“We weren’t immediately lauded as the best thing since sliced bread”: Four decades on, a Wire gig—not to mention a new album—continues to be “an event. To mark the recent release of Silver/Lead and the band’s DRILL Los Angeles festival, we cast our minds back to the British band’s boisterous beginnings via an archival interview with vocalist Colin Newman, originally conducted in 2006. (Scroll down for list of upcoming DRILL shows in Europe.)
BY FRED MILLS
Late last month, Wire—original members Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, Robert Grey (aka Gotobed), plus guitarist-since-2010 Matt Simms—released their latest studio album, Silver/Lead via, as is their custom, via their own Pink Flag label. Yours truly, in a (cough) succinct review, observed thusly:
Silver/Lead, with its immersive sonic immediacy and lack of abrasiveness, plus rich, colorful melodic schema, has a near-irresistible appeal, Right from the get-go, the grand power chords, monolith-like drums, and belching synth lines of “Playing Harp for the Fishes” signal a cinematic ride ahead. Vocalist Colin Newman, figuratively perched at the lip of the stage, fairly leans into your face to dramatically intone words that feel more like commands than lyrics. Later on, with “Sleep on the Wing,” a brace of chiming, echoing guitars and undulating keyboards conjures a purposefully dreamy, kosmiche ambiance. Even the album’s quote-unquote “pop single,” a three-minute, hooky romp titled “Short Elevated Period,” has an almost Phil Spector-esque wall-of-sound vibe.
It almost as if Wire set out to make a concept album without actually calling it a concept album, so consistent is the sound throughout, and with subtly recurring melodic themes—compare, for example, the similarity between the main chord progression of “Playing Harp…” and the closing title track. However, given how inscrutable most of the lyrics (penned largely by bassist Graham Lewis) are, some almost haiku-ish or like a series of non sequiturs, it might be hard to make that concept claim stick. The musicians themselves might be aghast at such a label anyway. (Or maybe not. Stay tuned, or scroll downward.)
Still, the four gentlemen are nothing if not bloody minded. Unlike most of their peers from the class of ’77, they never quite knew when to stop, having indulged numerous hiatuses that weren’t true hiatuses (they would play on each other’s side projects), created a musical collective (Pinkflag.com eventually becoming the official URL) that operates more like a club house than a project, and announced the proverbial “new direction” numerous times while still maintaining a detectable through-line across 14 studio albums and more than a few live releases. Four decades on, with studio album number 15, Wire continues to thwart expectations and defy pigeonholing,
I count myself among the Wire faithful who were with the band practically from the start, having scored a copy of their 1977 debut, Pink Flag, which against all odds had been released in the States on the EMI imprint Harvest. That their U.S. label was one normally associated with British prog and avant-folk artists was an irony lost upon no one—but then, even at the outset, Wire’s art-punk seemed more aligned with the Krautrockers and experimentalists of the day than the safety-pinned brigades, a notion that was seemingly confirmed on ’78 sophomore platter Chairs Missing, and even more so on 1979’s 154. Those three albums continue to inspire fans, and it’s likely a new fanbase was created in 2006 when Pink Flag reissued them in America, additionally releasing the 5-CD box set Wire: 1977 – 1979 containing three original albums plus a pair of previously unreleased live discs: Live at the Roxy, London – April 1st & 2nd 1977 and Live at CBGB Theatre, New York – July 18, 1978.
It was on the occasion of that box that I found myself on the horn to London one afternoon, talking to Colin Newman for Harp magazine (for whom I was managing editor and also author of the publication’s “Indelibles” column, which discussed key and classic albums). What follows here is an extended draft of the Wire installment of that column; after that, if you have some extra time to waste, you can read the entire, unfiltered, previously unpublished interview. What was originally going to be about a 20 minute conversation with Newman soon stretched to the better portion of an hour, and he was genuinely one of the most outgoing and gracious musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing.
Incidentally, Wire just marked the 40th anniversary of the abovementioned Roxy performance, which as it turns out was the band’s official live coming-out party. (There had been a prior performance at a college under a different name than Wire.) Elsewhere on the BLURT site you can view a photo gallery from DRILL Los Angeles by longtime contributor Susan Moll. We’ve faithfully covered the band in our nearly nine years of existence, and if you have even more time to waste, just enter the term “wire” into the search box on the right-hand side of this page and dive right in. Happy birthday, lads.
APRIL 1, 1977, LONDON: Wire is onstage at the Roxy club, nearing the end of a 17-song set – which, in a flourish of Ramones-like economy, will clock in at barely 25 minutes. Caustic sexual diatribe “12XU” is followed by the fuck-you society rant “Mr. Suit.” Then, with barely a pause between tunes, the band catapults into a cover of the Dave Clark Five’s “Glad All Over.” Shorn of its feel-good vibe and delivered at breakneck speed, the ‘60s pop chestnut is reinvented as a punk anthem steeped in irony.
Clearly, this band Wire will be greeted as an upstart conquering hero here at this grotty punk venue (the Roxy was previously a gay club located in London’s Covent Garden section), which has chosen April 1 and 2 to showcase the cream of up-and-coming British combos for a two-day “Punk Festival.” Wire’s in good company, too, sharing a bill with the likes of X-Ray Spex, Slaughter and the Dogs, the Adverts and the Buzzcocks.
“Glad All Over” throttles to its conclusion, and then – dead silence. Nothing. Stunned disbelief on the part of the Roxy audience, outright indifference, or….?
“There wasn’t anybody there!”
Wire vocalist Colin Newman chortles heartily. Three decades after his band’s official debut as a quartet, his memory, in 2006, of Wire’s early days remains fresh. All the more remarkable, given his band’s fractious career that’s seen more than its share of breakups, reunions, extended hiatuses, and concurrent solo careers.
Part of Newman’s good mood is due to his having recently completed long-after-the-fact postproduction work on live tapes of the Roxy shows – originally recorded by EMI, two Wire songs would be included on 1977 punk compilation The Roxy London WC2 (Jan – Apr 77) and he’s now high-spiritedly framing the scene.
“On the first night we were the opening band – the opening band on a five-band bill in a club holding 100 people,” explains Newman. “That’s pretty lowly! So it has to be pointed out that the reason it’s so quiet between songs is because no one was there [yet] that night. In fact, because the Wire tracks on that live Roxy album were so quiet, a lot of people thought they’d actually been recorded in a studio! On the second night they’d moved us up on the bill because they thought we were quite good, but we still weren’t that high. I think we were still behind X-Ray Spex, who were newer than we were.
“You wouldn’t have imagined anything was happening at this point. It all just sort of happened, really. Less than six months later we were recording Pink Flag.”
Ah. Pink Flag. Nowadays it’s hard to imagine a modern musical milieu without the DNA strands of Wire and its debut LP winnowing around in the mix – on both sides of the Atlantic. Over the years American heavy hitters as sonically diverse as R.E.M., Mission of Burma, and the Minutemen have enthusiastically cited Wire’s influence, while the current crop of UK neo-postpunkers — Futureheads, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Githead et al — could do worse than to simply sign over a portion of their royalties to Newman, guitarist Bruce Gilbert, drummer Robert Gotobed (nee Grey), and bassist Graham Lewis. (Ditto that: In 1995 Britpop upstarts Elastica literally nicked the angular, loping intro to Pink Flag’s “Three Girl Rhumba” and, upon grafting it into their own “Connection,” took the Wire influence directly to the bank; the matter was subsequently settled out of court.)
The road to Pink Flag was paved with, not so much fortuity or luck, as sober-headed deliberation. The group initially began life at Watford art school in 1976 as Overload; lasting one gig, Overload then gradually morphed into Wire after fellow students Newman, Gilbert and guitarist and principal songwriter George Gill recruited Newman and Gotobed, although Gill’s tenure came to an end after only six gigs when the other four determined that pointed, streamlined tunes with an eye towards maximum initial impact trumped Gill’s more traditionally-minded material steeped in solos and extended choruses.
One fortuitous stroke did occur when producer Mike Thorne, who’d overseen the Roxy club recordings for EMI, took a liking to Wire. At Thorne’s urging, EMI offered a contract, and by the fall the band was hard at work in London’s venerable Advision Studios, crafting Pink Flag with Thorne at the helm. EMI no doubt thought it was getting a one-two-three-FOWAHH! punk band for its cash, although in hindsight, signing Wire to its progressive imprint Harvest and not EMI proper has to go down as one of rock’s great Freudian slips.
“Wire were not a punk band,” Newman vehemently maintains. “Any attitudes that would be coming from [punk], we would be of the opposite direction. Secondly, you have people who were really, really serious about the music. To have a record with your name on it, that’s a serious thing and you’re not gonna blow this chance. You’re gonna do it really properly.”
Newman adds that while at this stage the musicianship in Wire wasn’t quite up to, say, Yes or Genesis standards, a lot of thought and strategy went into the making of Pink Flag. “There were a bunch of people with points to prove, including Mike Thorne,” he says. For his part, Thorne proposed that Wire could draw from both the heavy metal and pop fields in order to make a record that was simultaneously accessible and true to its creators’ art school-fueled leanings. The massive wall of guitars – a pair of two-chord sequences overdubbed eight times — that greets listeners’ ears on opening track “Reuters,” for example, reflected the metal aesthetic (Newman recalls band members exclaiming, “Yeah, we like that!” at the playback). Elsewhere, while the album is dotted by numerous cuts that speed abrasively past in under a minute, more tuneful material such as “Ex-Lion Tamer” (a joyful, lyrically absurd romp) and the title track (a kind of upside-down take on Chuck Berry, and one of several overtly political numbers on the album) clearly speak to Wire’s and Thorne’s hunch that the band could be, as Newman puts it, “pop and avant garde at the same time.”
(Newman hastens to point out that, seriousness of intent aside, a lot of humor could be found in Wire: “It was extremely deadpan and all done with a very straight face, so a lot of people didn’t understand that there was humor in it. But listen to the Roxy thing – absolutely hilarious! You understand something about Wire that you can’t necessarily understand listening to Pink Flag. I mean, same band, in the same way, in the same style, doing ‘Glad All Over’?!?”)
Journalist Simon Reynolds, in his insightful 2005 post-punk post-mortem Rip It Up And Start Again, cites Pink Flag’s key attributes: “21 bursts of abstract fury in just 35 minutes,” “enigmatic lyrics and non-linear dream logic” and “songs as exquisitely etched as a finely honed haiku.” Similar plaudits greeted Pink Flag in the UK upon its release in late ’77, and Wire soon found itself doing photo sessions for all the British weeklies. A tour supporting the Tubes further exposed Wire to the masses, and Newman recalls the sense of momentum that began kicking in.
“We did a series of Saturdays at a pub called the Red Cow in Hammersmith. It held 200. We started off the first Saturday with it half full. The second Saturday was three-fourths full, and on the third it was completely full. That fourth Saturday there were as many outsiders who couldn’t get in as there were on the inside. I remember my friends would be like, ‘Wow – this is really happening, man.’ Everyone who was in a band would come and see us and tell us how much they loved us – Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire. A Wire gig was definitely an event.”
Wire’s reception over here was a bit different. Thanks to Pink Flag being released by EMI in America, the band enjoyed a leg up, distribution-wise, that many of its contemporaries weren’t privy to. The record did find its way into stores. Yours truly, however, working in 1977-78 for a record store chain’s distribution center, distinctly recalls spotting several cartons of Pink Flag promos earmarked for the warehouse’s dumpster. Upon rescuing a handful of LPs (I still own a sealed copy) I opened one and played it over the in-house stereo; the looks of horror and outright hostility that warehouse workers immediately directed at me suggested that elsewhere in the American heartland, at that very same moment, similar reactions to Wire might be taking place. As Newman drily puts it upon hearing my anecdote, “We weren’t immediately lauded as the best thing since sliced bread.”
Wire didn’t do itself any favors by only coming to the U.S. once during the seventies, and high profile though a five-night residency at CBGB (in July of ’78) may have been in theory, in practice it rendered the band non-starters on these shores. EMI didn’t even bother to release its second album in America. So for the most part it would be up to college radio and the loose network of punk fanzines to get the word out on Wire; both Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus trashed the album, in Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, respectively, so Pink Flag would have to settle for having a delayed, halo effect upon American youth. It would take the hardcore movement of the ‘80s – the SST Records camp, the DC and Boston scenes – to fully appreciate Wire’s minimalist, rejection-of-rock-dogma, approach.
Meanwhile, Wire went about its business at home, touring extensively in Britain and Europe and recording two more groundbreaking albums with producer Thorne, 1978’s Chairs Missing and 1979’s 154. Each represented a huge step forward for the band: Chairs Missing, compared to its predecessor, was lush with keyboards, borderline psychedelic and contained the near-hit single “Outdoor Miner”; 154, densely textured and cloaked in atmosphere, prefigured in places the ambient techno scene of the ‘90s.
Comparing the recording of each album, Newman recalls the debut as being “quite fraught. It wasn’t necessarily grueling but there was a lot of frayed tempers when we were recording the backing tracks. If Robert didn’t keep a steady speed Graham would stop playing and then they’d have a fight and the sticks would go flying across the room. Chairs Missing was fun, and because we could play better we found it easier to put the backing tracks down and there was also more overdubbing. That’s an exciting thing to be able to do, when you first start to get the whole feel of overdubbing, adding parts that were not done in the original and taking a track somewhere. That was obviously a key to how then things developed in the following album.”
Yet by the time of 154 Wire had effectively divided into two camps, the defiantly avant-garde Lewis and Gilbert and the Newman-Gotobed contingent, who Newman says was “still interested in retaining a really broad canvas for the band.” Thorne was stuck in the middle, attempting to extract singles-oriented material from the band in order to appease the powers that be at EMI.
Everything came to a head during the making of 154, says Newman, partly as a result of EMI’s demands, partly due to the band’s collective bloody-mindedness, and to a large degree the byproduct of diverging agendas among the members themselves. “Personal relations in Wire have always been very, very difficult. We’ve never been friends and it’s never been an easy kind of thing. Chairs Missing had been joyful and sunny and the joy of a band discovering they could really play and then just taking that and pushing it further in the studio. Whereas working on 154, it had some very horrible moments, ambition pushing it in different directions.”
Not long after the release of 154 Wire embarked upon an ill-fated tour with Roxy Music that found the group, much to EMI’s displeasure, quitting the tour after only a few shows. Tension between band and label was further fueled when Wire did a series of performance art-heavy concerts in November ’79 that barely featured any of the new 154 material. The following February Wire announced it had left EMI, citing a “breakdown of communication” (e.g., EMI wouldn’t fund some of the group’s ideas for promoting Wire – among those ideas, filming videos).
Wire played a concert on February 29 at London’s Electric Ballroom. Again heavy on multimedia content and performance art, the show was recorded for posterity and eventually released by Rough Trade in 1981 as the Document and Eyewitness album. By that point, however, Wire had been absent for over a year. It would be four more years before anyone would hear from the band.
“I look back now and I think… pfffttt, we were pretty damn arrogant, you know?” remarks Colin Newman, of Wire’s burning desire to keep moving forward artistically at the expense of its own commercial fortunes. “We just didn’t give a stuff about what anybody thought. We just felt it was obvious we had to do something else. You’ve got to remember, we were in the first serious, postmodern critical era in terms of what rock music was about. We could say, ‘But what happened to Pink Floyd? Why did they become rubbish?’ Well, they got rubbish because they just did more of the same, but weaker, adding water to their formulas.”
The members of Wire, always determined not to get painted into a Floydian corner, remained musically active during the first half of the ‘80s, Newman issuing string of solo records, Gilbert and Lewis teaming up in various guises (Dome, Duet Emmo He Said, Cupol, Lewis/Gilbert), and Gotobed doing session work. 1985 saw the four men resume operations as Wire for another five years, and then again in 2000, the latter reunion yielded 2003’s stunning Send and a lengthy tour (documented on the CD/DVD package The Scottish Play: 2004). In the fall of 2005, however, Bruce Gilbert gave his notice that he was leaving Wire for good.
“This last version if Wire, the version that did Send, was supposed to be the version that was built to last,” muses Newman. There’s a long pause, followed by an equally long exhalation. “It didn’t happen. That was a great album and that whole thing should have gone some place. Actually, the timing of these re-releases, it was supposed to be Send, and then the re-releases, and then a new Wire album, all like a virtual circle. But it just hasn’t happened.”
Newman diplomatically declines to go into specifics, simply saying, “It’s an incredibly sad story. There were moments when maybe something could’ve been done, but I don’t really know. But anyway, I don’t want to talk it down. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved.”
Indeed he is. In addition to spearheading the Pink Flag America reissues of Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154 and penning each disc’s liner notes, Newman has overseen a 5-CD box set, Wire: 1977 – 1979. It includes the three original albums housed in mini-LP sleeves plus a pair of previously unreleased live discs: Live at the Roxy, London – April 1st & 2nd 1977 goes all the way back to the beginning, with both Wire sets from the Punk Festival, while Live at CBGB Theatre, New York – July 18, 1978 documents one night of Wire’s 1978 CBGB residency. The limited-edition box is available exclusively at Wire’s website, www.PostEverything.com).
“I probably care more than I should,” says Newman, acknowledging his role as de facto curator of the Wire archives. (2004 also saw the release of Wire on the BOX: 1979, a live DVD/CD package.) “Some people in Wire may be nervous about going too far, and it’s the infuriating thing about Wire which makes the internal relationships very difficult. But I just think that Wire deserves, in this late stage in its life, to receive adulation. The amount of love that Wire gets for what it’s achieved, and what it’s achieved in more than one incarnation, well…
“We’re not going to turn into some kind of squidgy, sentimental thing and all of a sudden do ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ or something like that, you know what I mean?”
The complete Colin Newman interview is here on the BLURT site.