The Ideal Copy was the first Wire album purchased by YHB and was a memorable acquisition in 1987. The band had recently reunited after several years of inactivity and the change in their sound caused no small amount of comment (and consternation, in some cases) from fans of their first period from 1977-80 when they issued classic records like Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154.
The truth is that any band that is going to last is going to have to change so that members feel like they're growing and fulfilled and Wire's decision to move into more electronics, while retaining their experimental bent, should, in retrospect, have come as no surprise.
For this listener, there was no predilection to compare this record to those of the earlier era, because there was no previous experience with those great records (that came not long after buying The Ideal Copy led to an exploration of those first discs.)
In any case, this is a memorable album, led off by a trio of tremendous songs: "The Point of Collapse," "Ahead," and "Madman's Honey." It's no surprise that when the band wisely allowed fans and friends to vote for their favorite tracks for The A-List, a compilation of their late 1980s output, these songs were all included. "The Point of Collapse" and "Madman's Honey" are more melodic and atmospheric, with minimal guitar lines and enhanced use of keyboards than earlier recordings and Colin Newman's singing was, well, more "honeyed" and far removed from the Cockney sneer of days of yore. "Ahead," which came out #1 in the aforementioned poll, is more aggressive, but still melodic and more ordered than anything found in the earlier work.
The more experimental and off-kilter work comes with the remainder of the work, including decidedly different vocal turns by Graham Lewis on the intriguing "Feed Me," with its washes of guitar bursts and its repetitive five-note "bass" accompanied by a low, rumbling drone. The catchy "Ambitious" has a bouncy drum beat, processed guitar riff and another "bas" riff which might have been done on keyboards and a string-like riff that runs throughout the piece. Lewis talks, roars and sometimes sings through the track in his inimitable way and there is a typical obtuse chanting of various acronyms at the end. The song is definitely about "The Ideal Copy," though, not atypically for a Wire song, the meaning of the lyrics is unclear (Graham Lewis stated in an interview that the concept referred to DNA, but then guitarist and sound manipulator Bruce Gilbert decided to remove references to DNA from the song!)
The short, cheeky "Cheeking Tongues" has a spiky processed guitar riff, sampled voices and a spry bass line, kept together by Robert Gotobed's metronome-like drumming. Newman either sings in a higher register or the vocals or processed and they are double-tracked. Again, there are the impressionistic lyrics, but the "soundtrack to your silence insincere" is a cool-sounding phrase. The atmospheric "Still Shows" has a sweetly-sung vocal, also by Newman and there is something about "cutting a rabbit/dressing the skin/selecting gear/tearing about" as a kind of chorus. But, the atmospherics are quite interesting, including a repetitive drumming pattern and a reggae-like rhythm guitar pattern and an echoed bass figure. "Over Theirs" has a very trebly guitar line, propulsive drum pattern, and a sinewy bass line while Newman sings about things that happen "over and over" in a , surprise, repetitive way. But, the track is instrumentally rich and compelling and holds the listener's interest.
At a little over 34 minutes, the proper album is a bit slight for a compact disc, so the band included the Snakedrill EP from 1986 with the standout opener "A Serious of Snakes," with its notable line, "I'd rather make furniture/than go to Midnight Mass," an oblique (naturally) reference to Christ and religion complemented by "They abandoned the baby/The baby trained/The baby returns/Baby kills Mary and Joseph." And, there's some reference to ancient Persia. But another interesting lyrical element comes with the stanza that runs:
Please send your God
My very best wishes
Does he still sing
Does he still fish
Does he still help you
On your days off
Again, who knows what it all means overall, but there's something impressive about the word play and the impressionistic imagery.
The comes "Drill," a piece the band has frequently referred to and revived as a template of sorts for the general sound that was developed over the course of their late 80s and very early 90s work. Here, repetition is taken to its (perhaps) logical conclusion and an entire album was devoted in 1991 to the "Drill" concept in several reimaginings.
"Advantage in Height" has an electronic riff, more slashing and trebly guitar, that steady drumming and an impressively deep throbbing bass line behind Newman's vocalizing. The closer on the EP is the strange "Up to the Sun" intoned largely a capella by Lewis and Newman, with a background of atmospheric electronic textures. Despite an obvious flub by Lewis early on, the tape kept rolling and then the two harmonize in a strangely effecting way before Newman concludes with Lewis humming a backing line.
A further bonus are three tracks recorded in London. "Ambulance Chasers" has an off-kilter guitar line and the lyric seems to be about money-grabbing lawyers who are "fucking and sliming/[with] no sense of timing" and someone is warned to "watch the front/[and] watch your behind." Notably, Robert Gotobed actually breaks away from strict timekeeping to hit a few short fills on his drum kit.
After a live rendition of "Feed Me" with a stronger guitar wash freed from the processing of the studio version and featuring Newman's vocals, which are not as striking though as Lewis's studio version. "Vivid Riot of Red" is a live version of "Up to the Sun," and is completely a capella. The track is made more interesting with audience participation, including shouts, whistles, yells, laughter and the strong burst of applause at the end.
The first album heard from most groups and performers tends to be the one that lives longer in the memory. The Ideal Copy is, of course, a hodge-podge of a short studio album joined to an earlier EP and the bonus live tracks. But, what holds it all together is Wire's determined effort to move forward in their unusual and impressionistic musical world. Many fans of early Wire were disappointed by the late 80s direction, but for YHB who started listening to the band with that material, it seemed entirely fresh and exploratory and, so, was also revelatory.
This listener appreciates the brilliance of the 1977-80 version of the band, but also enjoys most of the 1985-1990 output, too, even the much-maligned Manscape. Then, to see the band reemerge in the 2000s with a new bent that somehow channeled some of the elements of its past while pushing relentlessly forward was fantastic. Again, no band or performer can maintain a creative, viable long-term career without changing and adapting and Wire has proved more than adept at that. Despite Bruce Gilbert's retirement, Wire remains a strong, viable and intensely interesting band. The Ideal Copy has proven to be an ideal way to start listening to the band.