Thursday 21 September 2017

The man behind Wire

Nick Kelly

They've had their songs covered by everyone from REM to Henry Rollins to Minor Threat, while Elastica aped their sound wholesale in the 1990s – but Wire remain one of those elusive bands whose influence can't be measured by mere record sales.

Since their seminal debut album Pink Flag was released in 1977, their avant-garde minimalist art-pop has weaved in and out of fashion, usually disappearing just over the electro-indie rainbow. And in Colin Newman they have one of pop's most articulate and eloquent frontmen.

Having split up and reformed numerous times over their 35-year career, Wire in 2013 have quite aptly titled their new album Change Becomes Us. Dubliners have a rare chance to see this most iconoclastic of British bands when they play The Workman's Club on September 27.

I asked singer Colin Newman about the changes that the band have undergone over the years – it's striking that no two Wire albums sound the same. But where do the group fit in in 2013?

"Change has always been a central idea of Wire," says Colin. "But the notion of a timeline has disappeared in contemporary music. You have things that sound like they could be from the 1960s or the 1950s or even the 1940s being, quote unquote, contemporary. There is nothing that sounds spankingly modern. Maybe that's because it requires a paradigm shift in the tools that people make music with; maybe everything has already been done."

So we're in a new post-modern age? "People talked about music becoming post-modern in the 1990s," he says. "That's bollocks. All the most important music in the 1990s was pure modernist. Most dance music wasn't like anything that you'd heard before.

"It had elements that were simply impossible to have in music before a certain piece of kit was invented – such as samplers or pro-tools."

People often label Wire's music as post-punk. Did Wire see themselves as part of this scene at the time?

"The punk scene was more social than anything else," he says. "There were a bunch of people who orbited around Malcolm McLaren who all knew each other. We were outsiders to that. Our aim was to not be a punk band. Pop-punk seemed old hat when we got going."

Wire's bank manager must have been jumping for joy when REM covered their song 'Strange' on their seminal Document album in 1987.

Colin explains why Wire were so popular in America at the time. "Not many UK post-punk records made it to America on major labels," he says. "But our debut album Pink Flag did. Somehow it became a major influence on hardcore.

"I think the appeal was the way that we looked. We didn't profess any straight-edge philosophy. We have a cleaner image. We're obviously not just doing it to get high and screw groupies; we're in it for serious reasons.

"There was a deconstruction of classic rock on that record that was appealing to American musicians. What we played was so simplistic compared to what they were used to. You can do a song with one chord and shouting! I can't guarantee that it's gonna be any good . . . (laughs).

"REM came out of the hardcore scene. Covering a Wire song was not a weird thing for them to do. And because we got a lot of MTV exposure, we sold a lot of records in the 1980s in America."

Colin spent a period of time in Dublin in the early 1980s when he produced the Virgin Prunes album If I Die. . . I Die. I asked him about his memories of working with Gavin Friday and the gang.

"They had a raw power to them. I was employed as producer to get a hit out of them. This was quite different to what their idea was. I was put in rather an invidious position.

"The story of the album was that they had a song called 'Whores Of Babylon' that (record company boss) Geoff Travis thought was their single. They didn't want it to be their single because they thought it sounded too much like U2.

"U2 had already broken and Dik, the guitarist, was The Edge's brother. It hung over the album. The track that eventually became the single, 'Baby Turns Blue', ended up getting BBC Radio 1 morning show Single of the Week, which was quite a big deal at the time. The album sold by the bucketload. I listen to it a lot."

What were they like to work with?

"They were funny and extremely likable. Gavin has an enormous voice. That guy does proper singing – I don't; I do shouting. But they were not necessarily the most organised. I don't think they had a very clear career plan. But why should they? I'm glad to have been involved."

Change Becomes Us is out now. Wire play The Workman's Club on September 27.

nkelly@independent.ie

Irish Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment