In its 27 years, the London-based music magazine The Wire—whose function has been to treat German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, astral-jazz shaman Sun Ra, and dubstep pioneer Kode9 as pop stars—has found an enviable niche as one of the few newsstand titles in its league continuing to thrive as more mainstream-minded titles go belly-up. Besides catering to a hard core of music lovers who think there’s more to life and listening than the umpteenth Beatles cover story, The Wire runs essential regular features like Invisible Jukebox (name-that-tune sessions that expand into discussions of the interviewee’s career and history) and The Primer, discussions of essential recordings of artists, scenes, or styles that act simultaneously as career-arc essays and annotated buyer’s guides.
The Wire Primers collects 19 Primers from the magazine’s pages, expanding and updating several and adding three new ones: Nick Cain on noise, Edwin Pouncey on Frank Zappa And The Mothers Of Invention, and Philip Clark on improv guitarist Derek Bailey. They present the magazine at its most user-friendly: For those not already familiar with the acts in question, these are good ways to get there, especially when it comes to artists whose catalogs are bulging, bumptious things begging for explication, like Sun Ra (written up by John Szwed, his definitive biographer) and The Fall (discussed by Stewart Lee). Szwed is especially lucid, offering both a coherent overview of a notoriously all-over-the-place artist, and explicating how Sun Ra’s studio-centric production approach helped him cross over to rock fans.
The book’s two MVPs are Clark and Peter Shapiro. Clark, who covers Bailey, London improv pioneers AMM, and avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis, writes clearly, sharply, and without condescension about what can be difficult music. His subjects are somewhat obscure, but Clark never is. Shapiro, who tackles turntablism, Fela Kuti, and James Brown, works in the opposite manner: His written rhythms are as agitated as his those of subjects, and he wields hyperbole like a pool cue, as when he declares that 1971’s “Je’nwi Temi (Don’t Gag Me)” contains “the best percussion of any Fela record (and that’s saying a lot for a group that distinguished between the lead and two ‘rhythm’ conga players).” Here’s hoping Shapiro’s excellent Primers on P-Funk and the Roland TB-303 (the synth responsible for house and techno’s “acid” squelch) make it into the next volume.