Practice Makes Imperfect

Roger Holland

Yet another reissue of Wire's early albums presents a chance to reappraise the band's vaunted reputation -- were they punk-inspired innovators or canny and cynical manipulators of their audience's pretensions?

I never know which version I'm going to be
I seem to have so many choices open to me
-- Wire "40 Versions"

I'm fed-up with living in a world
Where some toffee-nosed git from some health-food restaurant
With their TimeOut and their apple juice
Tells me that what we're doing is art
Because A-R-T equals M-O-N-E-Y
Equals corruption. Corruption. Corruption.
-- Alternative TV "Another Coke"

The latest reissue of Wire's first three albums, this time on the band's own Pinkflag label, coincides with the release of a limited edition boxed set Wire Deluxe 1977-1979, which is available only on the web. Both releases invite us all, once more, to celebrate that band's existence and herald its enormous influence and importance. We're gathered here today, however, not to praise Wire but to bury them. Kind of. Thirty years is long enough.

Pink Flag
1977, Harvest; re-issue: 2006, Pink Flag)

Chairs Missing
1978, Harvest; re-issue: 2006, Pink Flag)

1979, Warner Bros.; re-issue: 2006, Pink Flag)

Greil Marcus once described punk rock as "collective self-realization through playful art against a background of social strife". It's a good definition, and Wire, I think, clearly qualifies. But on close and repeated listening, it's clear that posterity has been much kinder to the quartet than their work actually merits.

Certainly Wire believes in its own importance. The essay that accompanies this year's Pink Flag, for example, announces that of all the bands in the history of rock and roll, only Wire can be considered to have been on the same level as the Velvet Underground. It's an interesting, if fatuous, claim, a big lie worthy of Goebbels, which rings with a resoundingly hollow irony given Wire's occasional focus on perception and communication, and on the processes and media that distort signals and end up fooling most of the people most of the time. The truth is despite the claims made for the band, nothing Wire ever achieved came close to touching the quality of records such as Buzzcocks' A Different Kind of Tension, the Gang of Four's Entertainment, the Mekons' The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen, or any one of the Fall's first handful of albums. And Wire was clearly no Velvet Underground. No Sex Pistols.

There are those who like to disparage the achievement of the Sex Pistols -- usually to promote the undeniable punk-rock credentials of the Ramones but occasionally to assert their own preference for postpunk bands such as the Gang of Four and Wire. Like the uncredited author of the Pink Flag essay, such people have a corpse in their mouth. Not just one of the truly great rock-and-roll bands, the Sex Pistols were also the Great Enabler, the incendiary catalyst that inspired millions, sending seismic convulsions rippling across the musical landscape.

Even today, it's easy to detect the aftershocks of the Sex Pistols-led punk rock revolution. Obviously few things happen in a cultural vacuum, and the Sex Pistols certainly existed in a continuum of influences and musical history. But it's clear that without the Pistols, there would have been no Buzzcocks, no Cure, no Morrissey, and certainly no Wire. Today, Wire is considered to have been one of the great bands of that punk and post-punk era. The group's influence, we're told, is everywhere. Mostly, however, everywhere turns out to have been the Notting Hill house shared by Damon Albarn and Justine Frischmann (which presumably means that Wire's lawyers will soon be claiming credit for M.I.A. as well). Much has been made of Wire's influence, but really, so what? Did the Troggs sue Wire? Did John Lydon's lawyers get together with Richard Hell's crack legal team and decide to repossess their vocal mannerisms from Colin Newman? Did Genesis P Orridge ever contemplate sending in the bailiffs? (Come to think of it, did George Bernard Shaw sue Noel Coward over The Young Idea?)

Just as some would argue that there are only seven basic plots for literature, it's equally possible to claim that all the songs have already been written, and it's no longer possible to do anything new in the musical form. Indeed, Colin Newman, one of Wire's main songwriters, has said precisely that in the past. Elastica's "Connection" may be a direct steal from Wire's "Three Girl Rhumba" -- just as both "Line Up" and Blur's "Girls and Boys" owe a little something to "I Am The Fly" -- but it embosses the abstract precision of the source with an infinitely more invigorating jackhammer beat and layers it deep with intriguing drawled vocals. Quite simply, Elastica kicked Wire's ass while referencing (or sampling) its legacy. And Frischmann's attitude at the time had a undeniable conceptual clarity all of its own: All bands borrow and all ideas are recycled; deal with it. See also the Stranglers, Blondie and New Order, whose work also "informed" the making of the excellent Elastica.

The story goes that Wire, originally called Overload, formed in the middle of 1976 at Watford Art School when Newman and George Gill (both students on the college's illustration course) got together with Bruce Gilbert, the school's former audio-visual technician. Evolving quickly to bring in Graham Lewis on bass and drummer Robert Grey (or Gotobed), Overload became Wire when band-leader Gill broke his leg, and the other four executed a punk-rock putsch, firing the overly rockist guitarist and singer in his absence.

The members of Wire, like the Stranglers and the Only Ones, were older than the average punk-rock bear and going nowhere in life with little sense of urgency until the Pistols dropped the bomb. Inspired by the Sex Pistols and their early fellow travelers, the Watford contingent clearly saw something sympathetic in the Pistols' unholy situationist fury. Like others in equally unpleasant English towns (XTC in Pig Hill, Buzzcocks in Bolton and Manchester, the Mekons in Leeds) they decided that this was something they could do too. The four art-school types in Wire apparently had little musical experience: In 1976, drummer Robert Grey was the only member with any clear musical background. He'd played and recorded with an R&B band called Snakes, while guitarist Bruce Gilbert had experimented with tape loops and recording techniques. And that, according to legend, was about it. Perhaps, therefore, it was unavoidable that Wire's debut album Pink Flag (1977) would come more from a rigidly mathematical sense of musical discipline and from an art-based theory of pop than from anything approaching the heart.

Of course everything we have been told about Wire could be a lie, and they may have been talented musicians hiding their lights under a convenient bushel. Certainly, parts of Pink Flag make it very difficult to swallow the band's professed lack of proficiency. Producer and alleged fifth member of Wire, Mike Thorne, has been adamant that the band were technically competent from the very start, denying claims, for example, that he doctored Wire's contribution to the Live at the Roxy album that he recorded and produced early in 1977. But then again Thorne has been happy to claim that Live at the Roxy was the first live album to hit the British Top 20 since George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. I guess he must have forgotten about such records as Deep Purple's Made in Japan (1973), ELP's Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends (1974), Frampton Comes Alive (1976), Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains the Same (1976), and even Dr Feelgood's landmark live album Stupidity, which topped the British charts in October 1976. Sometimes it's hard to know who or what to believe when you're talking about Wire.

One thing that's definitely true, though it may be hard to believe in these days of instant broadband everything, is that in the 1970s, a consumer's access to music was severely limited by the recording and broadcast industries. The youth of 1977, consequently, revolted against the status quo (and Status Quo) by welcoming almost anything and anyone who saluted the tattered skull and cross-bones of punk rock. Built on a solid base of intellectualism coupled with a rejection of the rock form, Pink Flag was a cynical record made by a band taking great pains to distance itself from punk rock, while taking care to exploit its punk-rock marketing opportunities to the full. With one eye on the future, Wire were pissing on the present and calling it art.

With arrogance above and beyond the call of duty, the band's record label Pinkflag has announced that these latest re-mastered re-releases "have the same track listing, in the same order, as the original vinyl releases ... [with] no inappropriate extra 'bonus' tracks muddying the conceptual clarity of the original statements". Well, la-di-frigging-dah. God forbid consumers get a little more value for money in the shape of the single "Dot Dash" and b-side "Options R" that rounded off the previous re-release of Pink Flag and brought it all the way up to a magnificent 39 minutes. And how, one wonders, does re-mastering affect the "conceptual clarity of the original statements"?

Pink Flag opens with "Reuters" -- fitting enough since such news services are also known as wire services. A gentle stuttering yields the floor to the silvery chime of a repeated chord, drums rumble, and then a single slap of the snare drum signals the churning grind of the guitars. One of the few songs to tell an apparently straightforward story, "Reuters" details the collapse of a society under the stress of civil war. Or something like that. For the most part Wire employed cut-up technique to construct word streams that defied analysis and claimed that meaning was not in the lyrics but in the interplay between word and sound. Indeed, Graham Lewis later claimed that "it's not rock and roll, it's poetry".

At a little more than three minutes, "Reuters" is the third longest of the 21 songs on Pink Flag, which lasts only 35 minutes. The second track, "Field Day for the Sundays", clocks in at a mere 28 seconds. Sung in thoroughly mockney punk hooligan accents, it's an attack on the gutter press (both the "Sundays" and the "Dailies") that condescended to the contemporary punk-rock palate both in subject matter and delivery, just like "Mr Suit" and countless other contrivances in utterly unauthentic yob tones on the record. When the subject matter is clear, Pink Flag shouts in fake hooligan accents about sex, angst, the media and politics. Its music is essentially a stripped-down take on 1960s bands like the Troggs played to a dulled metronomic beat with guitars that seem to move up and down rather than forward in linear motion.

There's no doubt that Wire used the brevity of their songs as one way to differentiate their art from the more typical punk-rock product. Their brief and brusque musicianship, the removal of such fripperies as guitar solos, choruses and middle-eights, was a blatant deconstruction and mockery of everyman's rock and roll. This was all part of Wire's avant-gardening game. The band implored the unwashed masses to buy its record because it was punk while putting up posters saying "We Know More Than You," and inviting the intelligentsia to join their club. Amusingly, therefore, despite all Wire's efforts to characterize themselves as somehow beyond punk and despite the implicit argument that Pink Flag is actually an impressionist take on punk rock, it remains almost entirely a punk album in and of itself -- a somewhat flawed and contrived punk album at that.

And there's the thing. Pink Flag is a very interesting record that's not without its charm -- "Reuters", "Ex-Lion Tamer", "Mannequin", "Strange" and "Fragile" are all compelling songs. But no matter how many times I hear the album, I can't convince myself I ever hear Colin Newman's real voice on Pink Flag . In fact, I can't believe I've hear anything real at all. It's well done and well presented, but it's all just various degrees of punk-rock affectation -- twisted speech for the young believers. Wire reveals nothing of themselves beyond their ambition. And as Mark Perry of Alternative TV said at the time, "I'm fed up with living in a world where masturbation means something deep."

Released just 10 months after Pink Flag, Chairs Missing quickly established that Wire were moving on up like the letters G and W. Producer Mike Thorne claims he was forced to play keyboards on the record by the band, who threatened, only half in jest, to bring in Brian Eno otherwise. There's much evidence of the buzz-saw abrasion and affectation of the previous record, but Chairs Missing goes beyond Pink Flag in just about every direction. There's more complexity, more depth, and perhaps more honesty to songs such as "Marooned", "Mercy", and "Used To"; and consequently Chairs Missing seems more relevant today than Pink Flag, Nonetheless it's still far from the stunning, essential artifact it's supposed to be.

"Outdoor Miner" is particularly interesting. In its original form, as presented on Chairs Missing, it's an overly sweet pop confection with utterly anti-pop lyrics that repeats to fade at just one minute and 44 seconds. Famously, Wire had previously claimed it always stopped its songs when it had nothing left to say. "Outdoor Miner", however, took on a life of its own when the band's label, EMI Harvest (also home to Pink Floyd), decided it was time for a hit single. Fifth member Thorne duly added a piano solo and copied and pasted the original material around until he had just under three minutes of seven-inch action. Though Wire surely thought this rework muddied the conceptual clarity of its original statement, curiously the band didn't pop straight back into the studio to record "Complete Control".

It's just possible that "Outdoor Miner" may have been a minor British hit for band and label, but a payola scandal saw it stall just outside the top 50. It was the closest Wire ever came to any kind of commercial success. This latest re-release of Chairs Missing denies listeners the chance to hear the extended "Outdoor Miner", as well as the non-album single "A Question Of Degree" and its B-side "Former Airline", all of which are available on the previous re-issue. Still, at least the conceptual clarity of the original statement remains unmuddied.

The lyrics of "Outdoor Miner" may not have referred explicitly to everyday life, or explained precisely what was subversive about love, but they did discuss the lifestyle of insects such as silverfish and serpentine miners. The second insect-inspired anthem from Chairs Missing was "I Am the Fly". If Wire's lawyers haven't noticed yet, the introduction to "I Am the Fly" was borrowed by the excellent early 1980s indie-types Girls at our Best for their superior single "Going Nowhere Fast". But GAOB were little more than fleas to Wire's 800 pound fly.

Over your window
You think I'm confused
I'm waiting for the divergent wasp
To complete my current ruse
You use a plate-glass screen
To protect my chosen target
But there's an air-pellet hole
I can crawl through to you
I am the fly in the ointment
I can spread more disease
Than all the fleas
That nibble away at your window display

Is it just me, or is there a degree of arrogance in the lyrics of "I Am the Fly"? Were Wire really telling us that it was more important and more potent than any of the other punk and post-punk bands? Was the band also saying that it used the Sex Pistols (the divergent wasp?) and punk rock as camouflage or a diversion? There's something about Wire that makes me think so.

Wire's third album, named 154 because according to legend that's how many live shows the band had played by the time it went into the studio to record, was the best and most commercially successful album of the three. Even so, it barely grazed the bottom of the British Top 50, which probably sounded the death knell for a band that was already beginning to disintegrate.

A little cold at heart, 154 nonetheless charms with the humanity of its sweeping arrangements and the evolving experimentation and variety of numbers such as "The Other Window" and "Single K.O." Favorite tracks include "The 15th", which is "Outdoor Miner" all grown up and ready to go to college in a different state, the epic "A Touching Display", "A Mutual Friend", and the gorgeous (if obscurely titled) "Map Ref. 41°N 93°W".

At the time of its original release, 154 shipped with a bonus EP of four experimental pieces, one from each member of the band. This EP, which is of course not included on this release, strongly underlined the feeling that 154 itself conveyed, that there was no single vision, no cohesion behind Wire, and that the end was probably within sight. Sure enough, after a succession of unconventional and, as I recall, downright confrontational and unlistenable live performances, Wire called it a day in February 1980. The band members appeared to have run out of ideas and out of patience with each other, while the record company clearly had run out of patience with the band. No one was having any fun, and no one was making any money. Since that first split, of course, the pattern has been one of solo ventures followed by reunions, repeated until fade.


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