Icon: Wire

Douglas Wolk

By Douglas Wolk

on 07.14.11 in Icons

One way of describing Wire is to say that they’ve effectively been three different bands with (mostly) the same lineup: the blazing art-punk mutants of their 1976-80 incarnation, the monomaniacal electro-brainiacs of their 1985-91 renaissance, and the burly time-warping professors that reconvened in 2000 and are still recording now. Another way is to say that every record they’ve made has sounded like a hard-won consensus. Singer/guitarist Colin Newman, initially the band’s voice of punk rock fire, has gone on to balance that side of his work with his gift for tunefulness and his fascination with repetition. Singer/bassist Graham Lewis is Wire’s chief lyricist, and probably the member with the closest ties to the fine-art world. Guitarist Bruce Gilbert (already 30 years old, ancient by punk standards, when the band started), was Wire’s resident minimalist and conceptualist; he left the group in 2004. And drummer Robert Grey, a.k.a. Robert Gotobed, is a human drum machine with a crisp, trebly slam, precise and skeletal. They’re all remarkable, distinctive musicians, and their aesthetics mostly overlap in their unwillingness to return to territory they’ve already covered.

In Chronological Order

Pink Flag


The British punk rock explosion of 1977 shot a ton of records into the air, but Wire's debut wasn't like any of the others: It rocked as crisply and as toughly as any record made that year, but it was orders of magnitude smarter than anything around it. Its 21 songs each go on until their (mostly unrhymed, mostly elliptical, mostly thoroughly emotionally detached) lyrics run out, and barely a second longer — six of them clock in at less than a minute. Colin Newman sings, speaks and sneers in his own English accent, and the band pulls out an endless string of clipped, buzzing riffs. (When Elastica lifted the semaphore nert-na-nert-nert of "Three Girl Rhumba" for "Connection" 18 years later, it still sounded ahead of its time.)

Pink Flag is a perfect album — seemingly unimprovable in every aspect, from its sequence to its packaging. (Annette Green's spare, austere cover photograph is stripped of every signifier of punk rock, and therefore totally punk rock; she wrote "Different to Me," too.) It famously feels like a single 35-minute composition, and it's ingeniously sequenced. Where other punk bands pounced from the outset ("Holidays in the Sun," "Janie Jones"), Wire snuck up on their listeners with the menacing throb of "Reuters," a slow, grinding two-chord song about a war reporter. The album's two pop moments, the aptly-named fragment "Fragile" and the kiss-off single "Mannequin," are buried together in the middle of its back half. The huge punk anthem, "12XU," is all the way at the end, and features a gay subtext most of Wire's peers wouldn't go near. (It's also arguably the ur-hardcore song: "12XU" was one of the few covers in Minor Threat's repertoire.)

Wire have never made another record like Pink Flag, because they said it all the first time. Still, it's become the North Star of their career, no matter how far away from it they've gotten — and they eventually got very far away. When the band launched their own label in 2000, they called it "pinkflag."

Chairs Missing


Where Pink Flag had been about refining and mutating punk, Chairs Missing was concerned with dropping punk's dogmas through a trap door and feeding them to the sharks. The streamlined, monolithic charge of Wire's debut were almost totally replaced by other textures and techniques: rhythms that stalk or slither, arrangements that hover angelically ("French Film Blurred") or explode into curlicues of noise ("Sand In My Joints"). The all-for-one songwriting credits of the debut were replaced by an unexpected division of labor between guitarists Colin Newman and Bruce Gilbert and bassist Graham Lewis: In this band, as it turned out, the person who wrote the words wasn't necessarily the person who sang them. And the band's guitar-bass-drums lineup was augmented by some jolting splashes of keyboard, especially on "Another the Letter," a speed-drill song about a suicide note (presumably so called because the Box Tops had already staked a claim to the title "The Letter").

Wire's songcraft had blossomed too. Newman's "Heartbeat" is all restraint: two notes, a melody that eats its own tail, and no chorus, eventually diminishing to silence. (They used to end their sets with it, to freak out audiences who expected a grand finale.) Bruce Gilbert's "Too Late" goes in the opposite direction, building up to a chord that erupts out of the top of the song like lava from a volcano. The peaks of Chairs Missing are its two singles: a stomping rocker, "I Am the Fly," about an insect as a metaphor for what punk had become and what Wire saw as their place in it, and an utterly delectable (and much-covered) pop song, "Outdoor Miner," that's literally about an insect. They were still minimalists at heart, of course: "Outdoor Miner" clocks in at a hundred seconds on the album, and it had to be expanded with a piano solo to be long enough for EMI to release it as a single.



Named after the number of gigs Wire had played in its short existence, 154 showed exactly how far they'd come since they were a punk rock band — the attitude was the same, but the sound was unlike any record they (or anyone else) had made before. They'd originally written a set of wry, sneaky songs in the vein of Chairs Missing, but with the aid of producer Mike Thorne, they mutated, inverted and disassembled them in the studio. Rhythms disappear from songs, or rise to hover above the surface of the mix; off-pitch keyboard squiggles occupy positions that would once have called for guitars; Colin Newman and Bruce Gilbert play sluggish, dissonant tone-clusters again and again until they embed themselves.

If one of their songs sounded or acted anything like straightforward rock 'n' roll, Wire messed with it until it didn't. "On Returning" is a punk-pop song mixed like deep dub, with most of its guitar riff wiped away and the rest smudged into a blur; "A Touching Display" is taken at a crawling pace, and eventually incorporates a scorched-earth electric viola solo; "Blessed State" starts out as a sweet four-chord hymn, then dissolves into a mass of a few pinprick guitar notes repeated against each other in every possible combination. Newman's singalong "The 15th" — recorded without Gilbert — never names or even implies its subject ("denied, it learned as if it had sooner been destroyed": okay, then!).

154 is also, in some ways, Wire's funniest record, although they had a deeply peculiar sense of humor: it came out in ways like beginning the album with an original song called "I Should Have Known Better," or titling the big pop single "Map Ref. 41°N 93°W" (its first chorus is introduced by Newman yelling "Chorus!"). You can hear the band beginning to splinter, as they did not long after the album was released, but you can also hear them realizing how extraordinary their musical chemistry was, and how far they could push their art. "My God, they're so gifted!" Newman yells in "Two People in a Room." He could have meant his collaborators.

The Ideal Copy


Reuniting in 1985 after half a decade off, Wire decided that they were going to start completely fresh, to the point where they refused to play old material on tour. And they really started from scratch: Whatever anyone might have expected from the band that made the Pink Flag-Chairs Missing-154 sequence, "electronics-heavy dance-rock" was almost certainly not it. The other surprise of the new lineup's first full album, released in 1987, was that they were incredibly adept at electronics-heavy dance-rock. "Ahead," built around a frantically flickering funk guitar riff, is a vision of sex that's unambiguously pleasure-centered, for once, although it's also as splintered and refracted as anything in their catalogue.

The band had been paying attention to the industrial music and electro-pop that had developed in their absence, too. Graham Lewis's creepy-crawly showcase, "Feed Me," is built around a series of MIDI noises that detonate in the mix like artillery shells, and not many bands (other than New Order) had figured out how to combine a drum kit and programmed beats as cleverly as Wire did here. The current version of the album also includes the 1986 Snakedrill EP that relaunched Wire's career — the relentless "Drill" and "A Serious of Snakes," in particular, are among the most thrilling tracks this incarnation recorded.

A Bell Is A Cup Until It Is Struck


By 1988, the "modern rock" scene was finally starting to catch up to what Wire had done a decade earlier. The band got a bit of a boost from R.E.M. covering Pink Flag's "Strange" in 1987, and with this album's "Kidney Bingos," they scored an actual college radio hit of their own, one that couldn't have been much more different from their early records. It's a terrifically charming, catchy song, though, built around a seraphic guitar riff and nearly verbless lyrics that might as well be an exercise in free association (they begin "Natural splits sunburn jets pride marks smart bets").

As usual for this era of Wire, it's hard to tell for sure what Colin Newman and Graham Lewis are singing about: "Come Back in Two Halves" condemns nostalgia in the vaguest possible terms, and "Silk Skin Paws," also released as a single, seems to involve drinking as a path toward Arthur Rimbaud's "systematic derangement of the senses." But the words are usually just a vehicle for their singing voices — Newman's high and reedy, Lewis's low and plummy.

Eighties Wire were essentially a groove band, never better than when they found a rhythm they could settle on and repeat ad infinitum, varying its instrumental textures by degrees. ("Boiling Boy" is still a highlight of their live shows; "The Queen of Ur and the King of Um" somehow manages to be ascetic and rollicking at the same time.) In retrospect, the keyboard and guitar sounds they favored on A Bell have less in common with "modern rock" than with New Age and ambient music. Somehow, though, they figured out how to make them abrade, in the context of Robert Gotobed's big, smacking beats. The B-sides that augment the current version of the album include an eight-minute live workout on the by-now-inevitable "Drill."

It’s Beginning To And Back Again


The third album from the reconvened Wire, released in 1989, is a very odd but very likeable set of process music — not quite a live album, not quite a remix album. Most of it was built around live recordings from the A Bell Is a Cup tour, which were then extensively reworked in the studio. The repertoire includes four songs from A Bell (as well as one from The Ideal Copy that had already appeared in a live version on A Bell) a couple of B-sides, and a cut-and-paste collage of spoken-word samples and a dance beat ("Illuminated") in the vein of M/A/R/R/S' "Pump Up the Volume"; those were augmented by two new studio-recorded singles, "Eardrum Buzz" and "In Vivo," the former of which also appears in an IBTABA-ized version that converts its sparkling chorus to a minor-key death-rattle.

You could call it a retrenchment, except that it's fantastically enjoyable both as a dance record and as a headphone record. "Eardrum Buzz," in particular, became a full-on modern-rock hit, and the re-recordings crack open and stretch out the songs to reveal huge, echoing spaces, misty trails of Bruce Gilbert's favorite kinds of noise, and guitar-bass-drum arrangements that avoid the sound of Pink Flag as if rock itself is booby-trapped.



The runt of the Wire litter, Manscape was the final album of new material they released in their '80s incarnation, and these days it's pretty much totally dismissed by both the band and their fans. It's reliant enough on pre-programmed rhythms that drummer Robert Gotobed quit before its brief promotional tour, and the lazy synth presets that are all over it are something of a shock from a band that had always relied on its members' idiomatic playing. The lyrics, for the most part, are alternately glib and incomprehensible — "cut and diced it always lacks passion," goes a line in "Patterns of Behaviour," which sums up the problem. There are occasional flashes of their old eccentricity and power, but only one song here (Graham Lewis's frothing-at-the-mouth "Torch It!") ended up being included on The A List, their phase-2 greatest-hits collection.

The Drill


The centerpiece of Wire mk. 2's career was the "monophonic monorhythmic repetition" of "Drill"; they ended most of their shows with it, and they were obsessed enough with the song's possibilities that they recorded an entire album's worth of variations on it between 1989 and 1991. Some have new lyrics, some have altered riffs, some have Graham Lewis singing instead of Colin Newman. The opener here, "In Every City?," highlights the affinities between "Drill" and Pink Flag's "12XU." There's not a lot here to recommend to anyone who's not already a Wire fanatic, though, aside from a 12-minute live version of the original song — labeled as "(A Chicago) Drill" — which is ferocious and almost impossibly fast.

The First Letter


Following the recording of Manscape, drummer Robert "Gotobed" Grey left Wire. The other three members briefly carried on under the name Wir for this album, a few other stray tracks and a couple of gigs. The First Letter is closer to the arty, smeary records Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis made together in the '80s (under the names Dome and Cupol) than to any of Wire's other albums. It's only incidentally and intermittently a "song" record: after its opening sequence of "Take It (For Greedy)," a one-note litany built on what sounds a lot like a sample of Pink Flag's "Strange," and the understated synth-pop pulse and two-voice counterpoint of "So and Slow It Grows," it becomes much more about sound experiments than compositions. That's fine — Gilbert, Lewis and Colin Newman have always been first-class texturalists, and throwing both the "beat-combo" format and the possibility of alternative rock careerism out the window lets them have some fun with clanking loops, answering-machine tapes and MIDI-triggered noises.

It's a delight to hear Colin Newman sneering about "a comet/coming this way with your name on it," in part because that's the sound of Wire mk. 3: icy, monolithic, huge and unstoppable. The original plan for Read & Burn was that it would be a series of six EPs, and the first one, released in 2002, is faster and harder than anyone would have guessed they had in them. Wire's new working procedure combined elements of their first and second incarnations: brief, super-condensed rock songs (25 years in the trenches had toughened and streamlined Robert Grey's drumming even more), disassembled and reassembled digitally. They'd also extended the minimalism of the Pink Flag era to their lyrics: "In the Art of Stopping" has all of 11 words; "Germ Ship" beats it with 10.

The second EP by the 21st-century incarnation of Wire is the most aggressive record they've ever made. Colin Newman clears his throat five seconds into the title track, and thereafter we get a quarter-hour of non-stop distortion, one- and two-chord riffs, and head-down-and-charging rhythms. It's not quite all of a piece — "Trash/Treasure" is one of Newman's more tuneful moments, although it's skewered with hot-metal guitar buzz — but mostly it's a bulldozer tour of Wire's history. ("Raft Ants" reimagines "Kidney Bingos" as industrial-tinged hardcore, for instance.) The one real respite from the assault is the throbbing first half of the closer, "99.9," before its metallic flares ignite and Newman starts screaming his throat raw again.

When Wire reconvened circa 2000 for their third incarnation as a band, they did a brief tour where they played old material — the first time, really, they'd ever looked back at their career. Perhaps playing the hyper-compressed rockers from their earliest days got them interested in very loud, very tense music again, but after issuing the first two Read & Burn EPs as "status reports," they compiled parts of both of them (and a few new tracks) for Send, the most muscular album they'd ever made. It's blisteringly loud, fast and smart, ditching the chiming pop surfaces of their '80s incarnation in favor of a harsh, nearly relentless grind and slam.

The abstract lyrics, brief running times (aside from the seven-minute earthquake of a finale, "99.9") and skin-and-bones riffs have more in common with 1977's Pink Flag than any of their other records, but this is the Pink Flag aesthetic run through a CPU grinder — electronic editing and digital distortion are a big part of Wire mark III's sound.

The songs on Send are sometimes not much more than gestures to wrap an arrangement around — the title of "Nice Streets Above" is also the entire extent of its lyrics, hissed in a furious robotic voice — but both of Wire's singers, guitarist Colin Newman and bassist Graham Lewis, get off some good ones. "Comet" is a three-chord, one-note marvel about "a heaven-sent extinction event," and "The Agfers of Kodack" finds Lewis bellowing a nearly incomprehensible but commanding hellfire sermon with Newman crooning a countermelody behind him and Bruce Gilbert adding ripostes of steel-wool guitar noise. And their compositions aren't even as set in this form as Pink Flag's immaculate miniatures were: just in case anyone found the two-to-three-minute tracks on Send excessively long-winded, the band also issued pf456 Redux, which slices the 16 songs that make up Send and Read & Burn 1 and 2 down to a total running time under 40 minutes.

Despite their habit of extensive touring — their third album, 154, was named after the number of gigs they'd played in their brief existence — Wire's early records leaned very heavily on producer Mike Thorne's studio expertise and on arrangements that had little to do with the way they played their songs on stage. So this hour-long live performance from Valentine's Day, 1979, recorded for the German TV show Rockpalast and repeatedly bootlegged over the years, is a valuable addition to the band's discography.

In the late '70s, Wire's music was evolving so quickly that their albums couldn't capture every stylistic shift they made — only Pink Flag remains in the set here from their first album, and they're already playing eight songs from the not-yet-recorded 154. Without the keyboards and unsettling treatments of Thorne's production, some of their songs sound radically different, especially "Former Airline," a wobbling loop in its studio incarnation and a three-chord blitzkrieg here. The non-album single "A Question of Degree" hews closely to its roots in garage-rock (its title's similarity to the Balloon Farm's garage classic "A Question of Temperature" isn't accidental). It's also clear how dramatically different the four musicians 'aesthetics were: Colin Newman is the headlong punk rocker (he rockets through the show's opening number, "Another the Letter," in barely a minute, so fast that the audience takes a few seconds to react after it's ended), bassist Graham Lewis is his looming pop counter-force (crooning "Blessed State" as insouciantly as he can manage), Bruce Gilbert lobs in textural blurts of guitar as if they were grenades, and Robert Gotobed, as always, drums with a minimal, metronomic array of ticks and cracks. The band would fall apart for the first time barely a year later, but the internal stresses audible here are what kept them in motion.

The first two Read & Burn EPs were cannibalized for 2003's Send (and its remixed vinyl counterpart, pf456). After the subsequent tour, Bruce Gilbert left Wire; Read & Burn 03, the final volume of the series to date, was recorded as a trio, and didn't come out until 2007. It's a transitional record, obviously, so the band hung a lantern on it by leading off with one of their most audacious songs ever. In place of their recent miniatures, "23 Years Too Late" is almost 10 minutes long — a bizarre crouch-and-pounce epic involving "rhizomic gastropods" and "sonic paramedics," built around a chintzy-sounding organ playing a garage-rock riff. The other three tracks are more straightforward, with the band grasping at a new tone that's somewhere near the territory of the early-'90s alternative rock bands they'd inspired.

Without guitarist Bruce Gilbert around, the dynamics of Wire shifted considerably toward their poppier side. Object 47 sounds much more like a Colin Newman album backed by Wire's single-minded, repetition-obsessed rhythm section than like the digital assault of the Send era. That could, of course, also be the result of Wire's immutable habit of having each record sound unlike the previous one, and there are a handful of songs here that would have been anomalous on any earlier album, like the subdued funk groove "Four Long Years" and the slow, cranky stroll of "Patient Flees." The group's lyrics this time are as interrogative as they are declarative, and a few songs seem to be addressed to a former comrade who's disappeared: "Are you part of the problem/Or part of the band?" Helmet's Page Hamilton turns up on the closer "All Fours" for what's credited as a "feedback storm" — a tribute to the way Wire inspired the generation of noise-loving rock bands that came after them.

Wire - seminal art-punks, tunesmiths extraordinaire, Britpop-era heroes - are also exemplary heritage-rockers, as fiercely productive and forward-looking in their fourth decade together as they were in their first. Debuting in early '77, Wire's genius lay in a measured but no less galvanizing channelling of punk's furious energy. In their inaugural lifespan, they spewed forth clipped, meticulously targeted blasts of punk-pop melody, built out of arresting noises and bile, and soon developed their own experimental tangents beyond three-chord orthodoxy, before crash-'n'-burning - all inside of four years. Resurfacing mid-'80s, such explorations continued, between the apparently irreconcilable poles of shimmering guitar-pop and avant-garde abstraction. Since their third lease of life commenced in Y2K, Wire have happily exploited "reunion fever": in '03 they crowd-pleasingly ripped through '77's Pink Flag album in its entirety, but in the next breath presented their latest squalling transmission, Send. Thereafter, '08's Object 47 edged closer to the out-and-out melodicism of vintage classics like "Outdoor Miner." With Red Barked Tree, they've arrived at the motherlode - a batch of some of their very catchiest tunes, unlike anyone else's, and equally unlike any of their own pre-existing oeuvre. Curtain-raiser "Please Take," written by bassist Graham Lewis, ushers in a sound with all the insouciant elegance of early '80s Roxy Music, while spitting hatred at an unnamed backstabber in almost comically earthy terms - "Fuck off out of my face, you take up too much space." Who says age mellows a man? Next up, "Now Was," which briskly rabbit-punches at middle-aged cynicism, while the jaunty "Bad Worn Thing" rails at British infra-structural uselessness - based, apparently, on an exasperating day travelling on the UK's famously unreliable railway system. Yet, while rage and bewilderment often dominate the lyrics, Red Barked Tree embraces many moods. In the transition from "Adapt" to "Two Minutes," the vibe nimbly skips from ethereal to thunderous. "Moreover" is bone-crunching, robotic; "Down To This" borders on the baroque, as guitarist/vocalist Colin Newman wallows in human frailty. Perhaps Wire's great contribution to rock evolution was - and is - their initiation of routes beyond punk's all-eclipsing nihilism. So, at the last, "Down To This" is triumphantly superseded by near-title track, "Red Barked Trees," in which Lewis wonders at Man's quest for new understanding, whether it's a miracle cure for cancer, or an artistic breakthrough. Certainly, Wire themselves have never sounded like this before - almost folky, rustic. As a trio in the '10s (guitarist Bruce Gilbert has amicably sat out the last couple of albums), they soldier boldly, defiantly, and onwards, into a bright and brilliantly uncertain future. - Andrew Perry