by Chris Estey
33 1/3 is a series of pocket-sized books, each volume focusing on a single album. This is the seventeenth installment of our attempt to read all 57 (and counting) of these things, and to scribble some impressions of each. As always, please keep in mind that it’s always just one writer’s opinion, often skewed, and somewhat ill-informed. Accuracy is ensured as time permits. For the full introduction, check out the first installment and read the others here. On to the demi-tomes!
Part 21: Wire’s Pink Flag by Wilson Neate
For our purposes, Brit-born Wilson Neate has written the quintessential, perhaps most exemplary, edition in the 33 1/3 series; it has all the passionate exposition of Daniels’ take on Throbbing Gristle’s best known album (our previous review), but is about a record most KEXP listeners would actually enjoy. In fact, they do enjoy it, every now and then, when several of its songs (“Ex-Lion Tamer,” “Three Girl Rhumba,” the title track, among others) are squeezed randomly onto playlists between tracks from certain similarly spartan, aggressive, and mysterious other/recent bands.
Neate is a bit of a cheat, though; he has an inside scoop on pretty much everything Wire-related from this period, having locally and contemporaneously grown up with the band’s oblique, challenging records as they were released, and interviewing the lot of them with ease for a volume that reads somewhere between a biography and an art manifesto. Tons of quotes, and every perspective is complemented by others’. Very few 33 1/3 authors have been able to “get the story” and relate it so well about the album they’ve chosen to illuminate.
This is probably because Neate seems to make an extraordinary connection with the members of the band, who creatively subsisted on a “camaraderie of outsiderness” as individuals becoming collective. We get elegant, informative accounts of the literature-loving upbringing of Bruce Gilbert (guitar), obsessed with the “strange recognition” of “pushing sound” via the “Dadaist spirit”; the enigmatic persona of drummer Robert Gotobed (or Grey) which was founded in adoration of John Bonham’s exposiveness but pared it down to a “post-human” minimalist “solid as fuck” style; the melange of order and chaos in the growing up of bassist/vocalist Graham Lewis, his psychology shaped by “growing up in military installations during the Cold War” and then torqued by Brian Eno’s instruction in both doo-wop and the avant-garde in art school; and the “Telstar”-adoring “going to art school to join a band” “intuitive orienteering” of Colin Newman, with his thuggish voice cooing cryptic threats. Lesson: If you want your band to be exceptional, be exceptional yourself, and surround yourself with those who are devoted to being exception as well. And this doesn’t just mean in how and what you play (but that is part of it obviously).
Wire is best understood, Neate asserts, as a uniquely British band -- as weirdo-UK, say, as Syd Barrett or Monty Python -- that aspired to American audiences in the New York-based punk period after “Television, Talking Heads, or Patti Smith. ... ‘It was very stimulating,’ says Bruce Gilbert. ‘It sounded like art rather than pub rock.’” Wire was a punk band, not so much a punk rock band. They loved these artists, and dreaded the machine of American rock and roll killing the new spirit of punk art. Wire were about discipline and editing out all the unnecessary maudlin baggage of popular music, but keeping the “freedom to experiment” was everything to them. The album Pink Flag, most among their crucial first three releases, was utterly steeped in attempts to define this dialectic. To the band, even by 1977, punk was compromised by rock, and four really smart guys created a version, as the Banshees’ Steve Severin put it, of The Ramones “that hadn’t been lobotomized.” With a little thought you realize that means they basically created a huge part of “alternative music.” Fan of the band or not, when you listen to Wire now, you hear little bits of everything else you enjoy.
Newman himself queried in the liner notes to this record in the 2006 box set, “How does one describe reading somebody saying they invented everything, did everything?” But to bait mere followers into their own action, Gilbert adds that staying with that mindset would itself be tragic, it would mean that “Schadenfreude took over.” So go reinvent it all again.