Start To Move: A Short History Of 1970s Wire

Looking back at the band's sublime opening trilogy...

Without question, Wire developed out of the UK punk scene of the 1970s, and if you listen to their earliest demos – on the unreleased tracks and demos that are included on the new reissue of their debut ‘Pink Flag’ or the earlier ‘Behind The Curtain’ compilation – that influence is immediately apparent.

Wire first appeared on the watershed ‘Live At The Roxy’ scene with two songs – '12XU' and the murky 'Lowdown'. With the second track they aggravated purist punk audiences with what was undoubtedly far too slow for the speed onslaught of UK punk rock, and you can hear that thinly-veiled contempt from the Roxy crowd as the band work their way through the song.

If ‘Lowdown’ was a problem for punks, ‘Pink Flag’ was nothing short of malevolent. Produced by electronics whizz Mike Thorne, who would go on to produce Soft Cell's ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’, ‘Pink Flag’ contained enough angry high-speed numbers to keep the punks at bay, but also featured even more slowed-up pieces, flutes and an abject lyrical strangeness that nestled antagonisingly next to the Sex Pistols or Buzzcocks. Its iconic sleeve was delivered with a stark presentation that was a full revolution away from the safety pins and cut-up newspaper print that characterised punk’s hallmarks.

To make matters yet more confusing, ‘Pink Flag’ was originally released in 1977 on Harvest, a label hitherto known for proggy epics and the complete antithesis of punk's intolerance of anything remotely self-indulgent.

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Lead vocalist and guitarist Colin Newman's vocal delivery was wry and cynical as was expected at the time, but the lyrics that he and the band’s stoic, angry bass player Graham Lewis wrote were among the most oblique ever committed to song, making even David Byrne's writing for Talking Heads sound positively normal in comparison; the twin guitars of Newman and Bruce Gilbert were prone to snarling sonic assaults that could knock most punk bands into a cocked hat, but the combination could, and would, drift into more experimental areas, just without any solos; then there was the stalwart Robert Gotobed (Robert Grey), a man capable of exuding completely regimented cool even when manically hammering out patterns on the drums while Lewis added a thudding bass current that was every bit as precise as Gotobed’s kitwork.

In a sense, Wire's approach to taking punk's lumpen building blocks and making something altogether other out of those materials, was completely simpatico with punk’s liberating sensibilities. However, Wire were art students before musicians, and that artistic influence came through on ‘Pink Flag’, if somewhat subtly; on the accomplished follow-up ‘Chairs Missing’ (1978) there was hardly any trace of the punk fluid in which the embryonic band had swum.

The lyrics were evermore unfathomable and the sonic constructions around them were increasingly complex. The standout ‘I Am The Fly’ existed on distorted rhythms and chiming guitar melodies, while ‘Outdoor Miner’ was a breezy, jangly pop track unless you tried to decode the lyrics. Little flashes of the punkier ‘Pink Flag’ moments would occasionally flare up, only to be subsumed into more considered, more challenging architecture.

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By ‘154’ (1979), which would be the last album by the first incarnation of the band, it was nigh on impossible to reconcile this band with the band who produced ‘Pink Flag’; the album’s most accessible moment, the catchy single ‘Map Ref. 41°N 93°W’, required Colin Newman to point out to the listener when the chorus was about to start, another indicator of Wire’s quintessential subversiveness.

‘Pink Flag’, I reiterate, was not a punk album; however, compared to ‘154's rich experimental textures, it might as well have been. Post-punk was the label later employed to describe the music and the broadminded approach that Wire and their contemporaries (Gang Of Four, Mekons, Magazine, The Pop Group) took to music, but unquestionably Wire were always by far the artiest.

Their final pronouncement of the Seventies was a highly theatrical performance art show at the Jean Cochrane Theatre in Holborn entitled ‘Two People In A Room’, in which each of the four members of the group presented a different piece of music they’d written for the band.

Wire then abruptly split, reforming in the 80s with a sharp, repetitive tone best exemplified by the endlessly-adaptable track ‘Drill’, adding electronics and drum machines as the decade progressed before going on hiatus for another ten years.

Punk was a necessary diversion in the 1970s, even if the music and imagery itself looked a little self-conscious very quickly. With the benefit of forty years, it acted as something of a palette cleanser, neutralising the bitter aftertaste of rock’s excess and asserting a new democratic artistic independence.

Despite being signed to a major, Wire took that artistic freedom to its extreme, delivering, in three short years and three albums, the kind of boundary pushing that an earlier EMI signing, The Beatles, achieved a decade earlier. It’s perhaps a vain hope that Wire might be seen in a similar context – punk and post-punk’s influence and cultural aftershocks have not, after all, yet been been embraced in the same accepted way that rock ‘n’ roll’s teenage rebellion has – but hearing ‘Pink Flag’, ‘Chairs Missing’ And ‘154’ all over again, they make a timely and a spirited case for the defence.

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'Pink Flag', 'Chairs Missing', and '154' will be re-issued on June 22nd.

Words: Mat Smith

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