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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Wired to Restlessness

New book on Britain’s seminal, experimental Wire

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Wire lead singer-guitarist-songwriter Colin Newman has said in recent interviews that "Wire equals change." His band's latest album, Change Becomes Us, upholds this statement, featuring an eclectic and challenging mix of songs that lyrically and musically posit change as a necessary element in the evolution of both a band and a human life.

And Wilson Neate—who penned the 33 1/3 book on Pink Flag (Continuum), Wire’s seminal 1977 debut album—is the perfect writer to capture the history of the ever-evolving Wire in a book.

Neate’s new book Read & Burn: A Book About Wire (Jawbone) encapsulates Wire’s creative restlessness and evolution in a non-decorative prose style that serves as a perfect accompaniment to the band's minimalist aesthetic.

In Neate's telling, Wire isn't so much a rock band but an art project designed for experimentation. This understanding of Wire is crucial. Newman—who's often considered the most traditional and rock ’n’ roll-oriented member of the band—really isn't a traditionalist at all (he’s a supporter of the drum machine-heavy The Drill album, for example). It's just that his method of experimentation differs from that of his bandmates, bassist-singer-lyricist Graham Lewis, drummer Robert Grey and, most of all, former guitarist Bruce Gilbert.

The story here is about art and not personality, and Neate’s telling fits Wire’s minimalism very well. At the heart of the book beats the conflicting aesthetic sensibilities of Newman and Gilbert—conflicting sensibilities that led to Wire's uneven body of work from their mid-1980s reunion until Gilbert's departure in 2004.

Newman's preferred method of working was (and still is) to use Lewis' texts as jumping-off points for constructing vocal melodies and guitar riffs. Wire made Pink Flag and most of the equally brilliant 1978 follow-up Chairs Missing in this way. 154, Wire's 1979 release, demonstrated that the band could also work successfully in the more improvisational method favored by Gilbert. But the band's problems with bad management and poor business decisions, and the antagonism that developed between Gilbert and Newman, caused the band to break up in 1980.

Neate's book goes on to talk about Wire's projects by meticulously analyzing them in their various incarnations between the band’s mid-80s reunion and the present day.

Wire had many highs in the experimental (The Drill) and pop-friendly vein (A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck) in the 1980s and 1990s, and the Read & Burn-Send project was a career highlight in 2003. But, overall, their output was uneven, and Gilbert got so frustrated with Newman and his “pop tendencies” that he left the band.

After Gilbert’s departure and the release of the transitional Object 47 in 2007, Wire found new strength under Newman’s leadership and a return to the working methods that led to the first two albums. 2011’s Red Barked Tree and this year’s Change Becomes Us are the best Wire albums since 154. Lewis and Grey now contribute under Newman’s guidance, and new member Matt Simms provides brilliant guitar work that corresponds more closely to Newman’s vision (in other words, he’s not as experimental as Gilbert).

Neate’s Read & Burn deftly handles all the change that is Wire and their resurgence very well by not being a typical biography of a rock ’n’ roll band. Through his meticulous research and hours of interviews with the band, Neate discusses Wire as an artistic endeavor. In so doing, Neate creates a refreshing band biography, one that has no concern with groupies and drugs. Read & Burn is the history of a changing aesthetic—it’s the kind of book that a band of Wire’s caliber deserves.