English correspondant Nick Haines offers another insightful look into a criminally underrated band for us. This time, it’s the ‘punk’ band Wire. Enjoy!–Uncle E
A child is taken to an art gallery.
Here he or she is exposed to the work of Michelangelo, Van Gough and other masters.
The child is amazed at the colors and technique on display, and feels the creative urge stir within.
Unfortunately the child’s parents are poor and there is no money for expensive materials and no prospect of tuition either.
To pursue his or her artistic muse, the child must make do with scrap paper and a single, blunt crayon.
At least for now.
The child’s first efforts are frankly inept and the harder the child tries to imitate the work of the masters, the more incompetent the result.
One day it occurs to the child that part of the problem is that he/she is attempting to replicate work that has firstly taken the masters a lifetime to achieve, and secondly that the masters at least had the correct tools at their disposal. With this realization the child vows to work within the restrictions he finds himself confined by, and thereby turn a disadvantage to his own benefit.
Almost immediately his/her work improves. The child learns to draw quickly and with a keen eye for shape and form. His output is more cartoon than classical yet the child is able to communicate more in a few simple lines than many of his/her so called elders and betters ever could, for all their expensive oils and pristine canvases.
One day the child discovers almost by accident that lines drawn with soft pencils could be smeared…this simple discovery adds a whole new dimension to the young artist’s work. It is still stark and uncompromising but now contains more texture and depth.
He/she grows into adulthood and utilizes more pencils in his work and he becomes recognized as a serious artist in his own right. In middle age he/she mellows somewhat, much of the early anger is replaced by a maturity that is only acquired through experience.
Unfortunately the child starts to listen to the art critics who are hailing him/her as a genius. The artist decides to become willfully obscure and labors under the misapprehension that his/her weakness is actually strength. His work becomes more daring and experimental, yet also less vital, less vibrant. He/she yearns for the innocence and incompetence of his/her youth, but it is too late.
The above, somewhat convoluted, analogy is how I would describe the output of another of my favorite bands, namely Wire.
Widely acclaimed today, it’s hard to conceive just how disliked Wire was when they first appeared on the scene back in 1977. Punk had stuck two fingers up to musicianship and ‘art’ and had stripped ‘rock’ down to its basics. Three chords were the absolute maximum a band needed, and whilst Wire worked within that medium, there was something about their stance that made the critics wary. Wire were accused of self-conscious minimalism, of being art students working on some university project, of having ‘an agenda’, as opposed to other bands who were more ‘real’ (whatever that meant.)
Wire first appeared on the ‘Live At The Roxy’ album, a frankly hideous snapshot of the time and only worth buying for Wire’s contribution, the anthemic 12XU, and even this is a pretty ropey version. I have to admit to initial skepticism myself. In truth I have never heard Colin Newman (the singer) speak in an interview but there was something wantonly ‘yobbish’ in his accent as he introduces 12XU…something a bit false as if he were assuming a fake working class persona in order to fit in, and that in private he was probably very well spoken. It was in all probability an unfair suspicion, but real enough and sufficient for me to be guarded about the band.
Another reason some were wary of the band was how they so quickly signed to a major record label, namely EMI, (although this didn’t seem to be a problem for Clash or Sex Pistols aficionados when these bands signed for CBS and EMI respectively.)
All doubters were silenced when the band released:
Pink Flag. 1977
Bruce Gilbert – guitar
Robert Gotobed – drums
Graham Lewis – bass guitar
Colin Newman – vocals
1.”Reuters” – 3:03
2.”Field Day for the Sundays” – 0:28
3.”Three Girl Rhumba” – 1:23
4.”Ex Lion Tamer” – 2:19
5.”Lowdown” – 2:26
6.”Start to Move” – 1:13
7.”Brazil” – 0:41
8.”It’s So Obvious” – 0:53
9.”Surgeon’s Girl” – 1:17
10.”Pink Flag” – 3:47
11.”The Commercial” – 0:49
12.”Straight Line” – 0:44
13.”106 Beats That” – 1:12
14.”Mr. Suit” – 1:25
15.”Strange” – 3:58
16.”Fragile” – 1:18
17.”Mannequin” – 2:37
18.”Different to Me” – 0:43
19.”Champs” – 1:46
20.”Feeling Called Love” – 1:22
21.”1 2 X U” – 1:55
It’s amazing just how well this début stands the test of time.
Listening to it now some 34 years later it still sounds as vibrant, witty and energizing as it did when first it found its way onto my turntable all those years ago. As importantly it still sounds contemporary and relevant. To my mind and ears Wire bore more than a passing resemblance to the Ramones if only in the succinctness of their songs. Both bands worked on the basis that if you can say what you need to say in songs in 1 minute 20 seconds then say it and move on to the next one.
The album kicks off in a grungy, somber mood. Reuters is great but as an opener it’s slightly misleading inasmuch as it doesn’t prepare you for the aural assault to come where any track over two minutes is considered to be a bit of an ‘epic’. Four of the tracks in fact come in at less than a minute and still manage to say exactly what needed saying, proving that less is definitely more.
It would be doing band and album a major disservice were I to dissect Pink Flag and give more emphasis to one track over another, since each offering is dependent upon the context set by another, this said, obvious stand outs are ‘Strange’, as covered by REM, the achingly beautiful pop of Fragile and the all time great rock riff contained in Mannequin.
Wire’s influence was insidious and widespread yet some other artists were stupid enough to think that nobody would notice if they stole Wire’s ideas and tried to pass them off as their own…(are you reading this Elastica?) Thankfully these musical magpies were outed and exposed and Wire gradually garnered more critical respect as it became (It’s So) obvious just how original they were.
A year later Wire released:
Chairs Missing. 1978
Colin Newman – vocals, guitars
B.C. Gilbert – guitars
Graham Lewis – bass, vocals
Robert Gotobed – drums
Kate Lukas – flute on “Heartbeat”
Mike Thorne – keyboards, synthesizers
1.”Practice Makes Perfect” (Bruce Gilbert, Colin Newman) – 4:11
2.”French Film Blurred” (Graham Lewis, Newman) – 2:34
3.”Another the Letter” (Gilbert, Newman) – 1:07
4.”Men 2nd” (Lewis) – 1:43
5.”Marooned” (Gilbert, Lewis, Newman) – 2:21
6.”Sand in My Joints” (Lewis) – 1:50
7.”Being Sucked in Again” (Newman) – 3:14
8.”Heartbeat” (Newman) – 3:16
9.”Mercy” (Lewis, Newman) – 5:46
10.”Outdoor Miner” (Lewis, Newman) – 1:44
11.”I Am the Fly” (Lewis, Newman) – 3:09
12.”I Feel Mysterious Today” (Lewis, Newman) – 1:57
13.”From the Nursery” (Lewis, Newman) – 2:58
14.”Used To” (Gilbert, Lewis) – 2:23
15.”Too Late” (Gilbert) – 4:14
There are a couple of obvious signs that Wire had moved on with the release of Chairs Missing.
Firstly producer Mike Thorne was asked to contribute keyboards, and flautist Kate Lukas asked to play on ‘Heartbeat.’ These were as much textural additions as musical recruitments. Thorne’s keyboards were subtle and added mood as much as music to the band’s increasingly mature output.
Secondly there are no songs less than a minute long. That said, there are only five songs weighing in at over three minutes so it’s not as if they had become Emerson, Lake & Palmer overnight!
I mention ELP flippantly but in fact this second album does bear passing similarities to bands from bygone years, faint echoes of psychedelia perhaps. It is said that when one pays the Danegeldt, you never get rid of the Dane and having signed to a major label, there would inevitably be some pressure to become more than a cult. Thankfully Wire had signed to Harvest, one of EMI’s side labels and a label with a history of experimentation and inventiveness, ie Pink Floyd. Thankfully too Wire were adept at coming up with snappy, smart pop songs evidenced by the wonderful Outdoor Miner and the buzzy ‘I Am The Fly’.
The band was becoming increasingly interested in creating moods as much as songs and a number of tracks have a most definitely film soundtrack feel to them. In some ways Chairs Missing is Wire’s creative highpoint; whether it is actually their best album is open to debate. I would say it is probably their most interesting inasmuch as it manages to merge the quick fire immediacy of the previous album with more thoughtful and imaginative ideas.
The ideas given birth on Chairs Missing were more fully explored on the next album:
1.”I Should Have Known Better” (Graham Lewis) – 3:51
2.”Two People in a Room” (Colin Newman, B. C. Gilbert) – 2:09
3.”The 15th” (Newman) – 3:04
4.”The Other Window” (Lewis, Gilbert) – 2:07
5.”Single K.O.” (Lewis) – 2:22
6.”A Touching Display” (Lewis) – 6:55
7.”On Returning” (Newman) – 2:05
8.”A Mutual Friend” (Lewis, Newman) – 4:26
9.”Blessed State” (Gilbert) – 3:28
10.”Once Is Enough” (Newman) – 3:23
11.”Map Ref. 41°N 93°W” (Lewis, Newman, Gilbert) – 3:36
12.”Indirect Enquiries” (Lewis, Newman) – 3:34
13.”40 Versions” (Gilbert) – 3:27
And so the songs get a little longer. This time there is no track shorter than two minutes and one is a fraction less than seven minutes long. Alarm bells might have started to ring were it not for the goodwill the previous two albums had created. 154 is a moody album where the snappy sparkiness of old becomes the exception rather than the rule. The overriding mood is one of mournfulness, an overriding sense of reflection and loss. It’s a desolate album and is sometimes an uncomfortable listen, not so much difficult as unnerving. The film soundtrack aspect continues to be explored but sadly it’s at the expense of the band’s pop sensibilities. 154 is a good album, were it to be released today by some new band it would probably be hailed as a work of genius. As it was, things were definitely changing and not necessarily for the better.
154 proved to be Wire’s last album for Harvest and the band’s next release was for Rough Trade, the patchy and unsatisfactory Document & Eyewitness followed by The Ideal Copy,A Bell Is a Cup… Until It Is Struck, and then, apparently It’s Beginning To And Back Again, Manscape, The Drill, The First Letter, Send and Object 47.
I now have to confess that the last six titles have passed me by completely and I only know of their existence through anecdotal evidence. After hearing ‘A Bell Is A Cup’, I lost interest and patience in the band. They seemed to have become willfully obscure and passing off a lack of inspiration as art.
I hope that one day I will get the chance to listen to these later efforts and then form a valid opinion, until then I am stuck with the opinion that Wire finally ran out of ideas and didn’t have the good sense or good grace to quit when they should have.
This said any band creative enough to come up with Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154 are quite capable of surprising us in the future and I hope they do.
One other recommendation if you happen to find it is the DVD Live at Rockpalast (spelling?) Available on PAL & NTSC it is a recording the band did for German television and includes an audio cd of the performance as a bonus. I don’t have the track listing to hand but songs cover the first three albums, with emphasis given to the second and third releases. Well worth a punt, no artiness just a straight down the middle rendition of many Wire faves
To sum up then, Wire at their best sound as fresh today as they did back in the late seventies and just as relevant. It would be an exaggeration to claim that they were massively influential in the great scheme of things but no exaggeration to say that they influenced me to pick up a guitar in the same way as the Velvets did, and that’s a pretty big achievement in my book and one for which I will always be grateful..