If the great punk and post-punk period of late-'70s rock had its Vincent van Gogh, it may have been a band called Wire. No, nobody in the English group ever cut off his ear, but it did make great, daring music and it did go unheralded while everyone was raving about the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Elvis Costello, et al.
All of a sudden, things are very different. Critics who missed Wire the first time around are praising the group to the sky. Even members of prominent, adventuresome '80s bands are coming forth with quotable quotes, solicited and distributed by Enigma Records, which recently released "The Ideal Copy"--Wire's first studio album since 1979.
--R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe: "Wire changed my life in '77."
--Husker Du singer-guitarist Bob Mould: "Wire was one of the most influential groups in progressive music."
And the Cure's singer-guitarist Robert Smith confirms his love for the band. "Wire was one of the prime influences on the Cure. . . . At the time, Wire seemed even more powerful than Joy Division. They had an attitude that was really spectacular. It was like pure black and white--very stark and very brilliant."
Unlike Van Gogh, Wire has lived to hear the delayed hurrahs, which were set off last year with the release of a new EP, "Snakedrill," followed now by the "Ideal Copy" album. Now the band has embarked on its first American tour ever, including a Variety Arts Center concert tonight. They'll even show up Friday on "The Late Show." Wonders never cease.
Neither did Wire, contrary to reports and appearances. "It just had a rest," singer-guitarist Colin Newman said by phone from New York, tongue only partly in cheek. Also on the line was bassist-singer Graham Lewis, who was asked why Wire was once so ignored.
"We had no image," he explained. "Even Joy Division had more of one. We were just ourselves."
Not that efforts weren't made to correct this malady. Lewis recalled one manager's attempt.
"He once tried to sort of kidnap Colin and take him down to King's Road and get some pink leather trousers. It really freaked Colin out. Riding to the rehearsal, he cried out, 'He tried to build me an image!' "
If Wire (completed by guitarist Bruce Gilbert and drummer Robert Gotobed) are plain and poker-faced blokes, their music was and is anything but.
"Pink Flag" (1977) might have been the second-greatest punk LP ever (after the Sex Pistols' "Bollocks")--one concise, incredible blast after another of Godzilla guitar chords and lyrics that were acidic concrete poetry, meant, as Newman now says, "to put a boot up rock 'n' roll."
That debut's crude power partly arose from the fact that the four South Londoners, like many other Britons in the climate created by the Pistols in 1976, decided they would form a band even though no one could really play an instrument.
"I could play a little guitar," Newman said, "but I mainly just wrote the tunes then. Graham claimed to be able to play the bass but we didn't feel that he actually could. Robert merely claimed to have access to a drum kit, and Bruce had just begun to play guitar by simply putting his finger on a string somewhere."
If the band lacked skills, it also lacked any master plan. "Wire never had a concept," Newman said. "We didn't start off saying we want to play this sort of music or that. So the music just naturally evolved."
After "Pink Flag," Wire's music evolved into something quite different. The next two studio albums, "Chairs Missing" and "154," remain two of the most startling, constantly unpredictable records ever made, the tracks varying from quirkily melodic pop to abrasive textures. One more sound these uncategorizable LPs made was a thud--at radio stations and record stores.
After leaving the EMI label, the group released a live album, "Document and Eyewitness," on Rough Trade in 1981, then drifted into solo projects. The most notable are Newman's four solo LPs and Gilbert and Lewis' variously named art-noise collaborations.
There were plans for a Wire album in 1983, but Newman got an offer to exercise another favorite vocation, photography, for a special project and took off for India for several months. To make up for that, he played a big part in getting the group back together after his return--for one thing, calling Gotobed at his Welsh cottage, where the drummer had retreated from the London scene to do organic farming.
Even now, the future of the band remains unclear. The solo projects will continue, Newman and Lewis said, and so will Wire as long as all goes well. After all, when the world catches up with you, why waste the opportunity?
"The bands that got most of the attention (in the late '70s) were mostly very much of their time," Lewis mused.
Added Newman, "We tried to make music that was timeless. Bruce made a comment when we'd finished 'Pink Flag': 'Well, maybe they'll get it in 10 years' time.' "
"Yes," commented Lewis, "but let's just hope that it doesn't take them 10 years to get 'The Ideal Copy.' "