This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Wire – ‘Pink Flag’ (1977, Harvest/EMI)


Wire and their debut album ‘Pink Flag’ are a complex proposition: arriving at the tail end of punk but too early for the beginnings of post-punk and the ideas and attitudes that aligned best with Wire’s. They were not musicians merely discarding the excesses of progressive rock but a band learning to play their instruments and hating that punk rock was becoming a self parody, descending into the yobbish pub rock that they had reacted against. A band not only interested in making music but ‘art objects’ and concerned with image and performance.

Wire, like many art rock and post-punk bands, formed at art school. Originally called Overload the band comprised of Bruce Gilbert (guitar), George Gill (lead guitar) and Colin Newman (guitar/vocals) and they were later joined by drummer Robert Gotobed and bassist Graham Lewis. During this period the members were divided. Gill the skilled musician and main writer wanted to pursue a more traditional approach while the others were interested in their school’s guest lecturer Brian Eno’s ideas about non musicianship and limited skill not being a barrier to artistic expression. Even at this early stage Gilbert and Newman thought of Wire as more of an art project than simply a band. The pair considered that by wearing the same black and white clothing and having a disciplined presence on stage they would not distract from the music. This idea of distancing of themselves from their music became an important feature of Wire.

Wire also detached themselves from other punk bands though they were spurred on by the notion that punk broke down the traditional concept of needing to be a trained musician to create music. Lewis recalls “We felt an affinity but we weren’t part of the social scene” while Newman says “I viewed as a bit of laboratory, not musically but culturally, because the people were experimenting with themselves: with their behaviour, their appearance and their clothes. Everything was up for grabs.” Their age was a big factor as punk was focused on youth and rebellion. As Ira Robbins of Trouser Press Record Guides puts it “Wire seemed like adults. They weren’t just kids spewing invective. They were intellectuals making a very informed statement that just happened to sound like kids spewing invective.” Wire were allergic to the ragged rock ‘n’ roll traditions that their peers were morphing into in front of their eyes. Their discipline shunned the messiness of punk but kept its speed and aggression while imbuing it with a minimalism that was closer related to Kraftwerk, Steve Reich and Terry Riley and though they didn’t sound like these artists they embraced their aesthetics and principles. Appropriately for their arty sounds and ideas Wire signed to Harvest, a label famous for releasing progressive and art rock bands in the early 1970s, before releasing their debut.

This minimalism manifested itself in the artwork of ‘Pink Flag’, which started as a simple line drawing and then later developed from a photo of a bare flag pole in Plymouth where the band was playing. Gotobed’s drum kit was stripped down to the essential bass drum, snare and hi-hats and his drumming style followed suit. By the time Wire came to record ‘Pink Flag’ they were down to the classic quartet having shed George Gill and his winding solos.

The album opens with ‘Reuters’, a brilliant introduction with its crawling build of guitar and bass standing in stark opposition to their peers’ records that opened with an upbeat anthem. It perfectly demonstrated the Wire blueprint and a statement of their intent. Immediately countering its predecessor is the 28 second rush of ‘Field Day for the Sundays’ and pace-slower ‘Three Girl Rumba’ (which features their most famous riff that was later used by Elastica for their hit ‘Connection’). The opener’s use of unconventional structural framing that concentrates on the beginning and the end of the song not the song’s content and ambiguous lyrics are threads that run through ‘Pink Flag’, particularly on ‘Field Day for the Sundays’, ‘Surgeon’s Girl’ (with its misplaced count-in subverting that rock cliché) and ‘The Commercial’. The next big moment is ‘Lowdown’ with its slowed down funk riff and atmosphere placing it firmly in a trio alongside ‘Reuters’ and the title track as ‘taut minimalist exercises in dread and menace’. ‘Surgeon’s Girl’ separates Wire further from punk and together with ‘Fragile’ and ‘Mannequin’ hints at why the band signed to Harvest. Newman described the former as ‘Pink Floyd, fast’ referring to Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd, which the other songs echo and the jangly guitars of ‘Mannequin’ recall late 60s psychedelia. In another extreme swing the album ends with ‘12XU’ a punk blast that is one of the album’s standouts. It bursts out at full speed and doesn’t waste an ounce of fat adding to the split second feeling and then it’s over as quickly as it began.

‘Pink Flag’ could appear to be a collection of dissident tracks, certainly some were deliberately sequenced to jar, but this was conceived as an ‘art object’ and is best experienced as a glorious whole and it went on to influence a range of alternative and experimental artists, impacting on Blur, post-punk revivalists The Futureheads, radiophonic experimentalist Scanner (aka Robin Rimbaud who formed Githead with Newman in 2004) and the 80s US punk underground with the likes of Henry Rollins and Minutemen extolling its virtues. Despite everything that could have not worked Wire created a disciplined work that still sounds as unique and strong today as it did in 1977.

Advertisements