Oblique Godard-influenced New Wave That You Can Dance To (Sometimes)

Strongest album: Pink Flag
Must to avoid: A Bell is a Cup Until it is Struck

Art students with guitars - the heart of rock'n'roll, at least since the Velvet Underground (and virtually all the British invasion bands, for that matter). Or maybe it's hormone-addled teenagers making noise in a garage. Whatever, both are equally valid. Wire may have emerged from the punk movement of the late '70s, but they were clearly an art rock band from the very start. The fact that none of them had any previous musical experience or even knew how to play their instruments is telling - they don't approach their music as rock'n'roll, really, but more as an art project. That approach made them one of the most compelling bands of the late '70s, but it also eventually led them to the type of self-indulgence that most prog-rockers fall victim to. It's a cliche to say that such-and-such a band was the Velvet Underground of their era, but with Wire the tag fits. The three albums they made before their breakup in 1979 have influenced any number of post-punk bands ranging from R.E.M., the Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Big Black, Archers of Loaf, Guided By Voices, etc. Also like the Velvets, much of their music is a tough listen even if it is highly influential.

For those curious about these enigmatic misanthropes (or is that misanthropic enigmatics?), here's a website

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Pink Flag(1977)*****

Their one undeniable album, and the one that justifies their dedicated cult and admiration from other musicians. 21 songs are cram-packed in under 40 minutes (the 1989 reissue adds a bonus track, the carnivalesque "Options R"), Wire say what they want to say and get out. This may be the most radical of the first-wave punk albums to emerge in the wake of the Sex Pistols and Ramones. They don't just strip rock of its excesses, they strip it to the core, leaving nothing but the barest of essentials: a couple of chords to get the hook and beat across, a basic melody, a few verses and sometimes a chorus, and that's it. Punk had barely gotten started, and Wire were already busy deconstructing it. "Field Day For The Sundays" lasts all of 28 seconds, and somehow manages to tell a complete story and work in a false ending! Elastica borrowed the riff-hook from "Three Girl Rhumba" for their 1995 hit "Connection". To tell you the truth, Elastica wound up with a better song, because "Connection" steams with sexual heat, and these boys are cold, cold, COLD. They push past the envelope of lyrical obscurity for obscurity's sake (random sample: "Next week will solve your problems, but now, fish fingers all in a line, and all the milk bottles stand empty, stay glued to your TV set") but it doesn't all quite sound completely absurd, since you get the sense that there's some substance behind the obliqueness. Each of these song fragments stands as a unique and memorable creation, and all but a handful are excellent. A surprising amount of variety is discovered after repeated listenings: the anthemic "Ex-Lion Tamer", the pretty ballad "Fragile", and the power-pop "Mannequin" are all highlights. One of the most unique albums of any era.

Complete lyrics to "12XU": "Saw you in a mag, kissing a man, I've got you in a corner (cottage).

Chairs Missing(1978)***1/2

Refusing to repeat themselves, Wire sound completely different on their second release. Instead of bare-bones guitar rock, Wire experiment with synthesizer pop. The fragmentation of Captain Beefheart, icy roboticisms of Kraftwerk, and the art-garage clamor of Pere Ubu are twisted into a quirky and compelling blend. If anything, Wire sound more unique and innovative than on their first album, and this is probably their most influential music. However, the songwriting isn't as strong as on the debut. Wire forget the pop component of synth-pop, and while hooks abound like crazy, there's a noticable shortage of melodies. Notable exceptions are the pretty "Outdoor Miner" single and "French Film Blurred", which relies on an intriguing, foreboding tension for its effect. The band stretches its song lengths, also, which isn't an entirely positive development - the six-minute "Mercy" will have you begging for it. Cold and abrasive, Wire's second album hops around predicting industrial music with its shocks of cacophony and its deliberate attempt to irritate, a point they make clear with the anthem "I Am The Fly". A tough listen, but eventually a rewarding one. The reissue adds a couple of useless experiments along with the jaw-dropping single "Question of Degree".

154 (1979) ***1/2 (original grade); **** (new grade)

As you can see, I've changed my mind a bit about this album's quality. Here is my original review:

Named after the number of gigs they'd performed up to that point, Wire's third album contains their most sedate and least abrasive music. All the sharp edges have been smoothed out in favor of a spacy, very European set of mood music, somewhat akin to early '70s Pink Floyd and Bowie's Eno period. I know I'm in the minority here, but I prefer this to Chairs Missing. It's not quite as aimless as it first seems, and after several close listens its angular hooks and even more angular, oblique melodies subtly emerge. "The 15th" and "Map Ref.41 N 93 W" are as bizarrely obscure as their titles suggest, but possess killer hooks and seductive melodies (that is, once you find them). Perhaps "Indirect Enquiries" ought to be their theme song? The most accessible track, "On Returning", may be their finest moment, possessing both a catchy hook, beat, and melody as well as their experimental side. Unfortunately, you have to put up with such "songs" as "The Other Window" and "A Touching Display", spoken word audio experiments that should have stayed on B-sides. The same difficult-but-intriguing tag applies here as well. The reissue adds four instrumentals; "Song 1" which sounds a bit like baseball music, is worthwhile.

Well, I still hold to most everything I stated in my original review. I notched it up to four star quality after pulling this off the shelf a few nights ago and listening to it all the way through again. I discovered that side two was much stronger than I remembered: "A Mutual Friend", in particular stood out, and "Once Is Enough" rocks. I suppose that this is one of those albums that takes a few listens to grow on you; to tell the truth, when I first heard this I found it completely boring, but now I think that Wire have never written stronger melodies than on this album (a big improvement in this department over Chairs Missing, which at times is too amelodic for me to get excited about). It's not as immediately catchy as Pink Flag, but fans of that album will find plenty of brilliant material herein if they give 154 a chance.

A Bell Is A Cup Until It Is Struck(1988)**

After a lengthy hiatus, Wire reformed in 1986. They released several albums before they broke up again in the early '90s. From what I've heard, their second time round is eminently skippable. While once they were groundbreaking, now they seem to be keeping up with the trends. All I can say of this comeback attempt after several listens is that it sounds a lot like New Order, and aside from the single "Kidney Bingos", none of the songs are particularly memorable. The band pursues a softer approach with more luxurious rythms and langorous atmosphere, and unfortunately what that all comes to mean is that there's not much to grab hold of. It drifts along and sounds ok in the background, but you won't remember any of it.

Manscape (1990)

I got this recently and I don't like it at all - boring substandard modern electronic crap.

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Reader Comments

Craig N. Grannell, ST9501002@uwic.ac.uk
It's very odd that people continue to split into two camps on Wire, one seeing their "wonderful" pop moments as the bees knees and the other bits as B-sides. I have to disagree that Mercy (Chairs Missing) has me begging for mercy. The lyrics tell an unsettling story and the images created add to the atmosphere provided by the music.
I know I'm in the minority here, but I prefer this to Chairs Missing.
As do I, simply due to the fact that it is a much better whole. CM was a split between the old and new (PF and 154).
Unfortunately, you have to put up with such "songs" as "The Other Window" and "A Touching Display", spoken word audio experiments that should have stayed on B-sides.
Again, I think The Other Window is great! I don't see why a band should restrict experimenting to their Bsides. I think it good that Wire continued to change and grow.
From what I've heard, their second time round is eminently skippable. No way! Bell Cup is one of the two average LPs (the other being the dull Manscape) but Ideal Copy is full of the Wire pop that you seemed to like on PF! The hooks are VERY similar at times but augmented by odd synths and midi. IBTABA is also strong due to combining live tapes with the electronics. You won't like the later stuff as they turned electronica with Drill and The First Letter (which samples Pink Flag!).
Anyway, you should at least give Ideal Copy a listen.
My marks would be (out of 5):
77-Pink Flag (3)
78-Chairs Missing (4)
79-154 (5)
80-D&E (2)
86-Ideal Copy (4)
88-Bell Is A Cup (3)
89-IBTABA (3.5)
90-Manscape (2)
90-Drill (3.5)
91-First Letter (4.5)
Anyway, good to see some more Wire presence on the www.
joseph williams, josmath@bellatlantic.net

For the most part I agree with your description of 154 as being less abrasive. However, "Once Is Enough" and "2 People In a Room" rock big time. I love this band. Thought they had faded until hearing "serious" of snakes and drill. "how's your skull? does it fit? is your mind free, empty, or split?"

On Returning....