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Both fractured and innovative, English art college combo WIRE marked out their domain among London’s earliest punk elite, morphing their initial DIY ethos into experimental territory. Three classic new wave albums in the late 70s became unsurpassable, and the group quickly splintered in other directions, returning to the main drag for the periods 1986 to 1991 and 1999 to 2020…
Actually formed as a quintet in October 1976, novice guitarists Colin Newman and George Gill duly abandoned the Overload nom de plume they’d set up with audio-visual technician Bruce Gilbert, and enrolled likeminded former students, Graham Lewis (bass) and Robert Gotobed (drums); Gill left at the turn of the year.
Quickly into gear, WIRE made their vinyl debut in April 1977 on the seminal various artists LP, “Live At The Roxy”, when safety pin-pierced body-parts were part and parcel of their fanclub’s Carnaby Street attire. The songs in question were align to punk anthems, one fast and furious: `12XU’, the other a grungy dirge: `Lowdown’ – both included on their forthcoming set. The E.M.I. backed Harvest imprint (home to PINK FLOYD and tens of prog-rock outfits), desperate for some hip punk credibility, decided to give WIRE a contract. Although unsuccessful with their first singles album preview, `Mannequin’, the quirky quartet unleashed their Mike Thorne-produced debut, PINK FLAG {*9}, toward the end of punk year ‘77.
The record contained no less than 21 short, sharp shocks of minimalist punk rock/new wave (half a dozen ditties were under a minute!), possessed of a musical intelligence that dwarfed their more retro-fixated contemporaries – with the exception of American punk cousins, RAMONES. Of the tracks clocking in above the 3-minute mark, the crunching `Reuters’, `Strange’ and the title track, demonstrated the group’s unpredictability, while the all-too-brief `Three Girl Rhumba’, `Ex-Lion Tamer’, `Surgeon’s Girl’, `106 Beats That’, `Fragile’, `Mr. Suit’ and `Feeling Called Love’, sprinted to their riff-tastic conclusion.
Early in 1978, WIRE followed the set with the truly sublime, `I Am The Fly’, a simple, lyrically first-person piece, of what can only be described as glam-punk. After another fruitless stab at the charts with the transmissional buzz-saw barrage of `Dot Dash’ (an exclusive non-LP platter), the four-piece returned with an even more engaging second set, the oblique and atmospheric CHAIRS MISSING (1978) {*9}.
This avant-punk record surely deserved better than its lowly Top 50 placing, featuring as it did the eerie `Practice Makes Perfect’, the obviously cinematic `French Film Blurred’, the kooky BARRETT-esque `I Feel Mysterious Today, and the “minor” hit 45, `Outdoor Miner’. Packing in a short essay ending with a suicide, the minute-long `Another The Letter’ was a brittle interlude, while almost punk Floyd-ian `Marooned’, `Being Sucked In Again’ and the 5-minute `Mercy’, stretched and elasticated the boundaries of their genre beyond its once-tight limitations. The trio of the spiky, back-to-back curtain-calls, `From The Nursery’, `Used To’ and `Too Late’, assured fans they hadn’t totally deserted their punk principles.
In the wake of another exclusive singles slop, `A Question Of Degree’, WIRE’s third set 154 (1979) {*8} managed to crack the Top 40, effectively displaying an even more experimental side to the one-time three-chord wonders. The opening VAN DER GRAAF-like salvo, `I Should Have Known Better’, displayed an earthy, insular texture, and with producer/5th member Mike Thorne at the controls, WIRE inched their way out of punk slowly but surely. `The 15th’, the off-kilter `On Returning’, the haunting 7-minute `A Touching Display’ and `A Mutual Friend’, were up there with the weirdest WIRE dirges; topped by the attendant single, `Map Ref 41 Degrees N 93 Degrees W’ and the sprightly `Two People In A Room’, the set marked a quality period for punk’s most bizarre outfits.
Sadly, however, it was their final outing for Harvest; the out-of-contract group moving on to the more appropriately-suited indie label, Rough Trade. Released in summer 1981, the long-awaited single, `Our Swimmer’, was in fact recorded in ’79, while an anti-commercial, poor quality live double-set, DOCUMENT AND EYEWITNESS {*4}, appeared a few months later. Lifted from concerts given at the Electric Ballroom in February 1980 and the Notre Dame Hall in July ’79, the band were heard shooting themselves in the foot so to speak, performing fresh songs to a bewildered and indeed frustrated audience; but for `12XU’, `Heartbeat’, `2 People…’, the aforementioned 45 and the the wonky, `Eastern Standard’, the set was intentionally shambolic.
WIRE had already decided on alternative but decidedly maverick projects, one of these, DOME (aka GILBERT & LEWIS), had been in the pipeline for some time, while COLIN NEWMAN went on to indie success with a string of solo albums. A myriad of obscure independent splinter acts came courtesy of P’O, DUET EMMO, HE SAID, et al, none really capturing the essence and panache of the old WIRE.
In 1986, the much-in-demand and resolute WIRE returned, completing an EP (`Snakedrill’) for top indie label, Mute, before making the comeback complete through their fourth proper album, THE IDEAL COPY (1987) {*6}. Recalling their more confident, complex and contemporary bent of old, Newman, Gilbert, Lewis and Gotobed, updated their edgy pace with digital dance ditties; exampled best on `Ahead’, `Ambitious’, `A Serious Of Snakes’ and `Drill’.
WIRE continued to enjoy a degree of cult success; 1988’s A BELL IS A CUP …UNTIL IT IS STRUCK {*7} finding its balance of detached pop with lyrically-astute songs such as `Kidney Bingos’, `The Finest Drop’ and `The Queen Of Ur And The King Of Um’, making the grade. IT’S BEGINNING TO AND BACK AGAIN (1989) {*6} was intended to be a live-in-concert set, cut as it was in Portugal and Chicago, but with tracks reconstructed and remixed back in the studio, it transpired a sprawling irreverence, with only a handful of tracks – `Eardrum Buzz’, `In Vivo’ and `Public Place’ – garnering a modicum of coherence; surprisingly, the word of WIRE was spreading across the Atlantic, where the album bubbled under the Top 100.
Drifting dangerously toward the impending decadent dance scene, MANSCAPE (1990) {*4}, was the group’s worst decision; tracks `Torch It’ and `Morning Bell’ saving the album from being a complete disaster. In 1991, Gotobed retired (to Bedfordshire, no doubt?!). The remaining trio chose to become WIR, releasing the disappointing dull, THE FIRST LETTER {*4}, later that year. For the remainder of the 90s, NEWMAN, GILBERT and LEWIS took on their individual projects, all fairly obscure of course.
With the nasty 90s out of the way, the re-grouped WIRE 4-piece were back with the internet-friendly EP series, `The Third Day’, `Read & Burn’ 01’ and `Read & Burn 02’, the latter a record that opened with the basic and incisive, `In The Art Of Stopping’. This track was also the opener on their long-awaited full-set, SEND (2003) {*7}, a transitional, energetic return to form which also included new gems such as `Spent’, `The Agfers Of Kodack’ and `Mr. Marx’s Table’. Subsequently packaged as a DVD/CD from live recordings at the Tramway Theatre in Glasgow a year earlier, THE SCOTTISH PLAY: 2004 (2005) {*5}, didn’t dare call it that unspeakable title, fear of bad luck and other ghoulish things.
OBJECT 47 (2008) {*7} marked the trio’s 47th release, although it also marked the absence of Bruce Gilbert, leaving Messrs Newman, Lewis and Gotobed/Grey to feast on their own devices; Page Hamilton (of HELMET) makes a guest appearance. RED BARKED TREE (2010) {*6} steadied the ship again with its intense trips of social-conscience punk-meets-avant-pop; `Two Minutes’, `Clay’ and `Moreover’, coming as close to ye WIRE of olde. Sprung from an attendant performance on the French radio show, C’est Lenoir, THE BLACK SESSION: PARIS, 10 MAY 2011 {*6}, WIRE’s concert acumen was restored.
Practice makes perfect, as the band once paraphrased, CHANGE BECOMES US (2013) {*7} unlocked the sands of time and recalled their first steps triumvirate in one fell swoop. `Doubles & Trebles’ and the numerically-driven `Re-invent Your Second Wheel’, grinded as per “Chairs Missing”; newcomer guitarist Matt Simms effectively upgraded from touring appendix to full-time studio member. Fans of old (and sons of old fans) will salivate among the album’s choicest cuts, `Magic Bullet’, `Time Lock Fog’, `As We Go’ and the BLUR-like `Love Bends’, albeit with a strange longing to re-playlist their classic 70s timepieces.
Moving on a few years to `Blogging’ from 2015’s eponymous set WIRE {*7}, the quartet drip-feed the listener into the social media vibe that surrounds us all today (Amazon, eBay, et al). Lyrics provided mostly by Lewis, singer/guitarist Newman and Co transcend BEATLES-ish psychedelia on `Burning Bridges’ and Britpop on `In Manchester’. Played one or twice the album sounds weak and derivative, but repeat plays unveil indelible songs such as `Split Your Ends’, `Joust Jostle’ and `Octopus’ that seduce and engage the mind. Deliberately slow-burning, the longitude and latitude of `Sleep-Walking’ and concluding track `Harpooned’ (a live fave) echoed the band’s mid-80s “Drill” period.
Allowing themselves only a year rest-bite from activities, the willowy WIRE got into 80s-styled mini-set mode on 2016’s NOCTURNAL KOREANS {*7}; the tracks drawn from extracurricular times at various studios from Monmouthshire in Wales to Brighton and London. Slipping through the net of sleeping supremo Kim Jong-un by a considerable margin (just joking), expectations were for a political twist and a few “back-spins”. Rather the opposite in their lush ambience of surreal and subversive pop-rock, Newman and Co expanded their WIRE-d to the Moon grooves on `Fishes Bones’, `Internal Exile’, `Dead Weight’ and their “think-of-a-number”/Three Girl Rhumba… `Numbered’.
The group commemorated over 40 years in the music business with the unfettering of umpteenth set, SILVER/LEAD (2017) {*8}. An album of under 37 minutes (and bypassing a brooding punk-pop delicacy (`Short Elevated Period’) for several literate lullabies), here, they harvest their melancholy PINK FLOYD-meets-industrial aspirations on the strident `Playing Harp For The Fishes’, `Diamonds In Cups’, `Forever & A Day’ and `Brio’; songs in the key of WIRE’s life – mercurial and resilient.
Always pushing the envelope rather than punching the clock, the unflinching WIRE quartet sparkled once again with early 2020’s MIND HIVE {*8}; a Top 100 breaker. The hypnotic `Hung’ was as paranoid and pulsating as any piece from their post-punk period, whereas the immersive opening salvo, `Be Like Them’, flagged up an old pink line or two. The almost algorithmically-astute `Cactused’, the grind-grooved `Primed And Ready’ and the sprightly `Off The Beach’ counted to a number almost “154”, without really noticing of “chairs missing”. Calming the ship by way of marooned dreamscapes, `Unrepentant’ and `Shadows’, the album set sail for a stormier course on the moody and moribund `Oklahoma’ (featuring the line “I admired your sexy hearse”).
An excavation of old bones buried deep away from the concepts of “The Ideal Copy”, “A Bell Is A Cup…”, “It’s Beginning To…”, “Manscape” et al, respective pieces such as `Over Theirs’, `Boiling Boy’, `German Shepherds’ and `Small Black Reptile’ were succinctly re-imagined for their second set of the year, 10:20 (2020) {*8}. Fans looking for a new wave noise nugget to sink their teeth into, then the “Chairs Missing” outtake (that made an appearance on the “Document & Eyewitness” live record), `Underwater Experiences’, was just dandy; as was former concert staple from 2008, `He Knows’, featuring guitarist Gilbert’s then temp sub, Margaret Fielder (of LAIKA).
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Mar2013-Jun2020

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