Wire were formed in 1976 by Colin Newman (vocals, guitar), Graham Lewis (bass, vocals), Bruce Gilbert (guitar), Robert Gotobed aka Grey (drums) and the soon-to-depart George Gill (guitar). Despite their limited technical ability, they managed, through relentless rehearsing, to catch up with their punk peers — both in musical dexterity and in terms of sheer velocity. Gilbert has described this arduous process as "like P.E.", but while getting into shape they also transmuted generic rock elements into a new musical language.
Their 1977 debut album, Pink Flag, featured 21 tracks of startling brevity with most clocking in at under two minutes. The songs, mainly written by Newman, were austere and cryptic missives. Some were abrasive pop songs, some so short they were little more than exclamations. The lyrics, mainly written by Lewis, were like condensed short stories or edgy news flashes, with obscure codes and absurdist humour.
The music press didn't always get Wire. The group's arty pretensions deliberately separated them from punk's lowest common denominator rock, creating an aloofness reinforced by their characteristically truculent approach to interviews. Then, to confound expectations, Chairs Missing (1978) saw them exploring a more developed approach to songwriting and a far more expansive soundworld, from harsh, staccato guitar rhythms to moody drifts enriched by producer Mike Thorne's keyboards. The grotesque singalong, 'I Am The Fly', was released as a single and at some Wire concerts, punters were seen doing the Dead Fly Dance from the hip children's TV show, Tiswas.
Far away from such potential novelty dance crazes, Wire's next step was a giant one. 154 (1979) saw their music further broadening in scope, encompassing the psychedelic, the sinister and the pastoral, giving it a dark sensuality. Acclaim was virtually universal, but intra-band relations were becoming strained.
In early 1979, Wire made a European tour supporting Roxy Music, on which they developed and edited the material which would appear on 154, this process can be seen captured on the DVD 'On The Box', Wire playing a live set on the German TV show Rockpalast (later released on DVD/CD as Wire – On The Box, 1979) months before the recording sessions for 154.
The November 1979 release found both EMI (taken over by Thorn) and Wire in flux.
Thus far, Wire had followed a path of positive creative momentum. Next, they channelled it into a series of notorious 1980 London shows — at the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre and the Electric Ballroom — at which baffled and disgruntled punters and record label representatives were subjected to a mix of musical works-in-progress and confrontational performance art. Highlights from this public act of commercial suicide were released as Document And Eyewitness (1981) the year after the band had split.
Five years of solo and collaborative projects followed — with drummer Robert Grey choosing to pursue a career as an organic farmer — before Wire remerged in 1985. They played at Oxford Museum Of Modern Art and the Bloomsbury Theatre in London, presenting a set of all-new material, including the onomatopoeic 'Drill' with its endless rotating rhythm accented with one chord. Material from these sets was worked up into the Snakedrill EP (1986) and the album, The Ideal Copy (1987), a mixture of luxurious pop melodies, more outré material and experimentation with synths, sequencers and samplers. Although considered by some to be uneven, this first new Wire album in six years was nonetheless gratefully received.
Grey's metronomic style was ideal for this new development and he stripped back his drum kit, taking away first the cymbals, then the tom-toms, ending up with just hi-hat, bass drum and snare. On the more consistent A Bell Is A Cup (1988), the group locked together like a multilayered rhythm machine.
In the late '80s, Wire were a highly effective live unit, their music sounding at home writ large in theatre venues. That said, the release of It's Beginning To And Back Again, featuring largely reworked live songs only a year after A Bell Is A Cup verged on too much of a good thing and now feels superseded by the more of-the-moment contemporary recordings from the extensive Legal Bootleg series. But it did include one of Wire's finest pop moments in 'Eardrum Buzz'. Like a number of the group's singles it should, theoretically, have been a huge hit, but only reached number 68 in the UK.
Manscape, released in 1990, was an electronic set and one of the group's most original albums, albeit with more ideas tried out than which worked convincingly. By now there were no drums and Grey was manipulating machine rhythms.
In concert in the '80s, 'Drill' had taken on a life of its own, extending for up to 30 minutes. The group's fascination with the song yielded The Drill (1990), an hour's worth of versions of the song's 'dugga' rhythm. Conceptually sound, it had its moments but it was without doubt the most arch thing they ever attempted.
By The First Letter (1991), Grey had left, a fact reflected in the group's name change to Wir. If, technologically speaking, Manscape sounded rather of its time, The First Letter found them reaching forward towards a new group identity without ever quite getting there.
This led to a hiatus, but the story was still far from over. A decade later the four-piece Wire returned, tantalisingly at first, with live work then the two Read & Burn EPs in 2002, followed by the album Send in 2003. Newman's production was informed by his work in the dance and techno fields, but in a striking stylistic shift, these releases show the group at its most raw, playing with a sulphurous ferocity that they replicated live to thrilling effect.
In 2003, Wire pulled the two bookends of their career together with Flag:Burning, a concert at The Barbican with performances of Pink Flag with video manipulation by artists Jake and Dinos Chapman and Send within a stage set by designer Es Devlin. Guitarist Bruce Gilbert then left the group in 2004. Ideas that Gilbert had been involved in emerged as the highly acclaimed Read & Burn 03, an EP reviewed extensively as an album. The first album by the three piece, Object 47 (2008) lacked the intensity of Send, but was a more melodic set and its tagline "tunes with zoom" was an accurate description.
Wire continued to perform live with Margaret Fielder McGinnis, formerly of Laika, on guitar, and seemed more relaxed about playing sets that encompassed their entire career. But in terms of recording, their methodology was different. When a group start out, they usually expand artistically by basically doing what comes naturally. But now as seasoned campaigners who had developed a particular musical vocabulary, Wire recognised the need to keep setting themselves challenges, to avoid repeating themselves and to top their previous efforts. In this respect, Red Barked Tree (2011) was a satisfyingly diverse set, ranging from the caustic drolleries of 'Please Take' to the relentlessly brutal 'Moreover' and the lengthy title track.
Guitarist Matthew Simms has played live with the group since 2010, but joined officially in 2011. 30 years younger than the group's average age, his interest in timbre and sonics has produced a new and potent chemistry.
Simms made his recorded debut on Change Becomes Us (2013). Wire had intended to challenge the Don't Look Back ethos of playing an album live in its entirety, by playing one that had never been released, the missing fourth album, the songs that ended up on Document And Eyewitness. This was deemed just too perverse, but in a surprise move, the group went back to that cache of abandoned material and reworked it extensively, successfully connecting 1980 with 2012. A long open loop was completed and closed.
The concept behind their 2015 album, Wire, was that the group would be introduced to the material in the studio, albeit leavened with a smattering of material developed in live shows. The results sound remarkably fresh, with a svelte momentum and preponderance of neo-psychedelic pop melodies. Some songs are constructed from darker matter. The formidable, churning 'Harpooned' is the most spectacular sign off to any of Wire's albums and exemplifies their desire to keep pushing into uncharted territory.
Text: Mike Barnes | Photo: Matias Corral