The making of Wire’s Pink Flag
By A.D. Amorosi
Though born of the punk moment, ethos and conviction, the debut of Wire on Pink Flag—conceived, executed and produced as a full work, rather than conforming to the era’s focus on DIY sound or singles simply strung together—has as much to do with punk as cheese does with giraffes. From its fast-and-furious, stripped-to-the-bone approach to its fleetingly short, often fragmented songcraft (21 tracks in less than 36 minutes); from its intentional dissonance without eschewing melody or big production values to its precision-driven stops and starts and the detached, acerbic wit of its abstractionist lyrics, Pink Flag sounded like nothing else of its time, in its time and—dare we say—in this time, 40 years later.
“It was deliberate, we were deliberate—even though we hadn’t done this before,” says guitarist/vocalist Colin Newman of Pink Flag’s sonic assault and modern primitivism. The album happened so quickly after the quartet’s formation that you can’t help but guess that such haste added to the persistent aggression—an artful minimalism with no display of, or interest in, rock ’n’ roll. The sense of urgency and experimentation that informed Wire’s 1977 debut would also figure into the band’s evolution.
“There was strength and a lack of compromise in their music from the start,” says Mike Thorne, the A&R man and producer who got hold of Wire—Newman, guitarist Bruce Gilbert, bassist Graham Lewis and drummer Robert Gotobed—barely six months after its inception. Wire appeared alongside Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex and others on Thorne’s The Roxy London WC2 (Jan-Apr 77) live document of the Covent Garden, London, club at the dawn of punk. In September 1977, Thorne got the foursome signed to EMI’s Harvest division and recorded Pink Flag at London’s Advision Studios with a shockingly layered (and decidedly un-punk) sound.
“When it became just the four of us working together, we got some very basic ideas down very fast,” says Lewis. “Like the stopping and starting of everything together was very effective.” He laughs. “And being in tune was good, too.”
As the “just the four us” phrase lingers in the air, one thing becomes clear at the start of this story: There would be no Pink Flag, follow-up albums Chairs Missing (1978) and 154 (1979) or even much of a Wire at all if guitarist/vocalist George Gill hadn’t broken some bones and taken time recuperating. “Ah, George,” says Lewis with both an air of sweet reminiscence and near despair. “The four of us collaborated and cooperated with each other in a very straightforward fashion, where with George, well … he tended to be ill-disciplined, really.”
Lingering too long on Wire’s origin story would be boring, if not for the fact that it occurred so close to Pink Flag. Before Wire formed, its members were rooted in art-school traditionalism: Watford Art College for Newman, Gilbert and Gill; Hornsey College of Art for Lewis, a textiles major who transferred to fashion design and had a hand in creating the oversized T-shirt with huge lettering fad. Newman and Gill both had something close to musical experience; Gotobed—née Grey—had been a vocalist in an R&B group, the Snakes, whose other members went on to form the Motors.
When Newman got to Watford, he immediately came to share a house with fellow students, including Gill, who began utilizing the college studio run by Gilbert, himself an experimentalist when it came to tape loops and musique concrète. “Bruce was always in it all for art, never music,” says Lewis of his friend and Wire’s true Dadaist. (Newman even recalls how Gilbert was influenced by Dadaist godfather Marcel Duchamp and his notion of ready-made art.) “Besides, Bruce was always embarrassed by the display of music, of standing onstage as a band person.”
Eventually, in 1976, Gill (the songwriter), Newman and newly minted guitarist Gilbert became Overload. Gilbert, who had befriended Lewis, asked him to come to a session with his bass. “I lied and told them I could play, so I had to borrow one from a friend,” says Lewis. Gotobed met Newman at a party where each was impressed with the other’s black-heavy sartorial splendor. Overload was complete—except for that band moniker.
“Overload is a rubbish name, but that’s when we had George in the band,” says Newman, with a hint of arch distaste, as if he’d eaten lemons dipped in gravel. “Bruce used to come ’round often, as he lived nearby. When Graham and Robert joined in, we realized that we had to have a proper name, like, ‘We have a gig and have to make up a name quick’ deal.” Newman hung lists of names around the Watford flat, but it was Gilbert who came up with “two really good ones,” in Newman’s estimation: the Case and Wire. Newman and Co. liked the one word un-wordiness of Wire—the starkness, the bluntness, the vagueness—one that ultimately fit with Pink Flag’s short, sharp feel. “Mind you, our good taste didn’t stop promoters from printing our name in barbed-wire lettering,” says Newman. “That was so common in the punk ’70s. So obvious. So hateful.”
For the just-born Wire braintrust, being obvious was a cardinal sin on par with murder, adultery and bad taste. Yet Wire was stuck in the rocky sea of ’70s obviousness—of old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll done fast and sloppy—that was the then-burgeoning punk movement.
“One thought that the ‘punk movement’ would be the start of a very open, experimental situation for all mediums,” says Gilbert. “And although it was true initially, it soon became very clear that it was a superficial and commercial bandwagon.”
Newman went a little further with his level of aversion. “Most of punk rock was bullshit, messy, disorganized,” he says. “I never got that whole thing where bands didn’t care if they made mistakes. Wire cared.”
Punk was not what Newman or Gilbert were listening to. They didn’t have friends in London’s 1976-77 punk-rock scene. “Nobody in punk bands then actually liked seeing other punk bands—they only went to sneer at each other, to mock,” says Newman.
Instead, Wire’s members were fans of the Euro-mantic likes of Roxy Music or the repetition-heavy Can and other krautrock acts. On the American side of the ledger, there was the Velvet Underground, Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers and Patti Smith. (Mention to Newman that interviews between this writer and British punk avatars such as the Damned’s Dave Vanian and Public Image Ltd’s Jah Wobble yielded nothing but compliments for Wire, and Newman is genuinely surprised. “Somebody had to like us because we got signed, but we never heard from anyone in that scene in our initial time out,” he says. “We actually never heard from any musicians until American hardcore hit in the ’80s.”)
As Overload turned into Wire, only the brevity, speed and directness of the Ramones and Buzzcocks were attractive to the band members. “That was the problem with most of punk—it was sloppy,” says Newman. “I loathed sloppiness.”
And who personified sloppy “punk” more than anyone? Good old George Gill, a brash lad who loved a good histrionic guitar solo. The five-piece’s lone demo session from August 1976, produced by band pal Nick Garvey in a basement studio in Stockwell, features one delicious artifact that would come to mean something on Pink Flag: the original raw, rocky take on “Feeling Called Love.”
“Did Colin say all that about George?” asks Lewis, chuckling. “Thing about George is that he had a lot of attitude, which was quite useful at the beginning. People were either scared by or enthralled with him. It was all a bit crazy and chaotic with him in the band. And his songs weren’t terribly good. But the rest of us were connecting at the same time.”
That connection came together more quickly when Gill broke his ankle in February 1977. “He was stealing gear from some punk band, an amplifier, and fell down a flight of steps at some pub in Kilburn,” says Newman. “So much for punk brotherhood.”
This accident, however, was when Wire truly began, bonding more as musicians. They suddenly began rehearsing with frequency, intensity and haste, and with the blunt sound that would become Pink Flag’s signature.
However, the members of Wire did not become friends at that point, beyond the camaraderie shared by Lewis and Gilbert (then and now). “We were never lads or drinking buddies, but Bruce was my connection to music,” says Lewis.
“No, we were never pals or hung out, though I dare say we had—and still have—something different between us, in that we are probably like a family, albeit a radically dysfunctional one,” adds Newman.
With Gill gone for the time being, Newman began to push forward his songs to the rest of Wire. “To start, though, we did actually play George’s songs—just better than he did, and without him,” says Newman dryly. “That’s the kind of discovery that made us look forward.”
Newman stops and insists that this was Wire’s shining hour. “I can’t emphasize this enough,” he says. “That accident became Wire. We went from being immediately messy to extremely organized. I began to write, too, which was odd because I certainly didn’t fancy myself a songwriter before that.”
During that initial three-week period of rehearsals sans Gill, out came in quick succession the stripped-down roar of “Lowdown,” “Brazil,” “12XU,” “Strange,” “Mr. Suit,” “Three Girl Rhumba” and “106 Beats That”—all of which found a place on Pink Flag. “Lowdown” came first when, following a Damned concert that Newman and Lewis attended, the latter handed the former a set of lyrics to a song the guitarist had played during rehearsals.
“I think I was fairly up front about writing lyrics after that,” says Lewis about the abstract visions culled from dreams or history books or rich concepts in his head, such as the thrill of “12XU.” “The text of ‘12XU’ is special being a three-hander between Bruce, Colin and myself—my edit, though. It manages to encompass self-censorship, transgender sexuality and queer slang—that ‘got you in a corner, got you in a cottage’—whilst turning a cliché and advertising smoking.”
Regarding Wire’s lyrics—whether Lewis’ or anyone else’s—Newman has the funniest line. “I’ve been told that they sound as if lawyers write them,” he says.
“Many of the songs were devised by Colin, and during the development and refining of them, Graham became more confident in his role as a lyricist,” notes Gilbert of the haste and harmonious nature of the Wire process, so unlike its dissonant sound. “It was a very organic process … I am not that sure if my contributions are that different, because there was a certain amount of collaboration with the others, especially with the text. If there is a Bruce Gilbert aesthetic, it is probably a degree of minimalism.”
Newman—who reinforces the fact that all the songs on Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154 are credited to the quartet—concurs that Gilbert is a prince of all things spare but that “no one is more of a minimalist than Robert. We all aspired to his bare-bones attack. If you could say it in two, he could say it in one phrase.”
Newman started writing songs not because he was a dynamic guitarist, but rather because he was the only one who could play properly. “We rehearsed those songs four times a week, 10 to 12 hours a day, and truly noticed a rapid progress happening when it was just the four of us,” says Lewis. “It all went very fast. I mean, I was writing text all the time. Suddenly we had a need, a vehicle, the means and momentum.”
“That adventure was its own carrot,” says Lewis of writing songs that eventually became Pink Flag.
Newman claims the writing/arranging process was conceptual in that he played to the strengths—or limitations—of the newly minted quartet. “We were limited in what we could play, so we stuck to what each did best—this chord followed by this chord, then stop here,” he says. “We were very scripted, very worked-out in rehearsal, and I would call out stop or start.” Between acting and playing as an ensemble (not the way one plays but rather how the unit plays as one) and moving toward unified abruption, Wire’s signature sound began taking shape.
“We didn’t want to sound like anyone else,” says Newman. “Why would you bother? Yet, all the punk-rock bands did.”
If punks were playing three chords in three minutes, Wire was playing one-chord songs in one minute. “Yes, brevity is good,” says Newman. “There was an intelligent design to what we did.”
“We didn’t have a manifesto—just ideas like a stage design of black, white and pink, or songs paced as fragments or over before they started,” says Lewis. “That drove the kids who wanted to dance to us mad, as everything was over before it started. We learned what not to do—like not drink onstage—and if we got bored of the concepts as we developed them, we changed them or dropped them all altogether. That was exciting.”
Wire had played the Roxy with Gill back in 1976 (“We got banned for being so terrible,” says Newman) and was working toward rapid improvement without him when Gill finally did come back (“And with his leg in a plaster,” says Lewis) in time for Wire’s next gig at the Roxy in February 1977.
“Those four weeks without him—that was Wire, and most of the songs on Pink Flag,” says Newman. This night was to be Gill’s last performance with them.
“It didn’t go on long with George back,” says Lewis. “I got on with George, genuinely liked him. He was from Sheffield. But we didn’t want the same things.”
Following that Roxy show, the foursome was promptly offered an opportunity (its first as a quartet) to come back and play two nights as part of “some sort of punk festival,” says Lewis, to be recorded by EMI for a live album documenting the event and co-starring the Adverts, Buzzcocks, Eater, X-Ray Spex, Johnny Moped, Slaughter & The Dogs and the Unwanted.
“We were the only band to play both nights,” says Lewis.
“And Mike (Thorne) offered us our first opportunity to use a proper guitar tuner, pulled it right out of his pocket, which I later found out was an old producer’s trick: dazzle the young bands with a bit of technical magic they hadn’t seen before,” says Newman.
Thorne was a wunderkind music journalist turned A&R man and record producer who had already worked with Deep Purple, Soft Machine, Telephone and Gryphon. “Don’t forget my first one, Symphony Of Saxes, which was 120 saxophones playing ‘White Cliffs Of Dover,’ which made record of the week at Radio London,” says Thorne dryly. Looking toward the left of center (“a natural inclination”), the burgeoning punk movement was the perfect setting in which to find young savages making new noise—a scene wherein Wire’s searing sound stuck out. “That was no mean feat, what with the other bands on that Roxy bill,” says Thorne. “When I played it to my boss at EMI, Nick Mobbs (the man responsible for signing both Pink Floyd and the Sex Pistols), there was very little hesitation.”
Newman calls Thorne’s position in A&R and production the “perfect double bubble,” in that he had the clout to sign, develop and produce bands. “We got called the Pink Floyd of our generation, which means ultimately EMI never understood us, but there was that pressure.”
The fact that Wire wasn’t a seasoned stage act appealed to Thorne. The band’s raw, nervous energy and innovation was alluring. “And great songs—that’s all you need,” says Thorne. “You don’t have to worry about how you got there.”
“We were very lucky that we were sufficiently different—not always a good thing in music—for Mike Thorne to realize that we could make a ‘contribution’ to music,” says Gilbert. “Our needs were more than met with the encouragement of Mike, who recognized our need to push forward.”
After gathering the quartet’s tracks for the live Roxy album, Thorne ushered Wire into EMI’s basement studio (among others that spring) to record demos.
“They were comfortable enough to play the whole of Pink Flag in one session,” says Thorne, who urgently prodded the label into signing the band as Wire kept writing new songs at an alarming speed. “That’s one thing Mike taught us—to slow down the pace at which we were writing,” says Lewis. “To save some for the next record, and the next.”
“Everything I do is the opposite of the over-decorative, over-emotional, over-everything,” says Newman. “In that regard, people think that I sing like a robot. I just think I’m being subtle, which happens to be something many people just didn’t get. Mike did.”
Newman mentions how, at that time, Wire wasn’t loved by fans (“I think there were six people in the audience at the Roxy for that live recording,” he says), other bands or even name-brand managers. But the people who loved them—such as Thorne and music journalist Jon Savage—had elicited interest in the group from the record label.
“I think Mike’s role was key to enabling us to explore our ideas and overcome our musical limitations,” says Gilbert. The biggest part of that, in Newman’s and Lewis’ minds, was that Wire didn’t wish to release singles before an album, as did most other bands, but to present itself in one gulp by recording and releasing Pink Flag as its proper debut.
“We wanted to make a full work, and I wanted it to sound great, not one that sounded as if they were recorded in someone’s front room,” says Newman. “We all felt similarly, which may have been naive. We moved fast and we moved as one.”
Lewis gives Thorne much of the credit for pushing the full Pink Flag project (as opposed to singles first) to EMI. “I think that impressed Mike—he liked that a lot, that we had that concept—as it gave him something even more unique than our sound to sell,” he says. “He said if EMI didn’t accept that condition he was actually willing to leave the company if he could get us the deal we wanted at another label. That showed us amazing commitment to what we were doing, who we were.”
Once in the studio, Thorne says he not only “brought in a jam jar of my homegrown that got everybody happy and relaxed,” but came with ideas on soundscapes (“He loved his flangers,” says Lewis), additional instrumentation (Thorne played piano and added Kate Lukas’ flute on “Strange” and Gryphon’s Dave Oberlé’s backup vocals on “Mannequin”) and the sort of multitracking usually added to Van Halen albums. That multitracking was such a foreign concept to Wire that Newman claims Gilbert actually thought they were recording an entirely different album than Pink Flag.
“When we were recording “12XU,” there was a point where we couldn’t play it because it was too complex for our playing skills at first,” says Lewis. “When we did finally get it right, we couldn’t play it enough. We were so excited to have nailed it, we played it over and over because it made us laugh, made us happy. ‘106,’ too, was special, because we had a rule that there were no key changes in Wire songs. We bent the whole thing to our will—we made it into the other—unlike anything else on the record.”
One song that wound up on Pink Flag, the moribund “Different To Me,” is remarkable for being the only track ever to grace a Wire album that wasn’t penned by a band member. It was written by Annette Green, a tutor and visiting photography lecturer who was Newman’s wife at the time.
“I did trust Thorne, yeah, not just as an engineer/producer, but as an ideas-producer, a George Martin,” says Newman. “I believe he borrowed ideas from other kinds of production—like pop songs or the methodology of heavy metal with that layering. Quite splendid ideas, really. He knew how to make Bruce and my guitars sound like a thick swarm of guitars.” Newman says if you want to hear the best take on that layered guitar-army effect, check out “Strange.”
“Heavy metal was far from my thoughts when producing Pink Flag,” says Thorne, who adds that layering the guitars simply seemed “a productive direction” given Wire’s music. “My move was just to suggest a technique appropriate to the music,” he says. “It worked.” Thorne goes on to describe a withering comment heard at the Roxy about how Wire sounded “a bit heavy metal … Punk and metal had much in common sonically, although not a lot spiritually. I never bothered about stylistic divisions.”
That Thorne went on to produce the richer, chillier Chairs Missing and the synth-phonic 154 (as well as Newman’s first solo album, A-Z) shows that Wire itself cared even less about stylistic divisions.
Considering the auspicious start of Pink Flag—the crown jewel of Wire’s Pink Flag label—which Newman is hoping to re-release sooner than later, Gilbert (who left the band after 2003’s Send and its world tour) says, “It seems to me now as if it was very ‘pure’ and sometimes humorous, that album,” he says. Of its potential re-release and provocative legacy, Gilbert says, “I am interested in respecting, without being too precious, how Wire’s history is presented.”