The summer before 9/11, I was living without roommates on the second floor of a three-story duplex in Delaware that had been built sometime prior to World War II. The place was a sweatbox: solid foundation, tight hallways, no fans. I had my dad’s turntable and a pile of borrowed records, some of which never properly made it to CD: Big Black’s Atomizer, Minor Threat’s Minor Threat, and the first three albums by Wire. I was entering my final semesters of college with naïve plans to become a recording engineer after graduation. In a year, everything would be different. By the end of the summer, it already was.
The idea that vinyl sounds better is crap; it doesn’t, it just sounds different and imperfect. Vinyl, like tapes and unlike CDs, has gaps, seconds of anticipation before the first track begins. The opening song on Pink Flag (1977) is “Reuters,” and it’s one of the best tracks that will ever start an album, low and underground and then enormous, like watching a house fire’s flames lick and dart and then blow out the goddamn windows and doors. “Strange,” the album’s best song, starts the same way but does just the opposite: It implodes and walks through its own ashes, stepping over sputtering guitars and faint shrieks left in the wake. I feel like someone is about to kill me every time I hear it.
Pink Flag was the idea that rock was overwrought but underdone, too much getting in the way of something that should be immediate. Ironic, of course, given the record’s indigestible scope and crushing brevity — twenty-one songs, some that sound exactly alike, a number of them slightly forgettable, all of them coming and going with no regard for what came before or what would come after. Taken as a whole, it’s greater than any of its fragmented parts, but this approach would be scrapped on the two records that followed.
Chairs Missing (1978) explored space and made each song — not the album it was tied to — a document. The only shred of previous inspiration seems to be the plodding paranoia found briefly on Pink Flag standouts “Lowdown” and “Strange,” which were, appropriately, two of the longest — and most realized — songs on that album. But Chairs Missing was a complete left turn. Where Pink Flag is razor sharp and suffocating, Chairs Missing is loose and sprawling. “Marooned” is climbing bass lines, fields of guitar, and icy electronics; like much of the album, it favors tension to relief, building on minimized or completely absent percussion. The brilliant and catchy “I Am the Fly” staggers and echoes to a recognizable start and finish, and songs such as “Practise Makes Perfect” and “Used To” float by the way songs on Pink Flag burst open and slam shut.
The unexpectedness of Chairs Missing hardly had precedent. The closest thing might be Bowie‘s Low, an inward breaking point far removed from the outer-space rock-star strut he pulled off years earlier. (Although, by the late ’70s, Bowie was flighty enough to have already invented himself many times over.) Chairs Missing was a new direction, not just for the band that made it but also for a scene that had grown beyond punk’s primal scream and tunnel-vision rage. It was Kid A before Talking Heads made a song called “Radio Head.” And yet, for all that’s been written of Chairs Missing‘s refreshingly cohesive atmosphere, there’s a lot to it that doesn’t fall in line. The Eno-ish “Another the Letter” buzzes and swells like a construction site, and “Sand in My Joints” and “From the Nursery” thrash back and forth like they’re being held against their will. The closer, “Too Late,” is straight-ahead bottle-rocket punk, sneering and grinding with such comfort it almost outstrips the incredible transformation the rest of the record suggests.
Chairs Missing produced only a minor chart hit in “Outdoor Miner,” a deranged jab anchored by a gentle guitar-pop melody, but the song now seems to foreshadow a much larger statement, the haunting arrival of 154 (1979), the third and final release of this prolific and frighteningly creative period. One hundred fifty-four was the number of gigs Wire had played by this point, and although it features the band’s most confident song structures, the exploration of the studio was as central to Wire’s growth as anything captured on stage.
Amazingly, 154 takes on an even spookier tone than Chairs Missing. “A Touching Display” goes on for nearly seven wailing minutes, about seven times longer than the shortest tracks on Pink Flag. Everything funnels through a ghostly fog, a false sense of heaviness that predates the gothic streaks of Bauhaus and the Cure. “I Should Have Known Better” and “The Other Window” are built on spoken-word passages that break down into quivering refrains and howling feedback. Even the more traditional rock moments, such as “Single K.O.” and “On Returning,” move with an intense haze around them, a vampiric disorientation that works to layer things into halves: the out-front instrumentation pulling one way, the background nuances pulling another.
The second half clears out a bit. “Blessed State” and “Map Ref. 41 N 93 W” are unobstructed pop songs, with the latter feeling like a blatant grab at crossover attention, now made sweeter by the fact that it was summarily ignored. “40 Versions,” the album’s final song, is more telling than it knows, wrenching hard soul from intangibility and then letting it get away — in effect, bridging effortlessly the attempt of making man sound like machine and machine sound like man that all three albums had hinted at.
There’s a picture I’d never seen before in the new liner notes of Pink Flag. It’s all four members of Wire alongside the flagpole that graces the album’s cover, standing far apart from one another. The metaphors and nods are plenty: the simplicity of the shot (minimalism), the flat ground and wide open sky (discovery and potential), the space between each member (individual expression vs. group chemistry), the Who’s Who’s Next (shrugging off establishment, or shrugging off the proposed shrugging-off of establishment). If you look closely, you can see the candidness: They’re detached and stubborn, like they could really give a toss about the photo, the album, an image. For two years, Wire went about changing the course of non-mainstream rock forever — loudly to themselves, silently to everyone else (a decade or two later, it was the other way around). It was enough to paralyze the rest of the band’s career, but fuck if the whole thing doesn’t look like the easiest fun ever had.
Wire Web site (official site)