Photo by Phil Sharp
Ever felt overwhelmed by an artist’s extensive back catalog? Been meaning to check out a band, but you just don’t know where to begin? In 10 Songs is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into the daunting discographies of iconic artists of all genres. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.
Building on the advances of The Velvet Underground, Can, and Brian Eno, Wire created one of the most important bodies of work in underground rock history. Overstating their influence is difficult; hardcore punk royalty, alt-rock pioneers, and shoegaze legends alike have covered them. More importantly, they inspired virtually every post-punk band on both sides of the Atlantic, presaged a number of minimalist dance sub-genres, and clearly informed the fractured, cryptic spirit of ’90s indie. The recent release of their self-titled, 14th studio LP offers an occasion to look back at the legacy of a band that’s only continued to push forward over the years.
There are at least three distinct stages in Wire’s lifespan. The first and most legendary era spanned from 1976 to 1980 and saw the release of the classic albums Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154 (plus a few excellent singles). After a half-decade hiatus, the band regrouped in the mid-‘80s and began moving in an increasingly electronic, dance-oriented direction before disbanding during the early ‘90s. Finally, at the turn of the millennium, Wire reassembled yet again to begin its third stage, which extends up to the present and has found the band applying new technology and a fuller sound to old concepts and material.
This list, which draws from all three eras, is an attempt to explore the key facets of one of underground rock’s most significant bands.
CLASS OF ’77 DECONSTRUCTIONISTS
“1 2 X U” FROM PINK FLAG (1977)
Pink Flag betrays an obsession with the linear and the binary. We get straight lines, one-dimensional boys, and daily trips from A to B (which avoid C, D, and E). Then there’s the album’s denouement, “1 2 X U,” which propels punk rock dead ahead to its logical endpoint. In less than two minutes, the song crystallizes — then dismantles — everything The Ramones and Sex Pistols had been working toward prior to the release of Pink Flag. Accelerating like a flip-book before finally collapsing in on itself, “1 2 X U” distills the art of the vignette down to a few unforgettable lines, and reduces the science of the riff-driven anthem to a brilliantly boneheaded simplicity. There’s an unmistakable finality to this implosive song, and Wire would have no choice but to move onward from here, leaving the rubble of punk in their wake.
MASTERS OF AMBIGUITY
“STRANGE” FROM PINK FLAG (1977)
“Something is nothing/ Nothing is nothing,” Wire vocalist/guitarist Colin Newman explained on Pink Flag’s side-one classic “Three Girl Rhumba”. As if intent on proving this theorem on the album’s second side, the band managed to build nothing out of next to nothing with “Strange”. Though it’s the longest track on Pink Flag, this zero-sum game of a song amounts to a giant void of unanswered questions and nameless paranoia. The sonic puzzle pieces here are an accumulation of banal phrases (“There’s something going down that wasn’t here before”), a two-chord progression that chugs like a condemned freight elevator, and a few stray notes from a flute twisted into unrecognizability; the more effort you put into deciphering the peculiar power of these individual elements, the less sense the whole picture seems to make.
R.E.M. covered “Strange” a decade later on Document, and if this sinister, rumbling song doesn’t immediately seem like a natural fit for Michael Stipe and company, the connection makes more sense on an intellectual level than a purely musical one. That Athens, Georgia, band spent the first (and greatest) decade of their career broaching subjects from the most oblique of angles, and it’s difficult to imagine Stipe developing his distinctly indistinct songwriting voice without the enigmatic tutelage of songs such as “Strange”. If negative space has a sound, surely this is it.
“I AM THE FLY” FROM CHAIRS MISSING (1978)
With “I Am the Fly”, Wire took a formal risk that separated them from their more self-serious post-punk peers. The song’s narrative is sung from the point of view of a parasitic figure, while the sonic layout quite convincingly conjures insect imagery. This gambit could have come off as cheeky, disposable, or even embarrassing had Wire not developed the concept so inventively.
There’s a warped glee in Newman’s proclamations (“I shake you down to say please as you/ Accept the next dose of disease”), which are ironically underscored by celebratory handclaps and a deviously danceable bass line. But even more essential to this alarmingly brilliant song’s success is the unusually vivid guitar interplay of Bruce Gilbert and Newman, from the visceral, quaking riff that opens the song to the tendril-like notes that seem to physically sprout through headphones to inspect the listener’s ear canal. Wire had conceptualized tracks this way in the past (“Straight Line”) and would continue to do so in the future (“A Series of Snakes”), but “I Am the Fly” remains the band’s most stunning intersection of lyrical content and soundscape. There may be no song that makes a jauntier show of upsetting its audience.
OBSESSIVE SOUND SCULPTORS
“MAP REF. 41ºN 93ºW” FROM 154 (1979)
154 found Wire and ace producer Mike Thorne laboring more intensively over individual sounds, and nowhere is this more evident than on the stunning “Map Ref. 41ºN 93ºW”. Even if the band would go on to make thicker, more complicated music, they would never again create something quite this enveloping or attentively sculpted (it’s no wonder that My Bloody Valentine, the most gifted texture manipulators of a succeeding generation, later retooled “Map Ref. 41ºN 93ºW”). The song’s lyrics locate mysticism in geography and geometry, and play off the music in a way that’s more abstract and cerebral than, say, “I Am the Fly”. The mix is highlighted by planar synth chords that spread and multiply across stereo channels and a watercolor guitar riff that seems to live, breathe, and mutate before our ears. The end result is so evocative it’s almost as if the experience of visual awe has been translated into audio.
“DRILL” FROM THE SNAKEDRILL EP (1986)
After a half-decade absence, Wire returned with Snakedrill, an EP that contained some of the most approachable material the band had recorded up to this point, as well as some of the most difficult. The monochromatic, maddeningly catchy highlight “Drill” speaks to the more challenging side of the EP, and Wire in general. Lyrically, the song appears to draw unsavory parallels between sexual politics, discotheque predators, and military training regiments. With its manic “dugga dugga dugga” chant, wheezily percussive guitars, and a disco beat that remains infuriatingly fixed throughout the song’s runtime, “Drill” pushes dance music to a repetitious limit. Relative to the austerity of “Drill”, Pink Flag almost sounds vibrant.
SUBLIMINAL POP SAVANTS
“KIDNEY BINGOS” FROM A BELL IS A CUP … UNTIL IT IS STRUCK (1988)
Wire’s fifth full-length is a study in the subliminal qualities of pop music. Unobtrusive, atmospheric, and maybe even a bit polite, the album is best summed up by “Kidney Bingos”, the band’s most luminous single since Chairs Missing’s “Outdoor Miner”. The lyrics, mixed just low enough make us question exactly what we’re hearing, offer a spool of fluid free associations that, unsurprisingly, are much more bizarre than Newman’s disarming vocal delivery would lead us to believe (“Bomb time pop crime stock frame steady climb/ Fresh name donor game fair meat all the same,” one couplet tells us). While the blink-and-miss-it perversion of the words is entirely in keeping with the jagged groundwork laid by Wire’s early classics, the heavily processed guitars, gorgeously rounded bass tones, and rippling synths unexpectedly melt into an almost impossibly dreamy lullaby. Aside from Brian Eno’s softest guitar-centric compositions and New Order’s most clearheaded work, there’s little else in the world of pop that hits a similar sweet spot.
ALTERNATE UNIVERSE HITMAKERS
“EARDRUM BUZZ” FROM IT’S BEGINNING TO AND BACK AGAIN (1989)
Wire was always interested in exposing the underlying absurdities of the pop form, so it’s only fitting that their catchiest song should examine the threat secretly posed by all popular music. If there’s a thesis to be derived from this day-glo synth nugget’s nonsensical narrative, it’s that listeners who expose themselves to unforgettable hooks risk forfeiting a portion of their own mental RAM to insipid lyrical content. Newman’s nursery rhyme-like imagery recasts historical and fictional figures in absurdist situations (“Buffalo Bill, deprived of will/ Chasing a hamburger down the hill”), while the chorus suggests that our collective memory is being preyed upon by the relentless buzz of the noise we can’t get out of our heads. Depending on who’s listening, Wire’s most successful stateside single might be considered subversive, unusually palatable, or an act of sacrilege (punk lifers will cringe at the fact that this somehow hit number two on the US Modern Rock charts). Maybe it’s best to simply label “Eardrum Buzz” as the fly in pop music’s ointment.
“SO AND SLOW IT GROWS” FROM THE FIRST LETTER (1991, RELEASED UNDER THE NAME WIR)
By 1991, Wire had lost drummer Robert Gotobed, shaved the “e” off their name, and fully submerged themselves in underground dance music. Predictably, this shift in focus didn’t sit well with many devotees, though Wire had clearly been moving incrementally in this direction since resurfacing with Snakedrill in 1986. Retroactively, The First Letter feels like more of a response to then-contemporary modes of electro-pop than a fully formed statement. Revisiting the single “So and Slow It Grows”, it’s almost impossible not to think of Pet Shop Boys, New Order’s techno experiments, and (especially) Depeche Mode’s Violator. While the song may not be as fiercely singular as Wire’s prior work, it still embodies what’s best about The First Letter; this is fluid, exploratory music with scrupulously constructed surfaces that are never less than beguiling (it has also aged much better than the accompanying Calvin Klein-esque video might suggest).
A FULL-BODIED BAND
“MR. MARX’S TABLE” FROM SEND (2003)
Like the majority of Wire’s work from the Read and Burn/Send era, “Mr. Marx’s Table” is modern enough in its production methods, but not easily tied to the trends of any particular epoch. And similar to so much of the band’s oeuvre, it evidences a fascination with forcing simple, repetitious textures to interact in increasingly knotty ways. There’s something purifying about the song’s digitized take on White Light/White Heat-style buzz, which is not so much immersive as it is annihilating (“It’s too late to pray,” sings an eerily tranquil Newman). There’s a passing resemblance to early industrial music, shoegaze maximalism, and even Kid A and Amnesiac, but “Mr. Marx’s Table” exists outside of rock’s general timeline. Ultimately, it represents a new, headphone-coating stage in Wire’s linear progression.
PRACTITIONERS OF REVISIONIST HISTORY
“RE-INVENT YOUR SECOND WHEEL” FROM CHANGE BECOMES US (2013)
Changes Becomes Us consists largely of reworked material that initially appeared on Document & Eyewitness, a live recording of a fragmentary early-’80s Wire performance. On paper, this reflective late-career work seems to invite a “coming full circle” narrative, but nothing is ever so simple in the world of Wire. Consider the refurbished track “Re-Invent Your Second Wheel”, sung by bassist Graham Lewis. It’s lushly textured, (almost) conventionally pretty ambient pop in the manner of A Bell Is a Cup or 154’s brightest moments, but has a richer, fuller sound than those past efforts. Lyrically, it remains evasive, with vaguely philosophical verses that are offset by a chorus that consists of randomly intoned letters. Rather than provide any kind of pat conclusion to Wire’s story, it interacts with the band’s past in complex ways, burrowing forward into an ever-deepening mystery. Call it a new point on a line with no foreseeable ending.