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40 years of the Wire magazine: ‘Music deserves intelligent treatment. If that’s elitist, so be it’ | Experimental music

“We were the last resort for a lot of music because nobody else would touch it,” says Tony Herrington, publisher of the Wire magazine. He also once said: “Most people would take the mickey out of some bloke making music by bowing away at the femur of a mountain goat, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.”

For 40 years – it is celebrating this anniversary with a series of events in July – the Wire has been covering bold, strange, noisy, genre-busting experimental music, in a crisp, sharply designed magazine.

It champions outsider artists and movements with profound reverence. Recent cover stars, the Argentine psych outfit Reynols, being a prime example. “Frontman Miguel Tomasín has Down’s syndrome and he’s front and centre,” says Herrington. “You don’t find people with Down’s syndrome on the cover of music magazines. But they’re there because they are one of the most interesting groups to have emerged over the last 25 years.”

He casts this open-minded approach in stark contrast to their rivals. “With magazines like Songlines and Jazzwise, I might be interested in the music they’re talking about but I hate the way they talk about it,” says Herrington. “I hate the way they present it. I hate every aspect of those magazines. I fucking hate Mojo because I should be one of their key readers but it is so dull and conservative, the way they write about music. They’ve managed to make everything into grey slush. There are no new angles on the Beatles, Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones.

“People read Wire to find out about what they don’t know about, rather than to have what they already know reinforced.”

The cover of the first issue of the Wire, summer 1982. Photograph: The Wire

The Wire was founded in 1982 by Anthony Wood and Chrissie Murray, who were frustrated with poor jazz coverage in other titles, and concocted in an Italian restaurant that doubled as the pair’s office. The then quarterly publication was named after a Steve Lacy track and given the strapline “jazz, improvised music and …”. It went monthly in 1984.

Over the next decade it searched for itself, flitting between “the Wire” and “Wire”, trying new straplines, exploring more commercially leaning editorial philosophies, and going through three editors (Richard Cook, Mark Sinker, then Herrington). “It was a weird period,” Herrington recalls. “The great schism was when Michael Jackson was on the cover in 1991. I was working in a record shop and everyone knew I wrote for the Wire. People were berating me, like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ One bloke asked: ‘Can I have a bag? I’m not walking around with that’.”

Rob Young, who became deputy editor in 1993 before being appointed editor in 2000, remembers: “It lost them a lot of core readers, and there were strong ripples.” It caused arguments. “There was a lot of internal tension about what the Wire actually was, and should it return to its jazz roots. But the editorial energies were surging towards stuff like Warp Records and early glimmerings of post-rock.”

With a staff full of impassioned music heads, debates could be heated. “There was always trepidation coming to an editorial meeting,” says Young. “Putting an idea on the table and having a savage pack of dogs rip it to shreds.” Contributing editor Anne Hilde Neset recalls similarly. “You’d really need to defend something that wasn’t agreed upon as Wire-approved,” she says. “It’s very different today – of course you can like Rihanna and Coil – but at the time it was much more tribal.” The office stereo was “trial by fire”, says Young. “Musical reputations could be trashed after five seconds of some terrible intro.”

Covers of the Wire from across its 40-year history.
Covers of the Wire from across its 40-year history. Photograph: The Wire

By the late 90s, the Wire had settled into a more consistent groove as a home for radical music spanning genres and continents – as captured by a new strapline that stayed until 2012: “Adventures in Modern Music.” For Herrington, it was key that experimental music be given a broader definition. “There’s a certain pomposity, which I despise, that the Wire has always kicked against,” he says. “The idea that there’s a kind of formal experimental music. We are interested in experimental culture manifesting all over.”

It remained a slog, taking years to convince labels and readers alike that they weren’t just a jazz title. But a vital network began to grow around it in a pre- and early-internet world. “We were a community,” says Neset. “Somewhere you could talk about obscure music without being seen as strange. You felt like you belonged.”

The Wire often has an acute focus on scenes, cities, genres and micro-genres – say, nu-jazz in South Africa – but it has remained suspicious of PR bluster and hyperbole. “It’s so easy to commission a feature on someone being touted around,” says Young. “It’s about positioning yourself in a different space and refusing to take what’s handed to you on a plate.” On their covers, alongside the odd bigger name such as Scott Walker, Laurie Anderson or John Cale, they’ve championed artists such as outsider rapper Lil B or Japanese avant-pop singer Eiko Ishibashi.

The writing is often positioned to be as agenda-setting as the music itself, with pieces having given birth to genre labels such as post-rock, microhouse or New Weird America. “New developments in music require new developments in the language of music,” says Young. “We really encouraged that.” Neset adds: “We were interested in reading experiences. To let the text be an adventure in sound.”

Writers have included Simon Reynolds, David Toop, Kodwo Eshun, Ian Penman, Nina Power and a pre-fame Jonathan Coe. Herrington says of its appeal to talented contributors: “There’s something about the title that communicates that it is serious about serious music. Not up its own arse but not taking the piss.”

Detractors may see this serious approach to serious music as snobby and lofty. “People used to say, ‘Oh, the Wire is too intellectual’,” says Herrington. “It’s hilarious. I left school at 16. The best one is when people say: ‘The Wire’s shit, I haven’t read it for years’. Well, how do you know it’s shit?!”

Young adds: “Some people don’t think music is something you should think too hard about,” he says. “That’s fine, but it’s not right to criticise those that want to get something more out of it. It was never about publishing writing that is difficult to understand but about trying to open music up and shine a light on it. Not to sell it out by cheapening it. You have to give it the respect and intelligent treatment it deserves. If that’s elitist then so be it.” Neset compares it to the Angling Times. “It’s specialist knowledge and it’s proud to be specialist knowledge. If you’re not interested in fishing, don’t buy it.”

Ben House, Tony Herrington, Rob Young and Chris Bohn in the Wire office, Poland Street, London, 21 December 2000 – Herrington is signing the contracts for the staff buyout of the magazine.
Ben House, Tony Herrington, Rob Young and Chris Bohn in the Wire office, Poland Street, London, 21 December 2000 – Herrington is signing the contracts for the staff buyout of the magazine. Photograph: Wire magazine

In 2001 six staff, including Herrington, Young and Neset, bought the magazine from its publisher, Naim Attallah. “He said, ‘I want you to sell the Wire for me’,” recalls Herrington. “I offered to buy it but he told me: ‘You can’t afford it because I know how much I pay you.’” The staff members got a loan, negotiated for six months and bought it between them. “We didn’t want anyone else to have it,” says Herrington. “It was our lives.”

It came after a frustrating and exhausting period when profits were not being put back into the title, technology was primitive, staffing was minimal, hours were crushing and pay was poor. Every issue was jokingly referred to as “the farewell issue”. “People were close to the edge in terms of mental health,” says Young. “Something had to give … the magazine or us.” The buyout re-energised the title and it entered its most successful period, with circulation peaking at about 27,000 in the early 2000s.

Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))).
‘It means a lot’ … Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))). Photograph: Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

Due to its niche nature, it has become a deeply important publication to artists as well as readers. “Its existence creates a frame around a disparate community of artists,” says Stephen O’Malley of drone titans Sunn O))). “It means a lot to be included in those communities, especially considering our background roots of metal are often pushed aside as non-artistic or immature.” Avant-pop artist Jenny Hval says: “Because I’ve been an outsider in so many different settings, it’s even more important for me to have the support from the Wire.”

However, just when things were going well, the 2008 financial crash hit hard, compounded by the rise of internet publishing. “We felt very much out on our own, kicking against what we perceived to be the rest of the music media,” says Herrington. “Now there’s massive amounts of it and it’s incredibly difficult to cut through. It’s biting on our style and I used to get really annoyed with it – why can’t they just fuck off, this is our territory? – but it’s completely pointless, you’re like King Canute trying to push back the sea. We have lots of colleagues rather than rivals.”

In 2002, when the Wire turned 20, Young pondered whether “some invisible guardian watches over the Wire. How else could such a capricious, unbusinesslike, idealistic, confoundedly cussed operation have lasted for one-fifth of a century?” Twenty years on, does he find himself asking the same question? “It is pretty miraculous,” he says. “I think it’s become more capricious and cussed and that can only be a good thing. To have survived the digital publishing and streaming revolution while making a magazine like this is quite extraordinary.”

The Wire marks its 40th anniversary with live events in July in London, Bristol, Brighton, Manchester, Glasgow, Chicago, and online.