10:20 is a curious entry in Wire’s discography, especially since it’s their last release to date of “new” music but actually is a lot of old music, made new again, but not at the same time. This might sound confusing, but is rather par for the course for an act that as much as they’re known for being musical trailblazers, have never had a problem with revisiting, revising, and reiterating their own past.
Originally intended as a Record Store Day release, 10:20 came out as a standalone release in June 2020, six months after their “proper” last album of new material Mind Hive. It was intended to mark the band’s transition to their current lineup and sound, with guitarist Matthew Sims joining the band in 2010. That the record feels so cohesive, given its piecemeal origins, is remarkable. Side A – “10” – was originally released in 2010 as Strays, a bonus EP for the first 2000 mail orders for Red Barked Tree from pinkflag.com; the “20” side was recorded at various points in the following decade. The collection is described by the band as follows:
10:20 also thrives on its own perverse logic. Herein are songs the band refers to as ‘strays’. These are recordings of pieces that couldn’t be accommodated on regular albums, as well as compositions that, following their original studio recording, evolved substantially through live performance, and so deserved a new life on record.Wire / 10:20 @ pinkflag.com
As a relative recent Wire fan, I consumed all of their works from all eras pretty much concurrently so that there are sometimes decades separating the various versions of these songs wasn’t something I was able to fully appreciate when this came out. But in the past few years, I’ve really gotten to know the original versions of some of these songs, particularly from the band’s more pop/New Wave middle era, and revisiting this release the contrast and reinvention of the songs in their current drier “pissed off rock band” aesthetic is pretty eye-opening.
There’s some additional background on the songs and recordings from Colin Newman on this interview with podcast The Vinyl Guide circa July 2020:
And Newman gets into some detail to Goldmine about how the release came together and pivoted from a RSD release to a regular one
What happened was, we were back in 2019 and after all the mixes of Mind Hive were done, I started working on the mixes of what would become 10:20, when I listened to everything together for the first time I was like “Bloody hell, this record is good. I can’t believe how good this record is.” It was really not planned. I don’t think that anyone should take credit for something they did not do. Yes, of course we did it all, but it was circumstance, and all came together like that. I mean the content for that, stuff recorded in 2010 and stuff recorded in 2020. The 2010 marked 10 years of (guitarist) Matt (Simms) being in the band. I remember when we got the test pressings back, Matt had some and I had some. Matt rang me up and said “This sounds brilliant” and I said “Yeah, it’s really good.” We literally could not believe how good it turned out. In a way maybe it’s just Wire being Wire. Wire doing stuff that they do. These songs that are on the record, we have been doing them live and we can do them better live then in the studio. We knew these pieces so well, because we had played them so many times. We knew what we wanted to do to take the production up to the next level, maybe even push it a little more to try to get somewhere else with it. It’s just a process of trying to get out the best possible material.Colin Newman of Wire explains the prolific nature of his veteran band @ Goldmine
I’ve taken the liberty of collecting all the officially-released original versions of the songs on 10:20, along with the latest – final? – incarnations. As I said, I found the comparisons pretty striking and a great listen. I’ll include the annotations from the band themselves on their pinkflag.com release page because, well, what else could. I say?
‘Boiling Boy’ first appeared on 1988’s A Bell is a Cup… Until it is Struck. The original studio outing had a smooth sheen that only hinted at the jagged joys to come. ‘Boiling Boy’ has gone on to become perhaps the most played Wire song ever. Throughout the ’00s, it became one of the acknowledged highlights of Wire’s live sets. Here, that arrangement can be heard in all its studio finery. Grey’s precise motorik drumming and Lewis’s muscular bass line create a machine with an unstoppable momentum, while Newman, Simms and Fielder weave a thick web of guitar textures.
‘German Shepherds’ is another late ’80s Wire song that has developed a second life on stage. One of Lewis’s most immediate yet most enigmatic lyrics is set in a sparkling up-tempo arrangement that exploits the possibilities of the rhythm guitar. The recording is also notable in that it includes vocal contributions from Newman, Lewis and Fielder. ‘German Shepherds’ represents Wire at their most optimistic and summery. And yet, even here there is a slanted strangeness at the heart of their sound.
The original version of the song appeared on 1989’s It’s Beginning To And Back Again.
‘He Knows’ was developed back in 2000 when Bruce Gilbert was still with the band. It emerged in a reinvigorated form in 2008 when it became a staple of Wire’s live show. This is the only studio recording to have surfaced. A Wire song with an atypical structure, ‘He Knows’ is a slow-paced piece built around tension and release. Newman’s vocal is cool and restrained until the keening chorus, which blossoms with its repeated refrain of “We’re hypnotised…” Here, as elsewhere, Wire prove that their particular brand of art-rock is also rich in emotion.
This is the only known version of the song, appearing in the same for on Strays and 10:20.
‘Underwater Experiences’ was demoed for the band’s sophomore album Chairs Missing, but in the end was omitted. Having lay dormant for a couple of years, the song later appeared in two fast, abrasive, contrasting versions on Wire’s notoriously confrontational live album Document And Eyewitness, and a fifth iteration surfaced on 2013’s Change Becomes Us. However, the song has never sounded quite as it does here. With its hectic but precise pell-mell of scything guitars and kick drum, ‘Underwater Experiences’ is 10:20’s most intense entry.
In addition to Document and Eyewitness and Change Becomes Us, the Chairs Missing demo version was officially released last year on Not About To Die.
‘The Art of Persistence’ arrived fully formed when Wire reconvened in 2000. But it was previously only available as a rehearsal room run-through on long deleted EP The Third Day or as a live version on Legal Bootleg album Recycling Sherwood Forest. Here, the song receives the full studio treatment as the group transforms it into a piece of spacious guitar pop with an edge of unease. Grey’s drumming is crisp and urgent, and Newman’s calm, confident vocal belies the lyric’s nervous uncertainty. What emerges is a song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 1979’s 154.
‘Small Black Reptile’ originally appeared on the band’s 1990 album Manscape. Of all the reimagined songs on 10:20, this is the one that has traveled the furthest. Whereas the original was a skeletal and arch computer-driven pop song, this new version sees the composition retooled as a piece of melodic rock. Here, Wire sound like a smart psychedelic beat group with Matt Simms’ guitar essaying a cocksure swagger.
‘Wolf Collides’, with its warm synth tones and spindly lead lines, sounds as if it deserves to be sitting regally on side two of 1978’s Chairs Missing. In actual fact, it was written in 2015 and became a stalwart of that year’s live set. This version was recorded for inclusion on 2017’s Silver/Lead but was omitted due to lack of space. Here, another witty off-centre Lewis lyric is threaded through a soundscape where mystery and enigma mutate into a becalmed haze. It may just be 10:20’s finest moment.
‘Over Theirs’ is the climax of the continuing reassessment of Wire’s 1980s output. Although the song appeared on The Ideal Copy and has been an intermittent component of the group’s live shows since 1985, its true power had never been properly harnessed in the studio — until now. If this near nine-minute sonic behemoth is defined by its dense guitars and strict drum pattern, then the rich, languorous mesh of drones that rounds off both the song and album proves once again how adept Wire are at discovering beauty in unexpected places.