Wire: the art-punk band's journey and legacy

As Wire's early albums are re-released, its front man Colin Newman looks back

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

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor