Founded in London in 1976, Wire quickly became both a peerless counterpart to the burgeoning punk scene sprouting around them and an antidote to it. Inspired by the do-it-yourself concept that anything can be music, their art school backgrounds engaged the scene with similar amped-up sonic fury to contemporaries like the Sex Pistols, albeit with a more engaging motif of experimentation, dissection, and investigation into what music itself could be. It all was reshaped to this new environment of no rules. Sure enough, being the brainiacs they were, they took their fair share of gobbing from the punk crowds early on, but buoyed somewhat by high-profile label support and press, plus continued reinvention (and reshaping to a quartet after shedding fifth member George Gil), the equal partnership of Colin Newman, Robert Grey (then Gotobed), Graham Lewis, and Bruce Gilbert quickly staked terrain as something wholly unique, cerebral yet still primal. Their reinvention has continued right up to today.
Maximal minimalism. Wire’s 1977-79 output—their first three LPs, Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154—embodied this concept. As mentioned about the more effusively gonzo (but no less serious with their “maximal minimalism’’) American duo Sparks in their recent Edgar Wright documentary The Sparks Brothers: “People were influenced by them over the years who didn’t even know they were influenced by them.” Not that the parallel exists fully between the two entities: Sparks leapfrogged from glam to proto-disco (among other things) from record to record, incorporating singular theories and approaches, whereas Wire’s first three jammers were full of so many conceptual ideas elbowing for space that the sugar-coma richness of the listening experience almost made you feel overstuffed. Pink Flag saw the artful dissolution of rock ’n’ roll itself into its working parts of bare necessities (take the title track’s one-chord solution), Chairs Missing built layers onto that foundation, then 154 arrived at the most abstract bubbling point the band had achieved to date. All within a couple of years. What other band could spawn everything from Minor Threat (and, as a result, an American hardcore movement) as well as the expansiveness of, say, My Bloody Valentine? Without doubt, Wire invented something wholly unique and untouchable that is still being unraveled in its long-term impact on us all.
It’s really that overflow of sheer creativity—and nothing more—that led to Wire’s Colin Newman recording A-Z at Scorpio Sound in London in 1980. As Graeme Jefferies (from New Zealand’s Cakekitchen) told me recently, “It’s more like the fourth Wire album than the fourth Wire album,” and yes, the only challenge, really, was marketing and branding, which sadly made A-Z a lesser anomaly in the eyes of the mainstream consumers. As Colin himself reiterated to me on email: “The basic thing about A-Z is that it was in many ways more about Wire than me having a solo career. I had way more material than was needed for Wire, and I thought me doing a solo record would give a bit of space for others to write for Wire. I had no concept about what would be needed for me to be a solo artist in the proper sense.”
While it’s certain that the Graham Lewis/Bruce Gilbert end of Wire were keen to heighten their experimental/ drone chops with Dome during this time, the drafting of the band’s stickman Robert Grey for A-Z was merely a convenience of him living nearby to Newman, while recently utilized Wire producer Mike Thorne returned as a key orchestrator. Newman’s friend Desmond Simmons joined in, picking up the bass for the first time. The leadoff track, “I’ve Waited Ages,” is a stark slap of reality to those expecting a new Wire record. While definitely taking cues from where 154 left off, the LP alternately blasts off with some primitive noise to announce that change is afoot, right now. Through the delicately structured tracks herein, Newman’s advanced sense of order and creation plumbs the depths of both experimentalism and, of course, pop hooks. The dark-cave pileup of looping sounds and phrases, musique concrete, samples, and choruses of “Troisieme,” the Residents-y carnival atmosphere of “B” (last track on the LP, first single), and the general presence of more eccentric keyboard sounds a la 154 underline this for certain. “Alone” and its sheer, stark nature landed it on the soundtrack of Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs. Lyrics-wise, there’s lots of head-scratching, the opaque nature of them perhaps in defiance to critical overanalysis of Wire’s previous words. My bet is on Colin’s affinity for Eno’s absurd and great off-the-cuff lyrics to Before and After Science and a shared desire to encapsulate a unique mood and feeling to each track, making that the focus rather than some word-centric pronouncements. (Leave that to Dylan.) It certainly works.
I had even guessed the title A-Z was another effort to sum up Newman’s penchant for order and minimalist statesmanship, but in fact it’s culled from the popular London A-Z guides city dwellers were armed with. His paintings that adorn the cover were created directly on pages and maps from within, the graphic font lifted from Gill Sans, which defines London Underground signage. As the record came out to critical acclaim, the prior major-label heat coming off Wire left now-independent marketers wondering what to do with this slab of curiousness. Newman refused to take on the “solo auteur” tag the industry heaped onto similar oblique travelers like John Cale and Peter Hammill, ATCO in the U.S. walked away from a deal when tour plans were refused (something Beggars Banquet, which issued A-Z, also hit a stone wall with in their dealings), and Colin firmly stood his ground. Again, this was a relief valve for Wire to work out their excess of ideas until they would reconvene again, a stand-alone painting to admire. Luckily there was lots more to come from both Newman and Wire; his Provisionally Entitled the Singing Fish and Not To followed and are severe classics as well. Non-vinyl purists among us can also grab them as deluxe two-CD editions from 2016 with a generous heap of bonus tracks and demos. Lost treasures that were under your damn noses all along!