Wire (Contemporary Musicians)
Abrasive and idiosyncratic, Wire's contribution to rock music has been a unique one. Though it has never achieved widespread fame, the British group has been hailed as an influence on such better-known bands as REM and Sonic Youth. During its nearly 25 years of on-again, off-again existence, Wire has often subverted the rules of conventional songwriting and ensemble playing, managing to harness disjointed rhythms and fragmented lyrics that teeter on the edge of chaos. Critics have termed their revisionist approach to rock "postmodern," and the band has claimed the playfully unsettling spirit of Dada artist Marcel Duchamp as a key inspiration. Considered part of the British punk rock uprising of the mid-1970s, Wire passed through a techno-pop dance phase in the late 1980s before returning to its more abstract roots in the following decade. The band entered the twenty-first century as an active touring and recording entity, sustained by a loyal following.
Wire was an unlikely musical venture from the beginning. At the time of the band's formation in South London in October 1976, only lead guitarist George Gill had experience playing in rock groups. Among his bandmates, singer/guitarist Colin Newman, guitarist Bruce Gilbert, bassist Graham Lewis and drummer Mark Field (who adopted the pseudonym Robert Gotobed) were all art school students with only a basic familiarity with their instruments. At the time of Wire's launching, the deliberate primitism of the punk rock movement made such limitations a virtue as much as a handicap. The band's sparse, severe sound made them seem in step with the trend, though they never felt truly a part of London's punk circles. "There was a lot about the punk scene that was social," Newman said in a February 2000 interview with New Music Express writer John Robinson. "And there was a definite hierarchy, a definite pecking order. We were rank outsiders, and we weren't playing by the rules. We weren't playing shoddily on purpose. We played as well as we could. We quickly evolved the kind of thing we wanted to hear."
Though Wire was more avant-garde than many of the British punk bands of the era, they shared in the rebellious spirit and sense of possibility that typified the movement. "I never thought we were a punk group, apart from the access," Gilbert told writer Jon Savage in the liner notes to Wire's 1989 compilation CD On Returning. "But the thing one should carry was the optimism that things can actually change. It's quite interesting to be at close quarters with a revolution, however minor."
Wire parted company with guitarist Gill before signing a record deal with the EMI-distributed Harvest label. Pink Flag, the band's 1977 debut album, was noteworthy for both its edgy, alienated ambiance and its biting instrumental attack. The mood of its 21 songs swung from the darkly insinuating "Reuters" to the surprisingly tuneful "Mannequin" and "Ex Lion Tamer." Such short, assaultive numbers as "1-2-X-U" provided inspiration for such 1980s American punk groups as Black Flag and the Minutemen.
More than anything else, it was the deconstruction of rock music's stylistic conventions that made Pink Flag such an influential release. "The structures were rock 'n' roll, but taken apart and put together in different ways," Lewis told Savage. 'This is how they go, but not quite. They swerve." In the same interview, Gilbert reflected on the irregular, clipped form of the band's compositions, noting that "We hadn't thought of the songs as being any length. That's how long they were, and when they stopped, another one started. It meant that you could get 22 of them into 43 minutes." Assessing Pink Flag, Mark Coleman wrote in the Rolling Stone Album Guide that "On a formal level, it's an astonishing achievement, pulling punk away from the rock revivalism of the Sex Pistols and the Clash without sacrificing its energy or gut level impact. Indeed, these songs are enormously expressive and offer much to the listener."
In 1978, the band released Chairs Missing, an album that refined their first album's sonic thrust and reflected greater input from producer/keyboardist Mike Thorne. Still present was the band's lyric obscurity and desire to disturb as much as to entertain. "I Am The Fly" crackled with tension and anger, while "Outdoor Miner" painted a fractured lyric landscape over a strangely sweet melody. Another track, "French Film Blurred," had overtones of a horror film soundtrack. The subtleties of texture found on Chairs Missing were developed further on Wire's third album, 154, released by Harvest in Britain and by Automatic/Warner Bros, in the United States in 1979. Even greater sonic extremes were explored on this album, stretching from the quietly chiming "Blessed State" to the slow, ominous "A Touching Display" and the harsh-yet-danceable "On Returning."
Despite signs that Wire was poised to reach a larger audience, the band broke up during the summer of 1980 and went on to pursue a variety of individual projects. Newman released a series of solo albums during the early 1980s, including A-Z, Not To and Commercial Suicide. Gilbert and Lewis were even more prolific, recording together as members of Dome, Duet Emmo and He Said. Gotobed became a session drummer, working with Newman among others, and ventured into organic farming as well. Still, the possibility of Wire's return remained an open one, and by the end of 1984 the band was reactivated. The foursome began working together again in a stripped-down, keyboard-less format. "The idea was very simplet was put together because of equipment and the fact that we didn't have any money," Newman told Cash Box writer Karen Woods. "We just had guitars, bass and drums... We didn't know what we were going to do, but we didn't want to get involved in a whole big comeback scene, which could have been very embarrassing and very tasteless. So we decided to start a new Wire, and see whether we liked it..."
The fruits of these efforts were realized on The Ideal Copy, released by Mute Records in Britain and on the Enigma label in the United States in 1987. The album found Wire more in harmony with the tastes of the marketplace, incorporating sampled sounds and synthesizer-driven rhythms into its approach. The ironic, austere edge of the band's early days seemed in accord with dance music sensibilities of the 1980s. In his review of the album, Rolling Stones Barry Walters noted that producer Gareth Jones "takes the cool, detached approach developed by Mike Thorne for Seventies Wire and makes it attractively cold. The Ideal Copy is music begging for a CD player."
Appearing a year later, A Bell Is A Cup (Until It Is Struck) followed up the previous album with a similar mix of intriguingly oblique lyrics and pulsating beats. Such tracks as "Kidney Bingos" and "Boiling Boy" were both mysterious and instantly catchy. Critics again praised the band's ingenuity at extracting something exotic from basic elements. "Wire's music is animated architecture," wrote Michael Axerrad in his Rolling Stone review of the album. "Wire won't blow you out of the room; it'll just keep you from leaving it."
Wire's fondness for unusual recording strategies was evident on their next release, 1989's It's Beginning To and Back Again. Though it began as a collection of in-concert recordings, IBTABA (as the album was also known) was revised so extensively in the studio that the live tracks all but disappeared. "We removed the crowd noise from the pieces and started replacing things," Newman told Billboard miter Chris Morris." It's sort of addition by subtraction." The album yielded a United States single, "Eardrum Buzz," which reached the top five on Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart.
The band entered the 1990s by releasing Manscape, an album that relied on computer-generated rhythms more heavily than in the past. Following its release, drummer Gotobed left the group and the band continued on as Wir, releasing The First Letter in 1991. While the band's output was reduced in subsequent years, its influence was evident in the music of such rising British groups as Elastica and Blur. Several compilation albums, beginning with On Returning (1977-1979) in 1989, helped to keep Wire's recorded legacy alive. By 2000, Gotobed had rejoined the group and Wire toured Britain and the United States once again. Third Day, a limited-release CD of new recordings available via the Internet, appeared early in the year.
Despite detours into individual projects, the four members of Wire have kept their band an ongoing collective effort, revising their stripped-down yet malleable sound over a quarter century. "It's an object," Newman said of Wire in his New Music Express interview with Robertson. "We're in it, but it isn't us. Maybe it's about having a bit of humility: if you do something and if it works it's not because I do something or he does something, it's because the energy created is greater than the sum of the individuals. There are egos involved, but when you do something really good it becomes egoless."
Pink Flag, Harvest, 1977; (reissue), Restless Retro, 1989.
Chairs Missing, Harvest, 1978; (reissue), Restless Retro, 1989.
154, Automatic/Warner Bros., 1979; (reissue), Restless Retro, 1989.
The Ideal Copy, Mute/Enigma, 1987.
A Bell Is A Cup (Until It Is Struck), Mute/Enigma, 1987.
It's Beginning To and Back Again, Mute/Enigma, 1989.
On Returning (1977-1979), Restless Retro, 1989.
Manscape, Mute/Enigma, 1990.
DeCurtis, Anthony and Henke, James, editors, The Rolling Stone Album Guide, Random House, 1992.
Larkin, Colin, editor, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze, 1998.
Robbins, Ira A., editor, The Trouser Press Guide To '90s Rock, Fireside Books, 1997.
Billboard, July 29, 1989.
Cash Box, July 22, 1989.
Musician, July, 1987.
New Musical Express, February 5, 2000; February 19, 2000; March 11, 2000.
Rolling Stone, September 24, 1987; August 25, 1988.
Pinkflag, http://www.pinkflag.com (May 18, 2000).
Wireviews, (May 18, 2000).