Celebrating 400 Issues of The Wire, a Music Magazine Built on Independence

We spoke to writers and editors involved in the making of music's most discerning and open-minded publication.

by Josh Baines
May 11 2017, 2:57pm

This post appeared originally on THUMP UK.

Chino Amobi rubs shoulders with Satan-obsessed 50s rock'n'roll outcasts The Louvin Brothers; Mr Mitch sits next to avant-saxophonist Colin Stetson; Dubplates & Mastering's engineering maestro Rashad Becker finds himself queuing up for a beer next to The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. These are a few of the unusual artistic combinations you'll find in any issue of The Wire, the British music magazine that's spent the last thirty five years examining—in the kind of detail that puts most other publications to shame—sound and music from every conceivable angle.

Founded in 1982 by Anthony Wood and Chrissie Murray, this month sees the magazine celebrating a huge milestone for what is an admittedly niche magazine: the issue currently making its way into the nation's record stores, galleries, and discerning corner shops is its 400th. In an increasingly competitive environment, that's not bad going for an outlet more likely to put Shirley Collins on the cover than Stormzy.

Initially focusing on jazz, it now covers pretty much everything and anything under the sun. In the span of a single issue you'll be able to read an anarcho-punk primer, get to grips with the current scene in Snowdonia, read an in-depth interview with Gaika, and find out what the latest Sissy Spacek record sounds like. This is just what The Wire's been doing for its entire lifespan—treating boundary-pushing music with diligence, care, and above all else, enthusiasm, whether it's a series of field recordings captured in a sandwich packing factory in Barnstaple or the latest 12" on Blackest Ever Black.

Like many other precocious teenagers stuck in the dreary outer reaches of suburbia and beyond, I looked to culture as a teleportation device. With the right books, films, and records, I could be there at the Factory with Andy Warhol, or at Boy's Own with Andrew Weatherall. With the internet only just creaking into the broadband era, The Wire became an essential pocket money purchase; it was a portal to another musical world for the cost of a few pounds. Names like Tony Conrad, Alice Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman became part of my cultural tapestry, a collection of artists connected by a desire to see, hear, and make music differently.

"I first ran into The Wire in a WH Smiths newsagent in my hometown near Reading in the summer of 1996," recalls Derek Walmsley, the magazine's editor since 2015. Enticed by a loosely-mounted cover CD featuring music by Photek and the Future Sound of London, Walmsley, who was working as debt recovery administrator at the time, nabbed it, and was impressed by the way the compilation's seemingly disparate collection of artists managed to both complement and resonate with each other. In a very Wire-reader-friendly way, he relates that sense of cultural collusion to Wittgenstein.

The ability to do that for so long is down to one key thing that most publications aren't lucky enough to have: total independence. Up until the year 2000 it was part of the Namara Group portfolio, which meant that the magazine's staff were sharing space with, "Richard Ingrams, Auberon Waugh and Joan Bakewell chatting on the stairs," as former editor Tony Herrington put it in an interview with The Telegraph, to celebrate The Wire's 25th anniversary. In December of that year it was brought out by what the magazine's website describes as, "a management buy-out organized by the magazine's staff." Since then it has experienced the kind of editorial freedom most outlets would do very illegal things to possess.

Walmsley thinks that level of independence is, "perhaps the strongest thing people associate with us," going on to tell me that he thinks the magazine might be known better for how it publishes things ("a sometimes lone voice that represents and enthuses about music that others do not," as he describes it) than what it actually publishes. The what, of course, is an extraordinary assemblage of music, written about by a vast range of writers who specialize in everything from Zambian rock music to the influence Five-Percent theology's had on hip-hop.

Considered within the world of publishing as a whole in 2017, The Wire makes for an interesting case study. In theory, given the inexorable rise in demand for instantaneous comment and response, a magazine that is celebrating its 400th issue with a very austere front cover concealing articles by David Toop, and about an Austrian duo who investigate the "tonal properties of bullets on glass," shouldn't exist. By rights it should have turned into a Snapchat filter that advertises Shandy Bass to millennials with targeted campaigns featuring a Patrick Topping set in Del Boy's three wheeler outside the Taj Mahal or something. But it hasn't.

Like, say, The London Review of Books or Sight and Sound, it has remained what Stuart Smith, a Scottish academic and writer who covers jazz for the magazine describes to me as an "important space for quality cultural criticism." That, you'd think, should be an obvious editorial stance for any magazine about the arts to take, but nip into your local newsagent and flick through the remaining music magazines and you'll notice an almost disarming lack of actual criticism. Hagiographies of Gram Parsons sit next to breathless reviews of distinctly average house records; everything is brilliant, everything is amazing, everything is worthy of limitless praise.

Praise, of course, is an essential part of The Wire too. Just look at Byron Coley's long-running Size Matters column—an endless treasure trove of hyperactive short-form howls about records that sound like "baby seals trying to escape from an icy slope that leads directly into the spinning blades of a rotary saw"—or Steve Barker's sequential encyclopedia of dub and reggae for prime examples of what critical, positive comment looks like. There aren't many other magazines out there that immediately make you want to go overdrawn for the sake of picking up a new Master Musicians of Joujouka boxset and a book about Filipino American mobile DJ crews in the San Francisco Bay Area. What's important is that it never feels like you, as a reader, are being coerced or nudged by the shadowy hand of the behind the scenes PR machine. "We cover lots of musicians and labels we have little or no contact with, all over the world; we are able to act quickly and intuitively to cover things that enthuse us," Derek tells me. "We don't have quotas, spreadsheets we need to fill in, boxes we need to tick." It shows.

The Wire isn't, it must be said, the easiest of reads at time, assuming as it does that anyone who picks up a magazine with Jandek or Mantana Roberts on the cover is going to have an interest in music beyond their Spotify Discover Weekly profile. It makes demands on the reader, creating a bond between them and the magazine. Fittingly enough, Walmsley compares his pre-staff relationship to The Wire to a potential romantic one. "I was an exceptionally, almost absurdly demanding reader. I viewed The Wire as operating on a plane of logic no other publication did, and read it with the most demanding standards imaginable," he says. And while that kind of scrutiny—a level of care that occasional readers and subscribers alike can relate to—is perhaps why it's all too easy to pigeonhole The Wire as a Very Serious Magazine for the kind of Cafe Oto attending chin-stroker who spends his weekends rearranging his lathe-cutting collection to a Peter Brötzmann live set.

There is, however, a difference between treating your chosen subject matter with seriousness and being flat-out po-faced. Regular features like Epiphanies (where a chosen writer describes a musical object that radically altered them in some fashion), the Inner Sleeve (where, yep, an album sleeve or other music-related piece of design is discussed by an individual) or the fan-favorite Invisible Jukebox, in which musicians are played records that pertain to their own career and then discuss them, are pivotal to the publication, injecting each issue with a kind of first-hand personality that removes artists from the rote platitudes of the release cycle. As Stuart Smith says of those features, "what I like about them is that they're essentially about the musician as a fan, so they can often be more insightful and engaging than a conventional interview," going on to add that, "at the end of the day, we're all fans—or at least we should be—and I love to share in that passion and joy."

That, in a nutshell, is the appeal of The Wire and one of the reasons for it's longevity. It is a physical reminder that in an age where it feels as if all of us are burrowing deeper and deeper into the cultural wormholes of our own making, retreating into the safety of our perfectly-curated social media feeds, going to the same clubs with the same people, buying records from a select few labels we've told ourselves we implicitly trust, open-mindedness is more important than ever.

"I actually think the average person is more open-minded musically than ever before, in terms of many [listeners] digging both underground and mainstream musics," Walmsley says. "There are some particular ideas of openness I think are important to keep present in our minds, too: thinking about music without invoking genre (something I sometimes ask our writers to do); openness to unexpected, almost subterranean connections between different styles of music; openness to music from hobbyists, from sheds in people's gardens, from the gutter."

Perhaps because of that editorial desire to break down the genre boundaries so many of us find ourselves caught up in, it challenges you as a listener, offering you glimpses of entirely new musical worlds that are there to be explored in your own time, at your own pace. Sometimes it's just great to know they exist, others see you delving deeper and deeper into the hitherto unknown. Who knew you'd find so many great records from 1970s Togo to fall in love with?

It seems easy, doesn't it? You get great writers to cover interesting subjects in an illuminating and entertaining way. That's what most of us try to achieve; The Wire has been doing it for 400 issues now. Here's to the next 35 years.

The 400th issue of The Wire is out now.