Unashamedly middle-class, and older than most of their contemporaries, Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, Bruce Gilbert and Robert Gotobed (born Mark Field) – who weren’t mates – were introduced via mutual friends, formed their group in October 1976, then learned to play.
Apart from Gotobed, Wire all came with an art-school pedigree. Bassist Graham Lewis was a fashion graduate doing freelance design for London boutiques. Guitarist Bruce Gilbert, old for a punk at 31 in 1977, was an abstract painter who worked as an audio-visual technician at Watford Art School. Singer Colin Newman, seven years his junior, studied illustration at Watford, where he’d gravitated towards the sound studio’s facilities for experimentation with tape.
Wire had a meteoric rise. They gigged, found themselves on the Roxy live album, interested Harvest (who released the Roxy album) and got themselves a healthy deal.
They recorded their first album a few weeks later, called it Pink Flag, released it to considerable acclaim, toured heavily, became Bob Dylan‘s favourite band, and eventually released a second album, Chairs Missing (1978).
While Wire didn’t fully mature until that second crack at immortality in 1985, their initial incarnation provided a template for anyone who has since attempted jagged, tightly rehearsed punk with an intellectual veneer.
Pink Flag (December 1977) was defiantly minimalist. It contained 21 tracks, one of which (Field Day For The Sundays) lasted only 28 seconds.
They followed it in February 1978 with the single I Am The Fly – a typically spiky, subversive song, full of echo-heavy guitars and a surprisingly catchy sing-along chorus urging us to “accept the next dose of disease”. I Am The Fly appeared on Chairs Missing.
Wire split up after their third album, 154 (1979) – which sounded like early King Crimson, The Moody Blues and Pink Floyd put through a punk filter.
The band reformed in 1985 and got more airplay, thanks to the rise of college radio in the US and the willingness of MTV to take chances on music that had some crossover potential. But while the second phase of Wire lasted twice as long as the first, its strongest creative output was limited to between 1986 and 1989.
To avoid having the audience ask for the old songs they didn’t want to play, Wire were supported on their 1987 US tour by The Ex-Lion Tamers – a tribute band who would play the whole of Wire’s classic Pink Flag album in sequence.
The band called it quits again in 1992.
In 1994 they underwent a renaissance thanks to Britpop – Elastica‘s single Connection contained a suspicious borrowing from Wire’s Three Girl Rhumba and the matter was settled out of court.
Around 1999, a fully reformed Wire started rehearsing its ’70s material again, playing the songs in vigorous new arrangements that also harked back to the sonic fullness and dance consciousness of the ’80s. This third version of the band toured with the old songs and then recorded new ones, fusing its original punk energy with a refined sense of groove.
Bruce Gilbert only lasted for one LP- 2003’s excellent Send – before retiring from the music industry, but the remaining three original members soldiered on, enjoying the adulation of new and old fans in concert while producing new music that largely lived up to the standard of its best work.
Robert Gotobed (Mark Field)