Shine On: Colin Newman

by coldwarnightlife

Colin Newman describes himself as the spotty boy at school, who had trouble with the local Wiltshire bullies. His escapes were listening to Todd Rundgren’s “A Wizard, a True Star” in his bedroom and close-reading of the weekly NME with Desmond Simmons. Together with Simmons, he started a duo that never performed outside of his friend’s living room but gave him the confidence to start a life in music.

Newman left Salisbury for art school in Watford, where he fell in with a band led by George Gill. One day, the band had to rehearse without Gill, who had broken his leg, and discovered that they sounded a lot better without their principal songwriter. Gill’s leg recovered but his musical standing didn’t, so the band went on to become Wire (and, for a time, Wir). Newman’s role in the band has evolved from rhythm guitarist and lead vocalist to include production duties, leveraging the skills that he has honed working with other artists and making solo recordings during Wire’s periodic hiatuses.

Wire has never been a monoline undertaking. Although originally pigeon-holed as a punk/new wave act by the press, the band’s intellectual genealogy owes as much to Marcel Duchamp as Malcolm McLaren: its art school roots occasionally break through the surface as experimental composition and performance art. However, while other band members tested the limits of sound and the subversion of expectations, Newman often found himself exploring the practical side of the industry, including independent distribution (Post Everything), recording (Swim~) and performance (Drill Festivals). Besides Wire, Newman maintains a separate recording project, Githead, together with his partner, Malka Spigel (ex-Minimal Compact), composer Robin Rimbaud (aka Scanner) and Max Franken (also ex-Minimal Compact).

10. Colin Newman – Alone

Newman’s “Alone,” a track from his first solo album, 1980’s A-Z, made a high-profile appearance in the movie, Silence of the Lambs, where it served to set the atmosphere for a scene showing the house occupied by the crazed Buffalo Bill. The brooding, dark tone of the song was drawn out for a cover on This Mortal Coil’s Filigree & Shadow, but the original track still sets the bar for nervous anxiety.

9. Wire – Dot Dash

Written together with Graham Lewis, “Dot Dash” captures Wire’s early aesthetic: short, sometimes snarled, but entirely infectious and hovering on the border between pop and punk. Released as a single in 1978, its chorus is a Morse code message from the future. The single filled the gap between the Pink Flag and Chairs Missing albums, acting as a bridge between the taught, Spartan style of the former and more open, expansive leanings of the latter.

8. Colin Newman – & Jury

Newman’s solo work yielded three albums between 1980 and 1983. The first of these, A-Z, has been characterised as the Wire album that would have followed 154, but for Bruce Gilbert putting the band on ice. While Newman’s songs could have slotted into the Wire groove, there is a question whether the band could have agreed on them. 154 reflected a growing tension within the group, reinforced by the need to subvert expectations, and the songs on A-Z are leftfield art/pop held within a relatively conventional framework. They remain strong compositions – much stronger than some of the material on 154 – and there is something to be said for them having been aired in Newman’s own space.

7. Parade Ground – Moans

Newman helmed Parade Ground’s “Moans,” and the sound of this track clearly owes something to his studio performance. Part of the Brussels scene of the 1980s, in which Newman became immersed, Parade Ground crossed Joy Division with Fad Gadget, maintaining a po-faced look and sound that contrasted with the commercial excesses of the times. Newman adds vocals, keyboards and guitars here, and the result is a certified indietronica gem.

6. Virgin Prunes – Decline and Fall

After Wire hit the wall, following a disastrous tour supporting Roxy Music in 1979, Newman turned to his solo work, but the lure of production and the need to make a living led him into a studio chair for the first album from Virgin Prunes. Rough Trade had talent-spotted the Irish post-punk outfit and wanted something quite specific and quite general: “A pop record,” is what Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis asked of Newman. He found the task challenging, as the Prunes were desperate to avoid any comparisons to another Dublin outfit then gaining attention: U2. It didn’t help that one of the guitarists was The Edge’s brother. Newman described himself “bludgeoning” the Prunes into releasing “Baby Turns Blue” as a single, but the song he has expressed the most appreciation for was “Decline and Fall,” an album track.

5. Wire – Drill

Poor Suzanne Summers didn’t know what had hit her when Wire performed on NBC’s The Tonight Show in 1987. The most Establishment entertainment programme on American television was usually hosted by the comedian, Johnny Carson. On the night Wire played a musical slot, Summers was in the host’s chair and Wire were touring “Drill” – so that’s what they played. Based on a riff from early punk-tinged hit, “12XU,” which had been abstracted into a repetitive framework that could stretch to 30 minutes in performance, a key vocal element was the onomatopoeic, “Dugga dugga dugga.” Summers was complimentary, but she would have known that the audience at home, watching from their Sealy Posturepedic beds, must have thought that the band had landed from outer space.

4. Minimal Compact – My Will

Brussels has played an interesting role as the cradle for a lot of alternative music. For a long time the home to Tuxedomoon, the birthplace of New Beat and the centre for many EBM artists, such as Front 242, the city was also the base for the Crammed record label. Minimal Compact were part of that scene when they wrote off to Newman – legend has it, at the suggestion of Daniel Miller of Mute Records – to ask him to produce them. They had already hit the US college radio sweet spot with “Next One Is Real,” and Newman found he had a number of shared interests with the band. One thing led to another, as they say, and Malka Spigel became his life and musical partner.

3. Githead – Take Off

The Githead project was intended as a one-off live arrangement, for the tenth anniversary of Newman’s Swim~ label, but it sparked an interest that has kept it going for four albums. Although part of its work will sit comfortably to Wire fans, Githead has its own sound and feel, and the sense of familiarity comes from Newman’s voice rather than from a derivative style.

2. Immersion – Metal Sea

In the 1990s, Newman became interested in the prospects of electronic dance music and home recording. One of his projects was Immersion, which became an avenue for exploring ambient and dancefloor-oriented tracks together with Malka Spigel. The time spent working on this material helped to refine his recording skills, which led to a critical reappraisal of the production of Wire’s 1980s recordings and set the stage for Newman to exercise greater control over the band’s future studio sound.

1. Wire – Pink Flag

If Wire has a signature song, it is “Pink Flag.” The title track from their first album is an apocalyptic vision for the New World, rendered in two chords, with lyrics that read like a late-twentieth century Book of Relevations. Like a club track, it breaks down and builds up to an ecstatic release, but one that is delayed for as long as the band keep hitting E. “Pink Flag” has been performed as a minimalist composition and a wall-of-sound with a massed guitar collective, but the anchor is always Newman’s vocal contribution, imbued with more determination than menace.

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