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Wire’s ‘Pink Flag’ shines in new re-release

Brian Doxtader | Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Almost three decades after its original release, Wire’s first trio of albums has been re-mastered and re-released. Marked by arty minimalism, Wire, in its initial incarnation, influenced the direction of post-punk throughout the 1980’s. The band’s first album, “Pink Flag,” remains its best, sounding just as fresh and weird today as it did in 1977.

Comprised of Colin Newman (vocals, guitar), Bruce Gilbert (guitar), Graham Lewis (bass) and Robert Gotobed (drums), Wire originally formed while the band members were art school students in England. Appropriately, the band’s brand of rebellion is not typical punk, incorporating artsy, abstract elements into the music and design, as evidenced by the cover, which (appropriately enough) features a pink flag.

The songs themselves are brief, busy and bizarre. “Pink Flag” rips through 21 songs in about 37 minutes, with several pieces clocking in less than 60 seconds – in fact, only a pair of tracks (the title track and “Strange”) last longer than three minutes.

The art influence is obvious throughout, with song titles like “Field Day for the Sundays” and “Three Girl Rhumba.” Like their contemporary, Joy Division, few of Wire’s songs (at least at this stage) actually finish. Instead, they just end abruptly.

Many of them only incorporate a single riff or vocal line, though lyrics like “Prices have risen since the government fell/Casualties increase as the enemy shell/The climate’s unhealthy, flies and rats thrive/And sooner or later the end will arrive” are far more eloquent than the “I wanna be in anarchy” rage being spewed by Wire’s contemporaries.

Indeed, the biggest and most noticeable difference between Wire and other bands in the initial punk explosion is attitude. In stark contrast to The Clash’s bristling self-righteousness or The Sex Pistol’s vitriolic anarchism, Wire is cold and distant.

The stylistic tendencies, which favor minimalism and artiness, give the album a detached feeling – an art school version of “The Ramones.”

What seems to stand out about “Pink Flag” (aside from vocal lead Newman’s oddly ingratiating, occasionally indecipherable sneer) is the album’s brilliance and resonance. Much of the punk and post-punk from the late 1970s, in spite of being undoubtedly influential, sounds badly outdated today. Music by bands like Gang of Four and Television hasn’t stood up quite as well as “Pink Flag,” which is a testament to how ahead of its time (or at the very least, out of step with the times) Wire was in its day.

Wire’s influence has been most obvious in the number of covers performed by other bands. REM took the eerie, creeping “Strange” and turned it into a party song on “Document,” Minor Threat performed a roaring version of “12XU,” My Bloody Valentine turned “Map Ref. 41 N 93 W” into a shoe-gazing mood piece, and Elastic’s “Connection” is almost exactly the same as “Three Girl Rhumba.”

“Pink Flag” remains one of a handful of truly essential British punk albums from the movement’s initial explosion, ranking right up there with “Never Mind the Bollocks” and “The Clash.” Wire helped bridge the gap between punk and post-punk over the course of its next two albums (“Chairs Missing” and “154,” respectively), but its debut remains its high point.

Wire may have had individual moments better than those on “Pink Flag,” but the band never again equaled its cohesiveness or compulsively listenable sensibility. “Pink Flag” is a great album made better by this re-mastered reissue.