Wire emerged out of the British punk explosion but, from the outset, maintained a distance from that scene and resisted easy categorization. While punk rapidly became a caricature of itself, Wire’s musical identity — focused on experimentation and process — was constantly metamorphosing. Their first three albums alone attest to a startling evolution as the band repeatedly reinvented itself between 1977 and 1979. That capacity for self-reinvention, coupled with a willingness to stop recording indefinitely when ideas weren’t forthcoming, has been crucial to Wire’s longevity and continued relevance.
By the time of punk, British art schools had long been a hotbed of musical activity, spawning some of the nation’s most innovative rock acts from the ’60s onward. Like many punk contemporaries, Wire had roots in the art school tradition. At Watford Art College in 1976, guitarists Colin Newman and George Gill formed Overload with audiovisual technician Bruce Gilbert (also on guitar). Subsequently, the three recruited bassist Graham Lewis and drummer Robert Gotobed (aka Robert Grey), and the first Wire lineup was in place.
Wire began playing dates in London and, having ousted Gill, started from scratch, writing new material and taking a more pared-down, experimental approach. A gig at the Roxy in early 1977 proved auspicious. Wire met EMI’s Mike Thorne, who was recording groups for a live punk album, The Roxy, London WC2. Thorne included two Wire tracks and was then instrumental in bringing the band to EMI in September. By then, with Newman writing most of the music, they were eager to record before they lost interest in material, abandoned it, and moved on; a pattern that would define the group.
Produced by Thorne, 1977’s amphetamine-paced Pink Flag found Wire taking punk to extremes while also keeping an ironic distance from it by introducing elements of tension and abstraction. Pink Flag’s 21 highly original tracks (each averaging just over a minute and a half) compressed and twisted rock into often jagged, taut shapes. The album met with critical acclaim and a follow-up was recorded in spring 1978.
Chairs Missing was a radical departure. Although the phrase “early Pink Floyd” was uttered dismissively in some quarters, it was well-received. With Thorne playing keyboards and producing, this was a more complex, multi-dimensional record that supplemented Pink Flag’s harsh minimalism with dense, occasionally unsettling atmospherics. Wire albums usually feature one near-perfect pop song and Chairs Missing’s “Outdoor Miner” almost became a hit, until it was scuppered by a payola scandal at EMI.
This was an enormously creative phase. Songs were being written and jettisoned at a considerable rate and the band was gigging relentlessly. In summer 1978, Wire played in the U.S. for the first time and, in March 1979, toured Europe with Roxy Music. Although Chairs Missing had been released only months before, live sets included a significant amount of material that would appear on 154. Indeed, Wire often tended to bewilder live audiences by playing new, unrecorded tracks rather than the numbers people expected to hear.
If Chairs Missing saw Wire exploring the possibilities offered by the recording studio, on 154 they took fuller advantage of that environment. With Lewis emerging as a vocalist alongside Newman, the result was an expansive, textured album with a more pronounced melodic orientation. 154 was Wire’s most accomplished statement to date and the group seemed poised for success. The opposite happened. Wire’s relationship with EMI unraveled and they were soon label-less. In February 1980 at London’s Electric Ballroom, the band played an infamously chaotic show (captured on Document and Eyewitness) that was more like performance art than a rock performance. A five-year hiatus ensued.
Following a period of intense activity away from Wire, the members regrouped in 1985, referring to their new incarnation as a “beat combo” — a no-nonsense, stripped-down unit. The 1986 “comeback” EP, Snakedrill, begat “Drill,” a track built on a paradigmatic Wire rhythm, which bridged the gap between the group’s past and its present. “Drill” would stand as an evolving metaphor for the band’s shifting identity. It mutated through multiple versions, changing from performance to performance. (In 1991, Wire would release The Drill, an album composed entirely of versions of the track.)
The bandmembers’ solo endeavors during the early ’80s proved crucial to Wire’s new direction: the avant pop sensibility developed by Newman on his albums and the experimental inclinations of Lewis and Gilbert were channeled into the nascent digital context in which the band was now working. The Ideal Copy (1987), the first full-length example of Wire’s new approach to the processes of composition and recording with sequencing technology, found the group’s smart, state-of-the-art grooves skirting the dancefloor. While first-generation fans were glad to have Wire back, their new sound drew a new audience in the U.S. and an American tour followed. They continued in an electronically oriented direction with the more homogeneous A Bell Is a Cup…Until It Is Struck (1988), whose combination of hypnotic, melodic patterns and impenetrable yet catchy lyrics made for surreal, brainy pop.
Wire had already made one of rock’s more unorthodox live records but they further deconstructed the cliché of the “live album” for 1989’s It’s Beginning to & Back Again. Performance recordings were stripped down in the studio, sometimes to a drumbeat or a baseline, which was then used as the starting point for rebuilding the track. Wire continued to experiment with ways of letting studio technologies affect their creative process on Manscape (1990), which forayed deeper into computer-based electronics and programming. Drummer Robert Gotobed was less enthusiastic about changing his role in the developing digital version of Wire and left the band just before a 1990 tour. Dropping the “e” from the group’s name, Gilbert, Lewis, and Newman carried on as Wir, releasing The First Letter. In 1991, another hiatus began and the three returned to their diverse solo ventures.
In the ’80s, American bands like R.E.M. and Big Black had covered Wire songs. By the mid-’90s, Wire’s influence started to manifest itself among a younger generation of Brit-pop artists, most notoriously Elastica, whose appropriation of Pink Flag’s “Three Girl Rhumba” resulted in a settlement between the groups’ respective music publishing companies. Having briefly resurfaced with Robert Gotobed in 1996 for a performance of “Drill” to celebrate Bruce Gilbert’s 50th birthday, Wire remained silent until 1999, when they began rehearsing again. In 2000, the band played live in the U.K. (including an event at London’s Royal Festival Hall) and completed a U.S. tour; unpredictable as ever, Wire performed almost exclusively old numbers.
Although reworkings of older tracks taped during 1999 rehearsals appeared on The Third Day (2000), Wire soon initiated their next phase. Completely new material appeared in the form of 2002’s Read & Burn 01, the first in a projected series of releases to be developed at Newman’s Swim studios. While the fast, loud menace of Read & Burn 01 harked back to Pink Flag, Wire sounded more like they were stomping all over their roots than nostalgically returning to them. A second Read & Burn was out by the end of the year; Send, a full-length containing brand-new songs and Read & Burn material, was released in May of 2003. Three years later, a number of Wire’s early albums were re-released; in 2007, the group’s seminal Pink Flag album hit shelves once again, as well as a third Read & Burn EP. Object 47, an album of new material, was released in 2008 and was the band’s first release without Gilbert. Red Barked Tree came in early 2011, tailed by a live recording of songs, primarily from that album, titled Black Session: Paris. Inspired by the energy of those live dates, the band headed back into the studio with former touring guitarist Matt Simms to work on some previously unrecorded songs from 1979 and 1980. The results, Change Becomes Us, arrived in early 2013. Wire returned with their first new material since Red Barked Tree in 2015 with a self-titled set that featured elliptical pop with ’60s-inspired melodies.