Influential Art-Punk Band Wire Reunites A Second Time

English quartet to play eight shows May 2–15.

When English quartet Wire land on American shores next month, it will mark the influential art-punk combo's first appearances in the States in 13 years.

The group's original members — guitarist/vocalist Colin Newman, guitarist Bruce Gilbert, bassist Graham Lewis and drummer Robert Gotobed — will play eight shows May 2–15, taking a break in the middle to record new material. Though expectations are high, the band hardly seems daunted.

"We know what we're taking on," Gilbert said. "The fact is that we wouldn't do it if we didn't enjoy it."

Even if it means some minor physical sacrifice, as Lewis joked recently. "[We face] the usual challenges, growing calluses on our fingers, and trying to get over the shop assistant's legs (an English expression for fatigue)," he said.

Wire's on-again/off-again career spans the group's 1976 formation in London, the release of 1977's influential Pink Flag, a five-year hiatus between 1980 and 1985, a return to writing and performance with 1987's The Ideal Copy, plus ongoing collaborations and various solo projects throughout the past two decades. The members' collective and individual blurring of art, music and performance has left a lasting impression on a new generation of musicians.

Art Influences Band's Music

In the punk era, Wire distinguished themselves from London's other exports (the Sex Pistols, the Damned, the Clash) by combining visual art with punk and by playing art galleries as well as punk venues. Pink Flag was aggressive and DIY but featured a more minimalist, less angular sonic quality resulting from art-school education and a seeming urge to avoid the "punk" stereotype.

Hence, the album's drony "Reuters" (RealAudio excerpt), the deconstructed funk of "Lowdown" (RealAudio excerpt) and titles of songs almost more suited to canvasses: "106 Beats That," "12XU" and "Field Day for the Sundays." That Wire's members professed an appreciation of the iconoclastic Captain Beefheart certainly signified the group's mold-breaking intent.

Jim Derogatis, pop music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of "Let It Blurt," a new biography on rock journalist Lester Bangs, played in Ex-Lion Tamers, who opened shows with a conceptual, yet faithful, performance of the entire Pink Flag album during Wire's 1987 American tour in support of The Ideal Copy.

"Wire was always sort of an acquired taste," he says. "But if [Minutemen guitarist] D. Boon were alive, or you asked R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, Mission of Burma or certainly Elastica, they'd say they owe Wire a huge debt. They were a band very much of their time, but their early body of work has been plundered, and inspired lots of different music, for two and a half decades."

Most notable among the plundering, Elastica's 1995 hit "Connection" (RealAudio excerpt) made liberal use of the main theme of Pink Flag's "Three Girl Rhumba" (RealAudio excerpt). But when the respective bands' publishing companies tried to negotiate a settlement, Wire got the short end of the stick.

According to Newman, Elastica's music publisher, EMI, hired a musicologist who determined the two songs were in fact similar and recommended a percentage of royalties be paid to Wire. But Wire's publisher, Carlin, actually negotiated a lower settlement amount.

"[Carlin] didn't even fight," Newman told Raygun magazine in 1998. "In other words, they did nothing for us. So far, in total, I've seen about 2,000 pounds [about $3,150 U.S.]."

Gilbert said Elastica's latest album, The Menace, includes a track that borrows from Wire's "Lowdown," but noted, "We've sorted that one out amicably."

Later Albums Reissued

Wire's upcoming U.S. tour coincides with Mute Records' reissuing the band's late '80s/early '90s albums, including The Ideal Copy, 1988's A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck, 1989's It's Beginning to and Back Again, 1990's Manscape, 1991's The Drill, 1991's live album Documents and Witnesses (originally released in 1981 on Rough Trade) and 1991's The First Letter, recorded without Gotobed and released under the name Wir.

While Wire are in Chicago they're scheduled to record new studio material, according to Mute Records' Steve Brezenoff. There's no word on when the songs will be released.

"This is the first time they've hit the road planning to do songs [in concert] from their entire catalog," rather than concentrating on their latest release, Brezenoff said.

The bandmembers said the shows would feature early material from records such as Pink Flag and Chairs Missing (1978) and 154 (1979). Though Wire are known for their resistance to nostalgia, Gilbert said, "We thought we would shock people by playing the old stuff."

The idea to reunite, Gilbert said, came when Mute's Daniel Miller was asked to book a concert series called Meltdown at London's Royal Festival Hall. Originally scheduled to perform in October, Wire's gig had to be postponed after Gotobed, who spends his time farming these days, suffered a stress injury while haybailing. When Wire finally played in February, it was the first time they'd been onstage together since a 50th birthday celebration for Gilbert in 1996.

"It's a bit like the Olympic Games," Gilbert said, noting the four-year span. "All that training you have to do in between."

Wire tour dates:

May 2; San Francisco, Calif.; Great American Music Hall

May 3; San Francisco, Calif.; Fillmore

May 4; Los Angeles, Calif.; El Rey Theater

May 6; Seattle, Wash.; Showbox

May 10; Chicago, Ill.; Metro

May 12; Boston, Mass.; Roxy

May 13; Washington, D.C.; 9:30 Club

May 15; New York, N.Y.; Irving Plaza