Barely a year after punk exploded in the U.K, Wire were busy weighing the alternatives. Over the course of three albums, released in consecutive years, their sound was unique. Minimal, abrasive and uncompromising on the one hand and yet as comfortable with perfect three minute pop as with experiment, Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154 remain enduring classics.
Never resting on their laurels the group returned in the 80’s with a ever more electronic direction and then again in the 21st century with Send, which found their anger undiminished. Last year’s Object 47, despite the departure of Bruce Gilchrist, still found them moving forward.
A band with a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, Dorfdisco was lucky enough to catch up with Colin Newman and Graham Lewis before their gig at Live at Dot.
Dorfdisco: Listening to Lowdown on Live at the Roxy ’77 the band already seems to have a fully formed set of intentions but you had just parted company with George Gill who played guitar and wrote your material up until that point……
Newman: Opposition is a wonderful thing, deciding what it is that you don’t want to be, informs what you choose to be.
Lewis: It created a vacuum. Without George we realised that we didn’t really need his material either. We had to write our own. We had found an effective operational language and a process with which we could work and have a lot of fun with it. We could put something which was strong together.
Of course the recording was a bit of a surprise to us as well, we had never really been recorded before except at Garbys which was a bit of a white noise riot really. For it to be recorded correctly turned out to be very important. Mike Thorne who did those recordings subsequently championed our cause at EMI to Nick Mobbs…..
Dorfdisco: You signed to EMI very quickly…..
Newman: Well it was a period of time…..
Lewis: They were actually very careful about us because the Pistols had just disappeared so they were feeling a bit tender. Mike took us into two or three different studios and we learnt the etiquette, the technique, of recording and they came to see us play and how we were developing, what we were trying to do. Although initially they were trying to offer us a two single deal we didn’t want that because we felt that we had a body of work and that turned out to be Pink Flag.
Newman: I guess the time scale was relatively quick, we finished with George in something like February and by the first of April we were making our debut as the classic four piece and half of Pink Flag was already written by that point.
Lewis: There was a point where George actually came back and played with us but to give him absolutely the fullest respect he knew that the writing was on the wall, it was very much a case of “that’s what you want to do, it’s not what I want to do, I’m going to do something else”.
Dorfdisco: It seems like subtraction as a recurring motif, later your Robert sacked himself when, at the time, a drum machine could do his job….
Lewis: Yeah, he did.
Newman: I’m a died in the wool minimalist, whatever that means, and subtraction, taking something away, is always a good way of getting to something you hadn’t expected. Developing layers is very easy, in almost anything.
But going back to that beginning period it was remarkable that we were going to play in the Roxy punk festival just in order to get fifty quid, for two nights. On the first night we were bottom of the bill, then they moved us up because they liked us but it was literally two men and a dog. I mean there were some significant people there, Jon Savage was there, maybe one or two other luminaries from the scene but it was tiny.
The recording, in a way, was a great leveller because what they had done was just recording a bunch of bands in situ and got the tapes back then suddenly there was this Wire band who no one knew anything about, sounding really interesting and a lot more formed than some of the others who were still trying to be punk bands and we had already rejected that notion and were moving on to something else.
Dorfdisco: Post punk at the same time as punk ……
Lewis: It’s a very simple thing. From my point of view I’d finished at art school and I had a degree in fashion design, not fine art because there was no market at the time. There were good teachers there and it was a good place to explore ideas. You were set problems and expected to solve them within a time frame, there was no whining just “get on with it” and if you didn’t people would want to know why. We were being taught to think and some kind of self discipline. The three of us had all come from Art School and in different ways we had all taken those ideas on board. When we came to working together we all had very clear ideas about what we didn’t like but found enough contemporary things that said yes, that we did like, to have the basis of a conversation.
Newman: The other thing you have to understand is that we are talking about 1977, we had had at least ten years of really serious pop culture, it had already been ten years since Sergent Pepper’s. The notion that people would renew very fast in terms of ideas was not at all foreign. I mean if you back to the sixties, they were all mods one week, hippies the next and then something else the week after and nobody batted an eyelid. So the notion that by ’77 punk had failed, that it was already looking a bit shabby wasn’t exactly radical but somehow people seemed to think that we were being incredibly forward thinking.
Dorfdisco: There is something of an expectation though, majors especially seemed to always want record one to sound like record two and in turn sound like record three…….
Lewis: That was something we were very conscious of, partly the sense that you could do anything but also that so many groups had these problems when it came to the second album because having spent a couple of years writing their life story on the first record they then spend another two years touring and have nothing to write about other than the process they have become involved in. What we did is we kept our process going. Writing was exceedingly important. We just kept moving. If two people didn’t like something we would drop it from the set because there was always something new coming up. In that way we didn’t work half as hard as a band that was continually on the road. Our process was to create things in rooms and then present them. In that way it was quite brutal.
Dorfdisco: This is also quite an art world perspective, what you are doing now is everything ……..
Lewis: Art. That’s what we were doing
Newman: That’s how it should be
Lewis: Craft, gaining the skills that you need to realise your ideas is important as well, all of these things were in our toolbag………
Newman: The thing is though, we are not a folk band. I mean I think there are maybe two types of music, in the very broadest sense. There are people who are folk musicians by which I mean anything which is in a genre, anything that follows a certain tradition and there are people who are basically doing art. We are just not folk musicians, there just is no tradition. I mean there is perhaps a grand tradition of British oppositional, art aesthetic stuff but that’s not something you can learn. The other thing is real finger in the ear type music, if you can’t play See Emily Play, you are not allowed to play.
Lewis: “You can’t get me I’m part of the union.”
Newman: I mean that one thing that happened in the 90’s, well it started in the 80’s really, was a kind of smorgasbord approach, a bit of this, a bit of that and a bit of the other but it’s deathly, it’s deadening. The idea is not that you do something so wincingly original that no one is going to like it but a bit of innovation always goes down quite well I would imagine.
Lewis: So much of that music seemed revved up. We had seen the likes of Joe Strummer with the 101ers and that’s all they were doing. Like a busking band with a couple of knobs on and a couple of smart guys to sort out the sound. The thing for us is that when we came here in ’78, you have no idea what kind of a release that was. Here you had a group like Kraftwerk, they were touring around and you never actually got to see them but they were out working the same as we were and that is the tradition, if there is a tradition, that we were part of. It was an art tradition. It was not about folk music.
Its not about musicians. Its about having an approach to making work. To framing things.
Dorfdisco: There are definite krautrock influences in your work.
Lewis: Well in 1971/72 when I first came to art college I was in Coventry and I was a DJ and that was the stuff I was playing.
Dorfdisco: Even Lydon cited Can as an influence…….
Lewis: Of course. I mean c’mon he’s a really big music freak. You could hear it when he did that Capitol Famous Radio show, people were expecting it to be all punk but it wasn’t, it was really knowledgeable.
Dorfdisco: You could hear the breath of those influences in PIL but not really in the Pistols……….
Lewis: Well that’s another story we played with them last summer to 50,000 people in Turin but you know what it sounded like, it sounded like rock & roll, like Chuck Berry.
Newman: But that’s a tragic story and not really about music. We are not here to talk about that.
Dorfdisco: Wire could never be accused of comedy karaoke…..
Newman: Ooooh what do you mean!? Come on. You might be surpised. I come on stage with a little wind up box and a few tunes…….
Lewis: ……… go on tell him that joke about the skeleton ………. Actually if we were I would try to emulate Ken Dodd, Tommy Cooper, Pete and Dud of course –
Newman: Yeah, alright, alright, get on with it.