"Wire is still the most famous group you've never heard of," says Colin Newman. "There's still a massive untapped world out there."
On April 1st 1977 Wire played their first ever concert as their “classic” four-piece line-up (Colin Newman, Bruce Gilbert, Graham Lewis and Robert Gotobed) at the infamous Roxy Club in London’s Covent Garden. They shared a bill with The Cortinas, The Models and Buzzcocks. With songs rarely lasting beyond two-minutes they hurtled through an often Ramones-like set, but even on this very first outing the set was littered with moments of refined brilliance that would soon come to define them.
Intent on antagonistically breaking the norm from the off, they played tracks like the fantastically brooding ‘Lowdown’ and hammered out the infectious stabbing and melodic shuffle of ‘Strange’; songs that would have no doubt been deemed disgustingly slow and out of whack for the template formula of punk that was fast setting in around this period and within those club walls.
Most group’s first ever gigs are intent on winning over the world, a quiet nervousness in which being liked is secretly as important as being good. For Wire, that night they embarked on a career that has now lasted 40 years and in which winning the world over will only ever be done on their terms or not at all.
Almost 40 years to the day of that Roxy show, with album number 15 out this month, the group’s founder, singer and guitarist, Colin Newman, still steers the project in a direction permanently locked to forward, although is perhaps a little less superciliousness than those early days. “When we were in our twenties there was incredible arrogance,” he tells me. “There was no way that anybody in Wire didn’t think that we were the best band in the universe. That was a given.”
Across their three first albums ‘Pink Flag’ (1977), ‘Chairs Missing’ (1978) and ‘154’ (1979), though, there was genuine argument for them holding such a prestigious title. The sense of breadth, growth and experimentation across those records created within a mere 22 months remains a staggering feat in contemporary music. ‘Pink Flag’ harnessed the momentum of punk and purified it into a minimalist masterpiece; an album that would go on to influence the American hardcore movement in the 1980s just as potently as it would the American college rock and Britpop releases the following decade. ‘Chairs Missing’ retained the crispness of its predecessor but came loaded with textural and structural explorations that at times felt like such an evolution that it could be another band altogether – a record that simultaneously feels entirely genre-less whilst fundamentally creating a blueprint for one at the same time. ‘154’ emerged to be another beast altogether; a gloomy and murky piece of noir art pop-rock that was also radiant and often glistened.
By the end of all three albums the group’s craft for the intoxicatingly melodic and the bracingly challenging was uniform. They had created such an apex in those releases, and in such an energy flash of time, that it allowed little time for the group to take stock and formulate the proper development of Wire. They essentially took a break for five years or so, with solo projects being embarked on, Newman in particular releasing three albums between 1980-82.
As a decade, it was a strange and challenging time for the group.
“In the ’70s, we were kind of the cool kids,” Newman says, looking back. “We were getting extraordinary reviews, we were the band that was always looking forwards. It was then a bit confusing in the ’80s – people caught up with us but then we were engaged in a different mode, which was adventurous of us but not always successful.”
A lack of communication in the group led to some struggles, too, and Newman says: “We never talked about anything ever, in that blokey kind of way, and so many things went unsaid and that kind of spilled over into the ’80s. There was no means to discuss or decide anything as a band, which makes it very difficult for a set of individuals to do anything together.”
When they did reconvene, they did so in typical Wire fashion and ostensibly attempted to blunder the past to death. “When we came back we were quite sure that we weren’t going to sound like we did in the ’70s.
“In the mid ’80s there was nothing more out than punk rock, to be honest. Hardcore was happening in America but that wasn’t relevant to the UK at all. What was happening in the UK was basically machine music. We got in a room and Bruce said we should regard it as year zero, to rewrite everything from the ground up.”