Wire's art-school approach to punk set the U.K. quartet apart from its brasher contemporaries. Drawing more from avant-garde ideas about minimalism than from stripped-down rock & roll, Wire extracted the essential elements of pop —beat, rhythm, melody —and left it at that. The result was a deceptively simple, unemotional sound whose success rode on the tension between the group's often introspective lyrics, barked vocals, and sparse instrumentation. Despite little attention in the beginning, Wire's first three albums are among the most influential on the postpunk era, cited by Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and Robert Smith of the Cure.
Inspired by the burgeoning U.K. punk scene, and with only rudimentary knowledge of their instruments, South Londoners Colin Newman, Bruce Gilbert, Graham Lewis, and Robert Gotobed came together while attending the same art school. After appearing on an obscure live punk compilation, the band signed with Harvest, a mostly psychedelic/progressive-rock label, in September 1977. Wire's first release, Pink Flag, is a crudely produced, 21-track assault of throbbing bass, distortion, and dissonance, but also includes moments of gentle pop elegance. (R.E.M. covered the obscure Pink Flag song "Strange" on its first Top 10 album, Document.)
Wire stretched out on Chairs Missing, with slightly longer songs, more skillful playing, and occasional keyboard brushstrokes (played by producer Mike Thorne). The group expanded its sonic palette yet again on 154, with added instrumentation and increased attention to production, resulting in a moodier, more sophisticated and textured sound. Its musical evolution complete, the band called it a day in 1980.
Had Wire stopped there, its impact on rock's future would still have been cemented. But in 1986, after five years of posthumous live releases and solo projects —Newman and Gotobed did four albums together under Newman's name; Gilbert and Lewis performed under several names including Dome —the quartet reunited. With an updated experimental synth-pop sound, Wire began churning out a string of albums and toured the U.S. for the first time in 1987. (During that tour, Wire refused to perform its classic early work, and instead had opening act the Ex–Lion Tamers perform the entire Pink Flag album.) That same year's The Ideal Copy approached the inventiveness of the first three albums, but none of the others were as well received. By 1991's The Drill EP, drummer Gotobed had tired of the group's increasing fascination with technology, particularly drum machines. When he left, the group responded by dropping the last letter from its name and releasing 1991's The First Letter as Wir before disbanding.
As the band's members explored solo projects (with the exception of Gotobed, who turned to organic farming and worked as a session drummer), the sound of Wire enjoyed an unexpected resurrection in 1995 when the edgy, minimalist riffing of "Three Girl Rhumba" was "borrowed" for Elastica's hit single "Connection." (Elastica paid Wire's song publishers an out-of-court fee.) The band re-formed momentarily in 1996 to play Gilbert's 50th birthday party. Then, in early 2000, Wire reconvened to perform at the Royal Festival Hall in London (after a Dublin warm-up gig). The band continued with a U.S. tour and a setlist that spanned its entire career. Wire also distributed live recordings via the band's Web site.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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As they ready new LP 'Silver/Lead,' Colin Newman and Graham Lewis look back on how they remade rock with landmark albums like 'Pink Flag'