Wire: the art-punk band's journey and legacy
As Wire's early albums are re-released, its front man Colin Newman looks back
Friday 17 February 2006
I can remember sitting in my bedroom in Watford in 1977, deciding that I had to reinvent rock'n'roll. I was going to take out the "'n'roll". But the beginnings of Wire were more prosaic. I'd been kicked out by my girlfriend and decided that, if I wasn't going to have any luck with women, I'd better be in a band. Almost the same day, I met Bruce Gilbert at a party. He was starting a band and needed a singer. Bruce ended up on guitar, Robert Gotobed drummed, and Graham Lewis was on bass. That was Wire.
Apart from Robert, we'd all been art students. We never discussed my idea of reinventing rock'n'roll. But Bruce wanted to bring in fine-art connotations, deliberately not to talk about us in a punk way - we're not living in council flats and on the dole, we're into Marcel Duchamp. Our generation was the first to bring the 'criticality' that we find in fine art to music. Probably Wire more so than anyone. Fifties rock'n'roll sounds quite naive and tedious to me. With Wire, there's a cultural savvy.
I'd been incredibly excited by punk, at first. I'd seen the Pistols at Middlesex Poly, and the audience was divided between pissed rugby types who hated them, and the rest of us who thought they were fantastic and funny and culturally defining. You knew which side you were on. But soon, you also discovered this meant having a bunch of bands who all sounded the same. Doing something new seemed like a good idea. I wanted to reinvent rock'n'roll because I thought it should be new, not old.
There were bits of newness around. The first Buzzcocks EP, Spiral Scratch, was way ahead of anything else. It was stark and minimalist, very hard to understand or decode. When Howard Devoto left the Buzzcocks, I thought, "We've got the field to ourselves." The Pistols were just a rock band, in the end. By 1977, it was time to go on to the next thing. People were excited by the energy of punk, but wanted to do something original with it, and in that way, Wire were a post-punk band.
When we played our first two gigs, at the punk venue the Roxy in 1977, we sounded like we came from the moon. We were picked up by EMI almost immediately. And then we recorded Pink Flag. There were conscious principles behind all of its songs. "Pink Flag" is "Johnny B Goode" with one chord. It just sticks on E longer than anyone would possibly want to. And then, when we change it, it's not a relief. It makes you feel worse. "Lowdown" was supposed to take the funk out of funk - to slow down classic funk till it was a dirge, the unfunkiest thing you can have.
They were all deliberate oppositions, subverting the core clichés that rock is built on. Some reviews said, this record is going to be important for a very long time. Others didn't get it at all. I don't think Pink Flag is the best Wire record. But it was a breakthrough for the medium. And it was a breakthrough for us.
We could see its influence, even in 1977 - not in London, but in the North. Joy Division were very influenced by us. Live, I had a dance that was very jerky, the furthest I could get from Rod Stewart. Ian Curtis developed those mannerisms. And Cabaret Voltaire told us, "You're the only band in Britain that means anything." They liked the fact that an experimental attitude was being taken. It was a signal that they could move on from punk. And, of course, by 1978, punk's leading light was going into the same area we were, with Public Image Ltd. If John Lydon hadn't heard any Wire records, I'd be very surprised!
I'd felt, when writing Pink Flag in Watford, that I was on it. By the time I got to Chairs Missing (1978), knowing there was a vehicle for anything I wrote was like I was in a feedback loop with my own culture. You're doing something that matters, and people care.
When I wrote "Practice Makes Perfect", I had shivers running up my spine. What makes it different from anything on Pink Flag is that it's... angular! It amuses me that people who cite Wire as an influence on each generation of angular young British contenders always cite Pink Flag, but Chairs Missing is the angular one. It's minimal, and it put the rhythm first.
People said, in the early 1980s, that those two records sounded like Eighties records, not Seventies ones, because of that. But the real difference between them is that the atmosphere had changed. And Wire were a bunch of fashion victims. We embraced whatever innovations were around.
By 154 (1979), things had become more difficult. The band had schismed into pop and anti-pop factions, with Graham and Bruce in the latter. Bruce was nervous about where Wire was going artistically. Some people in the band were frightened of success. That makes moving forward difficult, so 154 had an element of the last gasp about it. The politics in the band had got so bad. I was the youngest, who wrote most of the tunes, and I was the lead singer - a dangerous combination because you're bound to get bullied. Wire can be brutal. I felt crushed at times. Wire's been playing power-games for 30 years. Wire could be an even better band, if not for that.
The reviews 154 got at the time would make most bands very pleased. But I think 154's deeply flawed. Some of it's fantastic, some of it's awful and bombastic. Wire made huge mistakes right after it. We drove the bus straight off the cliff. There wasn't a point when we said, it's over. It just fell apart. I think it's a tragedy of contemporary art. I feel disgust at the factors that left Wire, by 1980, nonexistent.
We reformed in 1985, and continue today. When bands talk about the impact our records had on them, I have mixed feelings. The Cure say they were very influenced by us. I wouldn't like to think I had anything to do with them. But I've got to know the Brooklyn punk-funk scene, specifically Liars, and Wire is part of their fabric. It's engrained in pop's DNA. Art-punk is the drug of choice of a whole generation.
'Pink Flag', 'Chairs Missing' and '154' are re-released on 6 March on EMI
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