Bruce Gilbert, Graham Lewis, Robert Grey and Colin Newman of Wire. 
Bruce Gilbert, Graham Lewis, Robert Grey and Colin Newman of Wire. 
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Wire Looks Back on Its Pioneering Art Punk Trilogy

On May 25, Pink Flag Records—the label run by Wire frontman Colin Newman—released three hardcover book sets chronicling the British band’s iconic first three LPs: 1977’s Pink Flag, 1978’s Chairs Missing and 1979’s 154, complete with all the demos and b-sides coinciding with each title. Though the boys will be the first to tell you they’re not punk, these three albums are oftentimes hailed as the quintessential trilogy in the genre’s history—a one-two-three attack that went on to inspire the American hardcore movement, indie rock and the evolution of the microsong.

The group itself, meanwhile, remains as vital and active as ever 41 years after releasing that enigmatic debut. With another triad of material in 2015’s Wire, 2016’s Nocturnal Koreans and last year’s incredible Silver/Lead, Wire confirmed our suspicions about the band since Pink Flag: for all their complex simplicity, this band is at their very essence a pop group—and an intelligent, intense and incredibly in-tune one at that.

In the insightful essays written by Jon Savage and Graham Duff (complemented by the distinctive imagery of official band photographer Annette Green) for the books, it’s astounding to learn how much the music of Free, The Groundhogs, David Bowie, Roxy Music and Todd Rundgren all factored into Wire’s sonic consumption. And that is precisely where this conversation with lead vocalist/guitarist Newman and bassist Graham Lewis about the release of these definitive editions of three art/pop/punk masterpieces kicks off.

Reading the liner notes, it's quite amazing to hear how much Wire was listening to music you wouldn't think was part of the band's recipe.

Colin Newman: For me, I'm of a generation that grew up with the Beatles, so when the Beatles first hit I was only 6 or 7, and they broke up before I left school. That band soundtracked my early youth. And what was fascinating about the Beatles if you were a boy as opposed to a girl, was the way that the music changed so fast. And they could do stuff that was kind of weird and out there but they also could do great pop tunes. I mean, for me that's what you should do. We have no interest in or desire to be underground in the mid-seventies. For God's sake, we signed up with EMI, who were one of the biggest labels in the world. We can't be underground. That might have worked in the '60s with Pink Floyd saying they were underground, but Pink Floyd by the mid-seventies was far from underground as you could possibly get there. We're selling more records than anybody else was. You can't be underground and sell a lot of records, you know, it doesn't work like that. But you could also bring the same tools to bear whether you are working on something which you know is kind of an out-and-out obvious single to something which really isn't a single. You still work on it at the same level. There has been, in music culture, this instance where you get the top line producer to go in and do the commercial tracks and then someone else to do the rest, so you have an album where one or two tracks are really great and the rest is a bit milquetoast. I never really believed in that. If you want to make a record, you have to make a record.

Graham Lewis: At the time, there was a lot of subscribing to that 'year zero' theory in that everybody hated everything apart from [punk]. We never really subscribed to that, really. The same thing that came along when disco started to happen and people were saying how they hated it. I just couldn't understand where people were coming from. It's always been, for us quite simply, good music is good music. I don't care about genre very much. Back then, I was listening to Beefheart, Yes, Sly Stone who was incredible, Al Green, and all the early '70s German stuff like Neu! and Cluster.

Has German kosmische muzik always played a role in the sound of Wire?

Lewis: I think what's extraordinary about that period of German music was that it wasn't a movement, and all those people in the different cities they all had the urge to create something that was entirely their own and represented the culture at the time and their age. And that was an attitude we certainly sympathized with, because we couldn't understand the need to reproduce what other people were doing. It seems like a rather pointless activity, really.

The story told in the liners of these deluxe editions also speaks of the pop influence that existed within Wire. We know what fuels the rhythm, but what inspires the melody?

Graham: The pop thing is something that Colin and I very much had in common. To me it was virtually impossible not to be influenced by that period of pop music we grew up in. I know from the mid-60s through, it was such a phenomenal period of invention, from Hendrix to Motown. I was a huge Small Faces fan. The Kinks. The Stones. Early Pink Floyd had such a range of sound and a range of approaches. And I think when we all came together none of us were general music people; we were all rather specific in what we liked. That inevitably feeds into the criticism of the work that you're trying to create. You're not trying to emulate somebody else's work, but obviously there's marvelous things, you know, whether it's dynamics of a Scott Walker record, a Wilco record or whatever. All of those things go into your work. That's what we tried to do is absorb and use it and pass it on.

Colin: In the original lineup of Wire, I was the only one who liked The Beatles, though Matt [Simms] is a big Beatles fan. But before he joined the band, I was the youngest person in Wire. Bruce [Gilbert] was a generation older than me, so a lot of his ideas for music were quite different from mine. Bruce was a beatnik. If you were to have a conversation with Bruce, the first thing he’ll tell you is that he doesn’t consume music.

In terms of bonus material, all three of these collections are incredibly generous in what is presented. How important was it for you to make these box sets the definitive word on Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154?

Graham: Obviously what one hopes is that we are trying to be as comprehensive as possible. This is going to be the opportunity for people to pick up everything that was recorded that's of any significance and not to miss anything out. And I suppose what will be interesting to the people who are big collectors is the fact that there'll be material there, things which never made albums because they became superseded by other material, because there's a tremendous, tremendous competition among the material as to what would actually make the cut. Particularly with something like 154, where there must have been another album or two albums worth of stuff.

Colin: To be lucky to be in the position of, A, having your own label and all of our releases have come out on Pink Flag since 2000, and B, being able to re-release our back catalog in this manner means that we have some kind of duty of care. I mean there are people out there who bought those three albums at least three times in the past. So what are you going to do? Come on and say, ‘Oh yeah we remastered it so you guys have to buy it again?’ Or would you say, hang on, can we bring something else to the table? Can we bring something that you haven't heard, something that you haven't seen or something that you haven't read, and combine that in a package? I think that we call them special editions and that phrase has been very abused within the music industry. I mean, people will think that the printing of a vinyl edition with one different color on the cover [is] a special edition, though it isn't anything more than a way to get money out of people. [These are] absolutely the definitive word on those three releases... the singles and the b-sides and all of the demos. That's everything. There isn't anything else. There's nothing, there's nothing left off. People might say, why do you want a mono mix of "12XU"? Because it was in the archive! Someone somewhere will say, yeah, that's the definitive version, you know, good luck, you know? When you do these kinds of things, you can't stand back and be judgmental about it. You can't say, oh well we're selecting what we think is the best out of this. That doesn't really work in this day and age a lot. So we were like, 'Keep the lot.' There are BBC sessions and stuff like that. But in terms of the work and the thought that went into those albums, that's it. That's everything. If you buy those three and you've got, you know, not only the definitive track listing, but you've also got an amazing archive of images and some great writing.

How much of Wire was a reaction to how the likes of The Clash and the Sex Pistols presented themselves?

Colin: British punk was very short-lived. So for one nanosecond the Sex Pistols were the most important band in the world; they challenged everything and everyone and that was what they were about. So things moved on and by the time we started; that was already not the thing anymore.

What was very obvious was that the Sex Pistols had an enormous impact on youth culture and it was one of those bands, you were either with them or you against them, and it was a generational divide and they were also marketed for that generation. So musically it wasn't that innovative and basically they only had one set. They didn't really progress. Really the two British bands that really mattered in punk were The Clash, who quickly morphed into the Rolling Stones Mach 2, and The Damned, who sort of became revered was a comedy group, and the rest were either not punk or more important. I mean somebody like The Buzzcocks; they weren't really a punk band and they were already off somewhere else. Siouxsie and the Banshees, who were kind of developing their own sort of language. When we seriously got going in '77, we didn't think the punk movement was even slightly interesting. It was already out as we were concerned. We were the next thing.

Did you share any kinship with the burgeoning synthpop/industrial movement happening around the same time as punk in England with groups like OMD, Human League and Joy Division?

Colin: I think a lot of those bands were influenced by us. Especially being a London-based band, where we had a big audience. But people like Cabaret Voltaire, they supported us very early on and cited us as the one band they really loved. It was our attitudes and there was a certain darkness about what we did that appealed to that micro generation that came out after [us]. We were initially hated by punks and then adopted by different audience. For our very first gigs, they were the only audience to play to, really. We didn't have our own your audience in the beginning. The punks just didn't get what we did. They thought we were terrible.

Graham: I remember Bruce and I went to see the first gig Human League played in London, and it was a very, very heavy thing. It wasn't pop at all -- very industrial. The thing about it was I didn't really know any of the groups, but I knew Tony Wilson pretty well, and Tony would always tell us what fans like Joy Division were of what we do. I saw Joy Division once, it was okay. Magazine was a group I really liked at that time. I'll tell you a record we all really loved, and that was Spiral Scratch, the first Buzzcocks record when Howard was in it. That's an incredible piece of work which had originality.

What were your thoughts of the American hardcore scene taking a shine to Wire?

Colin: Our success in America was partly due to the fact that we were cited as an influence by so many hardcore bands, but what we were doing in actuality was about as far from hardcore as you could get. On this side of the pond, it was a completely different thing. By 1978, there was nothing more out than punk rock, and it stayed out. It didn't come back ever. There has been, probably in the last decade, some kind of appreciation of American hardcore because it was a movement. But punk rock was done and busted by the end of '77.

Graham: You never know what's going to happen, do ya? (laughs). I remember going to see The Ramones in the winter of '76, and after going to see them our first observation was, 'Ah, we're going to have to play an awful lot faster.' But when they played fast, we thought it sounded good, so we saw what we could do playing at those kinds of speeds.

Colin: Obviously I'm not American and I was not part of that scene. But I think it relates really to the way in which America was at the time when we first went to play there in '78. We only played in one venue in New York in CBGB; we did like three or four nights. I can't remember. Maybe it was five and the audience was really split between people who really liked us and got it, and people who absolutely hated this because they didn't think we could play. And there was a whole culture and American music at the time that was all about, you can't be a proper band unless you've been on the road for two years and you've honed your craft and you show respect to a certain list of dudes who are supposed to be your forebears and you include songs by them in your set. It was very, very backward looking, kind of retro idea going on in American music. And I think for the next generation, and when they heard Pink Flag they were like, well, we don't have to do that shit; we can do just one chord and shouting. And I also think it was because UK punk was looked at with suspicion in America because there was a sense of it being form over content, really, which is not an inaccurate description. Wire has never really been a punk band, so in some ways we were kind of pointing somewhere else. That, in a way, future-proofed it, so perhaps people in DC or wherever were listening to Wire over listening to either The Clash or The Damned or The Sex Pistols or something like that, which may have appeared for them to be a bit more retro.         

There are also many fans of Wire who first came upon the band during the 80s, whether it was on college radio or seeing the video for “Eardrum Buzz” played in heavy rotation on MTV’s 120 Minutes. Has there been any talk of doing deluxe editions of The Ideal Copy, A Bell Is A Cup and It’s Beginning To and Back Again? All of which are incredibly underrated albums.

Graham: It's been a long process getting the ownership and then to get into production the three different forms of the first three albums. Those titles that you mentioned are from the period when we were on Mute, and if we wanted to do the same thing, that would be another conversation, but perhaps one for the future.

Colin: Here's the thing, and there are two answers to that. Number one is, yes Pink Flag is interested in reissuing all of the Wire records. But the fact is we don't own them now, they're owned by BMG, and there's been no discussion. Also, we still owe quite a lot of money to pay for the seventies stuff, so we gotta pay that back first and start making money out of it before we start thinking about spending money on something else. I have no idea if they would be open for us to make an offer on that portion of the catalog. I think it would only work if we could make an offer for the entire catalog. None of it is available in physical and it doesn't sell very much, to be honest. It's been sidelined by the more recent stuff, and the more recent stuff sells better than the 80s stuff. But the catalog is quite deep. And the second thing, in order for me to say, 'OK, now we're all paid back from the 70s stuff and we got a little bit of money to invest in the bloody 80s stuff,' I would loath to be putting it out before another new Wire album, because I'd fear we'd be in danger of getting lost in re-release world, and I don't think I want to be living exclusively there. I think there are ways that part of the catalog can be made interesting, because to some people it's viewed as this kind of toxic period for Wire; the period of least interest. So we would have to somehow try to show how interesting that era, and there are other elements in that portfolio which haven't been released and could pop potentially. But ultimately, Pink Flag was designed to release all Wire records. That's why it was built.

One of the most interesting things about that period of Wire is certainly the Ex-Lion Tamers, the group comprised of renowned music critic Jim DeRogatis that opened up your shows during The Ideal Copy tour. How did that come about?

Colin: Jim DeRo sold it to us as a concept. Nobody was doing the “play the classic album” thing in those days. And we had a problem in that we never toured America before. Our first album had been very influential, especially on the hardcore scene, but we weren’t going to play anything from it. So, it was a concept of let’s put this band on first so they could play Pink Flag and so the audience will have heard that music and what Wire is doing now.  

Graham: And they played Pink Flag in order, from the first track all the way through. Then after they finished the first side, the bass player would say, "Side Two," and then they'd play side two. It was an original piece of work; they weren't a covers band. They were doing something which had never been done.

Colin: Jim and those guys, they were young and just out of college, and they hadn’t seen America yet when we asked them. We had just done an interview with DeRo when he was still living in Hoboken, NJ, and he brought up the idea of the support gig at the end of our chat. So we wrote to him about a week later asking him, "Well, how about a nationwide tour?" It was a great growing up thing for them. I’m quite an admirer of Jim; he got sacked from Rolling Stone for giving Hootie and the Blowfish a shit review, but that was quite a high point in his career.