Wednesday, December 29, 2010

December 29: Wire, "Three Girl Rhumba"

Artist: Wire
Song: "Three Girl Rhumba"
Album: Pink Flag
Year: 1977

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One of the more interesting aspects of any new trend in music is that as soon as it hits its most popular point, one can find it already branching out in a number of directions.  It is this occurrence that often yields the most fascinating music, and also what can separate a singular sound from an entire revolution in music.  While it is often seen as depicted as one of the lower points in the history of music in terms of creativity, once one looks past the handful of bands that "made it big," one can find massive amounts of diversity in sound within the punk rock movement, even during the year it is said to have "exploded," 1977.  During this time, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, bands were trying to approaches to musical creation, all working under the overall punk ethos, and one can make the case that the level of creativity was far beyond that of many other periods in music history.  With this being true, there are few bands that pushed the limits of music and created a true musical masterpiece as much as one finds in the music of the band Wire.  Knowing few true peers, Wire seemed to ignore nearly every convention of music an it is one of the aspects that makes their 1977 debut, Pink Flag, such an extraordinary musical achievement.  Filled with many songs that have become true punk anthems, few tracks better define the band and their unique sound than one finds in Wire's 1977 song, "Three Girl Rhumba."

From the very first notes of "Three Girl Rhumba," one can immediately hear the unique way in which Wire simultaneously conforms and contradicts the punk ethos, and the fact that the band was able to pull this off in such brilliant fashion is not only a testament to their talent, but can also be seen as the punk ethos in its purest form.  The main guitar riff, played by Bruce Gilbert, is simple yet unforgettable, and more than a decade later, it would be completely ripped off for a song that would nearly top the pop charts.  The fact that in both cases, it was the riff that made the song so distinctive shows what can be done with simplistic arrangements, as it remains far superior to many songs which are more musically complex.  Drummer Robert Gotobed furthers this straightforward feel, as his playing brings an unwavering, almost marching feel to "Three Girl Rhumba," and at the same time, there is almost a start/stop tension that runs throughout the song.  These moods are given more depth by the playing of bassist Graham Lewis, as he mimics the guitar pattern, also dropping small fills here and there, completing one of the most sparse, yet satisfying musical arrangements in history.  The fact that Wire is able to walk this line and not have the song feel incomplete shows their mastery of the punk ethos, and it is this "no filler" approach that makes "Three Girl Rhumba" one of the songs that perfectly epitomizes this entire musical theory.

Adding to the stripped down, yet complete feel of the song, vocalist Colin Newman separates himself from his peers by simply sticking to his style.  It is largely due to his vocal performance that one becomes better aware of the odd shake and twist that defines "Three Girl Rhumba" as a song, and while there is a sense of vocal defiance in his performance, at no point does it come off as lazy or disinterested which often plagues punk singers.  Within the voice of Newman, one can find a complete commitment to the musical vision of the band, and the attitude and swagger he brings to the song is nothing short of perfect.  While many are quick to write off performances such as this, the fact of the matter is, when one digs deeper into his overall presence on the track, not only is his vocal work superb, but there is also a quirky, yet mesmerizing abstraction within the lyrics that he sings.  Completely ignoring the "verse-chorus-verse" convention, "Three Girl Rhumba" is almost more of a series of free associations, and it helps to make it seem as if the words themselves are almost another instrument on the song.  It is with this in mind that one can feel the mood shifting moreso than emotion within the music when Newman sings, " you ain't got a number, you just want to rhumba, and there ain't no way you're gonna go under, go under go under..."  This in many ways is the true brilliance behind "Three Girl Rhumba," as the song proves better than nearly any other in history that if is often how you say something as opposed to what you are saying.

While the core riff found on "Three Girl Rhumba" perfectly captures the spirit of the era, anyone familiar with the music of the 1990's will likely instantly associate the riff with Elastica's song, "Connection."  Few times in music history has there been as clear a case of a complete lifting of a musical progression, and after all the legal issues were handled, it did give many other people exposure to Wire that may have otherwise missed out on their amazing brand of punk rock.  The fact of the matter is, a number of massively important bands were somewhat lost in the glare of the two or three bands that "represented" punk rock in 1977, and many of those left in the dark have turned out to be far more influential as the decades have passed.  Truth be told, there were few albums release in that year that even remotely compare to the overall impact and sound found on Wire's Pink Flag, and even more than thirty years later, the album remains difficult to top on any level.  Filled with "to the point" musical arrangements and some of the most interpretive and abstract lyrics in the history of the punk sound, one can easily make the case that this record was the most original of all of the "first generation" of U.K. punk bands.  Each song on the album has gained its own reputation as the years have passed, but few better define the band and have withstood the test of time as well as one finds in Wire's 1977 song, "Three Girl Rhumba."

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