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Wire: 1977-1979

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Dusted's Bill Meyer tells you what you need to know about the latest box of Wire reissues.

Wire: 1977-1979

Redeeming art rock probably didn’t rate very high on Wire’s agenda – and you can be sure that this is one band that had one – but it’s nonetheless one of the great accomplishments of the English quartet’s first comet-like pass through the pop-music solar system. Even a cursory listen to the coarse-as-concrete guitar chords on their debut album Pink Flag confirms that they rocked harder and more consistently than Gentle Giant or Genesis or King Crimson. By privileging simply articulated statements of carefully thought-out ideas, they communicated rather than confused; Wire dealt with intentions and concepts, not pretensions. Theirs was art grounded in an understanding that performances and pieces could make statements rather than holding itself to the sort of grammar school art appreciation standards that made Yes and its fans feel pretty proud of themselves when Rick Wakeman play minute snippets of switched-on baroque classics. Wire set out to test the medium of pop music, to challenge its conventions. Who needs solos, virtuosity, comforting sentiment, good intentions, or distinct individual narrators? At one point or another they challenged, subverted, or did away with such props. And they did it all as a pop band – a marketplace entity that was paid advances, released singles, toured as an opening act for Roxy Music, and generated an impressive catalog of damned catchy tunes.

Pink Flag, the band’s own label, has assembled the mail order-only boxed set 1977-1979 – which includes the albums Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154, as well as two discs of live material from 1977 and 1978 – with an eye to positioning themselves as key contributors to the post-punk musical discourse. This might surprise those familiar mainly with their debut; Pink Flag, after all, is one of the urtexts of American hardcore punk. Its unforgiving demeanor and remorseless minimalism – think about it, what major label album then or now offered 21 songs in 35 minutes? – impressed kids across the USA like Mike Watt and Dennes Boon, a pair of unreconstructed CCR fans in San Pedro who applied that album’s reductive impulses to their own ends. The same thing happened in D.C., Chicago, and countless other burgs across the country.

But Wire were part of the first wave of reaction against the Sex Pistols and other first-generation punks. The thick, glossy book that accompanies the box includes five essays, one for each CD, that tell the story of Wire according to Wire. They seem to view their influence on American punk with bemusement. Colin Newman, Bruce Gilbert, Graham Lewis, and Robert Gotobed (could their be a better piss-taking punk rock name?) weren’t back-to-basics rockers or smash-the-system rebels, but they were also very much not about taking things at face value. If you had to boil Wire down to one motivational impulse, it was “Can’t we do something else with that?” This question informed what they wrote about, how they wrote it, and how they played.

Most likely you already know that Pink Flag is a masterpiece of distilled spite and aggression; that Chairs Missing served notice that the band was concerned with moving on, not consolidation; that 154 is the cruel synth-washed emotional soundscape that Eno and Bowie didn’t quite have the stomach to make. The core of this box is those three studio albums; if you don’t own them and you care at all about punk and the way its descendents changed the face of music, you’re wearing shoes with no soles and its about to rain. If you do, it’s fair to ask if you really need this box. The mastering far exceeds both the original vinyl and the first CD versions that Restless Records put out a decade and a half ago for presence and depth; they sound positively luxurious, and if you’re not the kind of person who stopped playing their stereo when they bought their iPod, you’ll be able to hear and savor the difference. But if you sprang for the reissues that Pink Flag put out a couple months ago, you already have them and three-fifths of the booklet’s text; you’ll have to decide if two live records make this set worth owning.

The material on Live At The Roxy, London – April 1st & 2nd 1977 is not completely unknown to Wire fans. Bits of it have snuck out on compilations over the years, but here you get the totality of Wire’s sets. Their 17-song sets are pretty much identical except for the reversal of the last two tunes, “Glad All Over” and “Mr. Suit;” you’re probably not going to play the disc all the way through very often. Still, it’s great to hear Wire slashing their way through Pink Flag-era material, and revealing to hear what didn’t make it to that album. Naked and unashamed, Wire’s sense of humor steps out from behind their mask of ultra-seriousness. “Just Don’t Care” is a wickedly funny Ramones send-up, with Newman and Lewis utterly failing to approximate the Brudders’ Bronx accents. They rip through “After Midnight” and the aforementioned Dave Clark Five nugget like a cop car blowing lights on the way to the Krispy Kreme grand opening. The 29-minute long Live at CBGB Theatre, New York – July 18th 1978 is both revelatory and frustrating. The band recorded it for radio broadcast, and the disc’s thin sound betrays the fact it was mastered from a cassette. But there’s no other way to legally hear the band in concert at this phase of their existence, with Pink Flag shrinking in the rear view mirror and Chair’s Missing newly tucked into bed. The group had clearly grown as players; Lewis’s bass is a distorted monolith, Gotobed’s stark beats certain where they’d been frantic just one year earlier. The biggest frustration, though, is the presence of “Dot Dash,” a song they introduce as “the single over in England at the moment.” They play it well, but also put the spotlight on its absence, along with every other b-side and single-only track that Wire issued during the years covered by this box. They were included on the original CDs, and while I can’t argue with the band’s wish to present the albums exactly as they were envisioned, those missing songs deserve to be heard.

By Bill Meyer

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