In the mid-'70s, England was teeming with punk bands. The Sex Pistols, the Damned and the Clash might not have been playing to huge crowds, but they were sending ripples throughout the rock world.
And then there was Wire.
The guys in the band, which formed in London in 1976, were clearly influenced by punk's recklessness. But they were onto something else. Sure, their 1977 debut, Pink Flag, was noisy. But the noise was tempered. The guitars on album opener "Reuters" were distorted but not that distorted. Most songs clocked in at one or two minutes in length and almost had an industrial feel to them. The group's distinctive, proto-Brit-pop sound has often been imitated (the band's music publisher even sued Elastica for stealing the opening riff from "Three Girl Rhumba").
"The simplest way of putting it, as far as we were concerned, punk was 1976," says bassist Graham Lewis via phone from his home in Sweden. "That's when we discovered it. That was what was going on and exciting and driving things forward. We never claimed to be a punk band. We thought it was done in 1976. We were looking to try to do something else. We were a 1977 group. In that way, it was post-punk. Punk was such a small thing in London at that time. You had different kinds of things going on in New York and whatever, but it was still relatively small. We didn't want to do punk. We felt that the Pistols, the Ramones and the Damned did it pretty well."
Lewis says the guys were essentially still learning to play their instruments on Pink Flag. But with 1978's Chair is Missing and 1979's 154, the group developed a bit more confidence and proved Pink Flag was no fluke.
"I think we made every one of those records thinking it was going to be the last chance we got," says Lewis. "We weren't certain how they'd be received. With Pink Flag, we didn't have a clue what people would say. We have been surprised by the longevity it has had. But it is a bit of a blueprint of people learning to play music. The other ones are more conscious. We were more aware of what we were doing."
And like any good punk band, Wire dissolved just as it peaked.
"Oh gosh, you'll probably get a better idea about it if you read Wilson Neate's book called Read and Burn, which is about Wire," says Lewis when asked what caused the band to split. "It's quite complicated. We decided our relationship with the record company wasn't what we thought, the manager wasn't as good as he should have been, we had three people writing who were very ambitious and directed and we had three times as much material as we needed for 154. There wasn't anybody around to sit us down and tell us to relax. If someone had been able to explain to us what we wanted to do and told us to slow down and get a better perspective, that would have helped."
Lewis, who acknowledges, "there have always been good things coming out of Cleveland," says band members often felt isolated from the kind of music that was popular but that Cleveland art-punk act Pere Ubu was an inspiration.
"There were so few things that we felt in common with," he says. "There was Pere Ubu and what Bowie and Eno were doing. If MTV had been around, that would have helped. Those were the ideas we were trying to get through to [the record label] EMI. We wanted them to do music videos. They said that music on TV wouldn't work. Two years later, they had signed Duran Duran and there you go."
And yet, Wire still found a way to reconvene. While the group doesn't regularly tour (and hasn't played Cleveland since 1988 according to Lewis), the band has been active for close to a decade. Last year, it revisited previously unrecorded songs for Change Becomes Us, a heady album of angular guitar riffs that sounds as contemporary as anything by British acts such as the Futureheads or Bloc Party.
"Because it turned out that the band flew apart in 1980, there were two albums worth of material which we never investigated or played very much," says Lewis. "We maybe played it once or twice at most. Some things were very sketchy and others had been looked at in a more serious way. When we wanted to capture what the group was sounding like in 2011 and 2012, we thought this material might be a good starting point but only a starting point."
Lewis says the band took about seven songs from the scrapheap and reshaped them, often only retaining a single chord.
"It wasn't a case of trying to copy what had been done in the past because there wasn't a definitive version of anything," he says. "They were all left in flux. We took them on the road and they worked really well. We thought, 'Let's continue with this.'"
After about five days in the studio, the band had recorded 13 songs.
"We think it's an extremely good album," says Lewis. "It's a bit of a less than straightforward Wire approach. It's not like we went back to those tunes because they were so great. We just wanted somewhere to start to capture the intuitive nature of how everyone is playing now. We were looking to transcend its historical basis. It isn't a piece of archaeology."
According to Lewis, the key to the band's ability to regroup and successfully record and tour again has been the desire to continue moving forward. The songs on Change Becomes Us certainly speak to that tendency.
"The best advice would be that we've taken quite long breaks at times when we felt as if we did what we needed to do and we knew what to do next," Lewis says when asked about the band's rebirth. "We haven't just gone on for the sake of it. This recent period started about 2007, which is why it's been possible to make Change in the fashion we did. We have a group that's been touring and hardened in that way and has that kind of momentum and those kinds of skills. Hopefully, Change Becomes Us suggests that again. I know perhaps people find it confusing. It's 33 years old. But it's about what's going on in a contemporary time. Classic is not our area of activities. We're trying to work in a contemporary way."