“When the words run out, it stops.”—Bruce Gilbert
A long study of a band best known for frenetic bursts, like its subject, this surprises. Rather than rehashed discographies, press-kit rewrites, or gushing song-by-song trivia, Wilson Neate keeps a cool distance while he intimately probes, by interviews and interpretations, the three stages of this enduring, thoughtful, and fractious group. Hung with the albatross of its 1977 debut LP Pink Flag, still its best-known recording, Wire refused for decades to play its minimal, stuttering, edgy songs live. When it does include its title track, it may twist and thwart its original under-two minutes into nearly ten. Wire moves forward after—or away from—the promise announced by punk’s birth. It doesn’t prop up punk’s posing corpse.
In 2006, Mojo magazine summed Wire up: “no guitar solos, no clichés, no mates”; this spins off of guitarist Bruce Gilbert’s credo: “No solos; no decoration; when the words run out, it stops; we don’t chorus out; no rocking out; keep it to the point; no Americanisms.” All but perhaps the last the band violated sometime in the three-dozen years Neate documents, yet this too attests to Wire’s restlessness with any conventions of rock music.
Gilbert approaches Wire as not a band but as “living sculpture”; he asserts not to have bought a record since 1980 when he stopped “consuming music”. Their mutual, sly curiosity about mundane marginalia—honed by the art-school training of most of Wire’s members—conveys an enduring engagement with London-based avant-garde as well as Central European aesthetics. Bassist Graham Lewis shares his partner’s (they collaborate as the duo Dome) immersion in cacophony and dread; his lower-pitched, rounded vocals play off of guitarist Colin Newman’s contrary love of melody and pop. Robert Grey’s spare percussion compliments his chosen identity as a drummer, not a musician.
Entering the year after punk’s breakout as elders (average age 26; Gilbert 31 in 1977), their confidence alienated audiences that resented their early non-conformity to punk’s “second wave” of imitators. “The only things we could agree on were the things we didn’t like. That’s what held it together and made life much simpler.” Gilbert’s defines the band’s disposition. Neate observes that while they lacked “technical sophistication”, Pink Flag pushed them as far as possible, under Mike Thorne’s live-in-the- studio production. Sequenced well by Thorne, 21 tracks leapt out with linear cohesion and variety of songcraft. Their oblique phrases resembled aural collage; compressed tunes distorted punk’s limits.
Distance distinguished the band onstage: they chose monochrome over day-glo. Their name, their album covers (always dissected well by Neate), and their attitude resisted rockist poses. Still, as Neate notes with “Ex-Lion Tamer”, some signifiers date: “All punk bands had an anti-TV song.” He astutely pinpoints in Newman’s recollections a nascent unease with Thorne’s production. The friction for the rest of the core four’s incarnations grew from Newman’s abrasion against the experimental axis of Lewis and Gilbert. That duo preferred “an independent, objective” decision an outside producer afforded. Did Wire ignite better with more purr or more sparks? Tension endured over who drove the band along: producer, one songwriter-guitarist, or a guitarist-bassist pair of songwriters.
Therefore, an angular, nervy strain distinguishes Chairs Missing, the 1978 follow-up. Newman loathed (even on Pink Flag) punk’s “rolling smoothness”. Post-punk’s chillier handling as on “I Am the Fly” features pedals, effects, and boxes. The band and Thorne huddle and regroup. While Johnny Rotten’s t-shirt claimed “I Hate Pink Floyd”, Wire—on the prog-rock friendly EMI imprint Harvest label—condensed pastoral and pretty textures with its erudite excursions into space, as the Floyd had.
154‘s (1979) title tallied Wire’s number of live gigs to date. Back from CBGB’s in New York City, and encouraged by exposure to German audiences and ambiance, Wire dismissed purists decrying its “inauthentic” project to widen frames of reference beyond rock’s grids. Its road-tested tracks revealed a wariness with art-rock’s trajectory. Opening for Roxy Music to disastrous reception, Wire tightened its set, reducing it from 45 to 30 minutes, without cutting any songs. The band feared following Roxy’s decline from art-school rebels to stadium-rock easy listening. But the third album brashly replaced some of Wire’s playfulness with an oversized self-regard. As Bryan Ferry’s crooning pushed out Brian Eno’s tape manipulations, so Newman’s aims contended against Gilbert and Lewis.
Neate allows every member his own voice, and a chance to respond to charges. Newman counters: “Pink Flag was just the sound of the band playing, Chairs Missing was a fantastic leap into the unknown, and 154 was between brilliant and rubbish.” Fragmentation appears; solo efforts beckoned. Members began holding back ideas and material. Gilbert’s rejoinder typifies the band’s enduring internal debate, heard on record, on stage, and year after year: “What qualifies as music?”
While some of Neate’s attention to management, touring, and bickering detail—shared by all the band in candid recollections, verges on appropriate if similarly repetitive obsession—the title of the band’s live album in February 1980 captures the book and band’s rationale. Document and Eyewitness featured Wire as artists, true to Gilbert’s vision. But, playing to “the dregs of punk’s living dead” in Neate’s phrase, calling out for “12XU”, Wire might have regretted scheduling its performance art installation the same night that gigs by Joy Division and by Throbbing Gristle enticed London’s more adventurous punters. Newman reports: “I can’t recall any bottles being thrown. Abuse was thrown.”
Inevitably, the band at odds with Thorne, dumped by EMI, with no funds, and no direction, Wire wearied. Lewis bristled: “With 154, it was like we were climbing Everest without oxygen.” A long hiatus could not keep the band apart. Returning to “unfinished business”, as Gilbert puts it, Wire released The Ideal Copy (1987). This tried to reboot at “Year Zero” with Wire as an eager Newman’s “Beat Combo” yet this period, full of big snares, big shoulders, big hair, and big studios with new digital machines, enervated Wire. Gilbert and Lewis liked the devices and the process of open-ended music. Newman preferred the product, often smoothed out rather than grating. Neate pegs much of the studio results as “flat and affectless”.
A Bell Is A Cup…Until It Is Struck by its title (and some lyrics) confounded listeners, and Gareth Jones’ second production for the artists, now on Mute, tried to mesh Wire’s subversion with 1988’s college rock and danceable post-punk. For example, “Kidney Bingos” featured Newman’s “saccharine” vocals against Gilbert and Lewis’ “macabre” cut-up lyrics. While some improvement over its predecessor, on record and on stage, this stretch for stage two of Wire defined what Neate terms its decadus horribilis. Replacing Joan Rivers, Suzanne Somers hosted The Late Show on Fox. Wire’s attempt to entice or enrage its American viewers Neate charitably dismisses as “an opportunity squandered”. Yet the band on this 1987 US tour came up with a brilliant, serendipitous strategy.
Critic Jim DeRogatis interviewed the band for an alt-rock paper. He confessed his own cover band played the Pink Flag, but Wire did not. The Ex-Lion Tamers, then, for pizza, beer, and $100 a night, were hired as openers for Wire. DeRogatis and his mates enjoyed the tour; all the same, some fans, after one concert after the first act, demanded their money back. They complained: “Wire really sucked.”
Grey came to agree, in his own reticent manner. Manscape and the dugga-dugga-dugga of the extended workout The Drill found the band trying to master their mechanical muse. Edged aside by the sequencers adored by Gilbert and Lewis, unable to meet his own redundacy with a lateral move into MIDI mixes (he might play only a snare, bass drum, and hi-hat), Grey left. Neate finds a bit more to praise in this programmed period than I did. After a plodding album The First Letter, as Wir (dropping the last letter to mark the drummer’s departure), the remaining trio disbanded.
Producer Jones encouraged the band to reconvene to play their first three albums at the Royal Festival Hall. Perverse as ever, of course Wire agreed, eventually reuniting by the millennium. ProTools excited Newman; Lewis admired thrash metal in his adopted Sweden; Gilbert never stopped bringing the noise. Grey, refreshed by tutelage in African drumming, returned from his organic farm.
Neate looks askance on Wire’s third phase. Newman’s “hectoring” vocals and the “maniacally” driven, “two-dimensional” industrial assault (as finally Gilbert and Lewis find common ground with Newman’s interest in the post-punk of McLusky and Liars) predominate. As “unbalanced spiel” on two Read + Burn e.p.s, these aggressive taunts were dismantled and altered into tracks for Send, all from the early ‘00s.
This reviewer disagrees. “Coppiced riff meets aphorism.” So Newman snaps in his wry yet elegant concision on “1st Fast”. These records may throttle a listener into submission more than release joy, but in their surges more than ebbs, played by men in their 50s (Gilbert nearing 60), they drown an audience in waves of shimmering distortion and “barking” half-“arch”, half-giddy amplified menace. The band sounds as if entertains itself as much as the audience on the 2004 DVD The Scottish Play.
It couldn’t last. That DVD caught the foursome’s final apogee. The concord engineered by Newman—who oversaw the band’s label, management, promotion, and touring—shifted control over the band, to Gilbert’s predictable departure. After a few years to cool off, as a trio, Wire chose an airier “tunes with zoom” attitude for the tentative, transitional, but far less claustrophobic Object 47 (2008).
Choosing 23-year-old guitarist Matthew Simms for Red Barked Tree (2011) proved wise. Simms adds a lighter, lilt to its title track with a bouzouki, and the band merges artsier with accessible tunes modestly but steadily. After an “archeological dig” into post-154 material excavated treasure, the band’s “reimagining” for this year’s model of Wire propels the band forward impressively. Change Becomes Us titles appropriately the filigreed, fussy, yet lively and alert spirit of Wire, version 3.1.
Neate calmly narrates over 400 pages a microscopic epic. Hundreds of musical and lyrical artifacts occupy this meticulous display. Neate concludes by asking each member their post-mortem take on Wire’s “major missteps”, taken “with the meaningless luxury of hindsight”. He echoes back at the band its own detachment—and its dry wit. This reverberates with his own sharp, honest, but affectionate reaction to Wire’s sounds and moods. Neate conveys contending and competing versions of Wire’s ambitions to match its own confrontational sounds and oblique images—messily or neatly.