Wire are a good place to start with this blog, being possibly my archetypal ‘never quite got’ band. I have listened to them – albeit not exactly intensely or at length – several times over the years, and have never heard anything by them that I actively disliked. However, whilst I was aware that they were terribly influential and I knew people who rated them very highly, nothing I ever heard quite ‘clicked’ with me.
I did make a bit of an effort a few months ago, as it happens. Eric (over at the Fall forum) and bzfgt (of The Annotated Fall fame) had both been waxing lyrical about the band and were rather astonished and perplexed by my ambivalence and ignorance about them. Endeavouring to enlighten me, they suggested a playlist (which was: Reuters/Fragile/Practice Makes Perfect/Mercy/The 15th /Touching Display/Drill/The Finest Drops/Boiling Boy/Agfers of Kodack/Art of Stopping/One of Us/Adapt/Bad Worn Thing/Doubles and Trebles/Adore Your Island/Blogging/Burning Bridges/Harpooned/Internal Exile/Diamonds and Cups/Brio). In typical lazy fashion (see the last post of Fi5) I stuck it on one day whilst I was working, but found that it just kind of drifted by me, and I remained unconvinced.
And so I thought no more of it. But then this post about Magazine (another band that I really have not paid sufficient attention to over the years) turned out to be very enlightening about that band’s excellent debut; and when that was followed by a post by the same blogger about Pink Flag, I was inspired to give Wire’s debut a proper listen.
I was too young for Wire’s debut, still having three years of primary school left when it was released in November 1977. My prior ‘knowledge’ of the album consisted of Strange (which I knew of via the REM cover), I Am The Fly (which a friend once put on a mix tape – back in the days when they actually were tapes – for me) which I was erroneously convinced was on this album, and an overall understanding that it consisted of a lot of short, sharp (and, in my mind, one-dimensional and predictable) punky thrashes.
I’ve listened to this album a lot over the last week or so, and I have to admit that many of my preconceptions were pretty wide of the mark. ‘Short and sharp’ is apt, certainly: fifteen of the twenty-one (!) songs come in at under two minutes, and six of them don’t even make it to sixty seconds. But one-dimensional and predictable – in most cases – they certainly are not.
From the word go, this a very different beast from the albums that many would associate with 1977 punk. Whilst I can see the appeal of the exuberant, aggressive in-your-face-ness of, for example, New Rose, the opening track of Pink Flag sets a very different tone. Both the title and the foreboding opening lines (Our own correspondent is sorry to tell / Of an uneasy time that all is not well) of Reuters suggest something much more esoteric than ‘is she really going with him?’ Musically, this is also, for me, streets ahead and far more inventive and thoughtful than much of the other music that was lumped in with Wire at the time. A delicate but ominous pulse leads into some gentle guitar chimes which then lurches into a grinding, scuzzy riff which complements perfectly Colin Newman’s strained, anguished vocals. To add to the dark, intense atmosphere, there’s a layer of indistinct, vaguely disturbing background dialogue (especially around 1:25-1:39) that reinforces the ominous tone. Rounded off by the the final lines (‘This is your correspondent, running out of tape / Gunfire’s increasing, looting, burning, rape’) the song conjures up a dystopian nightmare that is utterly compelling. As good an album opener as you’ll ever get.
The title track features a similarly ominous opening, before launching into a thick, heavy riff that Newman sneers over acidly (‘How many dead or alive?’) before it descends into an oppressive, cacophonous thrash. Strange is also excellent: a loping, fuzzed-up riff with unearthly, detached vocals and ghostly echoes in the background. I’ve always liked REM’s up-tempo honky-tonk take on the song, but it rather pales in comparison to the original.
One thing that surprised me about the album was its musical diversity. As well as the heavy intensity of Reuters and Pink Flag, you have (to me, anyway) some quite surprising diversions into other approaches. Lowndown‘s two-chord riff brings Neil Young to mind; Fragile, Feeling Called Love and Mannequin have echoes of slacker/alt.country territory; Champs‘ hand-claps give it an almost poppy feel.
If you are (as I am) a lover of a good crunchy, fuzzy, distorted guitar sound then there many fine examples here too: the intros to Ex Lion Tamer, Surgeon’s Girl and Straight Line being prime examples.
Not everything quite hits the spot for me though. With many of the shorter songs – such as Mr Suit, Start To Move and Different To Me – although I admire their sharp abruptness, it all gets a bit generic punk-shouty for me.
You can hear this album’s influence in many places: Pavement, Sonic Youth and REM, for example. And whilst I remembered that there was a bit of fuss regarding Elastica’s ‘borrowing’ from the band, I’d forgotten how blatantly Connection ripped off Three Girl Rhumba.
So: an intriguing, influential (if not flawless) album, and one that I’ve seriously enjoyed immersing myself in over the last few days.
I’ve already had one suggestion as to what I should do next, but please feel free to share your ideas..