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. The guys in Wire, which formed in London in 1976, were clearly influenced by punk's recklessness, and they continue to be a cutting edge act. But just don’t call them punk. At the time, they were onto something else and they still are. Their new self-titled album features guitar riffs that really bristle and the heady lyrics take on political issues.
“It wasn’t that punk was irrelevant by 1977 but you didn’t want to be a punk band in 1977,” explains singer-guitarist Colin Newman during a recent Transatlantic phone interview. “There were too many other bands being punk bands. We had other concerns. It depends on how old you are. For someone now in their twenties and thirties, they might not see a distinction, but punk hated Wire. We played too slow and the songs were too short. We were arty and intellectual, all of the things you weren’t supposed to be. We didn’t look like punk. We were quite smart. We were somewhat fashionable. It was a different thing.”
Wire’s 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"). Band members have said they 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.
And like any good punk band, Wire dissolved just as it peaked.
But the group reconvened in 1999 and began recording and touring again. In 2012, it revisited songs that were just sketches based on ideas from 1979 and 1980. The guys wanted to capture what the group was sounding like in 2011 and 2012, so they thought those tunes might be a good starting point. The band took about seven songs from the scrapheap and reshaped them, often only retaining a single chord. After about five days in the studio, they’d recorded 13 songs. The songs on the resulting 2013 album Change Becomes Us suggest a real rebirth.
For its new, self-titled album, the band shifted its approach once again. Some of the songs on the album were ones the band had been playing live. For the rest, they went into the studio and worked them out there for the very first time.
“I had this idea that the way to get the best out of everyone was for them to have heard nothing beforehand,” says Newman. “I came to the studio with a bunch of pieces. We just played the song to everyone in the control room. We all learned it together and then we played it. The argument for doing it this way is that you get that instant reaction. That’s good because there’s a history in Wire of people forgetting things. There was one song which could have been on the record and we were playing live but [bassist] Graham [Lewis] forgot the bass line. None of us read music. There’s no way to notate something.”
The basic tracks were recorded at Rockfield Studios near Monmouth, with overdubs added at Brighton Electric last December following the group's DRILL: BRIGHTON Festival. It’s the second album the band has done there though it worked in a different studio in the complex this time.
Newman explains that an ominous tune such as “Sleep-Walking,” which features whispered vocals and pounding drums, is about “the fragile state of Britain politically.”
“[England] could be out of the European Union,” he says. “It certainly isn’t coming from a conservative, unionist perspective. I know the UK is a body that needs reformed. I don’t think there’s any sense to it. The kind of people who want to leave are the kind of people who like to take orders. It’s what it comes down to. It’s a small minded way to looking at the world.”
“Harpooned” is one of the heaviest songs on the album, and the vocals can barely be heard above the din of noisy guitars. It’s a song the band has played live since 2013.
“It has a fascinating history,” Newman says of the song. “We have been playing it live and it came into the set in September 2013. It’s quite old. We wanted to do it very slow and it’s very, very simple. We started playing it live and people started reacted very strongly. We have been closing the set with it now for two years. It took on a life of its own. It got to the point where it’s impossibly loud. If you haven’t got earplugs in, God help you.”
With its 40th anniversary looming on the horizon, things couldn’t be better for Wire, which seems to just get better with age.
“We need to do something special for the 40th anniversary,” says Newman. “We want to have an album out then but we can’t guarantee it. Another thing that happened with this one is that we set the release to coincide with a date in London. I also moved last year so finishing the production was hard. I delivered it a month sooner than I had promised. But it was too late for the vinyl. If we had had vinyl the week of release, we would have gone Top 40. This is a new concern. You could say charts are rubbish but certain things will happen because you’ve sold very well. People pay more attention to you and your value goes well. It’s a good thing for the band ultimately, not that we’re trying to make Top 40 music.”
Wire, Julian Lynch, 8:30 p.m., Monday, June 8, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Blvd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $18 ADV, $20 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.