No blind spots in leopard’s eyes
Can only help to jeopardize
The lives of lambs, the shepherd cries
If you’re going to pick one song, above all others, which you wish you’d written, then for me it’d be Outdoor Miner by Wire. It’s a song that sums up for me what the perfect pop song should be.
Wire always seemed determined to not take a commercial route in their careers but still managed to create perfectly written songs from time to time. Outdoor Miner was a song on 154 which sits at a tipping point between their early punk beginnings and the art-house work they later went on to do. So what makes it so good?
Well, the structure for starters. It’s a nice compact song with a simple verse chorus verse chorus solo outro structure.
Even the start gets right into the first verse as quickly as possible. In comparison to many other tunes made in the 70s then it is an exercise in brevity.
An afterlife for a silverfish
Eternal dust less ticklish
Than the clean room, a house-guest’s wish
There is no fluff. Nothing extraneous. The fact that the band went on to use electronics to create songs that you could set a metronome to shows some early buds even on Outdoor Miner.
Lyrics | Huh?
Next up is the lyrics. They might seem obtuse at first/100th listening but the poetic nature to them has to be admired. Word is that it’s about the plight of a type of insect, a miner insect which digs in a spiral pattern (i.e. serpentine) and only lives for short period of time. The leaf that the insect is on is like a planet as far it’s concerned for its short life.
Face worker, a serpentine miner
The roof falls, an underliner
Of leaf structure, the egg timer
For many years I didn’t understand what the song meant but was still able to enjoy it. It also seems apparent that the opening lines about leopards and sheep seem unconnected… though you’d never be sure with Wire.
This is all besides the point. The perfect pop song doesn’t need to make sense. If you try to deconstruct any classic rock ‘n roll song (e.g. hound dog, rock around the clock, etc.) it becomes really apparent how infantile some pop lyrics can be. Wire songs sit at the other end of the dial.
And if you ever tried to write songs and lyrics then you’ll understand how difficult it can be to create something pure and simple. To paraphrase Mark Hollis, why play three notes when you can play two, and why play two notes when you can play one. Likewise, why include complex lyrics when something simple and pretty will do.
So, with Outdoor Miner, the striking thing is how complex the lyrics are, but simple in their beauty. They simply don’t make sense on first listening. But they roll off the tongue nicely.
Performance and production | And that solo
This just leaves the musicianship. The combination of the groups growing musical skills is still in an early phase. It still sounds like a group getting to grips with their instruments. There is also the production by Mike Thorne which is kept nice and basic. The guitars sound nice & crunchy but not overly distorted and the drums are crystal clear.
The original album version is quite short and it appears that the record label requested a longer version for radio so Mike Thorne stepped in to do a basic piano solo just before the last chorus. This in itself is a direct note-by-note solo taken from the guitar chords. The basic qualities of the solo complement the rest of the song. Don’t get me wrong, basic is good.
So what’s the recipe for perfect pop?
So is it the sum of these parts which makes it perfect? Yes and no. These elements make it a great song but you’ve also got some folklore/context behind the song. It got kicked out the charts because of some suspected hype at the time (i.e. record label staff purchasing numerous copies of the single in different shops).
This gave it the extra quality of a hidden gem. One of those songs that fell through the cracks. It could’ve been the hit indie music track of the time. Now, it’s one of those songs that are often passed on by mouth to mouth recommendation – one of those “how was this never a hit!” tracks.
If it had been a big hit then perhaps I would’ve seen it as a sellout. It’s underground cult status means it’s forever my tune.
Instead, it’s gone on to feature on the Top 10 lists of many respected musicians with many people covering it (and an entire album of covers even available).
You can set out to create these factors. You can provide the context and ingredients but finding the right recipe can often come down to luck and the participation of the listener to make a sentimental or emotional connection to it.
I can still read the lyrics, research what the meaning was, even find out about the serpentine insects. You’d be hard pushed to go to these lengths for any other song. It’s the fact that it asks as many questions as it provides answers.
Truth is, I don’t want to fully know what the lyrics mean. Dissecting a pop tune is like dissecting a frog – Afterward, you’ll understand how it’s put together but are left with a cadaver you can’t put back together.
For me, I just can’t help listening to the song over and over again, never tiring of it. It’s rarely (if ever) included as part of the Wire’s modern gigging set. This almost gives it an additional polish of classic pop – the possibility that the band themselves don’t wish to ruin its memory by trying to revisit it.
He lies on his side, is he trying to hide?
In fact it’s the earth, which he’s known since birth