The Great Albums

'Pink Flag' still flies in the face of rock history
May 18, 2003


Rock philosopher Brian Eno once said that although the Velvet Underground didn't sell a lot of records in its time, everyone who bought one went out and started a band. Through the '80s and '90s and continuing today, the same could be said of the renowned English art-punks Wire.

Formed in 1976 during London's vaunted "Summer of Hate," the musical uprising that followed in the wake of the Sex Pistols, the members of Wire differed from many of their fellow punks because they were older, smarter and much more ambitious creatively. Like many of their peers, guitarist-vocalist Colin Newman, bassist Graham Lewis, guitarist Bruce Gilbert and drummer Robert Gotobed had no musical training. But like many of the psychedelic rockers of the '60s, they had endless ideas and a burning desire to create, fueled by that middle-class British staple, the art-school education.

From the beginning, a trippier and more enigmatic vibe permeated their music, and they were signed to Harvest (the home of many of the best progressive rockers) by the same talent scout who had signed Pink Floyd. This led the British press to dub them "the Punk Floyd." But their skeletal, brusque songs owed as much to Eno, the Velvets, Roxy Music, Can and Captain Beefheart, and on their brilliant 1977 debut "Pink Flag," they set out to offer a condensed, tuneful and bitingly funny overview of the music that preceded them--what Newman called "cocking a snoot at the history of rock 'n' roll."

Wire had already written and discarded an album's worth of material (as well as jettisoning a fifth member, guitarist George Gill) when it made its recorded debut beside X-Ray Spex and the Buzzcocks on the live punk sampler, "The Roxy, London WC2." The young engineer behind that recording, Mike Thorne, was tapped to produce "Pink Flag," and through the next three albums (until the group temporarily disbanded in 1980) he would be a virtual fifth member of the band.

Thorne told me that the musicians hadn't even learned to tune their guitars when they entered Advision Studios for the first time, but the sophistication of their songwriting belied their lack of technical expertise. Wire was a unique band on several levels. For one thing, though many assume that Newman was the rhythm guitarist and Gilbert played lead, the singer was by far the band's most natural musician, and he crafted many of its most memorable melodies. (Gilbert, meanwhile, distinguished himself as the band's key artistic provocateur and self-described "spanner in the works," taking a perverse pride at injecting grating noises in the most unexpected places.)

More significantly, while Newman's distinctive snarl was the band's primary voice, Lewis wrote nearly all of the lyrics, using a spare but descriptive style that owed equal debts to journalism and Beat poetry. By their nature, these telegraphic dispatches were urgent but distanced, and the fact that Newman was one step removed from the words (as the singer but not the writer) added a further layer of mystery.

Appropriately enough, the album opens with the haunting "Reuters," a tune narrated by a desperate war correspondent. (Clocking in at just under three minutes--long by Wire's standards--the track is an ideal example of the formula that holds throughout the disc. But while all of the 21 songs are supremely well-crafted--each is a nearly perfect musical vignette--the album is best appreciated as a mosaic, where every song builds on the others and they all combine to create an intricate whole.)

"Prices have risen since the government fell/Casualties increase as the enemy shells/The climate's unhealthy, flies and rats thrive/And sooner or later the end will arrive," Newman sings over a plodding rhythm and a massive wall of ominous fuzz guitars. (The disc was essentially recorded live, with countless guitar overdubs--plus the occasional minimal keyboard part--added later to thicken the sound.) "Reuters" builds to Newman's panicked exclamation, "Gunfire's increasing--looting, burning, rape!" The last word is repeated in ever more threatening tones until the song and the narrator finally collapse.

The themes of the other tracks may sound less dramatic, but they are rife with deeply poetic observations and striking, sarcastic in-jokes. The title track revisits the concept of life during wartime; "Field Day for the Sundays" savages the sensationalism of the British press; "Mr. Suit" is a devastating take on 9-to-5 conformity while "Champs" and "Ex Lion Tamer" mock the opposite in people who are addicted to danger; "106 Beats That" is a punning musing on sex, and "Feeling Called Love" is a sneering anti-love song that ranks among the best that punk produced.

The tunes boast a truly impressive number of unforgettable hooks, all crammed into the most simple and concise of song structures. It's impossible to hear "Fragile" or "Mannequin" without being tempted to sing along by the end, though neither tune has a single note more than is necessary. Speaking with biographer Kevin S. Eden for the 1991 book, Wire ... Everybody Loves a History, the band members confessed that many of these minimalist masterpieces were intended as homages if not blatant rip-offs or spoofs (what Newman meant by "cocking a snoot").

"Feeling Called Love" was intended to be a faux Troggs song; "Strange" nodded to the Velvet Underground; "Lowdown" was a funk/blues goof, and Newman said that "Pink Flag" was "Johnny B. Goode" with "no chords in it." But the musicians' technical limitations, contrary personalities and distinctive worldviews added peculiar twists to everything they touched, and in the end, Wire never sounded like anyone but Wire.

This is never truer than on the concluding track. (The original vinyl album ended with "12XU," but the single "Options R" has been tacked on to CD reissues.) "12XU" remains Wire's ultimate anthem--its "Anarchy in the U.K.," "London Calling" or "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker." The "X" in the title is a witty bit of self-censorship (it doesn't take much imagination to provide the missing expletive), and the song's one minute and 55 seconds of churning fury turn punk aggression and rock sexism on their ears by adopting a gay perspective.

"[It's about] people actually realizing there were feminine sides to their character," Lewis told Eden, adding that the Spartan phrases in the lyric came from gay jargon. "In a way it's a gay song, and in another it isn't. It's what anyone wants to take out of it."

The greatest testament to Wire's brilliance may be the diversity of what other artists have taken out of its recorded legacy, which can now be divided into three phases. (After two more startlingly creative albums, 1978's "Chairs Missing" and 1980's "154," the group disbanded; it reformed in 1987 for a few more years and a series of more electronic, dance-oriented discs--the best are that year's "Snakedrill" EP and "The Ideal Copy"; then it came together once more in the new millennium, stripping things down again for a driving, abrasive art-punk sound a la "Pink Flag" on the new album "Send.")

When R.E.M. recorded a cover for the first time on album (1987's "Document"), it chose "Strange"; Elastica admitted that it rewrote "3 Girl Rhumba" for its hit "Connection"; Spoon ends its shows with a rollicking version of "Lowdown," and Fischerspooner currently has a hit with "The 15th." The long and diverse list of other artists who have drawn from Wire include Blur, the Minutemen, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, Husker Du, Ministry, Big Black, the Feelies, Chris Connelly--in truth, just about any daring and imaginative art-punk to emerge since 1977.

"Pink Flag" may not have sold many albums upon its release. But it remains a sacred text, a great album and a favorite for any rock fan who has heard it.

Concertgoers alert: Wire will perform two shows in Chicago: June 25 at the Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee (773-489-3160) and June 26 at Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace (773-478-4408).