Thursday, January 24, 2008

Two of a Kind: "Outdoor Miner"
Wire's status as a classic avant rock act has become so accepted in recent years, it's easy to forget that - in the 90s - they were a key influence on pop music. Or, at least, Britpop music. Camden chancers like Menswe@r and Elastica made a career out of copping Wire's moves and sometimes their tunes too.

The point is that Wire were - at their height - really fantastic tune-smiths. It's no exaggeration to say that they've been responsible for some of my all-time favourite pop songs.

Interestingly, my favoured versions of these songs aren't the Wire originals but cover versions. Weird that the songs of such a great band - such a sonically groundbreaking and distinctive band - should actually sound better as covers.

Honest though, I really do prefer Fischerspooner's effortless reading of "The 15th" to the rather mannered original. I'm not exactly a huge Fischerspooner fan these days (having had the misfortune of seeing them "live") but it's hard to resist the allure of that recording.

"The 15th" was originally featured on Wire's 1979 album 154, which I'm oh-so-controversially going to posit as their masterwork (it's the only one I actually have my own copy of). 154 also featured the entirely extraordinary "Map Ref. 41N 93W", which is quite possibly the ultimate Wire pop song, insofar as it combines a bizarre, possibly nonsensical lyric with one of the catchiest melodies ever written.

Of course, the Wire version is fantastic but it doesn't stand a chance against My Bloody Valentine's astonishing, crystalline cover. Whereas the original is a really striking mix of the cerebral and the sensual ("Interrupting my train of thought..."), MBV's version abandons itself fully to realm of the senses, resulting in one of Kevin Shields' finest productions.

As far as I know, this particular recording has only ever surfaced legitimately on a Wire-sponsored tribute album called Whore, which came out in 1996. The quality of the tracks on Whore is wildly variable but it's an interesting document because instead of featuring the Britpop bands who had recently brought Wire back to prominence, it showcases a bunch of avant-rock nonentities, including a number of prime-movers from the original post-rock scene (UK post-rock being the anti-Britpop). Laika are there, alongside Main and Bark Psychosis (doing a totally whacked, Ween-esque version of "Three Girl Rhumba").

And then there's Transformer doing "Outdoor Miner", from 1978's Chairs Missing. "Outdoor Miner" is another of my favourite Wire songs and I'm surely not alone in my affection for this particular tune. It was also covered by Lush, who appear on Whore doing "Mannequin". To my mind, though, the ultimate version of "Outdoor Miner" is Transformer's.

Transformer featured the "other two" from UK post-rock trio Disco Inferno. The official story of DI's demise says that they were forced to call it a day when their samplers were stolen, while they were on tour with Siouxsie and the Banshees. It's hard not to feel that there's more to the story than this. DI's lead visionary Ian Crause always seemed like a prickly character, given to rather didactic lyrics, often lambasting all forms of religion and spirituality. In the sleeve notes for Whore, ex-DI dude Paul Wilmott describes how Tranformer "had prayer sessions asking for guidance and maximum love vibes" while recording their contribution. Forgive the expression but God knows how that would have gone down with Ian Crause.

I think I've heard all of Crause's post-DI solo work. It's great stuff and a logical progression from Technicolour, his band's poppy swan-song album. But it's all pretty straightforward indie pop and none of it comes close to Transformer's truly heavenly take on "Outdoor Miner" - all dub echo and dream-pop twinkle.

Sadly, I don't think Transformer ever released anything else. I'd be delighted if someone could prove me wrong by revealing the existence of some more material by this great lost UK post-rock band.
Transformer weren't the only UK post-rock act to cover "Outdoor Miner". It was also the lead track on a 1995 four-song EP by Bristol's Flying Saucer Attack. Their version certainly doesn't surpass either Transformer's cover or Wire's original. Actually, it's not even the best track on the EP (that honour goes to the gorgeous "Everywhere was Everything").

I vaguely remember FSA head honcho David Pierce acknowledging the recording's shortcomings in an interview at the time. That interview may have been with the Blissbolgga, come to think of it. Whoever it was, the interviewer quite fairly pointed out that, whatever the relative shortcomings of FSA's "Outdoor Miner", it's still really quite lovely in its own right.

Pierce's whispered vocal is particularly effective in the context of the recording's distinctly lo-fi ambiance. It reminds me about those stories of how an early home recording pioneer (Thomas Leer, perhaps?) would record all his vocals in the dead of night, singing as softly as possible, so as not to disturb his sleeping girlfriend.

In any case, the loveliness of "Outdoor Miner" is resilient enough to withstand a little tape hiss. Enjoy.


chris said...

I just found your blog when searching for more information about this Wire tribute album, and I'm just wondering if you ever found anything else about Transformer. As a band name it suffers from the modern problem of being Google-proof, and on top of that, there appears to be a new British electro-disco revivalist group by the same name.

Anyway, I do love this cover (though I don't think it's mindblowingly good, like the MBV one is) and I'm now planning on finding that Fischerspooner cover too. Thanks!

Biggie Samuels said...

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