Punk rock, art rock, synth noise, and avant pop come together in a haunted machinist shop on Wire’s 154, the third of their quintessential debut triptych.
In 1979, Wire revolutionized the rock gig with People In A Room, an ambitious series of multimedia performances over the span of four days at London’s Jeanette Cochrane Theatre at the Central School of Art and Design. The first hour was devoted to avant-garde theater pieces from each of Wire’s four members. This was followed by a group improvisation and concluded with a few fan favorites, including three songs off of the then-new 154.
Arch provocateurs, Wire had been ripping up rock’s playbook since Day 1. Much of their motivation seemed to stem from high-concept art school pretensions. An interview with Sydney’s Radio 2JJ from 1979 reveals a more selfish, and more understandable, raison de la musique. Wire simply couldn’t imagine playing the same set night after night for a 30-day tour. Even with robust bouts of extended improvisation, the restless quartet couldn’t imagine staying invigorated on the material for an entire month on the road.
154, Wire’s third and last of their iconic opening three albums, seems to collect all of these threads in one place, at one time (sometimes in the same song.)
Since their inception, breaking out the gate with their iconic debut Pink Flag, Wire always seemed to be the art punk purists of the first wave of post-punk. Perhaps their insistence on endless boundary pushing and originality was as much due to restlessness as Marxist/Pop Art purity? Or maybe just a sign of a band coming into their own?
Either way, Wire straddle the twin polarities of urgency and conceptualism that first inspired punk and then post-punk. Punk rock was a rabble-rousing raid on the institutions of proggery and elitism that was ’70s dinosaur rock. Considering the economic plight of the late ’70s, it’s not hard to imagine why. Perhaps in the second decade of the 21st Century, we’ll see something similar with bastardized mutant pop as sad-eyed teens rip apart Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and sell them for parts, betrayed by their poptimist lies.
Wire albums took on Andy Warhol‘s idea of art-as-product, sent out into the world of as strange sculptures of plastic and air. Everything about them seems conceptual, from the modernist album covers to the songwriting to the obtuse, surreal lyrics. What sets Wire apart from their many, many imitators is a catchy tunefulness that hardly any experimental, underground has been able to achieve, before or sense. It’s also got the sense of experimentalism and wide open ears that Wire are known and loved for. Wire write catchy pop songs, rooted in the repetition and monotony of minimalism and the visionary states of non-Western music.
More than just punk purists, Wire were also the prophets of post-punk. In that same interview with 2JJ mentioned above, the interviewer asked them about the role that technology would play in the coming cultural revolution.
2JJ: I’ve got a quote here from the last edition of a magazine called ‘Sport’ and what might interest you, in light of the shows you’ve just done, is this advice he gives to the musicians or activists in the field of culture. He says: “the future of the revolution, of which rock n’ roll certainly is no longer a part, would be bleak but for technology. Holograms, synthesisers, satellite and video communications, these are the new tools ‘street people’ must learn to use and to interpret them soulfully. Transistor energy will soon require human energy unless more understanding is made of technology. Just as Elvis and others mastered the tools of their generation so must we master the tools of ours otherwise, as in Orwell’s 1984, we will have no real potential; being totally manipulated and left to our own resources not being able to play any realistic part in world culture—a generation of proles, isolated from technological reality, living a tribe like ritual of sleeping all day and wiping ourselves out by night.” What’s your reaction to that?
GL: Have a happy new year! [laughter] I think it’s right to a greater extent. Everyone’s got to come to terms with technology, not just as ‘street people’. I think people’s philosophy and behavior towards technology has been sadly lacking in the past ten years or so.
CN: If we’re to play any part in any kind of cultural event we’re going to have to become involved in the kind of things that are going to be happening. It ultimately comes to a point where we’re talking about accessing rather than just video discs or whatever, because that’s short term. In maybe 20 years time, probably less than that, it’s going to be people accessing any kind of information, music or culture. It’s going to mean Joe Bloggs sitting in his house will be able to send increasingly creative messages to people. It takes it right down to the basic level of someone talking to another person. You have to see through the technology, it becomes a kind of a veil, which once you’ve come to terms with very simple manual operations—like a telephone keyboard—then you can summon any information, or talk to anyone. It’s going to completely change the emphasis of everyone’s lives. The Victorian work ethic becomes more and more something which we’re going to have to depart from. The idea that people are educated to work in a job for the rest of their lives is going to be something that’s not going to happen. If they work at anything they’re going to work at home more creatively, because they’ll have time to do that.
GL: If people don’t come to terms with that technology they’re not going to be involved in the censorship or the availability. You’re going to get a very interesting situation developing where you can put a weird French avant-garde film on the same footing as a James Bond movie, or a video movie that I’d made at home and you’ve got the same access. Then the whole entertainment industry and rock n’ roll field of the last 30 years has been very redundant, very straight and very boring!
154 is a fine chance to sample Wire at their catchiest as well as most dissonant. The singles flow fast and thick on this one, “Two People In A Room”, “The 15th”, “Single Ko”, “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W.” Even the singles are discordant as they are catchy, built around acerbic two-chord guitar lines and Graham Lewis’ throbbing, minimalist basslines. Even their songs that sound radio-ready feature stream-of-consciousness lyrics stripped of any of rock ‘n roll’s conventions. There are no verse-chorus-verse structures to be found. Instead, Wire songs streak by like a decaying neon cityscape through a rain-soaked car window, passengers on the second day of a malevolent speed bender.
Some critics complain that not all of 154‘s experiments work, but that seems to be an arbitrary distinction in Wire’s decades-long career (still going strong, it’s worth noting.) Wire were never trying to catch on, never trying to be catchy. They operate from the purest of musical and artistic urges, to express themselves and create something new. The personal and the political exist in a perfect equilibrium on Wire’s first three records in a way that nobody has been able to touch or top, either before or since.
You can hear echoes of many of post-punk’s touchstones and greatest moments on 154. There’s the proto-digital urgency and paranoia of Joy Division; the buzzsaw guitar scree of Buzzcocks; the dubby, malevolent minimalism of Magazine and Public Image Ltd. There’s shades of Bowie‘s Berlin trilogy and the minimalist miniatures of Young Marble Giants. Somehow, some way, Wire combine all of the elements yet never sound like a pastiche or a bricolage. Wire’s modern art sound sculptures are completely cohesive, while the individual pieces still bearing up to scrutiny.
Wire would go on to become one of post-punk’s leading exports, inspiring everyone from R.E.M. to Sonic Youth to The Cure. Wire would even help shape the emerging indie rock and hardcore movements, with Guided By Voices and Minor Threat expressing a great affinity for their innovation.
Some claim that Wire never reclaimed the magick captured on their first three LPs, but that’s a false metric as well. Wire are not interested in recapturing anything. Like Marvel’s Luke Cage, they’re always moving forward, even to this day, while still having a real appreciation for what has come before. Which is what post-punk is best at.
Operating out of Portland, Or., J makes electronic music and DJs as dessicant, hosting a weekly radio show on Freeform Portland, Morningstar: The Light In The Darkness. He also plays in the band Meta Pinnacle with his partner, the visual artist/illustrator Lily H. Valentine, with whom he co-founded Bitstar Productions, a visual arts collective/production company.