The Gig Cartel - Artist profiles: Wire

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Since their formation in London in 1976, the members of Wire have maintained and advanced a musical project which treats the creative potential of a rock band as a fluid, amorphous medium. As removed from self-conscious intellectualism as they are from the inherent conservatism of much rock music, Wire employ their unique, endlessly restless and risk-taking creativity to question every aspect of songwriting, recording and performance. They delight and disturb in equal measure, troubleshooting the circuitry of perfect pop, or patrolling the limits of focused experimentalism. In terms of working together as Wire, the group's members disbanded in 1980, reformed in 1985, disbanded in 1992 and reformed for the second time in 2000. Such sabbaticals from their career as Wire have served to sharpen the group's edge and focus, updating the tactics with which they pursue this shared project.

Wire came to prominence through the cultural revolution of punk in the UK, the effects of which were felt throughout the latter half of the 1970s. Immediately fluent in the language of contrariness and paradox, Wire's very name was both industrial and poetic, blank and eerie. As evidenced by their two tracks on the compilation released in August 1977, The Roxy London WC2 Jan–Apr 77 (the brooding Lowdown and the instantly iconic, neurasthenic mini-drama 12XU) the group made a musical virtue of tension and a lyrical strength of ambiguity.

More than any other group from that period, Wire embraced the purpose of punk as a minting of otherness and newness—as a response to the notion of modernity itself reaching critical mass. From a seamless fusion of contradictions (fast and slow, funny and menacing, soft and loud, gentle and angry, clever and dumb) the group created a singularity of sound and attitude which was utterly distinctive, precision channelled as though to concentrate its energy through highly sophisticated modes of constriction.

This proactive use of constriction could be said to begin with the group's stripped-down instrumentation: two guitars, vocal and drums, as though the mechanics of Wire's engine were race-tuned to reach the sheer speed required by many of the songs. Musically and lyrically, repetition, abbreviation, tempo and acceleration have become a constant in Wire's career-long processes of self-reinvention. 'Monophonic and monorhythmic'- to quote their own description of their epic track, Drill released in 1986.

With regard to performance, Wire exchanged the traditional heroicism of live rock for the rhetoric of incitement, while remaining irresistibly entertaining. Two specific performances, within their usual run of concerts, defined the group's determination to maintain newness by confounding audience expectations. The concert known and recorded as Document and Eyewitness took place at the Electric Ballroom, Camden Town on 29th February 1980. While a significant faction of the capacity audience was made up of drunk skinheads baying for Wire speed hits such as 12XU, the group delivered a set of fragmented performance pieces, including masked people wearing paper headdresses, the hitting of a gas cooker with hammers, and the frequent appearance of a track-suited compere whose banter with the crowd ranged from jovial to threatening. These interventions were punctuated by teasing, recognisable fragments of Wire's better known music, the result being a gradually increasing tension between audience and performers which, at that time in such a venue, was genuinely dangerous.

A previous performance at the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre, Southampton Row, had included a chorus of anonymous guitarists and an on-stage action painting. Afterwards, the performance continued acoustically in the foyer and eventually morphed into discourse with the audience. Both concerts, vitally, brought the ethos of an art happening such as Gustav Metzger's Symposium of Auto- Destructive Art, from July 1961 (which included the making of a painting with hydrochloric acid on nylon) to a primarily non art-specialist audience of music fans.

Such risk-taking and creative self-scrutiny was continued by Wire’s performance, flag:burning, held at the Barbican Centre, London in June 2003. Created in collaboration with the artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, and the designer ES Devlin, ‘flag:burning’ was entirely within Wire's mission to renew their creativity and their identity through disruption, disturbance and explorations of other media. The first half of the concert presented a performance of Wire's debut album, the legendary Pink Flag (first released in November 1977), played in its entirety. The second—aiming to 'erase' this celebration of Pink Flag's iconic status—was a performance of Wire’s then new release, ‘send’.

Pink Flag had defined Wire as a group so taut that their slightest inflection—the pulse of a guitar line, the pared-down percussion of bass drum, snare and hi-hat, the range of Colin Newman's vocal from football terrace shout to jaunty, barrow-boy absurdism—achieved an amplification little short of monolithic. flag:burning confronted the right of such a monolith to even exist—thus summarising the group’s career-long triumph as musicians and performers who have turned enquiry into an art-form, balancing intensity and ambiguity, and never allowing either to fall.

Wire have continually made a creative virtue of the various periods during which they have not worked together as a band. Pursuing various solo projects and taking time apart has ensured that when Wire reconvene it is always with the impetus of renewed dynamics and artistic freshness.

The resignation of founder member Bruce Gilbert in 2004 allowed the group a similar pause for thought and reconfiguration. If Wire is regarded as a model for making contemporary music, how might that model be realigned in the wake of such a significant change of personnel?

The answer to this question, in a manner well-suited to Wire's career-long ability to simultaneously create the group's future while curating its past, would arrive in the form of elegantly produced re-issues of Wire's iconic recordings from the 1970s, and the continuation in earnest on the new material that would comprise Read and Burn 3 (2007) and Object 47 (2008). Bruce Gilbert had been involved in the initial work on the tracks for the former, while the latter was made without his involvement. Both records would be an advance and consolidation of Wire's stylistic eclecticism and sheer musical force. Object 47, the group's first release as a three piece, found Wire at their most fluid and elliptical, reprising and enhancing the beguiling forces to be heard on 154 and IBTABA.

A period of live performances followed, featuring guest guitarists Margaret Fiedler-McGinnis and latterly Matt Sims. This touring schedule was accompanied by a re-issue of the long unavailable Send (2003/2010) and the inauguration of the Legal Bootleg Series, with a DVD recording of Wire's razor sharp performance on 21st July, 1985, at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London – a time in the group's history marked by the instant classic single Our Swimmer and the monolithic Drill. Once again, the curatorial aspect of Wire's on-going definition of itself is pronounced: in the mid-1980s the group had re-emerged to tumultuous acclaim from a sabbatical during which they shed the dead tissue of punk and post-punk, and solidified their identity as a creative unit that could be seen as both contemporary art project and working band. 2008 would also see the publication of Wilson Neate's assiduously researched and scholarly appraisal on Wire's debut album, Pink Flag, published in the 33? series by Continuum.

Balancing history, however, is renewed creativity in the form of the evocatively titled Red Barked Tree, recorded in London during 2010 and composed by the pared down line-up Lewis, Newman and Grey. A bravura soundscape that is as lyrical as it is densely urban, and as plangent as it is futuristic, Red Barked Tree endorsed Newman's astute observation: "It's Wire unleashed. Wire always manage to sound like Wire, even though there's no actual brief that says what Wire are supposed to sound like. That's a key element in how it all works."

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