In the late ’70s, Brian Eno said that, although the Velvet Underground didn’t sell a lot of records, it seemed as if everyone who bought one went out and started a band. In the ’80s and ’90s, it would not have been an exaggeration to say the same about Wire — or specifically, about the work that the group produced in its first (and best) incarnation. Formed in 1976 in the wake of the Sex Pistols, the London quartet differed from many of its peers in England’s initial punk uprising in that its members were older, smarter, more ambitious and more sophisticated. Singer/guitarist Colin Newman, bassist/lyricist Graham Lewis, guitarist Bruce Gilbert and drummer Robert Gotobed (yes, his real name) had no musical training, but like many of the psychedelic rockers of the ’60s, had attended art school (except for Gotobed). A trippier vibe permeated some of their music, and the fact that they were signed to Harvest by the same guy who had signed the future Dark Side of the Moon fellas led some wags to call them Punk Floyd. In truth, Wire’s initial skeletal, brusque rock designs owed more to Eno, the Velvets, Roxy Music, Can and Captain Beefheart, although they’d be loath to admit any influences at all.
After paring down from a quintet (guitarist George Gill was given the boot) and making their recorded debut with two tracks on the live club compilation The Roxy, London WC2, Wire set out to “cock a snoot at the history of rock’n’roll” on Pink Flag, a brilliant 21-song suite crafted with the help of producer and keyboardist Mike Thorne, a virtual fifth member of the band through 154. The group manipulated classic rock song structure by condensing them into brief, intense explosions of attitude and energy, coming up with a collection of unforgettable tunes (“12XU,” “Lowdown,” “Fragile,” “Mannequin”) that nevertheless function best as a whole. Having said what they wanted to say about punk, rock and punk rock, the band got downright weird on Chairs Missing — this is where the psychedelic tag fits best — adding synthesizers, slowing things down and concentrating on textured vignettes such as “Sand in My Joints” and the near-hit “Outdoor Miner” (an homage to a leaf-eating insect). Undercurrents of isolation and madness run through the album; the title is British slang for someone who’s a bit disturbed, as in “that guy has a few chairs missing in his front room.”
The soundscapes became lusher and grander (“Map Ref. 41øN 93øW”), the lyrics more impressionistic and Beat poetic (“On Returning”) and the melodies even more memorable (“The 15th”) on 154. The final studio album by Wire’s Mark I was titled for the number of gigs the group had played. (The CD reissue includes an EP of experimental tracks originally released as a bonus with the vinyl LP.)
Taken together, these first three albums are evidence of an amazing amount of growth in less than three years. They account for Wire’s vaunted reputation, and they have been cited as primary influences by such diverse bands as R.E.M., Minor Threat, Mission of Burma, Sonic Youth, the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü and Big Black — ’80s postpunk bands that were in turn substantial influences on ’90s alternative rock. (There are added tracks on the reissues of the group’s first triptych. Pink Flag adds “Options R,” a non-LP B-side, while Chairs Missing has two non-LP Bs (“Go Ahead” and “Former Airline”) plus the classic menacingly jaunty non-LP A- side, “Question of Degree.” 154 has four otherwise unalbumized tracks: “Song 1,” “Get Down 1 & 2,” “Let’s Panic Later” and “Small Electric Piece.”)
Facing commercial indifference and growing tension between the “pop” camp (Newman and Gotobed) and the “noise” contingent (Gilbert and Lewis), Wire disbanded in early 1980 after recording a disjointed live album, Document and Eyewitness. Two live discs (one full-length, the other an eight-song quickie which plays at 45 rpm), this soundtrack to a mixed-media evening of “Dadaist cabaret” is from the you-really-had-to-be-there school. (The CD reissue notably includes the weird industrial dance single “Our Swimmer” b/w “Midnight Bahnhof Cafe,” which predicts the direction the band would take when it reunited.) And Here It Is…Again…Wire, Wire Play Pop and the 31-track (on CD at least) On Returning (1977-1979) are all best-of collections drawing from the band’s first period; the last is the most successful, though the songs on Pink Flag lose something out of context. The Peel Sessions Album and Behind the Curtain: Early Versions 1977 & 78 are both invaluable documents of Wire’s rapid growth and fearless experimentation.
After a six-year break, the group reconvened; a three- day trial run yielded “Drill” and “A Serious of Snakes.” Both appeared on the four-song Snakedrill EP, as well as a new, stripped-down sound based on rhythmic repetition and noise. The Ideal Copy expanded the sound with cold digital production that stresses the “dugga- dugga-dugga” dance rhythms. (The CD includes Snakedrill.) For the first time, Wire no longer sounded ahead of its time: New Order had already done this sort of thing better. While the album has moments of tunefulness (including “Ahead” and “Ambitious”), mechanical sameness is no substitute for the old diversity. Cynics said Wire blew its status as cult heroes by coming back, but at least the band showed more courage and commitment than other reunited first-generation art-punks, steadfastly championing the old spirit of punk invention by moving forward and refusing to play any of its old material.
Wire stayed the dance-pop course with diminishing results on A Bell Is a Cup and It’s Beginning to and Back Again (aka IBTABA); their respective MTV-friendly singles, “Kidney Bingos” and “Eardrum Buzz,” are among the few standout tracks. The band was starting to be more concerned with the artistic process than the finished results: IBTABA was an attempt to create “new” tracks by radically reworking digital live recordings from Chicago and Portugal. The studio trickery was more inspired than the music, and things soon got even worse. Convinced that the “beat combo” of two guitars, bass and drums had run its course, the band marginalized Gotobed, one of rock’s great minimalist drummers, replacing him with a machine on the soulless Manscape (Wire’s absolute nadir) and The Drill, an entire nine-track album of “Drill” variations, none of which betters the original. Where Wire once produced music that cut like sand in your joints, it now supplied electro-dance music that simply fizzled; lyrics that were once rewardingly abstract had grown simply incomprehensible. Gotobed understandably quit, effectively ending Wire Mark II. The fan-selected and heavily annotated Wire 1985-1990: The A List compiles the best of Wire’s second go-round; it’s nowhere near as essential as the original three studio albums, but it’s better than any of the proper second-generation albums. The era also produced numerous EPs featuring a song or two from each album along with live tracks or remixes; none is worth owning.
In 1991 Newman, Gilbert and Lewis dropped the “e” from the band name and became Wir, a none-too-inspired loophole through which to escape an old promise to disband if the four original partners weren’t involved. The First Letter is more spirited than anything since A Bell Is a Cup, but once again, the album’s most intriguing aspect is the way it was made: all three played MIDI guitars into a computer, creating digital loops that were later sliced up into songs. It must have dawned on the trio that they no longer needed the others to record this way; Wir ended soon after the album’s release. But that didn’t prevent the possibility of Wire returning, which only required the foursome to forget why they were sick of each other. In the meantime, the devoted Wire Mail Order (WMO) organization kept fans sated with reissues and new solo and band releases (like the Turns and Strokes compendium of previously unissued live, studio and rehearsal efforts). For most of the ’90s, Wire busied themselves with individual ventures, as they had done during their first hiatus.
In the mid-’90s, although inactive, Wire began to generate fresh interest. While Big Black, Henry Rollins, R.E.M. and others had cut Wire songs in the ’80s, Whore: Various Artists Play Wire is an entire album of covers by Scanner, Lush, Band of Susans, My Bloody Valentine, Mike Watt, Chris Connelly, Godflesh and Lee Ranaldo. And, if there weren’t already enough versions of “Drill” around, Dugga Dugga Dugga offers various artists’ interpretations of Wire Mark II’s infamous exercise in “monophonic, monorhythmic repetition.” In more mainstream terms, Wire’s influence announced itself on records by the Britpop generation — Menswe@r and Blur, among others, took inspiration from the band’s 1977–’79 recordings. Elastica took more than that: their appropriation of Wire’s “Three Girl Rhumba” on “Connection” led to an out-of-court settlement between the bands’ publishing companies.
The manner of Wire’s return proved that anyone foolish enough to bet on their next move would always lose. (The 1980 gig immortalized on Document and Eyewitness stands as a cautionary tale in that regard.) In an uncharacteristic turn, their February 2000 reappearance as a quartet (with Robert Gotobed now known as Robert Grey) was very much about nostalgia, albeit in characteristically skewed Wire fashion. Prompted by an invitation to curate an evening at London’s Royal Festival Hall, Wire produced an event that turned out to be a museum piece of sorts, featuring a set from the band and various Wire-related attractions: video footage of a 1978 concert, sets by Immersion and Lewis’ He Said, and dance from Michael Clark. The biggest surprise, however, was that Wire — a band that rarely played material live once it had appeared on record — drew its set almost completely from its first three albums. UK dates, including the Mogwai-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, and a US tour followed, with Wire still playing their “classics.”
In the meantime, the band readopted punk’s original DIY ethos, taking over the means of production and distribution. They recorded at Newman’s Swim studios, set up their own label (pinkflag) and sold CDs directly through Posteverything.com, Newman’s virtual storefront. Older material reworked during late-1999 rehearsals for the Royal Festival Hall event appeared on the Third Day EP, while It’s All in the Brochure partially documented the event itself. Then Wire initiated its Mark III phase in earnest.
Fast, loud and hectoring, Read & Burn 01 presents completely new material. Wire of the ’80s had suggested that rock was dead and that dance music was the future; this full-on assault is a definite return to rock, albeit played and recorded with the latest digital tools. But Wire wasn’t seeking to recapture past glories. More than the sound itself, the attitude and sheer energy of Read & Burn 01 is what gestures back to 1977, as Wire channels the spirit of Pink Flag into a hardcore digital context. “Heavy metal dancefloor” was Newman’s joking description of the band’s 2002 incarnation, and tracks like “Comet,” which sounds like Motörhead’s “Overkill” performed by Kraftwerk’s robots, attest to that. Read & Burn 02 cranks up the intensity a few more notches, adding heavier electronics to the speedcore rush of “Raft Ants” and the charging “Nice Streets Above.” With Bruce Gilbert nearing 60 at the time of these releases, Wire were certainly old enough to know better. It’s impressive that they rock harder and with more conviction than artists young enough to be their grandchildren.
The full-length Send combines seven tracks from those two EPs with four new numbers. On its own merits, this certainly ranks as one of the best things they’ve done since 1979, but an entirely new work in the Read & Burn vein would have mattered more. Newer items (the thumping “Half Eaten,” the vaguely menacing “You Can’t Leave Now”) don’t measure up to the Read & Burn material, raising suspicions that Wire might have lost its momentum. And while Wire Mark III seemed initially to have exorcised past dance-pop tendencies, “Being Watched” does sound like a throwback. (A witty mashup of it with Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U” didn’t diminish that concern.)
Of the bandmembers’ non-Wire work, Newman’s output has proved the most rewarding. Several of the songs on the Thorne-produced A-Z (which was actually begun as Wire’s fourth album) and not to were performed during the first-generation Wire’s final tours, and a few have lyrics by Lewis. Both albums are inventive and full of hooks, and they continue the cinematic style of Chairs Missing and 154. (“Alone” from A-Z was used to great effect by director Jonathan Demme in The Silence of the Lambs). The productions are clearly inspired by Eno, with layered vocals, treated guitars, percussion (including drums by Gotobed) and odd tape effects. Between the two albums, Newman paused to record an album of Eno-style ambient instrumentals called provisionally entitled the singing fish; 4AD reissued it and not to on one CD in 1988.
Desmond Simmons was a contributor to Newman’s early solo projects; his Wiresque solo effort, Alone on Penguin Island, was originally issued on Lewis and Gilbert’s Dome Records label. Just before Wire’s mid-’80s reunion, Newman released Commercial Suicide, which combines his ambient and pop interests by bringing a more spacious, minimalist approach to vocal-driven tunes. (The 2003 reissue includes the “Interview” 12-inch, originally released at the same time as the album.) It Seems refines this sound and has several songs (“Quite Unrehearsed,” “Round & Round” and the title track) that are as striking as anything Wire recorded. Commercial Suicide and It Seems include contributions from Newman’s Israeli-born wife, Malka Spigel, as well as members of her dance-pop band Minimal Compact (whose 1985 album Raging Souls Newman had produced).
Following Wir’s demise, Newman embarked on a new phase. Catalyzed by the burgeoning techno and electronica scenes, he and Spigel formed the Swim label. In addition to issuing records by a diverse roster, the couple collaborated on Spigel’s releases (Rosh Ballata, Hide and My Pet Fish) and pursued an array of projects under various names. Oracle was Newman, Spigel and Samy Birnbach of Minimal Compact fooling around in a world-beat/techno vein, while Immersion was Newman and Spigel’s ambient house alter-ego. In 1997, Newman released Bastard, his first self-credited album since It Seems. Since the album was to bear his name only, he was keen to record something that distilled the essence of “Newmanness.” That proved to be a focus on “beats and guitars” or “post-rock that rocks.” In marked contrast with its title, Bastard is an attractive, subtle hybrid of melodic electronica and rock (as represented by hypnotic, atmospheric numbers like “Spaced In” and “May”). In 2004, Newman and Spigel joined forces with Robin Rimbaud (aka Scanner) under the Githead moniker. Blending dub-flavored atmospherics, minimalist funk and Neu!-like repetitive grooves, the Headgit EP shows some continuity with Immersion and, in places, evokes Wire’s ’80s forays into the nascent digital environment.
Gilbert and Lewis’ activities are just as diverse and even harder to track. Working together in the early ’80s as Dome, they released four albums of industrial experiments, noisy works-in-progress and occasional pop epiphanies (“Rolling Upon My Day”); Dome, Dome 2, Dome 3 and Will You Speak This Word were reissued on CD in pairs by Mute in the UK in 1992. The MZUI record consists of “aural wallpaper” improvised in and for an art gallery show by Gilbert, Lewis and graphic artist Russell Mills (who illustrated Eno’s book, More Dark Than Shark). Pacific/Specific contains tracks from the duo’s 1980 Peel session and a 1982 Australian radio broadcast with Mills. The anagrammatically named Duet Emmo is an industrial dance collaboration with Daniel Miller, the founder of Mute Records. Gilbert and Lewis further confused things by releasing records under the names Cupol (a 12″ single which was compiled with their album 3R4 and other material on the CD 8 Time) and P’O — the latter a one-off band with drummer Peter Price, clarinetist David Tidball and vocalist A.C. Marias, aka video director Angela Conway. (Conway, a guest vocalist on He Said’s Hail, also worked with Gilbert on One of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing), her 1989 solo album.) Yclept (1999) compiles unreleased Dome works dating back to 1983 and more recent Gilbert/Lewis tracks. The record revisits some of Dome’s more obtuse, minimalist tendencies (the unsettling “Carpo”) but it also finds the duo in a surprisingly accessible mode on “Because We Must (Version 2),” a pumping Giorgio Moroder- style number written for dancer/choreographer Michael Clark.
On his own, Lewis has released melodramatic, over- produced dance music as He Said (Hail and Take Care) and, after relocating to Sweden, H.A.L.O., essentially emphasizing the worst tendencies of Wire Mark II. However, his post-H.A.L.O. forays have been more understated and therefore more successful, especially his work with members of Omala, as He Said Omala on Catch Supposes and as Hox on It-ness. Another collaboration, this time under the name Ocsid, with Jean- Louis Huhta and CM von Hausswolff, produced more experimental, ambient results (In Between and the live Opening Sweep).
By contrast to some of Lewis’ He Said and H.A.L.O. excesses, Gilbert’s often spartan, clangy soundscapes make the description “minimalist Muzak” sound like overstatement. Concerned less with music and more with sound itself, his projects have been consistently more challenging than those of his bandmates, continuing in the experimental vein of Dome and exploring intersections with different media and genres. Gilbert has recorded electronic backing tracks for dance productions (This Way, The Shivering Man, Insiding and Music for Fruit); an eccentric spoken-word-and-noise collage (The Haring); and has also made a (pseudo)name for himself (the Beekeeper) as a DJ in techno clubs. His most notorious residency was at Disobey, where it was not unknown for him to deliver his anarchic sets from inside a garden shed. Gilbert’s methodology as the Beekeeper was to wreak havoc on others’ material with the aid of a multi- speed CD player — “getting inside sounds and chasing them to destruction” was how he described the particular spin he put on turntablism. Gilbert’s solo recordings of the late ’90s — Ab Ovo and the more challenging In Esse — are similarly radical.
Beyond his projects with Graham Lewis, Gilbert continued to work with other artists. He teamed up with Pan Sonic’s Mika Vainio and Ilpo Vaisanen (as IBM) for an exercise in harsh electronic minimalism, The Oval Recording (so- named not because it has any connection with Markus Popp’s glitch experiments but because it was recorded in an apartment building overlooking London’s Oval cricket ground). Assembled from heavily processed and manipulated guitars, Orr is a collaboration with Main’s Robert Hampson and producer Paul Kendall for Mute’s Parallel Series; manchester&london, another guitar-noise venture, was recorded with Band of Susans alumni Robert Poss and Susan Stenger (as gilbertpossstenger). Although manchester&london enabled Gilbert to fulfill his unlikely ambition of playing slide guitar, his solo projects are all nearly devoid of guitar. The notion that Gilbert was Wire’s guitar hero is a fallacy; he always played the role of the artistic wrench in the works, giving the project of the moment a perverse twist.
Robert Gotobed has been the least prolific of the four. During Wire’s first layoff, he toured with Fad Gadget (appearing on the latter’s Incontinent) and made a fleeting contribution to the first Dome album. After drumming on Colin Newman’s A-Z and not to, he hung up his sticks in order to pursue an interest in organic farming, something that would occupy him for most of Wire’s second hiatus in the ’90s. Nevertheless, he did make a couple of live appearances. In 1996, in addition to joining Wire for a one-off version of “Drill” in honor of Bruce Gilbert’s 50th birthday, he performed at London’s South Bank Centre on Rhys Chatham’s “Guitar Trio” with the Brood (Susan Stenger, Justine Frischmann, Sonic Boom and Robert Poss). In 1998, he joined Stenger and another incarnation of the Brood for a John Cage piece as part of the Barbican Centre’s American Pioneers series.