Few bands have had such a broad, yet comparatively unsung influence as the original art punks, Wire. The band's founders—Colin Newman, Bruce Gilbert, Graham Lewis, and Robert Gotobed—were as uniquely British as the Kinks, but as progressive and creatively unwavering as any group before or since.
Across the pond, the Ramones reveled in the adolescent adrenaline rush of their condensed rock-and-roll high jinks, but Wire's intentions toward the same burgeoning new genre were infinitely more devious. Wire were among the first groups to scrawl out punk's blueprints, only to capriciously toss them in the shredder. In fact, though their first three records are universally lauded as their finest, the band have always kept them at arm's length, even touring with an "early Wire" cover band to avoid re-treading their own steps. As Wire's members finally reconcile with their past with long-overdue reissues of these classic works, it's startling how fresh and relevant they remain nearly 30 years later.
Wire's first album, 1977's Pink Flag, comes out of the gate strong with an unrelenting barrage of choppy micro-anthems. If punk was forged as the antithesis to the bloated jams of '70s dinosaur rock, then Pink Flag was the deadly arrow that finished off the beast. Using a stripped-down gestalt of brittle guitars and taut rhythms, Wire tear through their powerful debut like four equal components of the same sinister machine. Many of the album's finest songs, like the oft-plagiarized hacksaw riffage of "Three Girl Rhumba" or the call-and-response pogoing of "Mr Suit" last barely over a minute, but they never feel underdeveloped.
As the white-hot torrent of the album's first half begins to cool, you can almost feel the band getting restless when new ideas like the bristling dirge of "Strange" and the singsong harmonies of "Fragile" begin to surface. Pink Flag's peak (and its most infamous tune), though, is "12XU," a two-minute, jackhammer assault coupled with Newman's accusatory counter-sexual mantra, "Saw you in a mag, kissing a man, smoking a fag."
Despite their calculated mastery of the two-chord rock song, Wire were always more comfortable in their role as art-school experimentalists than as disenfranchised British youth, and this becomes glaringly obvious on their second album, 1978's Chairs Missing. Producer and electronics wizard Mike Thorne steps up as an informal member of the group here, and as the guitars and synthesizers square off for supremacy, what arises in the aftermath is Wire's tour de force. Chairs Missing leaps effortlessly from one stylistic perch to another, while being steeped in a feverish hue of effects and atmospherics. Among its many highlights are "Another the Letter," a wigged-out exercise in hyperdamaged art-disco, and "Outdoor Miner," which comes off like a lost jangling pop classic from the '60s, complete with surrealist lyrical ramblings about leopards and silverfish. "Heartbeat" emulates the sparse, two-note vulnerability of the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" while "I Am the Fly"— with its twisted klaxon-guitar bleatings—is a rallying cry for nihilists everywhere. Chairs Missing is a marriage of fetching melodies and harsh abstraction and, unsurprisingly, is the band's personal favorite.
The final chapter of Wire's '70s catalog is the challenging 154. While it's a genuinely engaging and adventurous record, 154, some purists argue, is where Wire began to "go wrong." On this disc, the band's previous urgency is largely swallowed up by a sea of visionary, meta-machine music, comparable in many ways to the urban soundscapes of David Bowie and Brian Eno's "Berlin Trilogy." Indeed, tracks like "The Other Window" and "Indirect Enquiries" also foreshadow the brooding, aural backdrops and icy electronics that Wire embraced throughout the '80s and '90s. While 154 may have a few uneven patches, it does boast tracks like "Map Ref. 41ºN 93ºW," "Two People in a Room," and "On Returning," which offer a quick fix of buzzing, turbo-charged transcendence.
Few underground rock bands have retained the staying power and cultural potency that Wire still command. Just turn on your local Modern Radio station and you can hear elements of these three seminal works reverberating through new acts like Franz Ferdinand and Interpol. It's doubtful that the innovative players in Wire even notice, though, as they blast forward through new terrain, never looking firstname.lastname@example.org