The history of Wire is the history of punk outgrowing itself. Granted, Wire’s connections to the initial punk movement were tenuous at best, but they still appropriated much of its terms and ideas into their early work. However, as they progressed, they moved further and further away from the burn bright/burn fast ethos of punk, and towards something different, something that was indicative of where underground music was eventually going to go as the 1970s became the 1980s and the kids weaned on punk became adults with more adventurous musical palates.
The fact that Wire did all of this over the course of three albums in three years is even more astonishing. Few bands could ever hope to create something as influential as Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, or 154 over a long career, but Wire churned them out one after the other with a near-ruthless efficiency. Some 40 years after their release, these albums — reissued now through the band’s pinkflag imprint with B-sides, demos, and unreleased material — remain a remarkable accomplishment in the history of pop music.
If punk had a musical ethos amidst the leather jackets, spiked hair and general calls for anarchy, it was a return to basics. Rock, it seemed, had gotten too bloated and pretentious for consumption, and punk was here to create something simpler. Wire, while sympathizing with the disdain for self-indulgent mainstream rock, saw the simplicity of punk as a challenge. Pink Flag, in this regard, is a 36-minute art gamble from the band, an attempt to take the simplicity of punk to its most extreme point and come out the other side with something more off-kilter and strange than anything any punk band in 1977 would have ever thought to make.
Pink Flag is an art rock experiment in the guise of a punk album, its themes, and subjects presented in a manner too detached and intellectual to fit in with the more strident, emotionally-driven music of Wire’s contemporaries. The album’s more punk-driven moments, such as the now-classics “12XU” and “Ex Lion Tamer”, rely more on wordplay than plainly-expressed ideas, even as they play with heady concepts like media consumption and its dulling effects on everyday life. Furthermore, the album’s slow, looping dirges like “Lowdown”, “Strange”, and the title track stretch the punk ethos of simplicity to its breaking point, revealing new ideas and textures one could play with inside the confines of the genre in the process. While Pink Flag appears to be a simple album at first, it takes the notion of simplicity and reveals the complexities lying underneath the surface. There isn’t another album like it.
Naturally, the only way to follow up such a distinct debut album is to do something completely different. While Chairs Missing shares much of the DNA of Pink Flag, it also finds the band expanding their palate, incorporating new instruments and ideas into their songwriting process once the framework of punk seemed to have worn itself out for them. Having taken minimalism to its furthest extent, Wire stretch things out on Chairs Missing, even going so far as to feature the closest thing to an extended jam that anyone associated with British punk has ever made (“Mercy”). Synthesizers and chorus-laden guitars burst in and out, and the whole affair arguably takes as much after Eno as it does after any of Wire’s contemporaries.
The band even make room for sweet pop songs with the timeless “Outdoor Miner”, a brief ray of sunshine that became their biggest hit. Overall, though, Chairs Missing is a deeper, more complex piece of work than its predecessor while being just as rewarding. It also pointed to just how quickly and thoroughly Wire could change themselves between albums.
The band’s third album, 154, is perhaps the least regarded of this trio, but it offers just as much to listeners enthralled by Pink Flag and Chairs Missing. Here, one can hear the beginnings of synthpop and the eventuality of Britain’s post-punk bands trading in guitars for synthesizers. There’s a cool steeliness to 154; it’s the band’s first foray into emphasizing atmosphere above songcraft, a far cry from the stark minimalism of old. Abstract as ever, Wire keep the listener at arm’s length, pairing their best melodies with unknowable words and concepts. (Case in point: the album’s best single and signature song is named after the cartographical location of Centreville, Iowa for no particular reason.) Perhaps that’s the one real drawback to 154: its coldness can seem alienating, and the band sometimes accentuates their more mechanical qualities on some songs. But the fact remains that this — like the two albums that came before it — is a hugely influential piece of music worth revisiting for those who haven’t already cherished it for years.
Each album is packaged with non-album singles, demos and studio recordings, some of which has never seen the light of day before now. The value of this material will vary from person to person: the demo collection on each album is comprehensive, but only the 154 demos and some of the Chairs Missing demos sound markedly different from what ended up being released. While the differences are minimal, the appeal of hearing a band work through their creative processes is very much there for those who like that sort of thing.
Regardless of the extra material, there isn’t an improper time or reason to celebrate Wire’s early discography, which remains among the most distinct and original music ever produced in a rock format. While it took a group like the Sex Pistols to hammer home the idea that anyone could make music, Wire showed what that music could be with the right amount of foresight and creativity.