tendencies, and playful experiments with musical form often figured in the making of his songs.
Pink Flag had featured various Newman compositions with subtle conceptual underpinnings: several numbers interrogated familiar rock and pop tropes and even deconstructed whole songs by other artists—or at least the ideas underlying those songs. The title track imagined how “Johnny B. Goode” might sound if it were reduced to, more or less, one chord; “12XU” took things further, answering the question, ‘What would a song sound like if it had no real music in it?’ Other tracks were constructed around more openly experimental frameworks, “106 Beats That” being the best-known example, with Newman’s chord pattern famously deriving from a system of correspondences involving the first letters of train stations between Watford and London.
On A–Z, Newman adopted a similarly ludic approach, on a bigger, more fully realised scale. In doing so, he held up a distorting mirror to pop conventions in a way that captured a particular facet of the late-’70s/early-’80s zeitgeist. A–Z resonated with a very specific singles-based aesthetic that interested Newman at the time: the work of artists who were releasing 45s (the format most closely aligned with mass appeal) but bringing to bear a sensibility that was far from the pop mainstream. “There was exciting stuff going on, like Devo and Kraftwerk and the Residents,” he recalls. “I used to like the Residents’ singles, like ‘Satisfaction,’ because they were so fucked-up. There was a strong sense that you could do more interesting things with song-based music. I wasn’t so much into the post-punk thing—it was more about experimental pop music. That was the tenor of it, that was where it was coming from.”
Also important was Brian Eno. His ’70s, post-Roxy synthesis of art and pop was still a source of inspiration to Newman, who remembers Before and After Science (1977) as “one of the things I’d listen to on repeat—the second side, though. I never used to listen to the first side.” At the same time, he was drawn to music that eschewed songs entirely: for instance, John Cale and Terry Riley’s mostly instrumental Church of Anthrax (1971). Newman had first encountered Riley’s work at Watford School of Art in the mid-’70s, as the accompaniment to a piece of abstract animation by a fellow graphic design student. “The soundtrack was A Rainbow in Curved Air . I just loved the music. Once I had that album, others recommended Church of Anthrax. It became one of those records which just stuck with me.”
I’m living a life on deck with no hands to help me
The choice of personnel for A–Z was straightforward as far as Newman was concerned: “The core team was me, Rob [Grey], Des [Simmons] and Mike [Thorne]. They were just the obvious people to turn to, really. They were the people I was used to working with. I didn’t, for a minute, think I could make it on my own. I needed a band, and these were the people I knew who could do it. And it was a local group. Me, Rob and Des all lived within walking distance of one another in Brixton, so we could just go and play in Rob’s rehearsal room in his house on Mayall Road. It cost no money. It was sort of fun to do that.”
Inevitably, the A–Z line-up also reflected the factionalisation that had taken place during the recording of 154, when Gilbert and Lewis began to feel that Newman and Thorne’s increasingly close collaboration was relegating them to a secondary role. Whether or not that was the case, it was true that on 154 Newman had forged a tighter working relationship with the producer than with Gilbert and Lewis, and so he considered it only logical to continue that partnership: “Mike was a great facilitator. He believed I had something, and he thought that, out of everyone in Wire, I was the person who could do something. So that gave me the confidence to go ahead and do A–Z.”
Thorne was equally enthusiastic about this possibility. The experience of 154 had made it obvious that, sooner or later, he and Newman would pursue an alliance beyond Wire: “I’d give Colin and Robert a lift home when we were recording 154, and it was very clear that the split was going between the two of them and Bruce and Graham. Wire disagreed from the start, though. That was part of the fun. But Colin at one point said, ‘I’m just digging my way out.’ Everybody was yelling at each other on 154. It wasn’t really unpleasant or anything, it was just that people were heading in different directions. It was just about what people wanted to do. That was the key to why there was eventually a split. And I was with the Colin-Robert axis.”
By the end of the ’70s, Thorne was based in America, making records on both sides of the Atlantic, and although 1980 found him engaged in major production jobs—Soft Machine’s Land of Cockayne in London and John Cale’s Honi Soit in New York—he was instrumental in getting A–Z off the ground. “Mike was very much part of putting together the whole thing,” says Newman. “He’d been the person presenting the plan for the solo album to EMI.” Above all, Newman was eager for Thorne to be involved more directly than he had been with Wire and to contribute as a full member of the group. “I wanted it to be more of a band aesthetic,” he emphasises, “and for Mike to be the keyboard player, rather than do what he’d done before. With Wire, he’d played on albums under pretty heavy jurisdiction: if he had an idea for a keyboard part, he’d always have to sell it to the band first. And Bruce would always jokingly say something like, ‘You’re not going to play your fucking organ, are you?’ ”
By the time of A–Z, Thorne had invested in a brand-new “organ,” one that Newman found intriguing: “He’d just got a Synclavier digital synth—which cost the price of a house—and I was a sucker for state-of-the-art stuff.” Organs aside, Thorne was also a valuable member of the team on A–Z in his capacity as producer, a role Newman didn’t yet feel equipped to take: “It wasn’t an option. At that point, I still really didn’t understand what a producer was. Mike was very encouraging, and like me, he’d wanted to make another Wire album like we made 154.”
Working with Grey (still known as Robert Gotobed at this stage) was also a given, for a variety of reasons: “With Rob, it was obvious. He lived down the road, he had a basement where we could rehearse for free and he had a van. That was probably more important than him being the drummer out of Wire. And we were mates: I never saw Graham and Bruce socially—Bruce was up in Barnet, and Graham was in West Kensington—but Rob and I would go out together on Saturday nights with our girlfriends.”
Des Simmons was a childhood friend from Newbury, and despite being a guitarist, he was recruited on bass. “The relationship with Graham wasn’t great at that point,” says Newman. “Besides, I wanted this to be different, and some of the songs I’d written already had the bass lines.” He saw the inclusion of Simmons as part of a larger project that would, hopefully, kick start Simmons’s career. Simmons had been the first person to encourage his friend to play music and was the lead songwriter in their early groups, CNDS and Tyres, but Newman was the one who had ended up in a band with a record contract. So while Newman’s main objective in making a solo album was to find a venue for his own songs outside Wire, he also wanted to make some space for Simmons, both as a musician and, on one track, as a writer: “I’ve always liked to make things work on many levels, and the writing collaboration with Des on [the A-Z track] ‘& Jury’ was one example. Before Wire, I’d always made music with Desmond, and now I wanted to involve him. I kind of felt I owed him something because he’d missed out on Wire. We went back years playing music together. He was the madcap genius, and I was the sidekick. Then Wire happened, and all the things we’d planned for and almost dedicated our lives towards happened to me and not him. My view was that it would only be a matter of time before people recognised Des’s qualities—after all, if the sidekick had done so well…. However, I realised that there was a gap that he needed to overcome. Just as we would endlessly rehearse for the ‘real thing’ in our youth, I realised that Des needed to actually be involved in a going concern to be able to raise his game when the chance came to him. This was a strong reason for including him in the band, even if he wasn’t really a bass player. Co-writing ‘& Jury’ was also a practical step: that way he could earn publishing money—which was, in the ’70s and ’80s, the major source of income for musicians, because it also included PRS for radio play—and perhaps secure his own publishing deal.”
I’ve got a chicken in my bandolier
Things began to take shape while Wire were still in the studio finishing 154. Simmons outlines the gestation of the band and the material: “Colin, Robert and myself started playing in a random way in Rob’s rehearsal room during the spring of 1979. This soon became a more structured process when Colin brought along his home demos for the songs”—among them, “Order for Order,” “Not Me,” “The Classic Remains,” “Troisième” and “Standard Practice.” These preliminary recordings laid the foundations for A–Z. “It was very basic,” says Newman. “Mike had lent me some gear to record with: a four-track machine and even a string synthesiser—a bit of prog-rock kit. It was quite a creative period.”
Thanks to Thorne’s representations, EMI had made encouraging noises about a Newman solo project and paid for him and the band to assemble a more developed batch of demos at Riverside Recordings in Chiswick: “Life on Deck,” “The Classic Remains,” “Don’t Bring Reminders,” “Image,” “Not Me,” “But No,” “Troisième,” “I’ve Waited Ages” and “Order for Order.” Although these works-in-progress boded well, the album ultimately became a casualty of Wire’s disintegrating relationship with EMI. Having reached number 39 in the charts with 154, and with their contract due for renewal, Wire had been lobbying for their own imprint at EMI, a sub-label that would put out the group’s work, as well as the band members’ individual ventures. Newman’s album was envisaged as the flagship release for that imprint, the record to set the ball rolling. However, despite EMI’s initially strong interest—“we had the studio booked and everything,” says Newman—in February 1980, the label withdrew their backing and also let Wire know that they weren’t going to give the band an advance for a fourth album. As Wire issued a statement announcing that they’d parted ways with EMI, their manager Mick Collins set about brokering a deal with Beggars Banquet for Newman.
A–Z was recorded in summer 1980 at Scorpio Sound, on the ground floor of Euston Tower in London. Alongside producer Thorne were in-house engineers Dennis Weinreich and Steve Parker. “I wanted A–Z to be a fun thing for people to do,” says Newman, who, after the fraught 154 sessions, was keen to foster an agreeable, relaxed working environment. All the same, Simmons (interviewed in 2011) had ambivalent memories: “It had its moments of positive vibes, but mostly it was a nervous affair. I had no experience of a proper studio or the recording process and had never played the bass before.” Simmons’s anxiety was heightened by what he perceived as a frosty relationship with Thorne: “Colin and the assistant engineer, Steve Parker, were very supportive and constructive; Mike Thorne was hard work, distant and dismissive, repeating several times that he could have got Jack Bruce in to play the bass and constantly mentioning ‘really talented’ musicians that he’d worked with. It was fun when Mike and Dennis were absent and it was just Steve Parker.”
From Thorne’s perspective, by contrast, there was no animus, and his account of the studio dynamic is wholly positive: “Des did very well. He was good. It was a nice bunch of people. Colin was the leader; it was different from working with Wire, though, because I didn’t have to be the referee.”
Simmons also reports some tension between Newman and the producer, stemming from the pair’s conflicting opinions regarding the musical identity and direction of the project: “There were heated discussions. Colin wanted more randomness introduced into the arrangements, more live playing; Mike was pretty obsessed with structure.”
Steve Parker echoes in part Simmons’s observations, noting that aspects of the production at times undermined the creativity and spontaneity of the musicians: “I like some of A–Z, but I think the production gets in the way of the songs and the motivation. When you were working with Mike, everything you recorded, Mike had to treat in some way, and it had to go through some box or some effect. We couldn’t just record a sound; it had to be a unique sound.” Parker places much of the blame on Thorne’s Synclavier fixation. “Everything you did had to go through the Synclavier. Colin would have an idea for a sound, and he’d plug in the guitar, and I’d stand by waiting to record, and Mike would charge up and say, ‘Right, we’ve got to put it through this.’ And half an hour of data later, Colin’s lost the vibe, and we’d got a sound that, yes, was unique—there was no one else at the time who had that, because there was no one else who could afford a Synclavier—but….”
What does your image mean?
On one level, the title, A-Z, refers to the record’s broad musical range; it’s Newman’s tongue-in-cheek proclamation of the album’s exhaustive compendium of styles. “For me, making records has almost always been about creating a diversity of material,” he says. “I’ve never liked records on which all the tracks sound the same.” Additionally, the title and the artwork signal a deeper conceptual intent: a desire to give the record an unmistakable cultural and geographical identity. The key to that conceptual dimension is the London A–Z, the ubiquitous paperback book of street maps.
First printed in 1936, the A–Z was for decades an indispensable item for anyone who lived in or visited the capital. “There’s a strong relationship between the name of the album, the sleeve and London,” Newman explains. “Everyone’s got satnav now, but back then, you had to have that book. No Londoner left home without an A–Z. It was the most important book any Londoner owned. It was the single most important thing you had. They were cheap and disposable. Sometimes you’d forget it and just buy another one in the newsagent’s, and so people always had about ten of them lying around with the pages falling out. I used pages from an old A–Z for the album artwork—six paintings that I did myself. It’s like painting-by-numbers, filled in: I literally painted pages from an old A–Z, filling them in with colours. I’d learnt in art school about how to stretch paper so you can paint on it with watercolour without the paper cockling. So my art-school training came into that.”
The visual appropriation of the London street atlas was bound up with Newman’s personal sense of connection to the city. “It’s about being a Londoner. I was obsessed with London at the time,” he recalls. “I’d wanted to be a Londoner all my conscious life. Coming from Newbury, where nothing really means anything, there’s no regional identity. If you come from the West Country or the North or the Midlands, you’ve got the accent and the attitude, the whole thing to go with it; if you come from Hampshire or Berkshire, they’re just places on the way to somewhere else. My mother’s side of the family came from London, and as a child I used to come up and stay in Catford, and we’d go into London on the bus. Later on, I used to take the train into London from Newbury and hang out in record stores. I wanted so much to be in London and to be a Londoner. As soon as I got to London as a student, I acquired the accent and everything.”
The connection between the album and the capital city manifests itself even in the modernist typography on the sleeve: Eric Gill’s Gill Sans. Gill had been an apprentice to Edward Johnston, assisting in the creation of the Johnston sans-serif that was adopted in 1916 by the London Underground for signage and maps. Gill later developed his own sans typeface, which was subsequently taken up by British Railways for timetables, publicity materials and posters—as well as by Penguin Books and the BBC.
While the paintings on the sleeve represented an embrace of the culture and geography of the city, they also encapsulated a specific moment for Newman: “By the time of A–Z, I was living in Brixton. This was before the Brixton Riots. It was exciting, it was colourful, and it had an edgy energy. The place had a very strong cultural identity. It was like the East End has been since the 1990s. Brixton still has that energy; it’s a buzz-y place. And back then, there was a nanosecond when jazz was really hip. We used to go to a pub in Stockwell and see jazz groups, and the cover paintings for A–Z were done while listening to jazz records. I had this mad idea of making a map of London that was like Mondrian’s ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ [1942–43]: the concept was London as a meeting place of jazz and abstract expressionism—it was highly pretentious! Musically, it all came together in the song ‘S-S-S-Star Eyes,’ which referred to Charlie Parker’s ‘Star Eyes.’ ”
I’m deliberately diverging
When A–Z came out in October 1980, reviewers and observers inevitably compared it to Wire’s work, some even proposing that it could be seen as the fourth Wire album—the record the band would have made, had they remained together. Some familiar sonic and stylistic traits supported the idea that this was essentially a Wire record, but commonalities in that respect were hardly surprising. “There is some unavoidable crossover,” says Newman. “I was writing the same kind of material, and it’s the same bloke singing, the same bloke playing the drums, the same bloke producing, and maybe some elements of the sound are similar. But I didn’t really know any other way to do it. I would never have taken the option that Bruce and Graham did—get an eight-track and do something totally different. I don’t think I could have done that. Above all, I wanted to make the point, ‘This is what I do; it’s not the same as what Wire does, but it’s an element of what Wire does.’ ” (Ironically, aspects of the 1979 A–Z home demos dovetail with the minimalist abstraction Gilbert and Lewis pursued: the sparse mechanical rhythm and austere ambience of “Standard Practice,” for example, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Dome record.)
If A–Z were the missing Wire album, it would have almost certainly incorporated some of the numerous post-154 tracks that the band was developing in 1979 and 1980, many of which were included in live sets during that period. However, only one such track appears on A–Z (“Inventory”). As Newman emphasises, when he was writing the material, he was aware of the songs having an identity separate from Wire: “A–Z was my first solo album. That was what it was always intended to be.” Moreover, he has a clear recollection of the material for A–Z starting to come together as early as March 1979: “I was writing the words to some of the songs on A–Z when we were on the Roxy Music tour. I wrote the words for ‘I’ve Waited Ages’ in the van, and I remember showing them to Bruce and both of us pissing ourselves laughing.”
“I’ve Waited Ages” is A–Z’s signature piece. Consciously placed by Newman as the opening number, it announces, musically and lyrically, that this will be anything but the fourth Wire album. The track does have roots in recordings he’d made with Thorne during mid-1979 Wire sessions, but those recordings were the springboard for entirely new work: “This was an idea that actually came from something we’d recorded when we were doing 154: a drone of sustained guitar loops, and Mike had given me a tape of it. But the song itself is a classic new-start kind of piece. It’s a first track. A sort of, ‘Put that in your pipe and smoke it; this is what we’re doing now.’ It has that feel to it. It’s huge great slabs of moronic guitar noise. From my point of view, the key line is the last one: ‘I’m deliberately diverging, not the same but different you see.’ What I’m saying is that I’m taking ideas that I’ve worked with before and pushing them in new directions, the point being that I don’t feel constrained: I can say what I want, and I can say it in the way I want to say it.”
Beyond the question of A–Z’s links to Wire, critical reaction was very favourable, with the album’s stylistic diversity making an especially strong impression. The NME’s Andy Gill lauded “the range of musical information,” a characteristic that undoubtedly accounted for the breadth of comparisons made by reviewers: parallels were suggested between A–Z and work by, among others, Michael Rother, Faust, This Heat, the Residents, Peter Hammill, Talking Heads, John Foxx, Vini Reilly and, unsurprisingly, Eno. (Somewhat worryingly, a “puritan Mike Oldfield” was mooted by Melody Maker’s John Orme.)
In Sounds, Hugh Fielder mentioned the record’s “modernist” orientation; Andy Gill expanded on this, identifying attributes of musique concrète along with Newman’s “technique of layered minimalism, using textural building-blocks of stark simplicity to create edifices of, at times, almost baroque ornamentation.” While these observations acknowledged the album’s experimental or explorative dimensions, critics were also quick to point out its listener-friendly pop sensibility. As Gill commented, Newman refused “to adopt the principles of immediacy and uncertainty with as much rigidity as Gilbert and Lewis [and] has managed to make an album in which experiment and accessibility (those strangest and rarest of bedfellows) coexist in peaceful democracy.”
Record Mirror’s Mark Perry paid particular attention to the vocals, asserting that Newman’s was “a modern voice of unmatched intensity,” with the singer “twisting and shaping words in his own strange way.” More than simply foreground an idiosyncratic delivery, though, the album strikingly presents the vocals almost as an instrument. For the most part, the material features words organised into song format, but it often accentuates the sound of the voice itself, rather than any message; Newman fragments syntax, flouts grammatical rules, veers into nonsense and, in places, abandons language altogether.
This shift of emphasis challenged traditionalist critical expectations that rock and pop lyrics should convey a self-evident message, and the denial of easily accessible meaning appeared to bother some of A–Z’s reviewers, in spite of their positive write-ups: Gill called the lyrics “well-nigh impenetrable” and “almost totally indecipherable”; Patrick Corcoran felt they required “intense study to unlock their meaning”; and ZigZag opined that “the words seem mainly like random bollocks.” Such responses are symptomatic of a common tendency among critics writing about popular music: at their most extreme, they don’t just privilege words over music, as a discrete component, they also approach those words with simplistic notions of signification—frequently rooted in an antiquated version of literary criticism limited to close reading or governed by a desire for transparent, unproblematic meaning.
Two reviewers managed to move beyond this narrow paradigm and to frame Newman’s words differently, focussing on the way they worked—their textual function—as opposed to what the author might have intended them to say. For John Orme, the lyrics constituted a “narrative that owes more to psychotherapy and stream-of-consciousness than any real attempt to communicate”; Steve Taylor, meanwhile, stated that the “generally obscure” words “defy analysis, even understanding”—but he was also comfortable with their propensity to resist interpretation and was able to take pleasure in this: “There’s a point where the perversity of the words becomes an attraction in itself.”
If some critics had difficulty making sense of his “random bollocks,” or were put out by his apparently opaque lyrics, Newman was unmoved. In a 1981 interview with the NME, he told Andy Gill, “The lyrics are just noises you can make with your mouth; they don’t really mean anything.” He now reiterates this idea, providing a little more context: “The words are totally absurd. I’d had enough of people taking lyrics seriously at that point.” This comment highlights the idea that A–Z should not be taken as a continuation of Wire. There are strains of Wire fandom that tend to treat the band’s lyrics with Dylanological levels of obsessive reverence, and Newman’s remark makes it clear that he’s eager to put distance between this facet of Wire’s work and his own.
It’s not that Newman discounts his own lyrics or refuses to acknowledge them as an important part of his songwriting; he’s quite willing to discuss the words, but usually not in order to explain them or reduce them to fixed meanings, preferring to consider them in terms of the more interesting questions related to tone, style and function that Taylor and Orme touch on. He certainly talks about the ideas informing his words but stresses that, ultimately, meaning is open-ended: “This is a record with a lot of unanswered questions and unresolved thoughts. One could dismiss the lyrics as ‘steam-of-consciousness bollocks,’ but there are elements also of opposition, of eschewing simple answers.”
Some find disarray, some find misery
On the whole, critics deemed the mood of the record a little bleak, although that didn’t necessarily detract from their enthusiasm. “One man definitely not in the fun business is Wire stalwart Colin Newman,” wrote a reviewer whose copy of the album must have been missing the line, “I’ve got a chicken in my bandolier” (on “I’ve Waited Ages”). In much the same vein, John Orme characterised the songs as “cold, unemotional epigrams of the determinedly mundane,” and Patrick Corcoran detected an overwhelming sense of “cold despair mixed with an almost futile feeling of self-defence.”
There’s no denying that a gloominess permeates some tracks: the desperate “Seconds to Last” documents the experience of illness, albeit obliquely; there’s a distinct whiff of goth about “Image”; and “Alone” exudes melancholy and menace. Famously, the film director Jonathan Demme was among those who appreciated the album’s darker moments, recognising the potential of “Alone” as perfect soundtrack material for one of the most memorable scenes in The Silence of the Lambs. (According to Newman, Beggars Banquet charged Demme only a modest fee, since the director had assured them that the song was going to be used in “a low-budget movie.”)
Notwithstanding its occasionally morbid inclinations, the record’s overall tone is playful, and humour is a significant ingredient—honouring Newman’s original intentions for the project. Few reviewers picked up on this aspect, despite the presence of tracks that are impossible to take too seriously. A-Z’s first single, “B,” was a case in point, barely raising a smile among music writers. In the spirit of “I Am the Fly,” this stubbornly infectious instrumental oddity found Newman in vintage moronic mode. It wasn’t a million miles away from the Residents, a comparison bolstered by the track’s Dadaist promo video. This was directed by Grey’s friend Robert Smith and featured the band plus associates Slim Smith (Newman’s old housemate at Watford School of Art), Sarah Pirozek (Grey’s then-girlfriend) and Mick Collins (now managing Newman; appearing as a penguin).
With this accompanying video, “B” was an exemplary 45, and it’s mind-boggling that it wasn’t a hit. In the peculiar cultural milieu that was the British singles chart, it’s not difficult to imagine “B” occupying a place in the pantheon of novelty singles that graced the UK Top 20s of the 1970s and 1980s. It more than holds its own alongside canonical curiosities by the likes of Lieutenant Pigeon, Hot Butter and the Rah Band. The added bonus of its manic ska-style danceability also made “B” ideal fodder for school discos and worse; but not even some television airings of the clip on The Old Grey Whistle Test and Noel Edmonds’s Saturday morning Multi-Coloured Swap Shop could save it from disappearing without a trace. (The second single from A-Z, “Inventory,” was released to similar indifference.)
A spanner in the works
Thirty-six years on, Newman has mixed feelings about the initial phase of his solo career around the making of A–Z. “I tend to look at it in not the most positive terms. I see that I made a lot of mistakes—not in the music but in everything around it. I had a lot of learning to do. The period around A–Z was a comedown, and there was a loss of innocence during that process.”
Part of the problem was Newman’s difficult transition from the world’s biggest record company (EMI) to an independent label and his inability to recognise the different set of rules and expectations in that new context: “There was a huge difference between the culture of independent labels and majors. With Beggars, I totally screwed up on understanding the implicit contract between an artist and a record company. That was part of coming out of the Wire culture and being on a major label, where the idea was that they just give you the money and you spend it how you like. That was how it had been in the ’60s, up to the mid-’70s. A label like EMI would give you money so you could develop to a point where you’d start selling a lot of records. It had worked with Pink Floyd, but by the latter half of the ’70s, it had all broken down, so there wasn’t any money. Up to that point, with Wire, we thought that what it was all about was this great artistic venture and that we were following in the line of fantastic artists like Roxy Music. We had no concept of the thing as a business, no notion of the industry or anything like that—it just didn’t exist in the culture of Wire. Beggars, on the other hand, had money, but they presumed that their artists wanted to be successful.”
Key to the “concept of the thing as a business” that Newman had failed to grasp when he signed to Beggars was the fact that promotion and touring were vital to success. As a result, his relationship with the label was doomed from the start. He traces this anti-touring mind-set back to Wire’s 1979 spell on the road as a support act for Roxy Music. This had left a sour taste, not only because on a nightly basis he had witnessed a band Wire once held in esteem, now in demise—but also, more significantly, because the whole enterprise seemed financially pointless. “The Roxy tour fucked everything up so much. It made me not want to tour. Seeing Roxy betraying everything, I had such a negative view of what that was all about, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. And I had no idea that we could make money on the road: my only experience of touring was that everybody gets paid, except for you. It just didn’t occur to me. I didn’t see it as an income. The only thing I knew about income was getting an advance for the album.” Consequently, touring on the back of A–Z was not on Newman’s agenda.
The first indication of problems had come when Newman travelled to New York in summer 1980 to mix A–Z with Thorne. During his stay, Newman had a meeting with the Atlantic Records subsidiary ATCO, which was interested in handling a US release. ATCO laid out plans for him to promote the album with extensive live work, only to be told by Newman that this wasn’t going to happen. Back in London, Beggars’ attempts to send him out on the road met with the same reaction.
Newman now laments his attitude: “There was a great opportunity there, which I threw away. There was an unwritten contract, and I was stupid—I didn’t understand that. If we had toured A–Z in America and had some kind of success, I would have had a very different kind of life. [Label boss] Martin Mills at Beggars thought I was a dead loss because I wouldn’t go on tour. I look back and think I must have been stupid. In hindsight, I was totally wrong, and it screwed up my relationship with Beggars Banquet. What was there not to understand? I was a liability. It didn’t occur to me that I might have to do a bit of work to sell a record. I would have been horror-struck at the idea of actually promoting it. I don’t understand where my head was at or what I thought I was doing. Why would I do a record of songs with a band and then not go on the road and play them? Any artist now just wouldn’t get it!”
Robert Grey was aware that A–Z held the potential for pop success, and he could see why Beggars were excited about Newman’s possibilities: “They were hoping Colin was going to be massive, I suppose. Colin has always leaned more towards pop, and there was a hope that you could have a successful single or that things could take off, rather than being more in the area of an indie band that was only going to be popular within its own limits. You’d think, ‘It wouldn’t be a bad thing if this was successful.’ ” But he was already familiar with Newman’s stance on touring and promotion and understood his bandmate’s position: “Colin had this attitude when we were in Wire. He didn’t like the process, and he didn’t think he needed to do such a thing as touring. He thought that, creatively, it wasn’t helpful.”
In addition to the stumbling blocks of promotion and touring, another matter made Newman difficult for Beggars to deal with. If Martin Mills and his associates were frustrated to encounter an artist who seemingly didn’t want to sell records, they must have thrown up their hands when they discovered that, after they’d signed Newman precisely as a solo artist, he was unwilling to embrace that identity. “I came from Wire with a lot of ridiculous ideas. I thought I wasn’t cut out to be a solo artist, or a solo artist rock star—I wasn’t the right person to be doing that.” Even today, he remains ambivalent on this point: “Colin Newman is my name, not a thing, not an entity. I’ve always felt deeply uncomfortable about that. It’s something that doesn’t go with me. I’m the worst solo artist in the world. I have no ability to be one.”
Despite his regrets over issues peripheral to the music itself, Newman does see positives in A–Z. In his view, the album’s most valuable lesson concerned the collaborative process. A–Z was composed, almost exclusively, of Newman’s songs and was released under his name alone, but he insists that it was very much a group effort: “Although it says ‘Colin Newman’ on the cover, it was definitely a band album. When it came to making the arrangements, the other people did the things that they felt were right for it: for example, on more than half of those songs, Des figured out his own bass lines.”
While this was effectively the same way Wire operated, A–Z showed Newman that working with others didn’t have to be a battle: “In Wire, much bigger egos were involved. On A–Z, I didn’t have to fight so hard to get people to do what I’d ask them to do. There was that shade of difference.” As that statement suggests, such a working relationship always hinges on a delicate and paradoxical balance between democratic participation and benevolent dictatorship, something that Newman recognises. “When I look back at A–Z, what I learned from it was about collaboration,” he maintains, although he immediately concedes with a laugh, “maybe I was directing the collaboration.”
provisionally entitled the singing fish
Before the release of A–Z in October 1980, Newman had already parted ways with producer and collaborator Mike Thorne. Their divergent views on how Newman should proceed with his work made any continued creative partnership untenable. “We argued about the future direction. When we went to mix A–Z in New York, it came to a head, and we had a huge fight about it. I stopped working with Mike because he was really against me doing the next record, provisionally entitled the singing fish. I didn’t want to be a solo star, so I thought doing another ‘song’ record wasn’t a good idea. I wanted to do something else. He had some very strong ideas about what my career ought to be, and he also felt I should have been out there touring A–Z. I disagreed with him about that, too. In some ways, he was the voice of reason. He was saying things like, ‘You need to do another song album. You need to develop it, take the band out on the road, do a bunch of gigs’—and I was completely against it.”
Thorne’s account of the rift is characteristically circumspect: “The vessel became too small for the two of us, as it had become with Wire on 154. We were all growing very fast.”
Newman finished work on provisionally entitled the singing fish while A-Z was still relatively fresh in record stores. Doing “something else” away from song-based music, which led to the break with Thorne, had taken the form of a wholly instrumental album whose minimalist, abstract tracks were designated “fish 1” through to “fish 12.” He knew this wasn’t quite what Beggars Banquet were looking for. They saw Newman’s promise as an artist who might emulate the recent success they’d had with Gary Numan. Newman, however, felt that a non-song album—which shifted the focus away from a visible, central personality—was a way of resisting the solo-artist mantle that Beggars were keen for him to take on. While he recognised that provisionally entitled the singing fish would still be a solo project, it was to be a solo project on his terms and in the purest sense. “I thought, ‘Why don’t I do an actual solo record instead of doing what is fundamentally a collaboration with a band?’ ” Although he had liked working with a group on A–Z, his enthusiasm had cooled. “I also felt conflicted about the band that did A–Z. So I said to Ivo [Watts-Russell, founder of the 4AD label with Peter Kent] that I needed a bit of money for five days in the studio. It would be very cheap, and it would be a solo record—but not a solo record which is actually a group.”
Watts-Russell and Kent were Beggars Banquet employees who had just started 4AD with the encouragement of their boss, Martin Mills. The pair would often try to convince Mills to sign new bands that excited them, and eventually Mills suggested that they set up a subsidiary label and sign the bands themselves. They did so, and 4AD was housed in the same Earls Court office space as Beggars, above the flagship Beggars Banquet record shop.
The plan at the time was that Newman could make provisionally entitled the singing fish for 4AD and then return to the parent label for a song-oriented album. “Colin pitched provisionally entitled the singing fish as a whole package deal, which is something he was very good at doing,” says Watts-Russell. “His approach was, ‘I’d like to do something different, and we could do it on your label. It would be something non-commercial, instrumental, with Steve [Parker]—and it wouldn’t cost too much money, because we’d do it in dead-time at Scorpio. What about that?’ And I just said, ‘Yes!’ And he might have even said that Annette [Green] would do the cover, because she was a well-known photographer. It felt more comfortable him working with me, rather than being on Beggars, even though they had all the fledgling distribution in the early ’80s.”
The commercial ambitions that Beggars had for Newman, which Newman rejected, were also anathema to Watts-Russell: “Around 1980–81, I was trying to find my feet with 4AD. I mean, I was still trying to find out who the fuck could print my sleeves properly! So the idea of doing anything traditionally was not remotely appealing, and the live thing—to the detriment perhaps of some of the people I’ve worked with—has never really been of that much interest to me. Martin Mills is somebody I consider a friend and a great supporter, somebody I admire enormously, but we were on completely different stools: my stool was learning, and one of the things I was learning was not to do it in any way, shape or form how people across the other side of the room were doing things.”
Clearly, Watts-Russell was sympathetic to Newman’s outlook at this time. And if Newman needed further evidence that 4AD was the right place, he could find it in the fact that Watts-Russell had already signed his erstwhile bandmates Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis, whose abstract experimentation was never going to pack out auditoriums or trouble chart compilers. Watts-Russell was a committed supporter of Wire and, in spite of his ambivalence towards live work, had attended some of their London gigs, although his first experience of the band hadn’t been very promising: “I saw them fairly early on. I didn’t even know they were playing. They were definitely one of the worst bands I’ve ever seen in my life, opening for Wayne County—or was it Jayne County?—who was also pretty awful. They seemed to exude a bit of an attitude onstage, which seemed effective.” To him, it was something of a coup to be able to bring these artists to 4AD and give them the space to express themselves: “I couldn’t believe my luck that I was working with members of Wire, five minutes after starting a label.”
Interestingly, Gilbert and Lewis’s projects had registered with Newman, and, at some level, they had given him the impetus for what would become provisionally entitled the singing fish: “I guess, in a way, I wanted to show I could compete with Graham and Bruce in doing something that was a bit more abstract and filmic.” It surprises Watts-Russell to learn this now: “I didn’t get that impression at the time. I didn’t think Colin needed to prove a damn thing.”
Music for frogs
The roots of provisionally entitled the singing fish can be traced to a couple of pieces that Newman had begun drafting as home demos: “fish 1” and “fish 9” (only the latter demo survives). The first of these was a catalyst for the album, in that it provided a blueprint for the quick, uncomplicated working method Newman would follow. “ ‘fish 1’ was Wire’s ‘Mannequin,’ speeded up twice as fast,” he laughs. “It was the first thing I did. It was ridiculous. I thought I’d make a whole piece just using a song I’d already written. I didn’t even have to write something again, just speed up something I’d done already.” In a similar vein, Wire’s “5/10” and Newman’s “You and Your Dog” (released years later, on the 1988 CN1 EP) were speeded up as the basis for “fish 7” and “fish 11,” respectively. Newman continues: “So I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I could just do a whole record like that!’ You have to remember that this is coming from a person who took great pride in the fact that ‘Map Ref.’ had a chorus the same as the verse, apart from one chord. That sort of economy and humour was very much part of my writing.”
Not only had Newman devised a new creative process, he had also begun thinking about his music in terms of its possible use, outside the simple context of the pop music economy in which he’d been operating until then. Beggars may have despaired at his apparent lack of commercial nous, but Newman now had definite ideas that, if successful, could tap a profitable stream of revenue. “The first really good nature documentaries in the ’70s always had interesting soundtracks, and I’d watch them and think, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ I thought it would be fantastic not having to do songs; I wasn’t thinking Hollywood soundtracks, just pieces of music for frogs. So the idea for provisionally entitled the singing fish was that it was all potential soundtracks, a portfolio of work, so if someone needed music for a piece of film or a programme, I could provide it. A lot of musicians probably fantasised about their work getting used in soundtracks, because it’s sort of money for nothing. And you don’t have to promote it. Obviously, that didn’t work, and no one used any of what I did, so it just got seen as being another record.”
Reflecting on this, Ivo Watts-Russell accepts some of the culpability for Newman’s plans not coming to fruition: “Did we have any specific access or mail the record out to any movie-type people or placement services? No, we failed him miserably in that regard.”
With Thorne out of the picture, Newman had decided to assume principal production duties on the new album and asked Steve Parker to engineer it. If Thorne had been unwilling to accompany Newman into non-mainstream, commercially unrewarding territory, Parker had no such reservations. He was still a relative novice, eager for hands-on experience of diverse studio methodologies and musical projects. At Scorpio Sound, he recalls alternating between regular recording sessions and work on jingles for TV adverts: “It was quite common in some studios to do ads during a morning session, before a band or artist came in for the rest of the day. Most engineers started off that way, doing jingles.”
Overall, Parker had enjoyed making A–Z, especially because it dovetailed with the burgeoning indie ethos of the period, the sessions often involving imaginative, exploratory approaches to recording that were absent from bigger-budget ventures. Newman recognised a kindred spirit in Parker and thought he had the right credentials for provisionally entitled the singing fish. “I liked Steve, and I liked Dennis Weinreich, but Dennis was more showbiz-y; he was a ‘name.’ Steve was unpretentious. He had no come-on: he used to say he got his practice from working on those TV adverts, and the rest of the time he wanted to do more out-there stuff.”
Newman’s growing interest in production was evident during the recording of A–Z, but Parker doesn’t feel that he was necessarily planning a transition to the role at this stage. Rather, it was a question of basic economics: “I had the gut feeling that Colin was keen to learn. But when we moved on to provisionally entitled the singing fish and Not To, I don’t think it was a conscious move to produce himself; I think it was just that we didn’t have the funds.”
Although the advance for the album was small, the pair had found a way to continue recording at Scorpio. “Steve said he could get me cheap time,” recalls Newman. “It was a classic studio thing: we could do anything we wanted, do the record really cheap.” As Parker was an in-house engineer at Scorpio, he was able to broker favourable terms for Newman: “We negotiated a deal for time that wasn’t being used. We came in in the morning and on odd days, when the place was free and we could just drop in and do stuff.”
This less structured, ad hoc arrangement translated to the creative process itself once they began work, as Newman built on the ideas and sketches that he’d brought with him; sometimes, he simply improvised from scratch, taking an open-ended, experimental approach. “We were often playing around with sounds for the sake of it,” remembers Parker. “It was fluid,” says Newman. “Steve and I just went in and fiddled about and made something on the spot. I had a few ideas, but I didn’t really have a lot before I went in there. I trusted in the fact that I could come up with stuff. We’d start off in the morning, and whatever idea I had, Steve would record it. He’d figure out a way to do it. He was easy to work with. Steve was a great engineer.”
Spandex snares and shutter doors
Despite being made in a state-of-the-art studio, provisionally entitled the singing fish was a pared-down, DIY album; while some of that came from the creative method Newman had hit on with “fish 1,” the cheap-and-cheerful modus operandi wasn’t always part of a deliberate plan. Like Newman’s move into production, the working process was shaped as much by practical considerations, namely scant finances and limited studio time. “It was a case of needs must,” stresses Parker. “We didn’t have anything to spend. We didn’t have the funds to pay anybody.” Newman agrees: “It had to be all me. I played every note on the record, apart from a bit of Rob’s drumming. It was my usual collection of odd instruments, melodicas, recorders and guitars, and I borrowed some drums.”
Rudimentary sampling was at the core of the process. This began with the rhythm tracks. “We started with some drums and just built stuff up,” says Newman. “I’m the world’s worst drummer, so we just did loops—a loop of a bass drum and then a loop of a snare on top of it, so it would be roughly keeping time.” Some of the rhythm tracks were achieved without using instruments at all. Instead, Newman made inventive use of what was at hand in the studio: “There are bits where we made drum rhythms by taking a metronome and then dividing it with delays and sending it to two tracks, making them a bass drum and a snare. For example, you’d have the metronome, EQ it and boost up the sound and throw in loads of bottom end so it would sound a bit like a bass drum. Well, a clicky bass drum.”
Parker recalls incorporating an even more unlikely found sound, in addition to the metronome: “There’s one track, ‘fish 6,’ which features a cassette recording of a shutter door from a house where Colin had stayed in Spain. [This dated back to January 1979 and was recorded in the same room and on the same tape as Newman’s original demo of Wire’s ‘Ally in Exile.’] We built the whole track around it. It was very experimental.” Like “Standard Practice,” from Newman’s 1979 A–Z home demos, this neurotic miniature could be a lost Gilbert and Lewis piece, cut as it is from similarly austere industrial-minimalist cloth. When asked if anything about Newman and Parker’s working methods struck him when he visited the sessions at Scorpio, Ivo Watts-Russell brings up this instance of primitive sampling. To him, it was evidence of the left-field thinking that characterised the adventurous creativity more broadly associated with Wire: “Recording the sound of that door from where he’d been on holiday—that was a Graham and Bruce thing, I suppose. It’s the same language, anyway.”
This wasn’t the only example of resourcefulness that had impressed Watts-Russell: “Colin and Steve were doing a trick, which was taking one of the little Tannoy speakers back into the studio, putting it on a snare and playing back what they’d recorded, through the speaker, which would then re-trigger the snare—and then they’d record that. It stuck with me.” This technique—known in production lore as the ‘Spandex Snare’—was something that had been used extensively on A–Z. Newman explains in more detail: “There used to be small studio monitors called Auratones, like a square box, commonly referred to as ‘Horrortones.’ They were supposed to show what your mix would sound like on a home radio or a small stereo. And if you sent the snare sound to one of those small speakers perched on top of a snare drum, it would vibrate the snare drum, and you could record the ambience. So that was how we did the snare drums. It sounded a bit splashy, but you could have a snare drum on there without having to hit it in time; there’s no skill involved, so it was ideal for me.”
While Parker recognises the crude nature of some of these techniques, by today’s standards at least, he emphasises that everything’s relative: “You have to bear in mind that ‘experimental’ today is very different: you’ve got samplers and synthesisers. We didn’t really have any of that. We had tape and a few effects boxes to play around with that didn’t really have much potential. So considering the kind of limitations we had, there are some great things on the record.”
There were, of course, antecedents for their enterprising re-imaginings of the studio and its technology. The work of Brian Eno immediately comes to mind. “I know Colin was interested in My Life in the Bush of Ghosts around the time we were working together,” says Parker, “and I imagine Eno’s ideas were an influence on him.” Although My Life in the Bush of Ghosts wasn’t released until February 1981—too late to have had an impact on provisionally entitled the singing fish—Parker’s comment raises an important distinction: it wasn’t that Newman might have been inspired by the music itself but rather, like Gilbert and Lewis, that he shared Eno’s willingness to think differently about how records could be made, a willingness to investigate the possibilities of the studio as an instrument. Parker retains vivid memories of the pre-digital studio-as-instrument approach that he and Newman embraced, with yards and yards of tape often wending their way through the recording environment: “We made loops that sometimes used to go all the way around the control room and all over the place. We just pieced stuff together.”
Parker believes that the essential ingenuity of the album was inversely proportional to the resources available: “It was funny because, when we were working with Mike on A–Z, he had all this gear, and he seemed to have very clear ideas about what he wanted to do; and when I was working with Colin on singing fish, it was just loops and stuff, chopping up bits of tape. I think it’s quite clear from A–Z into fish, and later Not To, that our work was fairly low-tech, because we simply didn’t have the tools. Which makes you more creative.” Newman concurs: “Some of the things where we didn’t have the tools—but we made it up as we went along—make for interesting music. Sometimes limitations can produce great things.”
To a certain extent, Parker sees provisionally entitled the singing fish as emblematic of a golden moment in music-making—epitomising a creativity that’s now too often crushed by option paralysis, that negative artefact of recording in the age of digital reproduction: “The problem with producing today is that you’ve got so many options that the creativity doesn’t come to the fore, because you’re so busy not committing to stuff.”
The album’s packaging was another DIY, in-house project. Newman conceived and made the artwork, and Annette Green took the photographs: “It was a Chinese fish lantern placed on some wheels. I think I even had the cover concept down to what I was wearing. Annette shot it at Watford School of Art, where she was teaching. Shooting in black-and-white pulled it all together and kind of de-Chinesed the fish. The ‘piano shield’ idea on the back cover had its origins in the ‘B’ video. I either made it, or had it made, along with the enormous Wellington boots that were in the video.”
Released in summer 1981, provisionally entitled the singing fish divided critical opinion. In Sounds, Johnny Waller was enthusiastic: “It’s a marvellous collection of mood music…. Newman’s wry sense of humour is somehow still evident…. Wonderfully cinematic, perfect for making up stories to fit the tunes.” Melody Maker’s Ian Pye was less positive. He found it “disappointing…a selection of mood pieces…as lame and inconsequential as the record’s self-conscious title.” Hot Press’s Peter Owens agreed, complaining that Newman had “eschewed all attempts at songwriting in favour of vague and unsatisfying meanders through his notebook of instrumental snippets.”
Ivo Watts-Russell, meanwhile, was happy enough with the results and still considers the album an original contribution to the musical landscape of 1981: “I thought provisionally entitled the singing fish was a great success. It really works well as a calm instrumental oddity. Not too many people were doing anything like that at the time, which is always nice.”
That good-looking boy
In early 1981, when the recording of provisionally entitled the singing fish was complete (but prior to its release), Newman surprisingly acquiesced to a few North American gigs in support of A–Z. Although he had previously declined to tour, manager Mick Collins did eventually convince him to play some dates. There would be three shows in New York and two in Toronto.
This was hardly the coast-to-coast tour Beggars Banquet and their American counterparts had wanted—something that might put Newman on a par with Gary Numan—but it was better than nothing. For his part, Newman wasn’t optimistic about his prospects with Beggars, particularly with his contract coming up for renewal. As he commented to Jim Green of Trouser Press in February 1981, “I couldn’t blame [the label] if they didn’t take my option up, from a commercial point of view.” (Newman’s suspicions were confirmed: Beggars, disappointed with the sales of A-Z, decided not to have him back, and he stayed with 4AD.)
A new band member was needed for these shows. Desmond Simmons had made it clear that he wanted to revert to guitar, and so auditions were held for a bassist. These took place in Grey’s home rehearsal space. Among the hopefuls were musicians from several moderately known bands. “There were people I didn’t recognise,” recalls Newman, “and after they’d gone, Des would say, ‘You do realise who that was, don’t you?’ ” One contender was Dave Allen, who would reappear almost a decade later as the producer of Wire’s Manscape. “I think I got the job,” he says, “but there was a terrible vagueness about money, I seem to remember.”
Another candidate was Simon Gillham. Having just turned 20, he was a musical generation younger than Newman, Simmons and Grey and part of the Camden squatting community that orbited around Scritti Politti’s infamous 1 Carol Street abode. “I was round there all the time,” Gillham remembers. “I lived at the almost-as-legendary 3 Regents Park Road, with the Young Marble Giants, Weekend, the Janet and Johns and various other chancers. Colin himself once came round for some frugal pasta, trying to boost his ailing street cred.” Pursuing the same DIY approach favoured by early Scritti, Gillham had made a couple of records with the Different Eyes (also known as the Different I’s). One of these, the 1979 Shish EP, received some airplay on the John Peel show—mainly because the DJ thought it had the worst sleeve he’d ever come across.
Gillham heard about the auditions for Newman’s band from a housemate who worked at Rough Trade, and he duly turned up at Grey’s home with his 1959 Epiphone semi-acoustic bass. “It sounded fairly shit, but it looked fantastic, and as I was opening the case, Colin said, ‘Cor, that’s a nice piece of spaghetti.’ That was the first thing he ever said to me.” The audition itself was straightforward: “Colin had the tunes. It was stuff from A–Z, and he’d say, ‘Here’s the first one. It goes: DA-NA-NA, DA-NA-NA, DA-NA-NA—you just do that for three minutes.’ And we played it. Then he said, ‘Here’s another one. It goes DUNDUNDUN, DUNDUNDUN-DUN—just like that for three minutes.’ So we did four or five of these things, and at the end he said, ‘Great! You’ve got the gig.’ ”
Gillham had assumed that he’d have to make the strongest possible case for his musical abilities, but he needn’t have worried; Newman wasn’t looking for a virtuoso. “I said to Colin, ‘It’s really weird because I know you’ve been seeing lots of people, and these are the easiest bass lines I’ve ever played. How come you’ve had to wait so long to find someone to play them?’ He said, ‘Cos you’re the first person who’s just played DA-NA-NA, DA-NA-NA, DA-NA-NA and not gone DA-NA-NA.’ ”
Newman remembers the audition: “Graham [Lewis] used to call Simon ‘that good-looking boy in your group.’ He wasn’t chosen for his looks, but it certainly helped. There wasn’t much discussion after the audition. It was obvious it was Simon. He was an innocent in many ways, but he was also ambitious. He fitted right in with the mentality of the group, as a group. Simon was very much the youngster, the hip guy. I was responsive to that because I’m always interested in what the next generation have to say for themselves. Wire had enough cool for me to still be OK with someone like Simon.” Gillham had sensed some of this: “I think Colin quite liked the idea that I was young and precocious. I probably fancied myself a little bit, and I think he quite enjoyed that aspect of it.”
Above all, Gillham was thrilled to get the job because it was something of a dream-come-true: “I adored Wire. I was an absolute devotee, so when I got the gig playing with Colin, it was extraordinary. I couldn’t believe it. It was a fluke.” All the same, he was under no illusion as to why he’d passed the audition: “I got the gig because I just did what I was told. That was the iron law: if you did exactly what you were told, you were fine. If you deviated, it’d better be good.” Simmons found this harder to accept. Even on A–Z, which Newman perceived as a collaborative enterprise, Simmons’s only credited contribution had been the lyrics to “& Jury.” Given that he had been the dominant creative partner in their first Newbury bands, it’s not difficult to understand why he might have become disillusioned. “I was always the other one,” Newman stresses, well aware of his early supporting role. “I was the Andrew Ridgeley of CNDS. It was Des’s group. I was the guy who hit the box and went along with things. Most of the writing was Des’s.”
Although Newman talks about the collaborative spirit of A–Z and underlines the contributions of others to what he considers a genuine band project, Steve Parker noticed some tension that he believes stemmed from Simmons’s dissatisfaction with his narrow role: “There was always a kind of friction between Colin and Des. They’d been friends since they were kids, and it was like Des wasn’t allowed to do his thing, because Colin was very firm about what he wanted. So Des was always complaining that he was being asked to play on these things, but he wasn’t showing what he could do. He got frustrated. That was there all the time with them. Colin is very forceful. He knows what he wants to do, how he wants it to sound. It’s his album at the end of the day. But that’s something you get in every studio. That’s production life. But then, I also think Colin felt he needed Des—although I don’t know if Colin would admit to it—because Des was a kind of creative sounding-board.”
In Gillham’s view, Simmons’s disgruntlement went deeper than his frustrations with the band set-up: “He was disappointed not to be the guitarist in Wire. That was what struck me as his story. I could tell there was a certain amount of bitterness and animosity, even then. It was a shame.” Grey agrees: “Colin and Desmond had been in groups together when they were at school, so Desmond probably wasn’t all that pleased when Colin joined another band [Wire] and it didn’t include him. I don’t suppose that made him feel good. In the very early days of Wire, he must have thought, ‘Well, I’m a guitarist, I’m Colin’s friend, and he hasn’t asked me.’ ” And when Simmons had finally got the nod to join Newman for A–Z, it still hadn’t been on the terms he’d envisaged. “Desmond didn’t see himself as a bass player,” says Grey, “so he probably felt that was a bit of a demotion, too.”
Gillham continues: “Desmond was a quintessential lead-guitar figure. He wasn’t a rock-star guitarist. He was an OK guitarist, but he wasn’t that great. He just couldn’t find a role. He needed other people to work with, people who could complete what he was doing, and I don’t think he ever found anyone.” Newman echoes some of this: “It’s a shame, because I don’t think his own record [Alone on Penguin Island (1981)], which Graham and Bruce produced, was representative of what I think of as Desmond. It was really a Dome record, a Dome-ised version of Desmond. I pushed and pushed to get Desmond signed with Ivo, but he didn’t like Desmond’s voice.”
If Simmons was unhappy with his place in a band dominated by Newman’s artistic vision, Gillham had no problem in that respect. Being able to work with Newman was a great educational opportunity, and he made the most of it: “I learned an awful lot about music from that, because Colin said that the Wire method was basically to strip everything down until everyone could play it really, really tightly. And then anything else that was added was always added on the basis that it could be really tight. That influenced the way I made music from then on and was the key to learning to make pop music.”
The group spent a month working up the material for the North American dates, again in Grey’s Brixton basement. Following the initial round of sessions, they spent a week in a rehearsal studio and then played a warm-up gig in Clapham at the 101 Club, under the name Soft Option. “Colin called it Soft Option,” says Gillham, “because having a band is a soft option. I remember him saying that. That’s how he explained it to the rest of us.” For their live debut, Soft Option supported a female punk-pop trio named the Flatbackers, who had already scored a Number 1 single. In Gibraltar.
On arriving at Kennedy airport in late February 1981, the band encountered a problem that nearly scuppered the tour before it had started. Gillham, visiting the United States for the first time, needed to resort to subterfuge to enter the country; he’d been unable to secure a work visa and had to pass himself off as a tourist, with no connection to his travelling companions (“I had to pretend I wasn’t part of the band”). After a lengthy grilling from the immigration officials, he was given the benefit of the doubt and allowed in. That night, the group took the stage at the Mudd Club, the cooler, younger cousin of CBGB. “The Mudd Club was THE place at the time,” says Newman. “And the fee for that gig was so high that it pretty much paid for the whole trip.”
Notwithstanding Newman’s ongoing discomfort with the ‘solo artist’ tag, there was no getting around whose name was on the cover of A–Z, and the draw for prospective North American audiences was always going to be Newman and his history. “It had to be, really,” says Grey, “because Colin wasn’t established independently, so people would have thought, ‘It’s Colin and Robert, so it’s half of Wire—that’s interesting enough to go and have a look.’ ” Newman accepts that people came to the gigs because of his Wire pedigree: “I guess I was a bit of a hot ticket because, at that point, Wire hadn’t really played in America—only a few gigs at CBGB in 1978.” Even so, he attempted to undermine expectations by emphasising as much as possible that these were gigs by Soft Option, not Colin Newman of Wire plus random backing musicians.
If the concerts were necessarily advertised as Colin Newman gigs in order to drum up interest and make the trip financially viable, the actual performances did make a stronger case for Soft Option as a creative partnership, albeit one presided over by Newman. The shows featured only one song from A–Z, the Colin Newman album that was ostensibly being promoted (“I’ve Waited Ages”); what’s more, apart from one track (“fish 9”), the band played material not from the still-unannounced provisionally entitled the singing fish, but from the as-yet unrecorded Not To, which would not be released for almost another year. Additionally, the set included songs written and sung by Simmons (“Man the Lifeboats”; “The Gymnast”) and Gillham (“The Optimists”), slightly undercutting the primacy of a single frontman.
The stage presentation itself was also conceived to divert attention away from Newman and to put as much focus on the music as possible. This was achieved by reducing traditional stage lighting to a minimum and relying on a handful of battery-powered torches, as well as the residual light from video images that played on a screen behind the group. “I had this thing about not wanting to be seen, not wanting to front it. So all we had was torches taped to our mic stands, pointing in the direction of our footwear, and we had Lester Square [of the Monochrome Set], who we brought all the way from the UK just to do the video. We’d made these films of people waving torches. That was the entire illumination.”
Gillham recalls that the torches were in fact a back-up plan: “The idea was originally pit helmets with lights, and Colin wanted the whole auditorium completely black. The only lighting would be from the miners’ helmets.” Newman adds, “We’d have prefigured Orbital by years!” But it wasn’t to be, as Gillham remembers: “Mick didn’t want to stump up for the helmets, which turned out to be more expensive than we’d thought. So we had torches instead, and no stage lighting. There was just about enough light to see what we were doing, but it must have looked really dark from the audience. Wire made great use of light and dark; this was just dark and dark.”
Newman elaborated on the rationale behind the unconventional lighting design in an interview with Tim O’Connor of the Toronto Gazette: “The idea of the lights is so that you wouldn’t want to look at [the performance] while you were dancing. It’s like a disco. The musicians are totally unimportant, including me—it’s not like them (the rest of the band), the musicians, and me the leader…. I don’t think it’s [a] question of distance. I think it’s just to let the music speak very directly…. The personalities are totally unimportant.”
Despite these unorthodox elements, the North American dates were well attended and warmly received. Toronto was especially successful. Even Robert Fripp was there. “In Toronto, we played two nights at the Edge,” says Gillham. “Those were the best gigs. They really went down well. They really loved us there.” On returning to the UK, Soft Option played one show at the Venue, with support acts the Birthday Party and Department S. Reviewers were generally positive about the music but not so keen on the absence of lighting. “Rather pretentious…. These boys should be SEEN and heard,” complained Ian Pye in Melody Maker, and the NME’s Andy Gill was bemused: “Desmond Simmons was presumably second guitarist. The bassist remains a complete mystery.”
Getting money out of Ivo
If a Colin Newman record merits being seen as ‘the lost Wire album,’ it’s Not To rather than A–Z, since half of its songs were in development after 154: “5/10”; “Remove for Improvement”; “Lorries”; “We Meet Under Tables”; “You, Me and Happy”; and “Safe.” With the exception of “You, Me and Happy,” these tracks were also performed live by Wire in late 1979 and early 1980; Newman wrote the music for all six, and Lewis and/or Gilbert contributed lyrics to four of them. Logically, therefore, any notion that Newman’s first solo album was the follow-up to 154 is dispelled by the fact that—apart from Lewis’s lyrics to “Alone”—the other members of Wire weren’t involved in the writing on A–Z. Given the ascendance of Gilbert and Lewis as individual songwriters by the time of Wire’s third album, it’s inconceivable that a fourth Wire record would have consisted solely of Newman’s songs.
The question remains, however, as to why Newman waited until his third solo project to record songs that had begun life as Wire material. The reason for this delay was the uncertainty surrounding Wire’s status when he embarked on A–Z: no formal decision had been taken by the band members to call a definitive halt to Wire, and so Newman was hesitant to go ahead and re-purpose those tracks in case the group were to reconvene in the near future. “At that point, I didn’t know what was happening with the band. Yes, Wire had stopped, but Bruce is such a mercurial character that it could have been suddenly, ‘Oh, we’re going to do some stuff now.’ So I couldn’t touch those songs. There might have actually been a group decision that none of us would touch that material.”
Having played their North American dates and their one proper UK gig, the members of Soft Option went their separate ways. Newman, who was now living away from London in the West Country village of Chalford, continued to demo new work at home but felt that things were beginning to drift and that the band’s potential was being wasted. “Me and Des and Simon were a really hot band. We were great! Simon was an inventive bass player, Des was a great guitarist, and we all sang. And Rob, well Rob is the Man Machine, of course. What we should have done was go on touring, but we just didn’t do anything.” The lack of direction was compounded by Mick Collins’s absence, leaving no one to take care of business (such as it was) or to talk Newman into doing things he didn’t want to do: “Mick was out of the picture by that point. There was no management. There was nobody.”
Nevertheless, Newman did have a label. 4AD was still there, and this gave him some context, as well as some incentive, pushing him in the direction of the studio again: “There was Ivo, saying, ‘I’ll give you X amount of money to make a record,’ and that was it.” Around this time, Newman even developed some camaraderie with other 4AD artists, getting to know the Cocteau Twins. A recurring theme of his conversations with Robin Guthrie still amuses him: “Robin’s idea was always to get as much money out of Ivo as possible; he’d make a record cheaply on an eight-track and then pocket the rest. That was what we used to discuss—how to get money out of Ivo.”
With the Not To songs thoroughly road-tested, Newman eventually went back to Scorpio Sound to commit them to tape with Soft Option. “It was basically the set we played in America,” says Gillham, “and that was us at our best, I think.” Simmons and Grey were also on board for the sessions, although as far as Simmons was concerned, the band no longer existed: “Rob and I had effectively broken up the band after playing the Venue in London, by demanding an equal input and say in how things ran; which, on reflection, was just stupid, as it was Colin’s band and Colin’s name that was driving it along.”
Grey’s account diverges from Simmons’s. He had no complaints about his musical input, as he was contributing creatively by coming up with the drum parts; his dissatisfaction had to do with the amount of recognition he was getting: “In Wire, there was a group credit for the arrangements, and I thought that should be maintained, because otherwise our input wasn’t being acknowledged. It was more me, rather than Desmond, because it was related to my experience with Wire—that you should get some credit for your input. I’m sure Des wouldn’t have disagreed, but he didn’t have the experience of saying, ‘I’ve done that before, and that would be a fair way of doing it.’ ”
Steve Parker returned as engineer, and Newman again produced. This role was beginning to interest Newman more and more, with a view to overseeing recordings by other artists and possibly launching a parallel career. He felt that the 4AD label and its associated artists offered potential in this regard: “I wanted to be a record producer; I was always looking for production work. But Ivo said to me that he’d never let me produce any of his bands because, in his words, I’d probably tell the drummer he was crap and rearrange all their songs. I’d be very hands-on, but what’s the point of producing something if you just sit there and nod your head?”
Watts-Russell’s recollection differs somewhat: “Colin says he was pissed off at me because I wouldn’t let him produce any of the people I was signing, because I’d decided I wanted to produce them myself. Which is not true. I really don’t remember a conversation with Colin about him as a producer. I do remember some sound advice he gave me: ‘Sometimes, the most useful thing a producer can do is know when to suggest it’s time for a cup of tea.’ Very true. I think he’s getting history mixed up. In the first three years of 4AD, the only band we actually hired a producer for was Modern English. Everyone else chose to work with whoever was engineer at the chosen studio or had already recorded with their choice of producer—Rema-Rema, The The, the Birthday Party.”
However, Watts-Russell now feels that the idea of pairing Newman with some of the 4AD bands could have worked well: “It might’ve been very interesting to have asked Colin to produce the first Modern English album, but I’m not sure the band would have agreed. I think most Wire fans at the time recognised Mike Thorne’s input, and it wasn’t necessarily obvious, with singing fish or even, later, Not To, that Colin was that good a producer. I loved the 1982 Virgin Prunes album […If I Die, I Die] and the Minimal Compact record that he produced three years later [Raging Souls], by which time it was apparent he did have a ‘sound.’ But I’m not sure anyone I was working with wanted that sound. Again, in hindsight, [Newman and the early 4AD band] Past Seven Days might’ve been an excellent marriage.”
Not To was Newman’s first taste of producing a full-band project. In Parker’s view, he adopted a top-down style of session management and didn’t tend to solicit or welcome others’ ideas to any great extent. (Simmons obviously shared this assessment and had become so frustrated by the dynamic that it had already caused him to quit the band.) Parker suggests that, having taken the place of Mike Thorne, a producer with a strong sense of what he wanted and how to achieve it, Newman then proceeded to reconstitute some of Thorne’s rigidity: “You get some producers who are quite transparent, and they’re just there to facilitate the work of the artist, but I think Mike had some very preconceived ideas. So the relationship between Colin and the band was a bit like the relationship with Mike: Colin knew what he wanted, and I think the musicians were coming in expecting to contribute what they thought was right, whereas Colin already had his ideas.”
Gillham offers another perspective, attesting to some openness on Newman’s part. During his audition he’d sensed that there would only be one way to do things—Newman’s way—but he found that the producer was receptive to his ideas as they worked on the Not To material. “Colin was quite generous, and once he trusted me, I wrote for Not To. I think I wrote most of the bass parts. I wrote the bass parts to ‘Lorries’ and ‘We Meet Under Tables.’ And he asked Desmond and me to contribute our songs to the live set.” Gillham also believes that Parker played a more significant role than he would perhaps take credit for: “He was engineer on provisionally entitled the singing fish and Not To, but he did more than engineer them, really: he facilitated Colin’s role as a producer very much. Steve really did an awful lot of work on those records. Colin and him worked well together.”
Grey also felt that Newman accommodated his contributions. Although the context was no longer that of a band as he had experienced it with Wire, the core creative rapport between him and Newman hadn’t fundamentally altered: “Colin was still grateful for any input. I don’t think my drumming relationship changed, in that I came up with the drum parts for the songs in the same way that I did with Wire. That relationship was already established. I don’t think that was going to change. Colin didn’t tell me to do things differently. He was happy with the ideas that I would come up with.”
At Scorpio, Parker and Newman picked up where they’d left off, extending the learning experience they’d begun on provisionally entitled the singing fish. They carried on experimenting with the studio and its tools, again exploring the possibilities afforded by looping and crude sampling. This time, though, they didn’t need to rely on Newman’s holiday field recordings as building blocks, having discovered an in-house treasure trove of ready-made material. “One night, Simon and Rob had gone home,” Newman remembers, “and me and Des and Steve were talking about the adverts Steve worked on, and I asked what happened to all the adverts when they were done. Steve said they were in the tape store, so I asked if we could steal some bits. You’re really, really, really not allowed to do that, but Steve said that no one was ever going to know.” Newman recalls mining this unlikely source for something to add to the closing section of the album’s title track: “There’s a bit of French horn on the outro, which comes off a Findus fish fingers advert. We flew it in, and it happened to fit. It was a way to get another instrument or sound on it that you weren’t expecting. It was pre-sampling, being able to cut and paste like that. We were using all that clever stuff which became so much easier a few years later, when we had samplers and sequencing. As with all these things, they’re prefigured by people doing stuff with tape loops, flying stuff in.”
Newman also continued to recycle his own work in creative ways, speeding things up and using the resulting, often unexpected, artefacts of that process as the central components of new songs. The Wire track “Safe,” for instance, was developed for Not To along these lines: “It was based on loops I’d made with my old Brenell tape recorder. It was actually those loops of distorted guitar that we used on ‘I’ve Waited Ages,’ on A–Z. I discovered that if you took the loop and changed the speed on the tape recorder, it made the basis for the piece. So I took a few loops and did the same thing, along with a bit of Rob’s drums. You can hear that on the demo version. At Scorpio, we had to use the Brenell, because it didn’t sound right from any other tape recorder. It sounds so weird. It brings out certain frequencies in the sound, which gives it a particular quality that was essential for doing that piece.”
The process was more straightforward for “Lorries,” another of the Wire tracks that had been left in limbo in 1980: “I just sped it up, and Simon came with this elegant melody for the bass part, which is really a countermelody.” Gillham’s chorus-effected bass, which makes “Lorries” so memorable, is also one of the album’s distinctive ingredients. “I’m quite happy with the bass- playing, and I think some of it is better than I remember,” says Gillham on revisiting Not To and concert recordings of Soft Option. “It’s interesting to hear how prominent the bass is on the record and live. That heavily chorused bass sound is very early-’80s.”
For Gillham, “Lorries” also highlights one of the band’s sonic idiosyncrasies: “Something that seems a feature of Soft Option was the way that Robert and I didn’t really function as an orthodox rhythm section a lot of the time. My bass line on ‘Lorries’ is really more of a guitar line, and so it completely fell to Robert to keep the song moving. Partly, that was the aesthetic of the day, and partly, it was my ignorance of how to put pop music together. In the years after working with Colin, when I got more into dance music, I got a lot better at writing bass parts that moved. Still, you can hear on ‘Man the Lifeboats’ and ‘You, Me and Happy’ that we could occasionally rock out a bit, although I guess no one was particularly interested in doing that back then.”
While “Lorries” is a standout track for most listeners, Gillham doesn’t share that enthusiasm, preferring the song’s original incarnation: “I heard Wire play it at one of the Jeannetta Cochrane gigs in November 1979. It’s a wonderful Wire song. Colin brought it along, and he’d turned it into this power-pop ditty. He sped it up. I hated what he’d done to it. I couldn’t stand it. I loved the Wire version. So I thought, ‘If we’re going to do it, let’s just play it like Wire. I can play the bloody bass line.’ But he was absolutely adamant that we were going to play it in this way. So I wrote this chirpy little bass line, which he seemed to like, but I think our version stinks in comparison with the Wire version. It was one of their very best songs. I never felt we did it justice.”
In contrast with what he sees as the dumbed-down “Lorries,” Gillham prefers those tracks to which he was able to make more adventurous, unorthodox contributions: “Colin let me develop the lines, and it’s nice that there’s some odd variation in the course of the songs, especially at the end of ‘We Meet Under Tables.’ That’s probably my favourite of these songs. I love the audacity of the waltz time. It seemed very original to me when we were doing it, and I still can’t call to mind much art-pop in 3/4, but doubtless it exists somewhere as a thriving subgenre.” He’s also pleased with “Don’t Bring Reminders,” despite the band’s inauspicious early attempts at the song: “It turned out better than I thought it would. It wasn’t one of my favourites. It seemed to me to be the most formless one.” By the time it was recorded for the album, he was much happier with it: “There’s some strange bass counterpoint to the vocals that I really like. I guess that was our version of jazz.”
When clean was big
With Not To poised for release, Newman still had mixed feelings about his status as a solo artist. In much the same way as he’d sought to move himself out of the spotlight in live performance and put the emphasis on Soft Option’s collective identity, he felt strongly that this record shouldn’t go out under his name alone. Although Simmons questioned the legitimacy of presenting Not To as a band creation, any discussion of which name should appear on the cover proved to be academic. According to Newman, the decision was a strictly financial one: “It really was a band record, much more than A–Z, so I had a conversation with Ivo and said, ‘This is a band record, so it should have a band name,’ and he said, ‘It has to have your name. If it only has a band name, we can’t sell it.’ That was the brutal reality of it. It could have been ‘Colin Newman and Soft Option,’ but I thought that was even worse.”
For the most part, Not To was well received when it came out in January 1982, its more conventional orientation pleasing those reviewers who’d been left cold by the songless provisionally entitled the singing fish. “You can sing along with half the songs,” enthused Melody Maker’s Ian Pye, who commended Newman for returning to “the devious pop he really excels at,” while also praising the record’s “originality” and “determined lack of compromise.” Richard Cook of the NME proclaimed Not To “icicle-cool pop,” applauding Newman for his latest work’s “reversion to melodic strength” and its “singalong appeal.” Writing in Hot Press, Peter Owens was likewise impressed by the record’s accessibility: “Not To is chiefly an album of songs—pop-songs, even…. Newman’s most commercial offering to date.” Nonetheless, his praise was measured: “Not To never quite reaches the occasional peaks of shrieking, intriguing inventiveness sprinkled throughout A–Z.” Ultimately, he was critical of what he saw as Newman’s refusal to pursue the sort of success of which he was clearly capable—echoing Beggars’ frustrations, no doubt: “Colin Newman’s grey facelessness does him no favours; this man could be a major force if he let himself, but until now he seems to have suffered from some outmoded delusion that there’s more credibility in forever slithering round the periphery.”
Those involved in the making of Not To are divided over its merits. It’s interesting to consider their differing viewpoints, especially in the broader context of Newman’s 1980–1982 output.
Of the three records, Not To is Parker’s favourite, largely because of its unobtrusive production and the way it leaves intact the feel of a band performing a set of songs. “What I liked about some of the stuff we did was that it was raw—I prefer that ‘playing’ feel. And it was about the songs: what it showed was that Colin was a good songwriter, and I don’t think he always gets the credit for that. He probably wouldn’t thank me for saying it, but he wrote some nice little tunes! That’s why I prefer Not To, because there were songs there, like ‘Lorries,’ that I just loved the feel of. OK, it didn’t go through a Synclavier or anything else, but it’s just a great quirky tune that works for me. I love it. I still play it.”
He contrasts the transparent production on Not To—its preservation of the “ ‘playing’ feel”—with the approach adopted on A–Z, which he thinks was detrimental to the material: “If we’d done Not To with Mike Thorne, it wouldn’t have sounded like that. With A–Z, they were good songs, but there were times when the production just got in the way of those songs. A lot of the emotion and feeling was produced out of A–Z. With Not To, you put all the guys in the room, and they just played. We could have gone away and spent another six months taking off bits and putting them through effects, but they were just good songs played well: that was all they needed.”
Despite having contributed quite substantively to Not To, Gillham feels that some of the positive critical feedback was misplaced: “It’s interesting to see the reviews flag up how poppy Not To was. To me, A–Z was much poppier, mainly because of the crispness of the sound.” He’s not precious about his own work and rates A–Z as the superior recording; he had enjoyed performing the Not To material live, but he’s less happy with its studio incarnation: “A lot of people seem keen on Not To, but I didn’t like the production. I think A–Z was a better record. I didn’t think Not To was produced very well. The album still sounds rather boxy to me—especially the vocals. Everything became so textural that the various elements started to cancel each other out. I don’t think Colin had a proper sense of arrangement. What Colin seemed most interested in was sound and texture, so he used to spend ages on that. So maybe it’s unfair of me to say he wasn’t interested in the arrangement: he was. He had very strong ideas. What he didn’t like was parts changing from one verse to the other. So once the part was there, you just played it three times or whatever, so it wasn’t the case that the song would develop through the song itself—the various parts would just be repeated.”
The production on Not To was something that also left Ivo Watts-Russell a little disappointed: “Releasing Not To, we had partial expectations, because that was quite a poppy record again, without the coloration that Mike Thorne provided; I think perhaps Not To might have been better, the world would have been a different place, if Colin had been interested in working with Mike Thorne again—and if 4AD had been able to pay him. I really liked what Mike Thorne brought to the situation, or how he refereed the situation, and how that impacted the sound in an incredibly interesting way.” A–Z is still his firm favourite: “I return to very little music that was somehow work-related. That’s probably part of the reason why I go to A–Z [which was on Beggars]. I really think A–Z was a brilliant, brilliant record. I have no criticisms of it whatsoever. It remained a good combination, having Mike involved. I think it’s a fantastic, fantastic record.”
If Watts-Russell believed the production on Not To could have been better, he was even more disappointed with the album’s artwork. 4AD would become legendary for the unique sensibility that it brought to record sleeves and packaging—but Watts-Russell was still on a steep learning curve during Newman’s tenure with the label: “Who knew, and I still certainly didn’t, how hard it was to print white? Both provisionally entitled the singing fish and Not To were predominantly white sleeves, and it was awful, awful printing.” The problem was that 4AD was still missing a crucial member of its team: “You see, I didn’t have Vaughan Oliver at that point. I didn’t know what art school was: I still think the greatest education I got was from having Vaughan come and work at 4AD. If Vaughan had been on hand, I’d have been pointed towards a thicker board, no gloss and bright white. So apologies to Colin! I know the record’s been deleted for a long time in vinyl form, but I still feel bad about that.”
To Newman, Not To is the “most ’80s” of his first three records: “The sound of the whole album is very much of its period. The amount of aharmonics and odd harmonies—where it’s not quite dissonant, but the harmonies are ‘pulled’—was typical of a lot of early-’80s stuff.” He highlights the effects of the production process: while it’s true that a lot of the material had origins in late-’70s Wire, Newman and Parker’s treatment of it severed its ties with the previous decade’s aesthetic. “It’s quite minimal in terms of its instrumentation, and the sounds are quite separated out. It’s that ’80s thing: if you go back to that mid-’70s sound, especially punk rock, the sounds were much more compressed and together—all the middle taken up with distorted rhythm guitar, which made it sound big—but Not To was different. Big wasn’t necessarily ‘in’ at this point.” Although big would return as one of the less appealing hallmarks of ’80s production, at this stage in the decade the emphasis for Newman, particularly on Not To, lay elsewhere. “It was about clean. There’s an excessive cleanliness about Not To, which was another feature of the period. Everything was super clean. Clean was really big at that point, and it’s a really clean record. One of Steve’s great expressions was ‘clean dirt’—even the dirt was clean in the ’80s. Clean was so ‘in’ at the time. So it’s a clean record with bent tonality—which does mark it out as being very ’80s, although it doesn’t have big shoulder pads and loud snare drums. That’s mid-’80s; this is early ’80s.”
Taking the three albums together, Newman has this to say: “Each one has its strengths and weaknesses. A–Z has more of a finished, produced feel to it, but then it has some things about it—things in the mix—that are quite annoying, too. I suppose A–Z is the one that’s most compared to Wire. A–Z wasn’t an attempt at a Wire record, but it was employing some of the same people working on it, in a similar kind of way. Maybe that was Mike’s touch. Not To doesn’t sound like a Wire record, or an attempt at a Wire record. And singing fish is something that flies under the radar. It was supposed to have a timeless quality. It wasn’t meant to be a pop record; I was trying to work on music in a different kind of way, with that ‘potential soundtrack’ idea.”
I want to fly
Following the release of Not To, Newman moved forward with more demos. However, his interest was flagging—especially as the band had fallen apart—and he was starting to think about an exit strategy: “Around Not To, I was already living outside London, I was already planning to go to India, and I was less and less enamoured of the whole idea of being in a band. Des and Rob had quit. Rob had decided he didn’t want to be my drummer; he was Wire’s drummer. Rob was always a stalwart, he was always there. Right until the end, when he’d had enough of it.”
Nevertheless, in March 1982, two months after the record came out, Newman got back in touch with Gillham, and the pair set about making a second single for 4AD. Of all the tracks on Not To, “Lorries” struck Newman as the strongest candidate for release as a single, but 4AD had other plans. “Ivo didn’t think it was a single. He said, ‘It’s too minimal, there needs to be more stuff going on,’ ” recalls Newman. “Ivo was the record company. Ivo has his own ideas about everything. It was his label, and I don’t think 4AD did pop at that time.” In the end, the single featured a new song, “We Means We Starts,” on one side and “Not To” on the other.
For “We Means We Starts,” Gillham switched to guitar, and Charles Arthur, from the Janet and Johns, played bass. Gillham called on another Camden friend to help out with drums, Tom Morley of Scritti Politti. “I’d known Simon a long time,” says Morley. “We’d drunk many pints together in North London pubs and were always up for doing each other favours.” At this juncture, Newman didn’t want to bring in a new drummer, and Morley was ideal because he wouldn’t actually be playing. Instead, he’d be facilitating their use of some cutting-edge technology. “It wouldn’t have occurred to me to replace Rob permanently with someone else,” Newman says, “and Simon suggested getting Tom from Scritti in because Tom had a LinnDrum, and it was the hippest thing that existed at the time. But the pattern was really simple. I think Tom thought we were a bit mad and that we were wasting his time. I mean, it just went BOOM-CHA BOOM-BOOM-CHA BOOM-CHA BOOM-BOOM-CHA, over and over—I didn’t really have much imagination for drums; it was just something to go along with the music.”
As musicians gravitated more towards synthesised percussion during this period, Morley’s services were in demand. “I’d gained a bit of a studio reputation for being a drummer who could programme a Linn drum machine,” he explains. “It was actually quite easy, but they were so new, a lot of people were scared of them. I took some pride in making my Linn programmes sound like a real drummer. For instance, if I programmed a complex fill using three tom-tom drums, I would drop out the hi-hat part because a real drummer couldn’t keep playing—unless they had four hands. Before bringing the hi-hat back in at the end of the fill, I’d use the raised hi-hat sound, maybe with a tight snare beat to enhance that live feel.” As Newman’s remarks show, however, Morley’s expertise wasn’t required for this session. “It turned out that Colin didn’t give a fuck about all that; he actually liked the mechanical, machine-like relentlessness of the first guide-beat I punched into it. Ironic smile, handshake and job done. I was happy, though.”
The label on the single didn’t distinguish between its A- and B-sides, simply designating “Not To” as this side and “We Means We Starts” as over. “It was Ivo’s idea to put ‘this side’ and ‘over,’ as a way of blurring what the A-side was,” says Newman. “That’s what they did on indie records.” Watts-Russell remembers this deliberate ambiguity as being characteristic of its time: “One thing that came out of punk that was so exciting, and seemed to get forgotten very quickly, was how many different ways people came up with of not calling something an A-side or a B-side to a single, because it was a record, or a song, or a piece of music—and one was as important as the other.”
Newman saw “We Means We Starts”—a track with more obvious pop appeal—as the A-side, whereas “Not To” was aimed at a different demographic. “I had some ridiculous idea that ‘Not To’ was perfect for Radio 2,” says Newman. “Well, it’s a ballad, innit?” 4AD must have believed that the song had chart potential, though, because a promo video was commissioned. It didn’t do much for sales, but it did at least enable Newman to realise one long-held ambition: “Robert Smith again directed the video, and he asked if I had any ideas for it, and I said, ‘Yes! I want to fly.’ It’s a bit silly. I was just ticking a box on a wish list: if we had a video, I’d want to fly in it. That would be good. And I had a beard, a one-time-only thing: I was pre-Beardy Man trendy.”
In late March, even though he had no band and Not To was no longer a brand-new, promotable product, Newman agreed to play another gig, again at the Venue, in London—this time with support from newcomers The The. Other than two tracks from provisionally entitled the singing fish, one from Not To and “We Means We Starts,” the band performed unreleased material. For this show, Newman used a backing track to compensate for Grey’s absence and reenlisted Gillham, who was already proceeding with work that would yield fleeting success the following year, as one half of the duo Intaferon. No matter how much Gillham had liked playing with Soft Option, he’d never considered it anything more than a temporary position. To him, Soft Option was a band created in order to play Newman’s songs, not a band that was a shared creative enterprise in which he had any great investment. “I never felt part of a band when I was with Colin. I certainly don’t think we ever were that. I never got the impression it would be a long-term thing. There just wasn’t anything to bond around, and I was under no illusions.” Still, he was happy to help out for the Venue show and invited a friend along to make up the numbers: “That gig was quite different from the first one. I played guitar and got Charles Arthur to play bass again, but it was nowhere near as good as the first Venue gig.”
Ivo Watts-Russell concurs: “I remember seeing them play, and it wasn’t that great. I mean, it wasn’t awful. It just didn’t really gel. There was no real power. It just drifted from start to finish.” In his review for Sounds, Johnny Waller also registered some disappointment, commenting that the sound was poor and the band’s set lacked “the dynamic tension that made a Wire gig such an unpredictable event.” But that didn’t stop him enjoying himself almost as much as Newman: “Colin was having a ball, dancing in a ridiculous manner that no grown man should in public.”
When he talks about his live work with the band, Newman again rues some of his decisions, marvelling at how he allowed himself to squander his resources and opportunities: “I was genuinely shocked when I realised how few gigs we actually played. The line-up with me, Des, Simon and Rob only did seven gigs. It was a great band, and I should have taken the whole thing more seriously. It’s absurd, all that effort for so few gigs.”
Looking back at Newman’s short stint on 4AD, Watts-Russell feels that things could have played out differently. Just as he thinks that Not To might have benefited from a different producer, he believes that the label could have done more promotional legwork for the album: “There were perhaps greater expectations for Not To that we as a label didn’t fulfil. Did Colin as an artist fulfil them? Did Colin have any expectations? Maybe that’s why he left and went to India. I wasn’t a record company person who was saying, ‘Where’s the tour?’ because I didn’t like all that business, really. I do have a feeling in my bones that we didn’t carry on working together because Colin had greater ambitions for Not To than it ever achieved.”
Grey offers a conflicted assessment of his time with Soft Option. From a purely creative standpoint, he was contented since the work met the simple requirements he had for any project: he was able to develop his own drum parts and play them, both live and on record. However, Grey was less comfortable with this not being a collaborative artistic endeavour in the way Wire had been. “It did cause a few problems, because now I was in Colin’s solo project, so the relationship wasn’t the same as it was in Wire. It wasn’t the same as a group effort. That did make things difficult. Colin and I already had an established musical relationship, so in a way it was a continuation of that, but in some ways it changed, because Colin was the one who was signed to Beggars Banquet and 4AD. It was his name that they were promoting. I didn’t have any contact with them. All I did was play our seven gigs and turn up at the studio to record the records. We just got paid a session fee for the records. I did enjoy most of it, but it did highlight those differences. It probably ended our friendship in some ways, because it was Colin’s project, and we were just hired musicians, really.”
In the final analysis, he gives a succinct, logical explanation for the end of his involvement, emphasising that he didn’t quit, because there was, in fact, no band to quit: “It wasn’t a group in the first place, so it wasn’t a matter of either leaving or continuing to be involved in what was going to happen.”
Steve Parker has uniformly positive memories of working on Newman’s solo records: “From my point of view as an engineer, just starting out, we were reasonably young and inexperienced, and those albums were fantastic because you got to try out all sorts of stuff and experiment and do things that you wouldn’t normally get to do with run-of-the-mill records. So I learned a hell of a lot. It was great fun.”
Gillham’s opinion is more qualified, placing his work with Newman in the wider context of Wire: “I never thought it was a patch on Wire. It seemed to be a pale imitation. We were doing Wire songs like ‘Lorries’ and doing them worse than Wire, as far as I was concerned—even if I was writing bass lines for them. I didn’t think they were anything near as good as the versions I’d heard Wire do of those tunes.” That said, he looks back at his brief engagement with Soft Option as an invaluable experience: “It was a wonderful time for me. I had been the world’s biggest Wire fan (although all Wire fans felt that way), so getting to work with my hero was not only the stuff of teenage dreams but gave me an incredible sense of legitimacy as a musician, which persisted long after I stopped working with Colin. I’ll always be extremely grateful to him for that. I enjoyed him and working with him. It was a really important formative experience for me: my time with Colin was the first time I got paid for making music, and from then on, I could legitimately see myself as a musician. It had a huge impact on my life.”
Postscript: the means of production
Discussing Bruce Gilbert’s 2004 departure from Wire, Newman jokes that, although the guitarist quit and continues to pursue diverse projects outside Wire, there is really no escape from the band: “You can never leave Wire. Whatever I say, whatever else I’ve done, it’ll say on my grave: Here Lies That Bloke From Wire. You have to face that reality.” It’s a light-hearted comment, but it’s nonetheless true—and it relates directly to Newman’s difficulties in negotiating his own identity as a solo artist. This was a core problem to which he often returned throughout the interviews conducted for this booklet; that he’s still wrestling with the question goes some way to explain why there hasn’t been a ‘Colin Newman’ record for 20 years.
Given the overlap in personnel on Newman’s and Wire’s records and given the Wire origins of some of the songs, it’s impossible to draw an absolute dividing line between the two. However, it wasn’t simply Wire’s existence prior to Newman’s albums that made aspects of his solo career ambiguous; Wire’s possible future complicated things more deeply. The obstacles Newman encountered in framing his Beggars and 4AD records—whether as the work of ‘Colin Newman,’ as the shared creative output of a band, or as the work of Colin Newman plus backing band—were inextricably linked with the uncertain status of Wire at that time. Although the band had ceased to function, it was not clear if this was permanent; they did eventually regroup, of course, but the uncertainty about Wire in the early ’80s shaped Newman’s attitude to his solo work: was this a new undertaking, with its own integrity, or was it merely what one member of Wire was doing in the interim?
This comes across most clearly in the strength of Newman’s assertions that Not To was a group venture; considering how often he makes this assertion, it seems that it must be straining against something, that there’s something resisting the notion (quite apart from Simmons, Gillham and Grey’s rejection of the idea that they were in a band). That ‘something’ was Wire itself: Newman now fully recognises that to embrace a band identity as the vehicle for his solo work would have been to accept that Wire was no more. It was never discussed in such explicit terms, but he and Grey now agree that this was the case.
“For it to be a band, then we had to admit that Wire was finished,” says Newman. “So, in a way, maybe the whole thing was totally constrained by Wire—in ways that we weren’t completely conscious of then. It was just in the back of our minds. As much as I’d have liked not to have thought it, these records are very constrained by Wire. On one level, you’ve got Not To, with a bunch of songs that could have been Wire songs, making it to a later album—because, by then, it didn’t look like there would be any more Wire. But at the same time, obviously, there must have been the hope that Wire was going to come around again.”
Newman re-joined Wire in 1985 but continued making his own records. A move to Brussels saw him energised by the creative community around the Crammed Discs label and resulted in Commercial Suicide (1986) and It Seems (1988). Despite this activity, there’s a definite sense of unfulfilled potential about his 1980–1982 work. Newman’s shunning of promotional duties and his inability to conceive of himself as a solo artist hadn’t helped matters, but the underwhelming response to his albums, beyond some critical acclaim, wasn’t proportionate. More disappointingly, these records didn’t even serve Newman, at that stage, as a springboard to a new creative cycle: things came to a complete halt after Not To, and he walked away. On leaving for India, he wasn’t even sure when he’d come back or if he’d return to music.
That all this endeavour essentially came to nothing, in the short term at least, is no reflection on its quality. Far from it. These were inventive, original records, products of a rich arc of songwriting on which Newman had embarked in Wire but which had breached the confines of that band. Like his strongest contributions to Chairs Missing and 154, these albums underscore his talent for unorthodox tunes straddling art and pop, often grounded with a healthy dose of humour. And if an experimental sensibility frequently informed the writing, construction and production of the material, this was experimentation not for its own sake but always at the service of the songs—in the spirit of Eno’s mid-’70s records. Indeed, while A–Z and Not To certainly resonated with the ’80s indie zeitgeist, their idiosyncratic strain of avant-pop situated Newman in a broader, deeper British art-rock tradition.
The specific merits of the music aside, the greater significance of Newman’s Beggars and 4AD albums stems from their role in his development as a producer. This is where their lasting impact resides. Newman had long been attentive to this facet of the recording process, taking a keen interest in “what was going on on the other side of the glass” when Mike Thorne was at the controls for Wire, as well as for A–Z. Working with Steve Parker on provisionally entitled the singing fish and Not To gave Newman his first production experience, although he’s quick to note his limitations at the time: “I’m credited as being the producer of Not To and provisionally entitled the singing fish, but I’m not sure if I knew what production entailed—the singing fish album, for example, was just me and Steve messing around in the studio.”
If Newman the musician derived little immediate benefit from these solo records, the potential he’d shown as their producer was rewarded in fairly short order. On the strength of provisionally entitled the singing fish and Not To, he was offered work by Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis. “I did get more production work because of it,” says Newman. “The Virgin Prunes record, …If I Die, I Die, for instance. Some of the ideas we used on Not To reached a greater fruition on that album. And then I was asked to produce Minimal Compact’s Raging Souls because I’d produced the Virgin Prunes.”
Newman’s increasing interest in production during the ’80s was important not primarily because it enabled him to build a parallel career (further commissions followed with Sonoko, Parade Ground and Alain Bashung); more significant was the fact that what he was learning about production would subsequently have a dramatic influence on his own music, prompting him to rethink his approach to making records. What he took from his experience alongside Parker was the need to devise a production model that reset the standard relationship between home- and studio-recording. Hitherto, he’d been putting home demos together and then relying on a producer, working in a ‘proper’ studio, to reconstruct those demos in more polished form as the final product. Newman now aimed to do the following: eliminate the difference between home and studio—they could be the same place; recast the demo as something that was always part of the production process, as opposed to something that predated it; and dispense with the hired-in producer who had traditionally presided over the proceedings.
Like many of his contemporaries, Newman recognised that digital recording and production technology was on the cusp of a massive leap forward. This held the key, as it would empower musicians by allowing them to work in their own environments without needing a studio, giving them control over the means of production from the very start of the composition stage. As Newman saw it, this meant that the artist was in a sense “always working on the final product”: the studio was no longer a place you had to go to, with your songs, so that the producer could work his magic on them. Newer technology meant that you could always be in the studio, developing your music.
Newman is able to trace the germ of this idea to a conversation he had at Scorpio during the making of Not To: “You’d do a demo on your own at home, and it could be brilliant, but I remember Steve’s boss saying, ‘People spend thousands of pounds in the studio trying to recreate their demos’—which is why I kind of stepped back from trying to make it the same as the demo. I remember that conversation, because that was one of the big spurs in getting involved in recording with my own set-up, so there’d never be a demo. There’d never be a demo that you’d spend thousands of pounds trying to recreate. Because, now, whatever you made at home—anything that was stupid or brilliant or whatever it was—it could just be there in the final thing. You could just use it. That was really important.”
This rethinking of the relationship between the artist, the work and the studio would have a transformative effect not only on Newman’s own recordings but also—with the arrival of Pro Tools—on the work of Wire. The more open-ended mode of production that he embraced in the early ’80s runs from provisionally entitled the singing fish, through his projects with wife Malka Spigel and others (Immersion; Githead), and onward to Wire’s critically—and, at last, commercially—successful post-2000 work. This is perhaps the greatest legacy of Newman’s Beggars Banquet and 4AD years.
San Francisco, August 2016
[With thanks to Dave Allen, Simon Gillham, Tom Morley, Colin Newman, Steve Parker, Nicola Pitchford, Desmond Simmons (RIP), Mike Thorne and Ivo Watts-Russell.]
Bonus material: Des Simmons and Mike Thorne on selected tracks from A-Z
“I’ve Waited Ages”
DS: A great song to play: one chord for ages and then stop playing, then play the same chord again. Best song on the album.
DS: Colin and I had recorded the demo of “Man the Lifeboats” for Alone on Penguin Island, and I left Colin some words that I was working on at the time, which he turned into this song. I always felt that it would not have been out of place on my album and shows how Colin could turn around the most moribund of lyrics.
DS: An example of schoolboy humour gone too far—well, mine, anyway. Colin wrote this and then did a version for the B-side of one of his singles that just contained him and the piano. He called it “Alone on Piano.” I thought that this was hilarious—I don’t recall why—and decided that my album was going to be called Alone on Penguin Island, as that seemed even funnier to me at the time. And now I’m lumbered with, as my only contribution to the recorded world, an album that has for the title a very unfunny, should-have-been-there type of pun.
“Order for Order”
DS: Colin Newman Meets Gary Numan Uptown, as we ceaselessly mocked Colin. When he wasn’t in the room, that is.
DS: I hated this song. The bass line took ages to record and prompted the first of many references to “talentless musicians” from Mike Thorne. And then, Colin got me to sing a part that was not in my range and that had no effective backing track to sing against, as that had been mixed out to give the song atmosphere.
“Life on Deck”
DS: Great song, dodgy bass-playing. Mike had me play the bass part at the start, with nothing to play against—no click track or anything. As a consequence, it took forever to get right, and I came into the control room pretty near-certain I was going to kill either Mike or Colin.
“Seconds to Last”
MT: I have a very clear memory of “Seconds to Last.” I remember playing the keyboard in order just to keep people going, just to encourage, and out came this very collaborative thing, one of the best keyboard lines I’ve done in my life. It was completely unselfish: I was just playing—as the producer and the keyboard player—just trying to keep the whole thing going. And that was something very special, I think.
DS: I had a bit more input into this song than is evident. Some of the countermelodies were mine, but at the time, I was told that, as Colin had the title and the initial idea, and as it was his album, I should be grateful that I was allowed to be there. Well, that was how Mike expressed it.