A CONNECTION IS MADE “There’s always been a certain willfulness in Wire,” says Colin Newman (left, with Graham Lewis and Robert Grey).
What is "talent" in music? If we agree that it's about something more than just technical skill, then perhaps part of the definition involves a musician's ability to ferret out his or her own particular (or peculiar) talents. In the vast gurgling tide of bands through history who have attempted to figure how to rock without sucking, none has been more merciless in slicing out the unnecessary to leave only the good stuff than London's Wire.
In the midst of their fourth decade, Wire are still sifting for gold within their own mine of abilities. "All people are creatively and uniquely talented," Colin Newman, Wire's guitarist/vocalist, explains jovially yet seriously from his London home studio. "I mean, it's just a matter of finding out what that is. Like, you know, I'm good at this, but I'm absolute rubbish at most other things!"
In perusing Wire's discography — an unwieldy beast split into several distinct periods that run all the way from their groundbreaking debut, 1977's Pink Flag, to last year's Red Barked Tree (Pink Flag Records) — you might have to think a bit about just what the "this" is that Newman refers to. After all, Wire are anything but a one-trick pony, having covered all manner of musical terrain, from gorgeous pop glitter to spiky, jagged shout punk to bizarre, almost gothy out-and-out weirdness. But above everything, Wire's chief talent has always been editing: knowing what to cut and what to keep.
Even the band's creation story involves severe edits. Formed from the ashes of pub-rocking UK art-school chums Overload Wire (Newman, bassist Graham Lewis, and drummer Robert Grey) spent their first year shedding everything unnecessary. First, they got rid of extraneous lead guitarist George Gill. Then they eliminated soloing altogether. Next over the bough went drum fills, choruses, verses, intros, outros, and all those chugging parts that make rock and roll "rock and roll." "To be honest," Newman says, "it was an unlikely band to start with, and honestly, not very good. But eventually, after a prolonged process, something good came out of it."
That would be Pink Flag, an archetypal album that stands up against the formidable UK Class of '77 as being not just unique but almost revolutionary. "If you've just started a band, and you've got guitars, bass, drums, and you want it to be loud, you've got two choices: you've got the rock-and-roll template, coming from 12-bar blues, or you've got, you know, one-chord shouting. And if you can't really write songs, and you're kind of limited beyond that, one-chord shouting seems like the better option at that stage."
The thing is, Wire learned to write songs at some point early on, leaving one-chord shouting behind just as they were becoming known for it. This mix of unpredictability and top-notch songcraft has been their calling card since, all the way up to their newest full-length. "There's always been a certain willfulness in Wire," Newman points out.