Monday, May 18, 2009

May 18: Wire, "Pink Flag"

Artist: Wire
Album: Pink Flag
Year: 1977
Label: Harvest

The terms "original" and "punk music" are often an oxymoron when used in the same sentence. Though not always a bad thing, the punk form usually sticks to a very consistent sound and style. When artists take any creative liberty, they are usually placed into a different genre. However, if one takes the term "punk" as more of a mindset, as opposed to a sound itself, then the term is easily applied to a far larger group of bands. As punk exploded at the end of the 1970's, countless bands on both sides of the Atlantic were releasing great, fresh records. While groups like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Damned were dominating the UK punk charts, there were a number of lesser known bands creating amazing music under the radar. At the forefront of this group is Wire, a group that purposefully kept their distance from the "punk mainstream," mostly due to the fact that, from the start, they pushed the boundaries on what "fit" the genre. Making themselves instant legends, their 1977 debut album, Pink Flag, is undoubtedly one of the most amazing and most important records in the history of music.

Being a band without mainstream notoriety worked perfectly for Wire, allowing them to fully explore their style of punk rock. Pink Flag boasts 21 songs, yet clocks in at just under 36 minutes. Truly going after the minimalist approach, Wire never adds anything, music or lyrics, if it is not absolutely necessary. This does not mean that the their music is empty or even sparse. What makes Wire so brilliant is their ability to take the formal structure of rock and roll, and condense it down to its purest, then kick that out in a frantic, intense burst of musical brilliance. The band rarely features a song with the traditional "verse chorus verse" structure, and they rarely repeat any musical pattern. This style of approaching music served as the basis for countless bands that followed, from groups like Minor Threat to The Breeders and even can be heard in the early work of R.E.M. The influence of Wire remains to this day, with notable credit appearing in the form of Minor Threat's phenomenal cover of "12XU" and, if you can recall the 1994 hit song "Connection" by Elastica, you can find the core riff lifted from Pink Flag's, "Three Girl Rhumba."

The musical makeup of Wire is that of a traditional "guitar, bass, drums" rock group. At the core of the groups' music is guitarist Bruce Gilbert. From wild, swift, crushing punk chords, to more soulful, if not bluesy sounds, Gilbert shines on every song. Gilbert's musical range and experimentation would reach its apex years later with his side project, Dome. The other half of this side project is Wire bass player, Graham Lewis. On Pink Flag, Lewis provides moods from poppy to outright haunting, innovating new sounds and approaches to his instrument. Rounding out the musicians is drummer Robert Gotobed. Taking a far more subtle and free approach to drumming than a majority of his contemporaries, the impact that Gotobed (real name Robert Grey) had on the sound of Wire is immeasurable. The trio of musicians fuse perfectly together, regardless of they are playing an bouncing, punk rager, or a more moody, darker sound. It is this breadth in stylistic ability that truly sets Wire apart from nearly every other band that was recording at the time.

Bringing a flawless combination of attitude and talent to Pink Flag is vocalist Colin Newman. Though there are times on the album when the lyrics are somewhat incomprehensible, Newman compensates with the way in which he delivers the words. Proving that often times, it is not "what" you say, but "how" you say it, the overall vocal work of Newman is nothing short of fantastic. Again, the lack of "traditional" song structure makes the vocals even more unique, and aside from a handful of occasions, the lack of a chorus makes Newman's vocals even more unique. Lyrically, the lyrical themes are as wide-ranging and minimalist as the music itself. While many of the lyrics are very straightforward, the band closes the record with a bit of a stand against "the establishment." The song, "12XU" is a rather unsubtle euphemism, with the "X" standing for a choice four letter word that would have made the album far more difficult to market. The spirit behind the song is clear, and the tune has been covered countless times, the most notable begin the aforementioned Minor Threat version.

Though not commercially successful by any stretch of the imagination, Wire's Pink Flag is still largely regarded as one of the most influential and amazing albums ever recorded. Offering a fresh and unorthodox approach to the punk genre, Wire perfected the "stripped down" technique that countless other bands had attempted with lesser results. Presenting sounds from dark, almost post-punk soundscapes, to rapid punk structures, to what can clearly be seen as the foundation of the "hardcore" genre, Pink Flag is simply stunning in just how good the band is in each style. While many of the songs may seem "unfinished" at first listen, it quickly becomes clear that it is not that they are incomplete, they are just perfectly condensed, and such concentrated musical perfection has rarely been heard before or since. While other bands who came out of the late 70's punk explosion certainly achieved greater notoriety, there are few bands that have created an album as stunning as Wire's 1977 release, Pink Flag. The influence of the album remains strong today and it is absolutely a record that everyone should own and love.

Standout tracks: "Three Girl Rhumba," "Strange," and "12XU."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

fwiw, r.e.m. covered "strange on their album, "document." also wire sued elastica for ripping them off (iirc, elastica ripped off "i am the fly," too). lots of bands have also covered "ex-lion tamer." finally, wire, and this album in particular, had a big influence on the minutemen.

you wrote: "and even can be heard in the early work of R.E.M. The influence of Wire remains to this day, with notable credit appearing in the form of Minor Threat's phenomenal cover of "12XU" and, if you can recall the 1994 hit song "Connection" by Elastica, you can find the core riff lifted from Pink Flag's, "Three Girl Rhumba." "