The lowdown on Wire
Wire were bracketed with Punk but in fact they had more in common with Roxy Music, Eno, Art Rock bands like This Heat and a psych-rock edge too. Signed to the Harvest Label, more than one commentator referred to them as ‘The Punk Floyd’.
Wire’s debut album Pink Flag is, on a surface level, the most recognisably ‘Punk’ sounding record of their career. It crams 21 tracks onto two sides of Vinyl and is something of a novelty in having several songs which last less than 1 minute – the shortest being ‘Field Day for the Sundays’ which in spite of it’s 28 second duration somehow feels fully formed. Their M.O. at the time was that when the ‘Text’ (as Wire like to call lyrics) finished, then so should the song -perhaps catching their audience mid-pogo.
Their first 3 albums on Harvest are essential listening. Chairs Missing veers from the absurdist Tiswas/dance-craze of ‘I Am The Fly’ to the pop perfection of ‘Outdoor Miner’. 154 is perhaps their early masterpiece – at one point a Cor Anglais appears and there are nods toward King Crimson, Gentle Giant and Van Der Graaf Generator – and Wire have been wrong-footing ‘Real Punks’ ever since. There is much to enjoy, the interplay between Colin Newman’s Watford drawl and Graham Lewis’ baritone, Bruce Gilbert’s wonderful anti-guitar hero approach to the wooden stringed thing he stares down at – and of course the ever present heartbeat of Wire is ‘agricultural expert’ Robert Gotobed on drums – he’s probably the hero of the piece.
They broke up amid an aborted 4th album (which they eventually completed in 2013 as the excellent ‘Change Becomes Us’) and took a hiatus before regrouping in 1985. They refused to play anything from their back catalogue and rebooted as a sort of hyrbid electonic/guitar pop band, signed to Mute and made records not a million miles from what New Order and The Cure were doing. That era yielded several mighty fine LPs and some perfect pop singles including Kidney Bingos, In Vivo and Eardrum Buzz (all collected on the Mute compilation ‘The A List’).
Wire have always been about forward momentum and trying new things and having regrouped after founder member Bruce Gilbert departed in 2007 they have continued to tour and record very much as a going concern rather than a ‘heritage act’. They insist they’re an Artistic venture not ‘entertainment’. That might sound pretentious but, they mean it maaan!. They could have made a load of money in recent years just playing their classic albums or playing hit-packed sets and filling much bigger venues than they have done over the past 40 years, however they would much prefer to play new material than fall back on nostalgia – which is something they have done since the very beginning (as early live recordings show – they’d inevitably promote their new album by playing songs from the next, unrecorded one).
I’ve been an avid follower of the band for some time, and seasoned Wire fans are the ones who’ll actually complain if there aren’t new songs in the set. They pull it off because they are never better when they’re thrashing away at a new song, that’s when they really take flight. I’d much rather hear a band playing a song they’re excited about rather than “turn the smoke machine on and play the hits” (not that actually had any hits).
The music they make is as stirring and intense as it ever was, with the great Matthew Simms ably filling Bruce Gilbert’s slot as the buzzing fly in the ointment. Their gigs are unmissable and I’ve been hugely influenced and inspired by their approach to what they do, and we could all learn something from Wire.
The best place to start:
They don’t have a ‘Best Of’ which covers all of their career. Try ‘Chairs Missing’ first from the early days and go on from there or try ‘On Returning’ which is a selection the first 3 LPs. However, Wire are very much an active entity and I urge you to go and see them live to get what they’re all about – watch out for gigs in 2017.
Pinkflag.com for all the info there.
The absolutely essential masterpiece(s):
1. From Wire Mk1 – their third album 154.
2. Wire’s 2nd incarnation in the 1980s is best captured on the compilation “The A List” – all the excellent singles from that period and some choice album tracks.
3. From their current incarnation of Wire, their 12th album Red Barked Tree
Recommended if you like….
PiL, Gang of Four, Joy Division, My Bloody Valentine, King Crimson, Robert Wyatt, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, The Modern Lovers, Television, Pere Ubu etc.
Advanced listening/watching/reading etc.
Wire’s 1980s albums are all worth a listen, although some may struggle with the synth sounds and production which hasn’t always aged well. When Robert Gotobed left in 1990 , Wire dropped an ‘E’ became WIR and recorded the excellent ‘The First Letter’ which, while it suffers from Robert being replaced by technology still has much to get stuck into.
When Wire re-emerged in 2000 they released two volumes of EP’s called ‘Read and Burn’ most of which are collected on the album ‘Send’ which is brutal and hard as nails. Don’t miss ‘Read and Burn 3’ though which is excellent and easily missed.
If you get hooked by the band you’ll want to check out the various solo projects too. Colin had a solo career after Wire first split in 1980 and his excellent solo albums are soon to be reissued with bonus tracks. Graham and Bruce formed the experimental outfit ‘Dome’ and made a series of quite astonishing avant-electronica records which, like Colin’s solo output are the missing jigsaw piece of Wire in the mid 80s and remain cult classics.
In later years Colin has released sublime electronic records as Immersion with his wife Malka Spigel and also shoegazey guitar pop tunes as Githead and other releases on his Swim~ label. Bruce Gilbert continues to release uncompromisingly hefty electronic music and Graham Lewis has had numerous solo projects on the go – sometimes veering into avant/experimental territory but his ‘All Over’ from 2014 proves he still has a knack for curious, electro-pop magic.
Where others fear to tread….for completists only:
Wire’s 1990 album ‘Manscape’ is generally regarded by fans as their nadir. It is a somewhat unfocused attempt at the sort of electronic, sophisto-pop their labelmates Depeche Mode were doing at the time but it’s perhaps unfairly maligned – the instrumentation and production sounds dated but it has its moments. ‘The Drill’ from 1991 isn’t really a proper album but 8 variations on their 80s signature tune ‘Drill’ – none of which top the original, so not for the beginner. Object 47 is perhaps the least regarded of their latter day output, although it has it’s moments not least ‘One Of Us’ which is classic Wire Pop and deserves to sit alongside Outdoor Miner and Map Ref.
Also, not for the faint-hearted, is the poorly recorded Document & Eyewitness live album -which captures the band just before their first hiatus, performing a set of experimental new material in front of an increasingly restless audience. It’s of interest, particularly if you then listen to the newly buffed up versions of the songs they subsequently recorded solo and as a group – and worth it for Wire’s great lost 45 ‘Our Swimmer’ which is tacked on the end.
Photo Credit (c) Fergus Kelly