In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about bands we thought should have been bigger than they were.
In the early 1980s, you couldn’t throw a rock in England without hitting some mac-wearing malcontent who’d then write a gloomy post-punk song about it. The era is filled with also-rans who never got any further than playing third support on an Echo And The Bunnymen bill, and often it’s seemed completely up to ill timing that some went on to breakthrough success while others languished. That’s certainly the case with The Wake, a group that mined a similar stark romanticism as New Order in its earliest days—and even caught the attention of New Order’s manager, Rob Gretton, who brought it to Factory Records—only to have that relationship prove a liability.
Listening to The Wake’s first album, Harmony, it’s easier to see why the group was so often overlooked. The mood of Harmony is as uniformly gray as its album cover, and the basic structures of its songs—skeletal guitar riffs over tom-tom-heavy, cymbal-less drums; bass-as-lead lines (played by a pre-Primal Scream Bobby Gillespie); Gerard “Cesar” McInulty’s dark, ruminative vocals—clearly read as ersatz Joy Division. It definitely doesn’t help that its producer, Chris Nagle, brought the lessons he’d learned from engineering two Joy Division records and New Order’s Movement, giving Harmony a similarly cold and cavernous vibe.
With New Order already filling the void left by Ian Curtis’ death, The Wake must have seemed a superfluous addition to the Factory family, especially in its earliest days—something that critics who caught the band on tour with New Order in 1983 were quick to point out. It was also something that Factory label heads soon came to believe themselves. Whether a matter of coincidence or outright copycatting, the bands were leading parallel lives, right down to each boasting short-haired, slightly po-faced girls on the synthesizer. And as New Order was obviously going to prevail, Factory basically let The Wake wither on the vine.
Still, it’s difficult to see why Factory—and the rest of the world—didn’t start to come around to The Wake by the time of its sole sort-of hit, 1984’s “Talk About The Past.” True, it’s still easily mistaken for a lost New Order track, what with its simple synth chords and its heavily chorused, scratchy guitar line—hell, there’s even a melodica. But it’s also a song that argues that the two bands were increasingly on equal footing, and that McInulty was developing a way with yearning melody that even Bernard Sumner might envy (and a knack for evocative lyrics he definitely should have).
“Talk About The Past” also found The Wake breaking away from plodding post-punk toward a more jangly sound steeped in beautiful, trembling fragility, an atmosphere it would explore to even greater returns on its apex, 1985’s Here Comes Everybody. Its sophomore record found The Wake staking out its own hazily romantic territory—one that presaged any number of sentimental synth-pop bands for years to come.
Unfortunately, Factory never saw past the Not-So-New Order comparisons, and so The Wake cooled, missing its shot at ’80s immortality. A pair of ’90s releases on the twee indie-pop label Sarah Records may have been better suited for the band’s newer sensibility, but they did little to boost it beyond an underground cult favorite. After dabbling in side projects—like The Occasional Keepers, featuring members of the similarly minded The Field Mice—McInulty and keyboardist Carolyn Allen reunited for a new Wake album, 2012’s A Light Far Out, which was released with little to no fanfare. I wasn’t even aware of it until I was writing this article, and I actually like The Wake.
Still, the recent reissues of Harmony and Here Comes Everybody have prompted many to reevaluate The Wake with the benefit of hindsight, and especially of being free from such close comparison. To listen to those albums now is to wonder what might have been, if only the band hadn’t kept such esteemed company.