Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #38: Wire

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: A brilliant English post-punk/experimental rock band formed in 1976 by Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, Bruce Gilbert, and Robert Gotobed (later Grey), along with early member George Gill, who departed before their landmark debut album, Pink Flag, released in 1977. With producer Mike Thorne as a key part of their creative team, Wire released two more increasingly-experimental studio albums before splintering in 1979; Lewis and Gilbert continued working together as Dome, and Thorne and Gotobed worked with Newman as a solo artist. The group re-formed in 1985 for a highly-prolific recording and touring period, though they refused to play their earlier catalog at this time, going so far as to tour with a group called Ex-Lion Tamers, who played old Wire songs as a live opening act. Wire’s catalog of the period blended live, studio, and remix work in unusual and fascinating ways, including a series of singles that grazed the charts on both sides of the Atlantic (most especially with “Eardrum Buzz” from 1989), an album of “semi-live” reinterpretations of period pieces, and (perhaps most perversely) an album called The Drill, dedicated to live and semi-live versions of their iconic 1987 cut “Drill,” which stands as the alpha example of the style of monotonic, metronomic music the group dubbed “Dugga.” In 1990, Gotobed left Wire, feeling that his drumming approaches were being side-lined in favor of electronic rhythms; his colleagues recognized his departure by re-naming the group “Wir” for one album, then they too returned to their various solo projects. The core four reunited (again) in 1999 (Gotobed began using his birth surname Grey at this point) for another brilliant run of studio albums. Gilbert departed around 2007, and Wire released two albums as a trio before adding touring member Martha Fiedler McGinnis for a brief spell, then bringing full-time studio/live member Matthew Simms onboard. Their most recent release, 10:20, is another classic of the idiom they’ve worked frequently over the years, reinterpreting studio songs on stage, then taking them back into the studio to capture the ways that their concert experiences altered them. It’s a brilliant approach, that has regularly reaped strong dividends throughout their creative run.

When I First Heard Them: I was a bit late to the Wire party, having initially heard of them in the early ’80s (during their first hiatus, though at the time, it wasn’t expected that they would ever return), after many groups and artists I admired cited them as important creative inspirations. The first Wire album I acquired was their sophomore disc, Chairs Missing (1978) , which utterly blew my mind. I nabbed Pink Flag soon after that, but the final piece of their original three-record run, 154 (1979) proved highly elusive for some reason; I finally found it in a record store in London, Ontario, after a long, long search, and paid a pretty price for it, though it felt like a worthwhile investment, for sure. (Once again, kids: life was different when you had to hunt for things in brick and mortar stores, rather than just immediately downloading anything that captures your interest in real time). I was thrilled when I learned that Wire were re-forming in the mid-’80s, and was even more thrilled by the early fruits of that reunion, with the Snakedrill EP (1986) and The Ideal Copy album (1987) remaining among my very favorite items in their catalog. My wife and I had tickets to see them in Washington, DC on the tour supporting The Ideal Copy, but were unable to attend when she experienced an unexpected medical emergency requiring urgent surgery the day of the show. (We did, happily, finally get to see Wire live together when we were living in Chicago, many years later). I’ve stayed actively, eagerly abreast of their work since that time, both within the Wire framework, and through engagement with their various solo projects. I was working as a music critic at the start of their third active phase around the turn of the millennium, and I was tickled to bits when they contacted me to use a review I wrote of that period’s first studio product (2002’s Read & Burn 01) as press text for their next touring cycle. I also had a Wire-inspired adventure in 2013 that I documented on my website, here; it remains one of the most widely-read things I’ve placed on the web over the years, and I was (once again) tickled to bits when Graham Lewis connected in the comments section of the original post. Give it a read, especially if you’re a music nerd and/or a map nerd.

Why I Love Them: It’s probably a recurring theme at this point in this series, but Wire hit a sweet spot for me in large part because they manage to blend highly-weird approaches and textures with highly-accessible melodies and rhythms, which can often be appreciated in equal measure as toe-tapping rock, and as smart experimental compositions. I always adore groups who think hard about what they’re doing, make smart music as a result of those thought processes, and then manage to frame those intelligent compositions in unusual, yet still engaging and accessible, styles. Wire’s core songwriting team (Newman on melodies, Lewis on lyrics) routinely craft memorable, hummable, quotable songs, then work with their band-mates to present them not as frozen, static moments in studio time, but instead as bits of a sonic tapestry that can be unwoven and re-knit in a variety of appealing fashions. Some of my very favorite Wire moments are found as B-side remake/remodels, or on albums like 10:20 or The Drill or 1989’s IBTABA, where the borders between new and old, and live and studio, are blurred to exploit the best elements of all available idioms; I can’t readily think of any other artists who hew to such an open-ended, open-minded approach to reinventing their own catalogs as a core tenet of their long-term creative process. If you forage through the 29 years worth of Best Album reports on this website, you’ll see Wire appear over and over again, with their 2003 release Send standing as my album of the year for that particular cycle. At bottom line, they’re brilliant, they’re prolific, and they’re deeply, strangely, wonderfully unique. What’s not to love?

#10. “Feed Me,” from The Ideal Copy (1987)

#9. “Torch It,” from Manscape (1990)

#8. “Re-Invent Your Second Wheel,” from Change Becomes Us (2013)

#7. “Fishes Bones,” from Nocturnal Koreans (2016)

#6. “Playing Harp for the Fishes,” from Silver/Lead (2017)

#5. “Mannequin,” from Pink Flag (1977)

#4. “A Serious of Snakes,” from Snakedrill EP (1986)

#3. “Finest Drops,” from IBTABA (1989)

#2. “The Agfers of Kodack,” from Send (2003)

#1. “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W,” from 154 (1979)

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