For a lot of you the line of demarcation between cool/middle of the road, or commercial/alternative is blurry at best, especially if you came to appreciate music in the 1980s. I started on my wayward path as a pretty straitlaced Top 40 kid around 1983, but by 1987 I was supplementing my patently radio-ready diet with tasty tidbits like Julian Cope, Public Image Limited and The Smiths. At that time I made virtually no differentiation between these groups then say wildly mainstream acts like U2 and OMD.
But oddly enough, there actually was a specific date, place and time when I deliberately made my acquaintance with alternative/indie rock in earnest. It was the weekend surrounding New Year's Day 1989, and my first encounter with MTV's 120 Minutes. A VJ named Kevin Seal was the host, and to my good fortune, this episode wasn't just a random hodge podge of videos, but a nice and tidy countdown of the Top 20 alternative videos of 1988. For the bulk of that year my auditory field was crowded with equal parts metal, classic rock and rap. As it would turn out these two hours became among the most significant in my life. The three aforementioned genres weren't edged out of my collective soundtrack entirely...not yet anyway, but this two-hour "starter kit" of left-of-the-dial rock resulted in a phenomenal and enlightening sea change.
As countdowns go, 120 Mins distillation of the sights and sounds of 1988 started appropriately enough at number 20, which I believe was the slot claimed by a song called "Kidney Bingos" from a band I never, ever heard of before, plainly monikered Wire. My ears hadn't been treated to anything so outright modern in my life. The video consisted of an oblique, grainy montage of butchers, pedestrians, random mixed media imagery, and a silhouette of some dude dancing against a light blue backdrop. All of the inexplicably haphazard visuals aside, the song itself sold me in no more time than it's four+ minute duration. A sweet, chiming guitar with a touch of echo dominates "Kidney Bingos" from second one and doesn't dare relent. It's tight, mid tempo rhythm meshed seamlessly with the guitar chords, and the melody was equal denominations graceful and indelible. Such an advanced, forward thinking piece of music deserved innovative songwriting in tandem. Wire delivered with a pastiche of seemingly random imagery and verbiage where not only did any given line fail to correspond with the subsequent or previous ones, but most of the song's adjacent words didn't correlate in any logical way either. Try some of these on for size:
Dressed pints demon shrinks bread drunk dead drinks
Stretch clubs models box draw skin black shocks
Surreal, yet not silly. Eccentric, but not loony. It feels insulting to call a song I love so much nonsensical, but it's hard to argue that "Kidney Bingos" offers anything remotely rational in the songwriting department, so no need for lyrical forensics. Nonetheless, the meter of the words, combined with the tune's collective sonic elements and aforementioned mystique are sublime and yield an astonishing amount of serendipity. The tune, released as a single, was also featured on the band's fifth studio album, A Bell is a Cup Until it is Struck, the second record into their mach II campaign. That album, and the ones surrounding it (An Ideal Copy, It's Beginning To and Back Again, etc) yielded more nuggets of gold, but frankly often housed an abundant amount of filler too. In the years following my acquaintance with Newman/Lewis/Gilbert/Gotobed I backtracked to their first era and found their first three albums from 1977-1979 (Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, 154) to be even more consistent, not to mention challenging. They became a staple and I follow them to this day, fractured as the lineup has become. I even featured some early demos of theirs a few years ago.
So what would this post be without some music to accompany it? This time, however, I'm not going to reveal the full nine-song track listing, but I'm about to drop a lot of clues. Seven of these are covers (with only three seeing official commercial release), and the remaining two are markedly different versions by the creators themselves. Trembling Star's spin on "Bingos" is likely the most well known, and actually sounds like they hired the Go-Betweens to "ghost-record" it. Artful Britpop-sters Moose turn in such a faithful rendition there's precious little that separates it from the original artifact. Entirely to the contrary, DJ Vrotdugi (aka MTP Tel.'s) "Crap Kidney Bingos" is a mucho-distorted, vaporwave enhanced piece that involves copious amounts of pitch-shifting, stretching the song in a myriad of mind-bending configurations. And then there's Hello Whirled's rendition, which is actually plucked from an entire album of Wire covers, recently unleashed on Bandcamp for free, so don't be afraid to indulge. The final cover I'll reveal is one I found on YouTube by a band I can't find any relevant info on called The Repeats. Their, strummy acoustic shakedown of the song in question paints it in a refreshingly casual, Americanized hue. It's a live audience recording, but try not to let the crowd banter distract you.
Instead of supplying you with the original single or LP version of "Kidney Bingos" I went for a pair of Wire versions that were definitely more unique, including a rawer alternate mix of the track, which by and large sounds like a completely different recording. It's taken from the band's 1997 Coatings collection, a smorgasbord of b-sides and supplemental versions. But wait, there's more! A remarkably unique live version from the Reading Festival circa 1990, that's a pretty ingenious mashup of "Kidney" and the band's dancier follow-up anthem "Eardrum Buzz." And if you're desperately hungry for more of this one, Elastica blatantly lifted the song's chorus hook for their 2000 Menace track "Nothing Stays the Same," not that I'm sharing it here. Enjoy (or not)