Graded on a Curve:
Wire,
Pink Flag

Celebrating Wire bassist Graham Lewis on his 68th birthday. Fine chap too.Ed.

Wire’s first three albums hold a special place in the rock pantheon. Announcing their presence with sharp, lean, fascinating distinctiveness that seemed fully formed, they proceeded to move forward and expand rather than backslide or stagnate. 

It doesn’t matter if it was heard in 1977 or discovered long after, the immediate reaction to Pink Flag is one of difference, especially when considered in the context of first-wave punk. Released by EMI via the Harvest imprint in November of ’77, the record offered 21 songs in 35 and a half minutes and set Wire so far apart from the pack (standing out even from the other great bands of the era) that it’s no surprise it wasn’t a hit.

It’s by now cemented as lore that for those who did scoop Pink Flag up, it felt like an exit route from the box punk was rapidly building for itself; more than one observer has opined that it’s an example of post-punk from before the term was coined. This isn’t off-target, though it’s quite apparent that Chairs Missing and 154 are the album’s in Wire’s early discography that best fit the post-punk mold (they are in fact cornerstones of the genre).

Pink Flag continues to register as an introductory statement from a band who welcomed punk’s inclusionary street-level ethos and stripped-down method while rejecting a boilerplate approach, but more importantly, they didn’t reject prior, formative influences. The point emphasized in Graham Duff’s spotlight into Wire’s early days (which evolved from a three-guitar no-drummer affair called Overload) was that, like many a garage band, they were learning as they went; learning their instruments, learning that three guitars don’t constitute a band, and learning that some members simply aren’t a good fit.

Colin Newman and Bruce Gilbert were there at the start, Graham Lewis joined on bass later, but after Robert Grey entered the picture on drums (having previously sang in the pubby-punky outfit The Snakes, their sole single a decent cover of The Flamin’ Groovies “Teenage Head” backed with a ’50s R&R-shaded take of Jerry Byrne’s “Lights Out”), it became obvious that guitarist George Gill wasn’t working out; after a few gigs he was informed (via the well-ensconced tradition of the band meeting) that his contributions were no longer needed.

Unless one witnessed their live sets during this time (the name had changed) or heard the early versions of “Lowdown” and “12XU” on the Harvest compilation Live at the Roxy London WC2 (Jan–Apr 77), the introduction to Wire was in fact the end result of an intensely productive period. In January, with Gill, they hit the stage of London’s Roxy for the first time, a performance that didn’t go well.

With Gill out, intense rehearsal and songwriting occurred, and they debuted as a four-piece at the Roxy in April. Talks and a series of demo sessions with EMI ensued, as did more gigs (some notably outside of London) and continued intense practice. EMI officially signed them in September, and that first album hit record store racks two months later, roughly 11 months after Wire was told to come back to the Roxy when they’d learned how to play.

For folks dropping needle on Pink Flag with no prior knowledge of the group, one thing is clear; they knew how to play, though not in a flashy trad-rock manner. More impressive was how they altered convention to their needs. In his intro to this set, Jon Savage describes “Field Day for the Sundays” as a thrash song, and while that’s accurate, in 28 seconds it transcends the designation through startlingly precise stop-start execution and Newman’s anger-eschewing vocals; furthermore, the lyrics, though humorous, are such in a decidedly non-nose picking way.

Pink Flag is nothing if not intellectual, but the other songs Savage categorizes as thrash, namely “Mr. Suit” and “Different to Me” (along with punk comp mainstay “12XU”) secure the connection to a style that, as stated in the special edition book, Newman didn’t even like that much. However, the record shares nothing with the cash-ins of the time; instead of aping, they molded punk to their needs as a growing band and created a new angle in the process.

A new angle? Better said, Pink Flag registers as a rapid-fire remodeling of that aforementioned punk box. Rather than burst out of the speakers a la “Anarchy in the UK” or “Neat Neat Neat” they chose a gradual rise in tension in “Reuters,” with the release not aggression but an intriguing mid-tempo of texture. “Three Girl Rhumba” also flaunts a slower pace, but one as skeletal as it is sturdy. It contrasts with the energetic and appealingly pliable “Ex Lion Tamer,” though perhaps the track’s strongest attribute is the gruff edge of Gilbert’s guitar sound.

As with any stone classic, it’s all so debatable; that’s to say Pink Flag has not only withstood repeated listens over the decades, it’s gained strength from extended familiarity. There are no bum tracks here, with “Lowdown” sharpened from its appearance on the Roxy comp and plunked into the midst of a first side run that’s subsequent highlight might be, at this point in time, the distinct vocal gush of “It’s So Obvious.”

Not that Wire were devoid of specific influence. Grey’s overdubbed tom drums in “Surgeon’s Girl” reinforce the group’s shared affinity for Eno, while the crunch of “Strange” and the melodicism (and Newman’s drawl) in “Feeling Called Love” point to The Velvet Underground. Effectiveness as an instrumental unit gets spotlighted in side two’s vocal-less opener “The Commercial.” Like much of what’s here, it’s also brief, but then side one’s title-track finale is a fruitful display of stretching out. The song determines the length; too often in rock, it’s vice versa.

But maybe the element that brings it all home for Pink Flag is its pop side, which along with “Feeling Called Love” is illuminated by the consecutively sequenced standouts “Fragile” and “Mannequin.” And yeah, the placement of these selections feels nearly as crucial; after “Feeling Called Love”’s spirited finish, there is a pause, followed by a spoken introduction, and then “12XU,” an art-punk blueprint if ever there was one, wraps it up.

The first time I heard it, I played it again. And again. And over the years, easily over 100 times. It still brings new insights and adjustments in perspective. Likewise, the demos and alternate mixes on disc two, which are like discovering a handful of additional photographs from an old photoshoot. On that note, the photos of Annette Green (née Wakefield), many of them in color, combine with the demos/ alternates and the informative text to drive home this edition of Pink Flag as both indispensable for fans and a superb intro for the novice.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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