Fun With Wire!

 

Since we’re also
talking Colin Newman’s other band, Githead, at Blurt today, let’s rewind all
the way back to the beginning…

 

By Fred Mills

 

Most folks have a story about the first time they heard groundbreaking,
iconoclastic British punk band Wire, and so do I: In the winter of 1977/78 I
was working in the distribution center of southeastern music retailers Record
Bar, and with U.S. major labels gradually, if grudgingly, warming up to the
then-current exports from England, a shipment from EMI one day was of great
interest to me and a couple of my fellow punk-tilting employees: it included
the debut album from Wire, whom we’d already been exposed to via Melody Maker and the NME. Among the shipment was a carton of
sealed/cut corner promotional copies of Pink
Flag
intended to be sent around to the various accounts for in-store play,
but as we surmised most if not all of them would be wasted – this was the South, after all, and Record
Bar, though privately owned, was a mall-based chain – we convinced our supervisor
to let us each take a handful of promos for ourselves.

 

We also set aside one for in-warehouse play. That afternoon
my friend Robert furtively slipped the LP into the pile next to the stereo, and
it eventually rotated to the top of the stack. Then –

 

 Thoom… thoom… clang… clang…

“Our own correspondent
is sorry to tell

Of an uneasy time that
all is not well…”

 

Perhaps a minute elapsed during which Pink Flag opening track “Reuters” played. Then –

 

“WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT
SHIT?!?

 

Talk about your uneasy times. I can honestly say I’ve never
witnessed quite so visceral a (negative) reaction to a piece of music in my
entire life as this one: almost to a man, the warehouse employees hurtled
verbal abuse in the direction of the office, and the supervisor’s assistant scrambled
to yank the album from the turntable, summarily replacing it with a Molly
Hatchet record. Sigh. Such was life at a warehouse in the seventies. But you
can’t say we didn’t try to subvert
from within.

 

 

 

 

 

Journalist (and BLURT contributor) Wilson Neate has his
First Encounter Of A Wire Kind too: Growing up in England, in 1977 he was 12
and receiving musical transmissions from the likes of John Peel’s BBC program
and Radio Luxembourg, which eagerly aired the new music of the day. As he
outlines in his contribution to Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, Pink Flag, his initial exposure was via the single “I Am The Fly,”
from Wire’s second LP Chairs Missing;
“I didn’t know what to make of the song,” Neate confesses, adding that he
nevertheless was smitten by its uniqueness. Soon enough he’d backtracked to
score a copy of Pink Flag, never
suspecting he might one day be interviewing its creators and authoring a book
about it.

 

“A lot of great albums came out in 1977,” writes Neate, “but
Pink Flag is one of a handful –
alongside Low, “Heroes”, Before and After
Science
– that remain objects of fascination to me.” And then Neate
dispenses with the autobiographical portion of his program and proceeds to
outline, in painstaking but rousingly informative fashion, exactly why Pink Flag remains such an object of
fascination – to him, to the rest of us, and most of all, to the four men of
Wire.

 

This latter component is of no minor importance, by the way;
Neate was able to interview vocalist Colin Newman, guitarist Bruce Gilbert,
drummer Robert Gotobed and bassist Graham Lewis at length in order to get the
story leading up to and behind the making of Pink Flag. It’s not as Rashomon-like
as you might presume, either; Wire’s subsequent history may be fraught with artistic
differences and the comings-and-goings of disgruntled members, but during the
early years, at least, it seems they were relatively united in their desire to
(a) be different; (b) but not “different” like the punks were “different,” as
they all chafed at punk orthodoxy; and (c) find new ways of saying old things,
i.e., “be different.” And it’s to Neate’s credit that he untangles some of the
seemingly contradictory elements of the Wire aesthetic – it’s not punk, but
it’s minimalist, which coming on the heels of bloated ‘70s rock definitely
sounded “punk” for lack of a better term; ideas were rampant among the members,
but as a group Wire operated via reduction of ideas; etc. – without disappearing up an intellectual journalistic arse-hole.

 

Although Neate does have a propensity to analyze and dissect
in almost dissertation fashion (check some of his reviews and features for
BLURT), he’s still mindful of spinning an entertaining tale along the way. And
that, when you boil down a music volume to its essentials, is what will make or
break a book. How many times have you started to get engrossed in a biography when,
just as things are really picking up steam, the writer lapses into the dreaded
“describe-the-album-track-by-track” syndrome and nearly (or completely) drains
the narrative of color and drama?

 

Hold that thought: Neate’s Pink Flag has an entire 60-page section titled “God Those R.P.M.: Pink Flag Track by Track,” so if the
thought of spending 10 or 15 minutes to read a description of a song that’s
only 1½ minutes in the first place floats your boat, this dinghy’s for you,
bro. Only kidding – Neate’s well up to the task at hand, and he ably tackles
each of the 21 Pink Flag tunes,
mixing aural analysis with emotional context, throwing in some cultural or
historical tidbits along the way (for example, the trajectory of “Three Girl
Rhumba” from original LP to Elastica’s 1994 riff appropriation for their hit
“Connection” to a European TV commercial that had most listeners mistaking Wire
for Elastica, if you can believe that), and adding occasional quotes from Wire
members for additional illumination.

 

And as that tracks section follows some 80-odd pages
outlining the history of Wire/Pink Flag – which itself is loaded with copious quotes, enough so that we can justifiably
call it The Definitive And Authoritative Treatment of that period in Wire’s
long career – Neate’s book is akin to a wholly filling two-course meal. There’s
even “dessert” by way of a final coda-like chapter that discusses matters
surrounding the 2006 Wire box set and the Pink
Flag
reissue.

 

Bottom line: Pink Flag (the book) does Pink Flag (the album)
full justice. A lot of the titles in the 33 1/3 series do similarly, but this
one deserves to be recognized as one of the top entries to date, period.

 

***

 

Incidentally, I still have one of those sealed Pink Flag promos in my collection – I’m
looking at it right now, in fact. Oddly, I have an urge to go play some Molly
Hatchet. But I’m sure the feeling will pass…

 

 

 

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