“There are those who say Wire was the best punk band ever because it broke all of the rules, didn’t stick with any of the blueprints and did actually what it wanted,” Colin Newman told Rolling Stone in 2013. “I just wouldn’t call that punk, personally. Punk is just one of those words that’s so overused that you have no idea what it means anymore.”
Wire did break the rules. And Wire were almost certainly the best punk band ever. But that’s only if you actually believe that Wire were a punk band — and I’m not so sure that I do, exactly. The band’s debut album, 1977’s Pink Flag, is a landmark album of the genre — one of those eye-opening experiences that turns a listener’s worldview upside down. It’s a perfect punk album because it doesn’t play by the accepted rules and regulations of what a punk song should be. On paper, it doesn’t follow punk, or even pop-music logic; on headphones, it’s a revelation.
Then they never did it again. Once Wire conquered one idea — for the most part — they were content to move on to the next one, perfect it, and then keep the process going until the tap of inspiration stopped flowing. There are three acts in the band’s history: a brief but incredible one in the late ’70s; a more productive but vastly different one in the ’80s; and one that stretches up to their just-released self-titled 15th album. And though the duration of each of these acts varies, as does the sounds produced, there’s one thing that’s been constant: change.
Colin Newman, Bruce Gilbert, Robert Grey (Gotobed), and Graham Lewis formed Wire in 1976 in London, along with guitarist George Gill, who had been kicked out of the band by the spring of 1977. Yet by the time the group had actually reached the milestone of recording their first album, punk had lost much of its freshness, and Wire weren’t about to rehash an already waning sound. They took the parts that were clichéd — pub rock, American rock ‘n’ roll, guitar solos — and removed them entirely from the equation. What their calculation yielded sounded vaguely familiar, but it felt different. As Wilson Neate writes in his 33 1/3 volume on Pink Flag, “Wire weren’t like the other punks: They shared some of the vocabulary but spoke another language.”
Understanding that language is key to understanding Wire’s body of work as a whole, which twists and turns through so many stylistic and experimental alleyways that it’s sometimes difficult to make sense of it all. And becoming fluent in their unique brand of melodic abstraction doesn’t happen on the first try. There are more unwieldy discographies in post-punk (the Fall), or ones with fewer easy entry points (Pere Ubu), but there aren’t as many that are as consistently interesting.
The band released 14 studio albums — including the atypical 1991 release The First Letter as Wir — plus the strange, albeit highly interesting live album Document & Eyewitness. (The Read & Burn EPs were omitted from this list because most of the songs show up on 2003’s Send, though there are a few extra tracks worth seeking out.) It’s a long and disorienting journey that Wire lay out across this expanse of music, but it’s one that’s worth getting lost in.
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