Wire
(Copyright © 1999-2024 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
Pink Flag, 7/10
Chairs Missing, 7/10
154, 8/10
The Ideal Copy, 6/10
A Bell Is A Cup Until It Is Struck, 5/10
Manscape , 4/10
The First Letter , 5/10
Send , 5/10
Object 47 (2008), 5.5/10
Red Barked Tree (2011), 5.5/10
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(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

(Translated from (my original Italian text by Eric Rucker)

When they formed Wire in London in 1977, at the height of the Punk phenomenon, Colin Newman (vocals, keyboards), Bruce Gilbert (guitar), Graham Lewis (bass) and Robert Gotobed (drums) had all attended art school but had no musical training.

From the first single, Mannequin (Harvest), it was clear that their sound shared only the concision and a pinch of the hysteria of Punk Rock, but the group had little in common with the nihilistic harangue of the Sex Pistols; if anything, they were fascinated by Brian Eno’s experiments in ‘deconstruction’ and the Velvet Underground’s ‘alternative’ aesthetic.

Released in November, Pink Flag (Harvest, 1977) left punks with their mouths open: yes, the songs (all twenty-one of them) were short frenetic punk-rock, but there was something strange about them. They weren’t the usual hysterical ‘ramalama’, they were intense harmonic experiments. The hammering attack of 12xU was reminiscent of punk, but with a rhythm which broke up into music-hall; the thrash frenzy of Mr Suit took a Devo-esque turn. The pop talent of the group was highlighted (with the odd Bowie-ish inflexion) by Ex Lion Tamer and Feeling Called Love (with a riff stolen from the Trogg’s Wild Thing), worthy of any 60s revivalists. Wire even indulged in some high-class boogie; Strange, with the langour and decadence of the Velvet Underground, Reuters, as abrasive and jangling as T. Rex, and the hyper-distorted martial voodoobilly of the Cramps in Pink Flag. Pink Flag is also a collection of unresolved possibilities, miniatures like It’s So Obvious. The sardonic, venomous and dissonant music of this record, exalted by Newman’s psychotic vocals, Lewis’s lazy bass and by Bruce Gilbert’s neurotic guitar, constitute, for the era, an act of revolution.

Brian Eno’s influence comes to the fore a year later with the single I Am The Fly (February 1978) and its tragi-comic sing-song melody with the rhythm of a press, and the ethereal melodic whirlpool, a-la Barrett , of Dot Dash (June) confirms the turnaround.

The album Chairs Missing (Harvest, 1978), on which synthesizer appears for the first time, discards the mask definitively, presenting a quartet of experimentors, to whom producer Mike Thorne, the George Martin of the situation, is added. The surreal, decadent, icily electronic sound had jumped past punk rock, connecting with, if anything, Ultravox. Practice Makes Perfect, with a martial beat redolent of Brechtian cabaret, and the freeform delirium of I Feel Mysterious Today belong more to psychoanalysis than to rock. The lugubrious sing-song of Marooned and the disconnected punk-rock of Sand In My Joints are set in horrific scenarios of sinister technological apocalypses.

This new direction reached a temporary peak with the suave melody of Outdoor Miner (January 1979), repeated by the slightly psychotic A Question Of Degree (July).

The progression culminated with the third album, 154 (Automatic, 1979); one of the masterpieces of the era, it is an extremely dark piece of work where Thorne’s arrangements (which include viola, flute and horns as well as electronic keyboards) and Newman’s terrorised singing are the protagonists. In its minimalist geometric architecture, the diverse manners which are at the root of Wire’s sound converge and intersect. The psychedelic sketches of Syd Barrett are immersed in the claustrophobic atmosphere of Map Ref 41 N 93 W and dilate uncontrollably in the spasmodic suspense of A Mutual Friend; a litany from beyond the grave, soaked in industrial neurosis, annuls the emotional slide. Newman continues his experiments with Two People In A Room, a kind of rockabilly for androids, and Once Is Enough, funk treated with industrial noises. Eno’s electro-melodic pastels are the model for the frenetic nursery rhymes On Returning and The 15th, the airiest melody on the record, though still a nightmarish soundscape.
Lewis battles Newman for the author’s laurels. His are the most frightening compositions: shadowy odes echoing the ghostly ceremonials of John Cale and Jim Morrison (Single K.O.), murmured martial funereal laments (I Should Have Known Better), choruses of the dead and electronic dissonances (Other Window) and the long, oppressive agony of A Touching Display, with its undertone of Martian noises and raga rhythms.
It is a powerful and ingenious fresco of alienation and anguish in the machine age, where the group displays the talent of a playwright for the interiorisation of fear. With this album, Wire brought about the historical transition of the sub-proletarian and naturalistic punk-rock anthem into the intellectual and modernist post-punk song.

The disharmony between Newman (the ‘conservative’ wing of the group, pushing for the classic song format) and Gilbert and Lewis (the ‘revolutionary’ wing, pushing for electronic experimentation), ended up derailing the project. Newman’s solo work continued with the intuitions of 154, while Gilbert and Lewis threw themselves into ambient and industrial music with Dome.

After a seven-year hiatus, Wire began playing together again. As announced by the Snakedrill EP (Mute), particularly by the menacing A Serious Of Snakes and Drill, the album The Ideal Copy (Mute, 1987) maintained a minimum of continuity with the past, particularly with the moderated modernism of Chairs Missing, and contains at least one new classic, Ahead. But the disco beats and the cold ‘digital’ production make Wire sound like New Order.

That their sound was above all composed of harmonic inventions and atmospheres was confirmed two years later by the second album of this new phase, A Bell Is A Cup Until It Is Struck (Mute, 1988), in which Newman’s ‘psychedelia’ gains the upper hand over Gilbert’s abstruseness. If the soft melodiousness of the disco rhythms of Kidney Bingos and Silk Skin Paws is what conquers the public, Wire’s genius with melody and harmony are manifest in totally different forms: The Finest Drops is psychedelia with a cadenced, Brian Eno-esque nursery rhyme with symphonic interludes; The Queen Of Ur And The King Of Um is a fable stuttered by a Kevin Ayers, who had just become a grandfather; the ceremonial music of Boiling Boy is refined enough to work as new-age meditation music, and Follow The Locust is the quintessence of Wire’s art of destabilising the pop song. But too often their litanies descend into danceable AOR, as if they had passed through New Order’s or Depeche Mode’s hands first.

In fact, the Eardrum Buzz single of April 1989 (another disco novelty) signalled the end of one period and the beginning of another: the commercial phase inaugurated some months later with In Vivo.

With the drummer replaced by a drum-machine, on Manscape (Mute, 1990), totally lacking in ideas and the worst album of their career, the quartet gave up the jig and began peddling conventional synth-pop (Life In The Manscape e Torch It).

After changing their name to Wir, The First Letter (Mute, 1991) regained some of their dignity, but So And Slow It Goes drowns in the velvety and monotonous synthetic ether of their arrangements: even later-period Roxy Music and Ultravox were more interesting.

The group was definitively dead. Whatever they had been trying to demonstrate with their ‘comeback’ records hadn’t materialised. The mandate seemed to have been to produce no more than one melody and one arrangement per album. From all the records recorded after 154, only four or five songs (and they are no more than ‘songs’) are salvageable.

It is surprising that the ‘alternative tracks’ from this period collected on Coatings (WMO, 1998) are infinitely more creative. Turns And Strokes is the (far less interesting) collection of ‘alternative tracks’ from 1979-80.

Bruce Gilbert and Colin Newman have continued to be just as busy with their own personal projects.


(Original text by Piero Scaruffi)

Wire's six-song EP Read & Burn 01 (Pinkflag, 2002) returns them to the futuristic punk-rock of their beginnings (In the Art of Stopping, I Don't Understand, Comet), albeit with a new awareness of studio cut-up techniques and of the post-rock aesthetics (Germ Ship). Ditto for its twin EP, Read & Burn 02 (Pinkflag, 2002). Seven of the songs featured on these EPs surfaced on the album Send (Pinkflag, 2003).

On the Box (WDR, 2004) documents a live 1979 performance.

The mini-album Object 47 (Pink Flag, 2008), the first Wire album without guitarist Bruce Gilbert, marked a turn towards a friendlier, catchier format. The quest for mainstream acceptance yields a confused, frustrating assembly of fashionable styles of the 1990s, most of which sounds like filler for the most accomplished song, opener One of Us. It's like having to listen to one very long multi-part B-side of a good single. Only towards the end, do they come up with some bold ideas, namely in the neurotic Hard Currency and the claustrophobic All Fours (with Page Hamilton guesting on guitar).

Red Barked Tree (2011) sounds like a bridge between their punk origins and the atmospheric pop of 2011 but nothing excels at either one. These songs are as faceless as ambient music, except that one can sense how much thinking went into designing each one.

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