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Class ?

Main Category: Punk/Grunge
Also applicable: Meta-Rock, Art Rock
Starting Period: The Punk/New Wave Years
Also active in: The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Wire fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Wire fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1977
Overall rating = 12

Nobody can deny the existence of "art punk" after just one listen to this.

Best song: uh... imagine yourself in my place.

Track listing: 1) Reuters; 2) Field Day; 3) Three Girl Rhumba; 4) Ex Lion Tamer; 5) Lowdown; 6) Start To Move; 7) Brazil; 8) It's So Obvious; 9) Surgeon's Girl; 10) Pink Flag; 11) The Commercial; 12) Straight Line; 13) 106 Beats That; 14) Mr Suit; 15) Strange; 16) Fragile; 17) Mannequin; 18) Different To Me; 19) Champs; 20) Feeling Called Love; 21) 12 X U; 22) Options R (star).

First of all, let me explain why I settled over an overall 12 rather than an overall 13 (today, at least). This is a great album. This is an innovative album. This is a witty album. This is a motherfuckin' cool album. I like it a lot. But it's not a genius album, nosir it isn't. It's a direct result of what happens when several clever, sharp, post-modern-minded art college guys get together and say: "That whole punk thing, it's fun, but it's even better to make fun of in an elitist way!" And as much as I welcome that attitude (hey, that's probably what would have happened to me had I ever had a chance to start a band in 1977), it ain't genius. Anybody could do an album like this, given a good clear rational mind, a certain education, and just a certain historical context. It just so happened that this "anybody" happened to be Wire, who, in December 1977, made the first "meta-punk" album ever.

The record is as stripped, minimalist, and straightforward as the (extremely fitting) album cover. It's normally called "punk" because Wire borrow the essence of punk - at least, parts of its essence. The songs are short, grotesquely short even, normally stretching from thirty seconds to one and a half minutes; in that way, even if a few of them do go over the three minute mark, they still manage to pack 21 songs (22 on the CD re-issue) in thirty-five minutes. The songs are all barebones: drums, bass, guitar, sometimes - rarely - two guitars (rhythm & lead). The guitars are distorted and cruelly sounding, and rarely utilize more than the quintessential three chords (sometimes they utilize one). And Colin Newman sings in a raspy, harsh, occasionally cockneyfied yell, so that you can't understand a word without the lyrics sheet (not that you can understand a lot with the lyrics sheet, but let's not be running ahead). So far, so good. This is the band's punk side.

The band's art side starts when you understand that the band doesn't give a damn about the verse/chorus structure, which is pretty much a given in "classic" punk. And even when they do, it's not quite clear what is supposed to be the verse and what is supposed to be the chorus. And even when you do have an idea about what is what, that normally happens in a song with one verse and one chorus that are not repeated anyway. But more often than not, you just don't have the time to get that idea. To make matters worse, you get unexpected false endings (even in ultra-short songs); you get lines of text that do not rhyme with each other, nor form a rhythmic pattern of any kind; you get a lack of repetition where you'd want it and a naggin' presence of repetition where you don't want it; and you get lyrics like 'start to move, time at hand, bird in hand, no bush but trees thicken, which now, rooster or chicken?'.

That's Wire's debut for you. Take the punk form and turn it upside down. Fuck up everything that's fuck-up-able. A chorus there? Repeat it three times and end the song on a sharp note. A chorus here? Take out the second line, make it more messy. A verse here? Stir up those lyrics so that they make less sense. A thirty second song? Give it a couple false endings. A four minute song? Give it a two-chord riff and drag it through all the four minutes. The listener mustn't have the vaguest idea about what is going to happen in the very next second. But on the other hand, give it some measure - don't make everything sound like a cacophonic mess. There's gotta be riffs and hooks, and you gotta have 'em tap their foot to it, even if they're utterly bedazzled. We don't want to end up sounding like "Edgar Varese Plays The Punk Rock Symphony", or do we?

Discussing the inidividual songs on here would be an exercise in frustration, but at least I'll try to single out the more "normal" ones. 'Reuters' is probably the most 'reasonable' of all, starting the album on a thoroughly, thoroughly deceptive note - you'd think by listening to it that Wire were sort of a slow-downed Clash, with tales of political madness and governmental apocalypse all around. But then the song ends, and you get 'Field Day For The Sundays'... ah well, I was going to tell about the normal songs, wasn't I? So let me see, that would be... hmm, I think only 'Strange' qualifies, with that maddeningly monotonous, but cool-as-hell brutal riff carrying it for four minutes, and the hilarious power-pop excourse 'Mannequin', with lyrics like these: 'you're a waste of space, no natural grace, you're so bloody thin, you don't even begin'. These are, I guess, "normal" compared to the rest of this stuff, although, of course, they're still absolutely crazy when compared to just about any other punk (or non-punk, for that matter) band at the time.

The most goofy thing of all is to realize that the "deconstructed" bits on here are often extremely catchy. A few listens, and you'll want to scream 'No no no no no no Mr SUIT!' as loud as Colin as the boys ('Mr Suit', the one song on here that actually deals with punkish protest-y feelings - and mercilessly mocks them, much as the Ramones would later mock pubescent nihilism in 'I'm Against It'). Or growl in that silly stupid growl, 'WHAT IS THIS FEELING CALLED LOVE?' ('Feeling Called Love' - Wire's wonderful answer to 'I Can't Explain', I guess). Or going along with the bizarre 'saw you in a mag kissing a man saw you in a mag kissing man' mantra ('1 2 X U', pretty much summing up all the lyrics to that song). Some songs are defyingly, almost annoyingly UNcatchy - 'Lowdown', for instance, and several others - but this, again, to me seems more like yet another detail of the band's carefully conceived plan, where they alternate between unmemorable, nearly dissonant stuff, and catchy bits and pieces at will just to baffle the listener even more.

In short, Pink Flag is not for everybody, but you probably guessed it by looking at the tagline already. I guess the critics were right when they drooled over Captain Beefheart's influence on punk - only they thought they were meaning the Sex Pistols and the Damned, and in reality they should have meant Wire. This is punk rock's Trout Mask Replica, and it's actually better than that album, because it finds a better way to merge the "down-to-earth" and the "artsy", the "traditional" and the "avantgarde" elements. Besides, it just plain rocks. If you really want to "get" into it and think you can't, turn the volume all the way up and put on, I dunno, 'Surgeon's Girl'. Feel all the rage of that one-chord riff as it rips your body to shreds!



Year Of Release: 1978
Overall rating = 12

Adding diversity to the package, climbing to the next level of post-modern expression.

Best song: uh... get outta here.

Track listing: 1) Practice Makes Perfect; 2) French Film Blurred; 3) Another The Letter; 4) Men 2nd; 5) Marooned; 6) Sand In My Joints; 7) Being Sucked In Again; 8) Heartbeat; 9) Mercy; 10) Outdoor Miner; 11) I Am The Fly; 12) I Feel Mysterious Today; 13) From The Nursery; 14) Used To; 15) Too Late; [BONUS TRACKS:] 16) Go Ahead; 17) Former Airline; 18) Question Of Degree.

Well, now that we have deconstructed punk rock, what's the next logical step? Why, deconstructing post-punk, of course! Except that's a little bit harder, because in a way, post-punk is a "deconstruction" of sort by itself. You have to double your efforts then, and Wire do exactly that.

There's still a few tracks on here in the Pink Flag way, but sonically, this is a big departure. Sonically, not conceptually; conceptually, Wire are still being Wire, making weird, unpredictable, and usually short (although on average longer than before) songs with screwdriver-proof lyrics, goofball-saturated vocals, and a near-embarrassingly minimal overall quantity of chords used. Again, this is a record targeted towards your "sense-o'-the-weird" and your world-mystery instincts rather than your basic emotional receptors, if you know what I mean. Only this time Wire drop the purity of the guitar-bass-drums attack and haul in synthesizers, presumably putting big framed Kraftwerk pictures on the walls of the recording studio for inspiration.

Not that it sounds like Kraftwerk either. They're obviously inspired by some of the proto-electronica movement, but Kraftwerk are much more accessible (at least, starting from their "commercial" period) than Wire could ever hope to be. None of the songs really make sense, and they aren't supposed to make any, artsy elitist compositions that they are. In this way, I certainly can see how Wire could have influenced lots of bands, XTC for one (at least, in XTC's Drums & Wires stage); yet few of these bands managed to sound as bizarre, innovative, intriguing, and diverse at the same time as Wire on Chairs Missing.

The very first notes of 'Practice Makes Perfect' show that we're riding on a different horse already. Well, okay, so maybe not the very first notes - the moody bass riff that greets us is slightly reminiscent of the intro to 'Reuters'. But then, what's that? A monotonous, obnoxious, quasi-reggae rhythm kicks in (greetings from The Police!), and dirty synthesizer feedback accompanies it in the background. There's still power and violence in this sound, but now it's darkness and gloom that are emphasized rather than over-the-top punkish aggression. When Colin starts "looping" himself on the 'waiting, waiting, waiting for us!' "chorus", you'd swear he was taking his lessons from Siouxsie Sioux or Robert Smith - except that in reality, it might have been vice versa (well, The Cure sure hadn't even released their first - and least Goth - album by the time the world was already trying to decipher the message of Chairs Missing).

The songs do not jump out at you on this album. The raving one-chord guitar attacks bombarding your brain cells are nowhere to be found. Instead, you got a whole ton of subtle, subconscious-triggering hooks that have to sink in gradually (not that gradually, though - they wooed me over on the second listen already, but man was the first one a toughie!). More than that, even when they do sink in, you still won't be able to tell what most of them mean to you. Take, for instance, a song like 'Another The Letter', which is just unbelievably cool, and try to make an analysis of it that makes some kind of sense. I mean, here's this two-note sharp guitar riff, here's that fast bumbling bassline, here's the synth loop stepping in, here are the meaningless vocals, here are two overdubbed guitars playing a hard rock solo, here's a synthesized percussion track with an ethnic flavor, here's a different, much louder, synth loop, here's a climactic rush-to-the-end, here's nothing, and it all took one minute. And what did it mean? Nothing in particular. It just sounded terrific. The meaning is inside your head. Make what you wish of it.

But that doesn't mean highlights don't abound on the album - it's just a special kind of highlights. 'French Film Blurred' is fuzzy and creepy, with battling reverberating echoey guitars and synths, and it finally just kinda melts away in its fuzziness. 'Sand In My Joints' brings back the Pink Flag vibe for a moment, but makes the guitar sound more colourful and poppy before bringing it all down with yet another unexpected climactic STOP. 'Heartbeat' is basically a two chord riff monotonously replayed over and over as Colin mumbles 'I'm sublime, I'm sublime, I'm sublime' - almost a parody on some of those generic rock crescendos where you expect the mumbling guy to gradually break out in a scream and the quiet guitar rumble gradually transform into a distorted apocalyptic mess; the funny thing is, it never does - just as you think they're finally ready to go over the top, they tone the sound down back again!

'Outdoor Miner' is very jangly and very pretty, almost a normal song, and certainly predates everything from REM to Blur by a good half-decade or more. The chorus that goes 'he lies on his side, is he trying to hide' is as close as Wire ever got to being "gorgeous" in the traditional sense. The chorus of 'I Am The Fly' is easily the most memorable thing on the record, and funny enough, the song itself sounds like a blueprint for a LOT of XTC. 'I Feel Mysterious Today' pretty much summarizes the main gist of the album, because, hey, who doesn't after taking a good whiff of Chairs Missing? And then, several songs later, we end on another punkish track, 'Too Late', which - again - incorporates several guitars instead of one. Heh.

There are also three bonus tracks on the CD issue, none of which really interest me, except that 'Go Ahead' and 'Former Airline' sound much more electronic and icily lifeless than the rest, predicting the textures of 154, and 'Question Of Degree' has a trifle of that unexplainable romantic scent about it. But really, there's enough to consume on the album itself without feeling the need to feed yourself on the bonuses.


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