Monday, September 28, 2015

Classic Albums: Wire, Pink Flag

[Editor's Note: time revive an old series that's been dormant too long]

Every now and again I hear something that sounds like nothing I've ever heard before, but it entrances me before I even have a chance to feel the surprise.  No band ever did this to me like Wire, which I got interested in through my teenage obsession with 70s punk rock.  In those pre-Internet days, I didn't hear their music until I picked up the album, apart from one song, "12XU," which was on one of those glorious early-90s Rhino punk compilations.  Little did I know that "12XU" was by far the most conventional song on the album, by punk rock standards.  It's very ahead of its time, with the loud-quiet-loud structure imitated by the grunge bands I also liked at the time.

On their first album, Wire relegates that song to last on an album of 21 songs, most of them well under two minutes long.  It seemed as if they put their one potential hit at the end as an afterthought, which is a punk move if there ever was one.  The record begins on a very different note, with the slower paced "Reuters."  The title refers to the wire news service, and the lyrics are like a report from a war zone, the music building behind, getting progressively more dissonant until chaos ensues as the dogs of war have been let loose.  This is less punk than art rock with a punk sensibility.  It's loud, simple, and raw, unlike say Yes or Genesis, but it plays around and subverts the rock form, making the songs into cubist paintings for your ears.

Case in point is the next song, "Field Day For The Sundays," which is rousing and catchy and only lasts 28 seconds.  It then goes into the longer and slower "Three Girl Rhumba," a song lifted by the band Elastica in the mid-90s.  Wire give the listener whiplash by alternating between fast songs stuck in overdrive like "Ex Lion Tamer" and merciless grinders like "Lowdown."  That sense of disorientation extends to the lyrics, which are often obscure and wry.  The whole experience is a kind of immersive foray into the quotidian confusion of modern life with a postmodern viewpoint.  Just as the 70s were the germination point for philosophical postmodernism, Wire and the best of English punk were musical postmodernists, defying the rules of rock and the expectations of the audience.  Wire went one step beyond, and defied the expectations of the punk audience itself by refusing to be obviously topical in its lyrics or "rebellious" in he usual gob-spitting fashion.  That's probably one of the big reasons why they're still around today.

One thing I love about Pink Flag is that just when you think you've got a handle on the world Wire is building, they throw you a curve.  The title song closing out the front side is so vicious that it makes "Reuters" sound like the Carpenters.  "Surgeon's Girl" is accelerated to the point of being non-sensical.  By contrast "Fragile" almost sounds mellow, at least in Wire's musical universe.  Colin Greenwood even gives it some vocal flourishes.  Punk's biggest demerit is its strict formula, but Wire never let themselves be straight-jacketed by it.  By the time you finish the record with the aforementioned "12XU" it's almost as if Wire are saying "yeah, we can do that hard riffing, cymbal crashing thing to perfection if we want to, but we'd rather do other stuff."

That right there is pretty much the reason that Wire is remembered, while the much more stereotypically "punk" acts like Generation X and Sham 69 are footnotes to musical history.

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