The Works Incessantly In Hand: Wire @ 40

❉ 40 years of this truculent bunch of awkward sods and their voluminous output.

“Basically, the world divides into people who know Wire and think that everybody knows, and the rest of the world, which is 99.9% of it, who’ve never heard of us.” – Colin Newman, 2014

As of All Fools Day, officially, Wire – this fractious, voluble, truculent bunch – are somehow 40 years old, and not simply existing, but in reconfigured rude health, with a quizzical and ruminative new LP out right now, pop kids. Not that you’d notice, unless you were already a follower; for all that their voluminous output has spread its influence far and wide within the music world, they remain a cult object par excellence, the mainstream always at one remove, despite themselves.

Even if you’ve never heard Wire, you’ll certainly have encountered music inspired by them, most notoriously during the Britpop surge years, but also in much US hardcore & artrock of the late 80s, in UK shoegaze & dreampop of the early 90s and whole swathes of the early millennium new/no-wave revivalists. You’ll also know within seconds of hearing the definite article whether or not they’re for you; despite constant tinkering and shapechanging to the sounds they make, there’s a certain persistent thrum, a backdrop signal – a pulse they christened “Dugga” – to everything they do, which either enraptures or repels.

The forty years haven’t been done on the trot, like.  Always partial to, shall we say, lively internal debate – not to mention a midgie boredom threshold and an antipathy to nostalgia  – they have several times in their trajectory howffed the ball up onto the roof and done the whatevs rather than agree to disagree.  Consequently, there are four discrete phases of Wire down the ages.

Their remarkable speedlearn inaugural sprint from 1977-1980 (the three albums Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154 plus attendant 45s) remains utterly essential listening and still probably their most famous work (to the point where they once performed in front of a backdrop reading “Everything after Pink Flag is shit” in ironic acknowledgement).

This iteration, despite producing decidedly un-trad results, is an accelerated capsule of a standard rock career arc – demos, thrash, bigger studios, synths, bigger tours, longer songs, even bigger studios, “musical differences” and implosion right on the cusp of the big time.  But the explosion of creativity and the constant swerves between arch brainiac-ing and pure pop have the indelible thrill of the chase.

Wire reconvened for the latter half of the 80s for a troubled “beat combo phase” tussle with new tech (The Ideal Copy, A Bell Is A Cup Until It Is Struck and Manscape the primary albums here), cementing a year-zero approach to their past life which in retrospect worked against them. Like many in that decade, they found their instincts thwarted as often as aided by the digital encroachments of the age, compounded by approaching new modi operandi with old expectations, thus satisfying neither.  You need to do a bit of sifting to unearth the many gems in this era, but the highs, though fewer, are as high as before.

The long dormancy of the nineties, when all parties assumed the band finished for good, allowed the individual members time to indulge their tastes and work under the radar, meaning that when they returned this millennium, they were used to operating small-scale, hand-to-mouth and crucially, as an independent unit, beautifully primed for this age of fileshare and download, when one’s past and present co-exist in the dataflow.

Making a virtue of their atomised state and determined to confront the “nostalgia” problem head-on, their startling, vicious return to action 2000-2004 (the three Read & Burn EPs and their compilation issue Send) contains the most consistently extreme music they ever made.  Never averse to a bit o’skronk, this is cut’n’paste reductio ad absurdum Wire, and in the correct mood, hilariously galvanising.

A burnout ensued, with the only change of personnel in their history, though nearly all members have stropped off temporarily at some point in proceedings. Because they’ve never had that One Big Hit (there are fan and band faves and setlist staples, but no one defining shibboleth anthem), they’re free to re-examine their work as it suits them, and since then, have adopted an oddly avuncular and self-accepting “psychedelic pop” mode where they sound truly comfortable at last with the entirety of their oeuvre (Red Barked Tree and the twin releases Wire/Nocturnal Koreans the recommended albums here.)

Signature to their personality, in whatever phase, has been a cryptic methodology which at its best is properly ludic, at its worst simply a load of nose-spite-facing.  Throughout it all, an apparently vermouth attitude to their art (lyrics are “text”, songs are “work”, live performance is “R&D”) which belies the fruitful discourse of their efforts, not to mention just how witty – in fact, downright bloody cheeky – they can be.

This exploded-view approach is most notable in Wire’s “texts”, which have the allure of crossword clues or riddle-me-ree.  Without the existence of the noun phrase, they’d be stuffed for something to say.  Hours of fun can be had perusing a Wire lyric sheet, as pointillist punnings slowly reveal themselves.  I’ve been listening to them for nearly three decades now, & certain passages in certain songs are as mystifying to me as they were on first contact.  They play a long game, and if you find yourself partial, will reward forever.

Plus, when they feel like it, they make pop in big capital letters.  The interlocutions of their larger body of work you may or may not wish to explore, but raise a glass at least to these three gems of the melodic art, big hits in another dimension, here proposed as a joyous cork-popping toast to ’em:

Happy anniversary, you awkward sods.  For your birthday gift from me in gratitude for years of pleasure, a feature on your good selves which for once does not include even a single usage of a certain four-letter word.  Let’s have a ding dong.

❉ Wire’s fifteenth album ‘Silver/Lead’ was released on 31 March 2017 through the band’s pinkflag label.

❉ Wire official:

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