Wire albums

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            Wire were one of the first trifecta of British punk bands that also made great albums: Wire, The Clash, John Lydon (both Sex Pistols and PIL). While the Clash used the history of music as a guideline and Sex Pistols rebelled against everything, Wire built a portal to the future. They are the ones that still sound the most contemporary, building a sound off of both Colin Newman, Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert’s songs that were unique enough to stand out. Their first 3 albums are all masterworks: Pink Flag (1977) starting a new language of short, catchy tunes and also strange abstract dirges; Chairs Missing (1978) incorporating progressive rocks aesthetics into punk attitudes; and 154 (1979) leaving us with a blueprint for noise rock and post punk for the next 3 decades to come. They reformed in the late 1980’s and have made many good records in the 21st century as well- a fact that should not be overlooked by their early masterworks. In all, they have proved to be a band that matted to all musicians that followed.

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1977

Pink Flag –     (4.5 / 5)

            Pink Flag put a twist on the punk music of the era, proving that a juvenile type of basic rock n roll still had many facets to explore. The most radical idea here are the songs that are less than a minute long or perhaps a little over but still manage to express a full idea. These songs could be played at supersonic speed a la The Ramones (the throbbing “Mr. Suit”, “Start to Move”, the anthemic closer “12xu”) or just a really short snippet of an idea for a rock song (“Field Day for Sundays”, “It’s So Obvious”, instrumental “The Commercial”). The masterpiece of these shorter songs is the minute and a half “Three Girl Rhumba” that takes a catchy rock in roll riff and uses it as percussion for lead singer Colin Newman’s bizarre mathematical lyrics: “Think of a number / divide it by zero / something is nothing / nothing is nothing”.

            The other half of the songs on Pink Flag represent a more catchy and raw form of pop music, from the opening chant of “Reuters” (with a slow motion beginning and ending) to the buoyant and anti-apathetic “Ex Lion Tamer” to the horrifying chant of “HOW MANY DEAD OR ALIVE” on title track “Pink Flag” and dreary two chord shuffle of “Lowdown”. Late in the album are the two most radio friendly tunes in “Mannequin” with its very hummable background “ooooo’s” and closing of “lalalala”; also “Fragile” which hints at a power pop melody hijacked by a more progressive rock song structure that starts and stops unpredictably. “Feeling Called Love” is a song that perhaps could have been longer, harking back to the garage bands of the 1960’s a bit more. “Strange” would be the default epic length tune (at only 4 minutes), and its slow dirge guitar riff will stay in your head for days.

            With this original idea, the ambition is present though there are a couple of tracks that don’t add much to the proceedings- mainly “Brazil”, “Straight Line”, “Different to Me” – but at least the lesser ideas go by very fast. Pink Flag could have been a normal 12 or 13 song album and blended in with other emerging punk bands of the era, but this combination of short bursts with the more traditional forceful two or three minute tunes make it quite the immersive sonic experience. For the new genre of punk rock itself, the avenues of expression this album opened are too many to name. There has another been a record quite like it, and it stands up well to other albums of 1977.

Best Songs: Fragile, Three Girl Rhumba, Ex Lion Tamer, Mr Suit

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1978

Chairs Missing –  (5 / 5)

            Wire is a band all about evolution, in fact they might have done it better than anyone else before them. They were at least fluid with what they did, and the songs present that sound like the previous album Pink Flag are short, concise and effective: “Men 2nd” and “Another Letter” have not missed a beat at all and sound like more of the same random chords and notes and chanting by Colin Newman, while “Sand In My Joints” is the most effective at creating a loud wall of guitar distortion and not even lasting two minutes. These songs serve only as a prelude, as the remainder of the record is something else entirely, and a true improvement on the band’s trademark sound. Mike Thorne produces the record and adds plenty of synthesizer sounds.

            “Practice Makes Perfect” is the opener that creates a haunting atmosphere with its eerie synth background, where “French Film Blurred” and “Marooned” up the definition of what a ballad can do with rock music. “Heartbeat” wonders around a central theme of a pulsating beat, its not so much a song as a repeated mantra (notice how it randomly descend to only a drum count off several times throughout the tune), where as “Used To” recalls The Beatles at their most tender. These are songs that paint the new color of the group as more progressive rock, in line with Pink Floyd and Roxy Music but with the aggressive attitude of punk infused at every corner.

            Saving the best for last, “Being Sucked in Again” uses dissonant chords to the full advantage of a march in progress, where “Mercy” is the longest, strangest beast of a rock song the band has attempted yet. Right together towards the end of the record are the band’s best two songs to date: the pure pop of “Outdoor Miner” changed the game once again, creating an infectious sing along that only makes lyrical sense in the mind of its creator (again Newman knows no bounds on diverse songwriting) and is very brief at two minutes; “I Am the Fly” serves as the band’s anthem, a song driving home what it feels like to be the smartest and most creative band in the English punk scene at the time. “Too Late” starts off with uncontrollable punk verve, but then jams out for three more minutes and sums up the album as a true work of art. There is hardly a wasted moment on the whole record, and only their second attempt the band has created a masterwork of promise and hope.

Best Songs: I am The Fly, Outdoor Miner, Mercy, Being Sucked In Again

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1979

154 (5 / 5)+

            Wire’s third album takes the odd corners of music and smashes them together in creative and beautiful ways, if beauty can also contain great sadness and yearning. It is my favorite Wire record and easily a candidate for best album ever made. 154 was evidently the number of live gigs the band had played at that point, and after this record sadly broke up; I can understand why after his onslaught of creativity.

            Two other group songwriters take main stage here, which of course adds diversity to the proceedings on its own. Graham Lewis has two solo written songs, with “A Touching Display” being one of the best ones here and a blueprint for what would later be dubbed the genre: noise rock. It’s odd chanting of “I really like you because my message…” in the chorus defies easy interpretation. Opener “I Should Have Known Better” also adds dimensions to the groups work, miles away from the Pink Flag debut though only a mere two years after. Bruce Gilbert adds “Blessed State”, a fluffy take on pop music that proved influence on the Brit Pop of the coming years. But largely this is Colin Newman’s show, he writes the majority of the songs and his cannon alone is so diverse that the group sounds like a million bands at once. Every song on here sounds like it approaches music form a different angle, whether it be the churning patterns of “Two People in a Room” or the chant of “You’ve been defaced!!!” on the impenetrable “Indirect Inquires”. Luckily, Newman works in plenty of enjoyable refrains as he goes, and the fact that he can make perfect pop songs along with abstract angry art rock is going to rub a lot of people the wrong way, even many years later. One example of this is “The 15th” a song as airy as a snowflake but somehow never a hit single- that is a crime against it that should be fixed as it is probably Wire’s best and most treasured composition. It is a perfect ditty full of strange lyrics and an equally mysterious and haunting fade out guitar part.

            Secondly, “Map Reference 41 degrees North 90 degrees West” is the albums most notorious single, deliberately difficult with its lyrical content about maps and using longitude and latitude in its famous chorus. It is a personal favorite of mine since I was a double major in college for a time of Music and Geography. “Single K.O.”, written with Lewis musically paints a vision of a world turned upside down, the very idea of structure and meaning is turned on its head. “The Other Window” doesn’t contain singing, it contains ‘speaking’ like few musicians have done before, only the Velvet Underground comes to mind pre-1979. “On Returning” almost sounds as if it could have come from the first record, but it is skewed by the new affections of the band at this point in their career. Newman has to be listed in the top three or five songwriters that created the New Wave of the 1980’s and alternative scene of the 1990s.

            Overall, 154 just brings something new to the table that was simply not present before. Wire had been leading to this their entire career, and the course of rock music was forever altered after this; it’s part of the reason short-fast-punk rock quickly became outdated. Take a song like “A Mutual Friend”, where the lyrics keep repeated months of the year but the song itself progresses into some sort of blossoming cadence miles from where it started out. 154 may take years to get used to and comprehend, but it holds up better on multiple listens than almost any album I can think of. If you like rock music that takes effort and care to absorb, this is one of the blueprints for how to do it correctly.

Best Songs: The 15th, A Touching Display, Map Reference 41 degrees North 90 degrees West, Single KO, Indirect Inquiries

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*note – obviously most of Wire reviews and career retrospectives focuses on their first 3 records, though they are still touring as of 2020 and making interesting albums, most notably Colin Newman’s A-Z from 1980. More reviews coming soon 🙂