When Wire originally released these three albums, once a year between 1977 and 1979, they weren’t just on the cutting edge of the late-’70s British rock vanguard; they were a step ahead of everyone else, consistently injecting incredible new sounds and ideas into the art-form. I would argue that, outside of Brian Eno, nobody brought more interesting sounds and concepts to the table then Wire did in the 1970s. Yet, despite the critical praise they received, the London group never really enjoyed the same level of success as their punk and post-punk peers (PiL, Joy Division, Gang of Four). It’s a shame their bankbooks weren’t the same size as their talents, but I understand why. Wire were always a bit too obscure for the mainstream, they never presented an identifiable image – you could stare at a band photo for 20 minutes and still not recognize them on the street an hour later – and always deployed overtly intellectual ideas born out of an art-school background. This approach, perhaps best typified by song-titles like “French Film Blurred” and “Map Ref. 41N 93W”, was brilliant, but it wasn’t going to win them many fans in the Sex Pistols/Clash set.
Their 1977 debut album Pink Flag, sounded closer to punk rock than anything else in the Wire discography. With twenty-one songs whizzing by in thirty-five minutes there’s a strong argument to be made for its influence on the first wave of hardcore punk bands, many of whom covered songs from Pink Flag. However, even if the album frequently reveled in punk’s directness and simplicity, Wire’s take on the genre never resorted to the cheap posturing and sloganeering that so many other British bands latched on to. Sprinkled in among Pink Flag’s hyper-speed attacks were a few slower songs like “Reuters” and “Lowdown” that pointed the way forward, building the framework for the post-punk scene that would rise in Pink Flag’s wake. If most punk bands sounded like they were taking a flamethrower to society, on these songs Wire sounded like they were ordering a drone strike; colder and more clinical, but just as deadly. While you could never accuse Wire of playing it for chuckles like The Dictators or The Rezillos, bouncier songs like “Three Girl Rhumba” (which Elastica borrowed for their hit “Connection”), “Fragile” and “Feeling Called Love” at least dropped hints that Wire might in fact have a “fun” side.
Pink Flag was a defining statement in punk-rock minimalism, yet by the time the album came out Wire were already looking ahead to a more expansive sound that would be 1978’s Chairs Missing. The band were advancing at such a fast pace, that a concert from the week Pink Flag was released featured just two songs from that album in the set-list. Wire were still an aggressive band on Chairs Missing, but producer Mike Thorne placed more emphasis on texture and ambience, adding all kinds of guitar effects, keyboards and synthesizers to the mix. While some critics felt the album revealed Wire as closet prog fans (“French Film Blurred” and “Marooned” sounded like a malignant Pink Floyd), expanding their sonic palette made it possible for Wire to bring the obscure ideas behind songs like “Outdoor Miner” and “I Am The Fly” to life. Now they could write a song called “Being Sucked In Again” that actually sounds like the listener is being sucked in (though it’s unclear exactly what mechanism they’re being sucked into). Even with their newly developed penchant for ornate studio effects, at their core Wire were still a hard-hitting band. “Sand In My Joints” and “Too Late” were both close cousins to punk rock (the latter nicely covered by Yo La Tengo) and I’ve always thought that someone like Voivod or Tool could do a great cover of “Mercy”.
If Chairs Missing placed Wire within the post-punk vanguard, their 1979 follow-up, 154 (named after the number of concerts they’d played at that point), found them practically moving beyond rock music altogether. The tempos were slower, the vocals more arch, and the atmospheres that once surrounded their songs now were the songs. By expanding their sonic palette even further on 154 Wire imbued songs like “A Touching Display” (which features a viola), “A Mutual Friend” and “40 Versions” with an other-worldly quality that could be considered as influential on future goth and shoegaze bands as early Wire songs like “12XU” were on punk. The band (and it seems strange to call the version of Wire heard on 154 a “band” as they rarely ever sound like four guys recording music in a room) were on a creative high, but they soon began pushing the avant-garde limits of their music past their breaking point. The post-154 tracks on the first of the album’s two bonus discs are a clattering mess – all idea, with no execution. The 154 tour would confuse fans even more with all new songs and a Dadaist stage show. The band broke up soon thereafter, though they would reunite twice, and are still active.
All three albums are remastered, though I don’t hear much difference from the last round of reissues from 2006. They also each come with an 80-page book of photos, lyrics, interviews and other ephemera. I only received digital files of the music to review, so I can’t offer any comments on these. Lastly, each album comes with bonus material from singles, demos and alternate mixes, some of which has never been officially released until now.
The demos are an interesting addition. They’re consistently well recorded and demonstrate just how solid the band was, even when stripped of the bells and whistles they would gain in their album recordings. More interestingly, the demos debut a few songs that never made it onto the albums, and also offer up fresh looks at some familiar tunes via different arrangements or alternate lyrics. It’s also interesting how the demos for Chairs Missing sound more like Pink Flag-era recordings, and the demos for 154 sound like they were recorded for Chairs Missing. Surprisingly a few of Wire’s earliest, and punkiest, demos didn’t make the cut, with songs like “Just Don’t Care”, “TV” and, um, “Mary Is A Dyke” left out in the cold.
If you’ve never heard these albums, I recommend buying all three immediately and repeatedly basking in their genius. However, even serious fans who already know what I sometimes refer to as “the holy trinity” back-to-front, will find a new set of wonders to marvel at within these expanded editions.