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The Boston Phoenix Art Punks

The return of Wire

By Mark Woodlief

MAY 15, 2000:  In 1977, the British foursome Wire released Pink Flag. Although it lacked the explosive, anarchic power and fury of the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks or the revolutionary zeal of the Clash's homonymous debut, Pink Flag went on to become one of English punk's musically influential documents, and it has remained one of the most enduring and respected works to emerge from the class of '77.

Most of the original punk bands, even the ones who paid lip service to the notion of leveling the rock establishment and starting over from scratch, used existing genres like British pub and glam rock and American Motown and R&B as a foundation. But Wire -- guitarist/vocalist Colin Newman, bassist/vocalist Graham Lewis, guitarist Bruce Gilbert, and drummer Robert Gotobed -- instead set their sites on deconstructing the whole mess. Relying on a minimalist aesthetic, they offered everything from the stripped-down funk of "Lowdown" to the proto-hardcore blitzkrieg assault of "12XU" to the hypnotic drone of "Reuters." The result invented the notion of art punk, providing the subgenre with its first masterpiece.

Although the members of Wire have remained active musicians and the band have continued to write, record, and perform together on and off again, the closest they've come to matching the impact of Pink Flag was with 1987's The Ideal Copy, which marked the end of a seven-year hiatus. "Drill," for example, relies upon many of the same elements as the songs on Pink Flag: the ebb and flow of buzzing melodies supported by an insistent, repetitive rhythm section.

Some 20 years later, it's probably safe to assume that Pink Flag is the band's first and final definitive statement. As is the case with many punk bands, becoming better musicians hasn't really made Wire a better musical entity over the years. In fact, it seems to have robbed the band of their directness and immediacy, though it hasn't affected the size and the enthusiasm of the their international cult audience. The bands whom Wire influenced -- Hüsker Dü come to mind -- have been more successful than Wire at re-creating the mood and feel of Pink Flag. Elastica did such a good job of it on their 1995 debut that Wire sued them for copyright infringement, charging they stole the riff from Pink Flag's "Three-Girl Rhumba" for the single "Connection."

Now Wire are touring again (they'll be at the Roxy this Friday), not behind a new album but -- coincidentally, it seems -- in the wake of Mute's reissue of several of the band's late-'80s and early-'90s albums. I caught the May 4 show at LA's El Ray Theater. The hour-long set included a sneering version of Pink Flag's "Lowdown" and a blistering "12XU," plus a fair sampling of the group's later forays into more electronic progressive pop.

"It's fairly simple to play the old stuff," Gilbert explains over the phone. "The Wire premise is about the noise, anyway. That's the starting point."

But it hasn't ended there. In 1989 Gilbert and Lewis began collaborating in the more experimental, electronic-based outfit Dome, and both released a number of like-minded solo projects in the '90s. Last year, they worked together on a sound and light installation at Oxford's Modern Art Museum.

Newman too took the electronic plunge a while back. Aside from his own solo career, he's been running the independent electronic label Swim with his wife, Malka Spigel, who founded the label with him in 1992. Yet he's happy to be returning to more conventional rock instruments for the Wire reunion. "I'm not gonna be sticking my G4 out on stage and be using Pro Tools," he jokes. And he's happiest about the legacy that Wire have created for themselves. "We're not beholden to anybody. If we decide next week that the tour is not a good idea, then that's it. There's nobody telling us, 'But you have to promote the new record.' "

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