Following 1987’s The Ideal Copy Wire continued to pursue their interest in a fusion between punk, post-punk, and electronic music with their 1988 album A Bell Is A Cup…Until It Is Struck. However, while touring in support of this album, Wire began to rework some of the songs for the live setting and their next album It’s Beginning To And Back Again was a response to these newer versions of these songs. For It’s Beginning To And Back Again Wire entered the recording studio and broke many of these songs back down, based on the newer versions they had been playing live, and reworked and re-recorded them. These reworked songs ended up forming about half of It’s Beginning To And Back Again and most of them are vastly different from their original versions. The other half of It’s Beginning To And Back Again were new tracks not previously released by the band and among these is their highest charting commercial single (although probably not one of their very best songs) “Eardrum Buzz”. “Eardrum Buzz” is a more dance-oriented, distant cousin of early career classic “I Am The Fly”. Like that song, Wire implements a buzzing, effect-laden guitar sound; but here it is married to a fast-paced rhythm and beat that walks the line between pulsing electronic dance music and eerie industrial atmospherics. The new commercial success would be difficult to follow-up however for a variety of reasons. First, following the release of 1990’s Manscape, drummer Robert Gotobed left the group, unhappy with their continued movement towards an electronic direction that left his role diminished. Second, musical styles in general in the alternative rock world began to shift with the rise of grunge and punk-pop, and left Wire (now renamed Wir in tribute to the loss of Gotobed) and their newer sound out of step with the times. For much of the 1990’s the remaining members of the band worked on solo work and other projects with only rare appearances by the band. However, Wire reunited in 1999 as a full time entity (with Gotobed back in the fold using his given name of Robert Grey). This reunited version of Wire released a new album, Send, in 2003 (although many of the tracks were previously available on EP’s). Not long after this guitarist Bruce Gilbert left the group. Wire (this time not dropping the “e”) continued without him and have since released eight more albums. While these latter-day Wire albums have not had much commercial impact they have generally been well received by both critics and fans.
After a six year hiatus where the members of Wire worked on various other musical projects the band members felt the time was right to work together again and explore some of the new sounds and trends that were coming from the alternative music world. The members of Wire, especially the two main songwriters Colin Newman and Graham Lewis, were especially interested in the new things being done with synthesizers, sequencers, and other electronic textures and Wire would look to expand their sound to more fully include these things on their 1987 album The Ideal Copy. Indeed, Wire showed a real commitment to this new sound and direction when they went on tour prior to releasing any of the new material officially and refused to play any of their older songs (they actually hired a band called Ex-Lion Tamer as the opening act and that band played the older Wire songs instead to open the shows). These new Wire songs did find the group exploring new territory for them that also seemed like a natural extension of their previous work. On songs like the excellent “Ahead” Wire look to weave together the punk and post-punk elements of their early albums with their newer interest in electronic and dance-oriented music. The resulting music is often quite interesting but also, at times, lacks the foundational nature of their late 70’s work. This isn’t because the fusion of punk, post-punk, and electronic music Wire is exploring doesn’t work, but because while this combination may be new to them, it wasn’t new. Indeed, bands like New Order, The Cure, Simple Minds, PIL, OMD, and others had been pioneering this blend for a half a decade, basically picking up where Wire had left off in 1979. On “Ahead” (and much of the The Ideal Copy album) one can hear the similarities between these aforementioned bands and what Wire are trying to accomplish; the pulsing sequencer/synth lines, the throbbing bass guitar, the moody atmosphere, etc. are all here. That doesn’t mean The Ideal Copy isn’t an interesting listen because it is. It also doesn’t mean Wire is mimicking what has already been done by others, because they aren’t. Wire does create their own unique sound within this space, it’s just that this is a space that had been previously explored by others and sometimes better, whereas Wire’s early music was almost always pioneering.
In 1979 Wire released 154, their third album in three years. 154 shows Wire’s continued evolution away from punk and towards post-punk as the album further increases the use of synthesizers, guitar effects, slower tempos and a fuller sound. All these elements can be heard on the album’s first and only single, the oddly titled “Map Reference 41N 93W”. The title comes from bassist Greg Lewis’ guess on where the center of the American Midwest would be and is close to the location of Centerville, Illinois. “Map Reference 41N 93W” is a fairly melodic and mid tempo song that has a quiet beauty to it. Lyrically the song is fairly obscure but may be about seeing the beauty of the world rather than being bogged down in the details; or maybe rising above the human interpretations and seeing the bigger picture. While “Map Reference 41N 93W” is a prime example of Wire’s experimentation with post-punk the song also once again shows that Wire were good at being ahead of the curve and foreshadowing what was coming next. The jangly guitars and vaguely psychedelic feel of “Map Reference 41N 93W” also seems to predict the sound of many college rock bands of the early 80’s. Whatever labels you want to give it, “Map Reference 41N 93W” is a very good song. Wire though are a band that makes new music when they feel inspired to do, and don’t when they don’t. Furthermore, after creating three albums in three years the band members needed a break from one another and a chance to explore individual interests. Thus, in 1979 Wire would go on a hiatus that lasted until 1985.
For Wire’s sophomore album Chairs Missing the band used the minimalist punk of their debut album as a starting point and then added in elements of the just emerging post-punk scene like atmospheric keyboards, icy synths, angular guitar riffs, and a wider emotional palette. Wire’s move in this direction should not have surprised anyone as their version of punk rock as found on Pink Flag was already laced with a cold detachment and minimalist precision that accurately predicted (and likely pioneered) the sound of post-punk to some degree. While Wire actually had a minor hit with “Outdoor Miner”, the pretty and vaguely pop-oriented second single from Chairs Missing, it is the lead single “I Am The Fly” that is the standout track from the album. Opening with a heavily processed, buzzing guitar effect, “I Am The Fly” then falls into a propulsive groove that is both tense and catchy as the song finds a sound that falls somewhere in between punk and post-punk, with the lyrics and semi-sneering vocal performance leaning towards the former while the music and production of the song falls towards the latter. With Chairs Missing Wire created another superb, albeit largely different, album and firmly established themselves as leaders of the rising new underground or alternative scene, regardless of what genre labels one wanted to give their music.
While Wire’s debut album Pink Flag was a critical success and would go on to develop a reputation for being a key album in the development of alternative rock, the album was not initially a commercial success. Other bands from the British punk scene like The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Jam received far more media attention and commercial success than did Wire. Of course, Wire themselves contributed to this in a variety of ways, including regularly playing shows consisting almost entirely of songs they hadn’t released yet, changing their sound drastically and regularly, and not really playing the media game much (they certainly were far less personally colorful and controversial than their punk rock peers). For these reasons and others it took time for Wire’s reputation and impact to build beyond their core fans. One of the things that did eventually help spark an interest in Wire’s music, especially in the US where they were largely unknown, was R.E.M.’s cover of the Pink Flag deep cut “Strange” for their 1987 album Document. While keeping the core of the song, R.E.M. change up “Strange” significantly. Wire’s version has a cold detachment and one of vocalist Colin Newman’s most typically punk-inflected vocals (think a massively bored and apathetic Johnny Rotten) whereas R.E.M. pick up the pace and pack the song with an upbeat, nervous, pre-show energy. The R.E.M. version also changes the words in a few places to more directly reference themselves. Due to these changes the R.E.M. and Wire versions feel very different even though the structure of the song is basically the same. By 1987 R.E.M. were on the verge of mainstream stardom and their cover of “Strange” pointed many of their fans back to Wire. Wire’s original version of “Strange” is the better version of the two, it is grimier and has a punkish menace, making it one of the standout tracks on the back half of Pink Flag and a personal favorite of mine.
While rooted in punk rock and marketed as punk (as much as it was marketed at all) it doesn’t take long when listening to Pink Flag to realize that Wire’s version of “punk” may share roots and aesthetic with The Sex Pistols and The Clash but it is definitely something somewhat different. “Three Girl Rhumba” is a good example of this. Built up from its basic, almost archetypal, riff (later effectively stolen in the 1990’s by Elastica for their hit “Connection”) and clocking in at 83 seconds in length, “Three Girl Rhumba” has a coiled power to it that is very effective. However, rather than drawing it out and developing it further, Wire keeps the song firmly rooted in its raw and minimalistic power and then just ends, leaving the listener wanting more. Short, simple, and primal songs were at the core of punk rock but nothing else is quite as devoted to that concept as Wire is here on “Three Girl Rhumba” (and much of Pink Flag as the album has 21 songs that total less than 36 minutes of music).
Wire arose from the British punk scene and were initially labelled as a punk act, but they never completely fit the standard sound or aesthetic of punk. Yes, the songs on their debut album Pink Flag were minimalist, short, angry, and not overly produced, so the punk label made sense on one level. However, there was also an emotional detachment and a willingness to defy expectations (even the already developing expectations of the punk audience) that was more in line with what many of the post-punk groups would do. So with Pink Flag, Wire, while nominally a punk band, was also pointing the way toward post-punk and their own experimental and varied future. “Reuters”, named after a prominent news service, opens Pink Flag and showcases these tendencies. A reporter’s eye view of the many problems in the world, “Reuters” is short and angst fueled, but the lyrics are given with the emotional distance of someone reporting rather than living through the chaos (at least until the slightly more emotionally charged ending). While the music, while simple and hard-charging, is more taut and controlled, never feeling like it is about to veer out of control the way many of the best early punk songs often do. With “Reuters”, and much of the excellent Pink Flag, Wire takes the core of punk rock, uses it, but never falls prey to the confines of the genre. Wire seems to have understood from the beginning the power of what punk had to offer while also realizing that kind of chaotic spark can only last so long and so Wire turned that power in a different direction and harnessed it.
“A Town Called Malice” was the lead single from The Jam’s 1982 album The Gift and their third and final single to debut at #1 on the UK singles chart. The song, like the album, smooths away nearly all of the rough edges of their early punk days and draws heavily on American Motown, soul, and funk influences, as well as the influence of British northern soul. Weller wrote the song about the changes being wrought by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government on working class life in Britain’s working class towns. In its political themes, “A Town Called Malice” could be connected back to the band’s punk origins, but musically “A Town Called Malice” is a soulful, breezy pop tune with a danceable pop tone. Those elements had always been in The Jam’s music – they had more of a pop sensibility than most of their early punk peers – but they had never fully embraced these elements the way they did here. This change in style divided the band as Weller’s interest in this new direction sat at odds with bassist Bruce Foxton (who was already distraught that his songwriting credits had been mostly eliminated as well) and drummer Rick Buckler, both of whom wanted to pursue something closer to the band’s original sound. This divide within the band, as well as unhappiness with their record deal, led to Weller’s announcement that he was leaving the band. Weller had not discussed this decision with his bandmates and they learned about it from the press and neither Foxton or Buckler spoke to Weller for decades afterwards. Following the breakup of The Jam both Foxton and Buckler played in various bands without any lasting success, while Weller went on to form The Style Council (another band that was much more successful in the UK than in the US) before ending that band in 1989 to pursue a solo career.
By the time The Jam released Sound Affects in 1980 the band had long left behind the punk rock of their early years. Sure, punk rock was still one of the threads that wove its way through their music, but The Jam had been exploring their other influences such as mod, Motown, pop, and psychedelia. Another interest of the band was in the emerging post-punk scene and on Sound Affects’ “Set The House Ablaze” The Jam created a post-punk masterpiece of jagged, angular guitars, frenzied, circular rhythms, and tense, claustrophobic emotion. Indeed, while not nominally a “post-punk” band “Set The House Ablaze” rivals the work of contemporary post-punk groups like Joy Division, XTC, Comsat Angels, Gang of Four, Wire, and Siouxsie & The Banshees that are considered the pioneers and masters of that genre. “Set The House Ablaze” conjures images of dystopian governments, marching armies, burning cities, and defiant resistors. “Set The House Ablaze” proved The Jam were an even more versatile band than many imagined (and this was no one off attempt at post-punk as the band would soon have a #4 hit with the post-punk fueled non-album single “Funeral Pyre” as well) and that they could adapt to the rising trends with skill. However, The Jam (or at least Paul Weller) didn’t want to adapt to the latest trends, they wanted to set them. Thus, it wouldn’t be the cold bleakness of post-punk that would fuel their next album The Gift but the swing, soul, and funk of black America.
While “Start!”, the lead (and only UK) single from The Jam’s 1980 album Sound Affects, debuted in Britain at #1, it is the album’s second single “That’s Entertainment!” – only released in Germany and thus only available in the UK as an import – that is the album’s most noteworthy track. “That’s Entertainment!” is filled with the irony and bitterness of punk rock in its lyrical vignettes about the misery and drudgery of working class life, but musically is a largely acoustic and pop-oriented affair. It is this melding of emotion and hooks that makes the song stand out and “That’s Entertainment!” went to #21 on the UK singles chart even though it was not available as a domestic single; the second best showing ever for an import single on the UK charts (the other also being a song by The Jam). Over the years it has become The Jam’s best known song and is the only song by The Jam to make Rolling Stones’ list of the 500 Greatest Songs, where it came in at #306. It similarly was ranked as the 43rd best song of all time by BBC Radio 2. Not bad for a song that Paul Weller says was written in about ten minutes when he came home one night from the pub completely drunk.