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Wire's terrific little pop song "Outdoor Miner" withstands 19 very different covers.

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Various Artists

A Houseguest's Wish: Translations of Wire's "Outdoor Miner" (Words on Music)

Wire

On the Box: 1979 (Pink Flag Archive Research)

You can't hear your favorite song too many times. But what if you start listening to that song the way somebody else hears it? If you share your affection for a classic tune with lots of other admirers, you've probably had to suffer through some ill-advised cover versions--well-known songs invite all kinds of laziness from their interpreters, good intentions notwithstanding. Some bands wander far afield, relying on listeners to carry the original in their heads and superimpose it over a threadbare remake (like the Scissor Sisters' glittery disco makeover of "Comfortably Numb"). Other artists stick too close to the original, as though hoping to extract nourishment from it parasitically (Michael Bolton's baby-barf rendition of "When a Man Loves a Woman" leaps to mind, thanks to a recent visit to Dominick's).

Covers of relatively obscure songs are a different matter entirely. There won't be legions of shower singers comparing every note of a new version to the original, so a band won't necessarily be damned right out of the gate for a radical reinterpretation. But neither can a band count on listeners' affection for the original. And then there's an even thornier question: What happens when what attracts musicians to a forgotten song in the first place is its near perfection? Are they doomed to ruin it, even as they labor to call attention to its brilliance?

A Houseguest's Wish: Translations of Wire's "Outdoor Miner," released in November, tackles that question head-on by compiling 19 different cover versions of just such a tune. "Outdoor Miner" must've been a number one hit in some alternate universe--it's one of my favorite songs, period, and many postpunk aesthetes consider it Wire's finest hour (or rather, their finest minute and three quarters).

Of course, it's not the first song to inspire such an obsessively single-minded tribute record: obvious targets like "Louie, Louie" and "Paint It, Black" have inspired similar compilations. In fact A Houseguest's Wish isn't even the first tribute to a Wire tune. For the 1991 album The Drill, Wire recorded nine vastly different treatments of their "dugga dugga dugga" riff--and then in 1998 the WMO label returned the favor, releasing Dugga Dugga Dugga, a compilation of covers of "The Drill."

The chief difference between the Wire compilations and, say, a tribute to "Louie, Louie" is that a canonical song like "Louie, Louie" has acquired a layer of significance beyond the content of its lyrics (such as they are). A song like that is about consensus--the original is so ubiquitous, so endemic to rock culture, that all a cover artist is ever able to do is reference it. At a certain level, playing "Louie, Louie" indifferently but competently is the same as playing it like it changed your life or playing it like you want to tear it a new asshole. The song's strange immunity to passion was why the Stooges and Black Flag used it to torture hostile audiences: it was a reliable way to drive home the point that everyone in the room sucked, including the band onstage.

Nineteen versions of "Louie, Louie" is probably 18 too many, but you can sit through 19 versions of "Outdoor Miner" without losing your mind (or even hitting the skip button). A Houseguest's Wish is cohesive, of course, given its premise, but it also feels remarkably varied, in part because the original recording doesn't have such a heavy footprint. What could have been just another goofy curio documenting Wire's ongoing influence on modern rock turns out to be a surprisingly listenable album.

The compilation is the brainchild of brothers Eric and Marc Ostermeier, who run the Minneapolis label Words on Music, but they weren't the first to notice the potential of "Outdoor Miner." As Eric explains in an e-mail, since the early 90s he and his brother, a longtime Wire fan, had been collecting "the disproportionate amount of cover versions of this particular song that would come out every year or so: Luna, the Grays, Antenna, the Lightning Seeds, etc." It's almost as though the project arose spontaneously in the wild and the label simply adopted it.

"Outdoor Miner" seems to lend itself to rewarding interpretations. Covering it is like making matzo ball soup from a box--when a dish is so elegantly, brilliantly simple, you have to be purposefully negligent to fuck things up. Versions of "Outdoor Miner" from artists like Lush, Flying Saucer Attack, and Adam Franklin (of Swervedriver) manage to put a new shine on your memories of those bands and make Wire look better in the process. That's quite a song.

On their 1977 debut, Pink Flag, Wire established themselves as rock formalists, stripping guitar-bass-drums arrangements down to their bones and then reconfiguring them with the even-handed precision of surgeons (albeit in a hospital where every room is the emergency room). On the 1978 follow-up, Chairs Missing, they surprised everyone with "Outdoor Miner," proving they could do the same as pop formalists. A chugging two-bar intro gives way to laconic guitar strumming and sweet vocal harmonies that build to a king-hell-catchy chorus. There's another verse and a double chorus, which quickly fades out, and the song crosses the finish line a second before the shortest Beatles single ("I'll Follow the Sun," from Beatles '65). "She Loves You," at 2:19, sounds indulgent by comparison.

Toward the end of 1978, when Wire had been signed to EMI subsidiary Harvest for about 18 months, execs at the label took the unusual step of asking the band to lengthen "Outdoor Miner" for a single release. Labels usually commission shorter, more radio-friendly mixes of songs they see as potential hits, but the album version of "Outdoor Miner" was only a few seconds longer than the shortest number one single of all time, Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs' "Stay" (1:37).

"Neither the band nor I would have taken pressure for a conventional hit," says Wire's producer, Mike Thorne. "Especially when the overall critical reception [to the first two albums] was huge." But tweaking a preexisting song and hoping it broke out was apparently OK, and Wire returned to the studio with Thorne. With the help of the band and some judicious tape splicing, he constructed a 2:49 version of "Outdoor Miner," padded out by a newly recorded bridge section he'd augmented with a stately piano part.

Released in January 1979, the extended "Outdoor Miner" debuted at number 51 on the UK charts. As Thorne explains on his Web site, www.stereosociety.com, "The BBC unofficially gave the nod that if it went up the next week, they would run it on the big long-running show Top of the Pops, and since sales were improving I felt justified in already planning my outfit." (By this time Thorne had become the "fifth member" of the band, contributing piano to many of the songs from Chairs Missing at shows.) But the single's rise was cut short when Wire became the scapegoat in an industry scandal.

Since 1969 the BBC and the UK record industry had used an independent firm called the British Market Research Bureau to monitor the way record stores reported their sales, hoping to restore some legitimacy to the figures amid widespread "hyping" by labels. Record-company lackeys were often enlisted to go into stores and charge multiple copies of a single to beef up its sales figures. Thorne writes, "Everybody was doing it, which was perfectly understandable with the sieve-like security of the BMRB. The only problem was that EMI was the one that got caught."

"Outdoor Miner" was deleted from the UK charts after only one week, never to make it back on. "Had that Top of the Pops appearance taken place, the single would have almost certainly entered the Top 20 and launched a visible career for the group," Thorne writes. "EMI thought that was a real possibility, otherwise they wouldn't have put in the effort. Unfortunately, that was it, despite EMI's (rather unconvincing) denials." Instead of a hit, Wire was left with a story--the story of the Little Single That Could've.

All things considered, "Outdoor Miner" made a pretty good showing, especially given that it had what Wire singer-guitarist Colin Newman once described as "our least commercial lyric." He'd written the song around a bizarre vignette by bassist Graham Lewis, starring an insect called a serpentine leafminer. Some leafminers are flies or wasps, others moths or beetles, but all begin life as larvae that tunnel through leaves as they devour the soft interior tissue. The 71-word text of the song is a modernist poem, a disquieting parable about late-stage capitalism, and a Sphinx's riddle all in one:

"No blind spots in the leopard's eyes

Can only help to jeopardize

The lives of lambs," the shepherd cries

An afterlife for a silverfish

Eternal dust less ticklish

Than the clean room; a houseguest's wish

He lies on his side, is he trying to hide?

In fact it's the earth, which he's known since birth

Face worker: a serpentine miner

A roof falls, an underliner

Of leaf structure, the egg timer

The song weaves together a number of Wire's favorite themes: neosituationism ("Mr. Suit," "Reuters," "The 15th"), the stifling structure of British domestic life in the 70s ("Two People in a Room," "From the Nursery"), and bugs ("I Am the Fly," "Follow the Locust"). Just as they interrogated the structures of rock music, Wire turned a cold, clinical eye on society--in this, their poppiest song, the point of view is as merciless as a microscope's, and the metaphors are exurban Kafka. Though the song's archetypal pop structure is as sturdy as they come, the atmosphere is as claustrophobic as the miner's leaf tunnel, whose precarious roof comes closer to collapse with each millimeter of pulp the bug consumes.

You can almost see A House-guest's Wish as a lab experiment, with Wire's seminal version of "Outdoor Miner" as the control set. By observing what happens when different bands tweak different variables, maybe we can learn something about exactly what makes a perfect pop song perfect. What happens if we speed it up? Slow it down? Way down? Play it like My Bloody Valentine (with a dozen warring guitars) or like Kate McGarrigle (with one mournful nylon-string acoustic)? The Ramones were experts at this sort of experiment: their cleaned-and-blown versions of perfect 60s tunes like "Let's Dance" and "California Sun" were somehow even more perfect, their sugar distilled into white lightning.

The concise construction of "Outdoor Miner" supports an impressively wide variety of successful permutations: you can listen to the song as a sensitive-guy-with-a-beard ballad (Adam Franklin, Christian Kiefer, Above the Orange Trees), as a 90s shoegazer indulgence (Timonium, Experimental Aircraft), or between long huffs on the glue bag (Fiel Garvie, Flying Saucer Attack). The compilation could almost function as a how-to guide--a style manual for teaching the mechanics of genre to aspiring indie rockers. A few choice contributions even demonstrate how pre-existing styles can be combined to produce innovation: Junetile's trip through the yesterdays of tomorrow, which aggregates the approaches of almost every other band on the comp; Sharron Kraus's banjo-driven rendition, which drops the miner in midcentury Appalachia; Should's instrumental reinterpretation of the song as larval living-room Muzak for the leaf-dwelling set.

"Outdoor Miner" doesn't appear on the newest formal addition to the Wire canon, the On the Box: 1979 DVD/CD--a raw, well-played, and well-recorded live set from the German TV show Rockpalast. Given that the set was taped on February 14, 1979, the song's absence is odd--Wire was still promoting Chairs Missing, on which "Outdoor Miner" appears, and it'd been released as a single only weeks before. The hour-long performance, which draws about equally from Chairs Missing and the forthcoming 154, is intense, austere, and at times hilarious. Tight, unadorned renditions of songs like "Being Sucked In Again" and "Practice Makes Perfect" (and an incandescent version of "Mercy") are interspersed with shots of the apple-cheeked German studio audience, politely seated and looking a bit bored and baffled, as though they'd thought they were coming to see a puppet show. A slide projection of the David Hockney-like cover of Chairs Missing floats on a screen behind the band, amid mod-lettered murals listing the names of previous Rockpalast guests, like Ted Nugent and the Nils Lofgren Band.

The footage is a fascinating reminder of the backdrop Wire emerged against: stripped of Thorne's arty studio shine, the songs betray the band's punk origins. During a close-up in the chorus of "I Feel Mysterious Today," Newman leers like Johnny Rotten, his eyes shining creepily in the camera lights; the leather-trousered Lewis does his best Iggy baritone on "Blessed State," and when someone in the crowd shouts out, I am zee fly! he curtly responds, "We don't play requests." They do encores, though, and the closing version of "Pink Flag," while faster than the album version, actually seems to crawl toward its wrenching climax--which is only slightly soured by glimpses of a Grateful Dead skeleton violinist icon on the far wall. The DVD closes with an awkward, deflating band interview by shaggy Rockpalast host Alan Bangs (who himself looks a bit like Nils Lofgren). The audio portion of the performance is reprised on a CD that accompanies the video, which is handy since the DVD itself isn't banded--an annoyance if you want to jump to a particular song.

I asked Thorne if he knew why Wire would skip its most successful single on a live TV performance just before a European tour opening for Roxy Music. ("Eardrum Buzz," the one other Wire song that charted in the UK, topped out at number 68 in 1989--even after more than a decade of nonstop critical acclaim for the band.) Were they soured on the song after the whole sales-hyping flap? Did they consider it a sellout? Were they punishing EMI? The real reason, according to Thorne, was disappointingly pragmatic: the band sometimes had trouble pulling off the vocal harmonies live.

Wire also skipped "Outdoor Miner" on the tour that brought them to Chicago in June 2003. (One poster on the indie-rock e-mail list DroneOn lamented that he'd paid for a ticket just for the chance to hear it.) But it's too bad, because A Houseguest's Wish could've given the band a rare opportunity: if the comp had included a slightly imperfect live rendition of "Outdoor Miner" from the guys who wrote it, that would've been almost like Wire was covering itself. A translation of Wire by Wire would've been an intriguing, um, underliner of leaf structure.

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