Formed in London in 1976, Wire occupies a unique position in the alternative rock pantheon. Never a household name, the band is still best known for a trio of albums from its earliest days, Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154. Released in quick succession during the late ’70s, the records established the band as pioneers of a severe, experimental, minimalist style that would come to be identified as “post-punk,” a label that would also attach to bands like Joy Division, Gang of Four, the Fall, and Public Image Ltd. But unlike their better-known post-punk contemporaries, Wire has survived more or less intact for nearly forty years.
Having persisted through three distinct periods and only one significant lineup change since its founding, Wire currently appears to be in the midst of a late-career golden age. During the first week of June the band visited New York for two live dates in support of its latest album, simply titled Wire. I took in the first, at Music Hall of Williamsburg, and in a nearly two-hour set that featured mostly their newest material, the men of Wire proved themselves to be every bit as potent in middle-age as they were in their twenties.
Fronted by singer/guitarist Colin Newman, with bassist/vocalist Graham Lewis, drummer Robert Grey (aka Gotobed), and the newest member, guitarist Matthew Simms (who joined in 2011), the band’s set was remarkable both for its clarity andits volume. Not quite punk, not quite metal, not quite pop, Wire’s particular sound has never been easy to describe, though a strong industrial aspect pervades its catalogue. Having listened to the latest record a number of times beforehand, it was impressive to hear very good, though at times routine, songs like “Blogging,”“In Manchester,” and “Sleep-Walking” take on towering dimensions when performed live.
Never a band to indulge or digress, Wire values precision and concision. Apart from Lewis’s occasional reporting on the current score of the NHL hockey playoffs (go figure), there was little conversation or indecision as they proceeded—workman-like—through their song list, bringing to life their buzzing, finely chiseled, guitar-heavy attack. As always, drummer Grey laid down the beats simply, clearly, and with authority. The set did, however, have a surprising narrative arc to it, concluding with one of their longest and most imposing songs, the dirge-like “Harpooned,” which grows gradually in a deafening crescendo over eight-plus minutes before dissolving into a noisy morass—the closest Wire gets to full-blown drama. The evening also included a light sprinkling of highlights from their past, including “Blessed State” from 154, “Used To” from Chairs Missing, and one song from Pink Flag that went by so quickly I couldn’t identify it.
Wire is rarely spectacular. Theirs is not a sound that bowls you over or immerses you like some of the more heavy-handed shoegaze, or hits you in the face like the more aggressive realms of punk. The texture of Wire’s music is more ambiguous and questioning. At times transporting, romantic, acerbic, nervous, bitter, or sweet, the band’s catalogue encompasses many of the trends of the last forty years—punk, new wave, industrial, dream pop, electronica—yet they have continued to remain uniquely themselves. Without a dominant charismatic figure (though some might claim that label for Newman) the band has functioned as a genuine unit, a model of rock democracy. Restlessly risk-taking, Wire, in the band’s own words (via pinkflag.com), “treats the creative potential of a rock band as a fluid, amorphous medium.” They aspire to “delight and disturb in equal measure, troubleshooting the circuitry of perfect pop, or patrolling the limits of focused experimentalism.” Revisiting my copy of their 1988 Mute LP A Bell Is a Cup … Until It Is Struck, the quote on the promo sticker it came with seems to encapsulate my current sense of the band. It reads, “Wire expands your mind without blowing it.”
It’s truly remarkable how long they’ve been at it, and with such a consistent sound and high level of quality. It will be interesting to see how much more they have left. Apart from the younger Simms—who replaced Bruce Gilbert, the oldest of the original members—all of them are in their sixties now. Back when I was a full-time punk rocker in 1980s DC, it was assumed that rock was not a long-term occupation. I never expected to continue playing in bands beyond my early twenties, and in fact I retired at nineteen. But it’s increasingly becoming clear that rock, even in its most creative and non-commercial forms, is a lifetime occupation. In the case of Wire, I can’t think of a better group to lead the way into the post-punk sunset.