In the annals of rock-and-roll-origin stories, Colin Newman, singer/guitarist for the pinned-down cynical conceptualist rock band Wire, has one of the odder ones. “At the tender age of 20, I was sitting in my bedroom in Watford deconstructing rock and roll. My mission was to take the ‘and roll’ out of ‘rock and roll.’ ” There’s a pregnant pause, and then he deadpans, “You’re supposed to laugh when I say that.” Ladies and gentlemen, if you want to know where the dry wit and brutal irony of so much modern pop music comes from, it is a defensible theory that it all began in a bedroom in Watford.
NEWMAN, LEWIS & GREY: “That full-on rock thing from the early part of this decade, I’m not feeling that anymore at all. I’m feeling very bored with rock music.”
Although they were thrown into the general category of punk when they formed back in 1976, there was always something . . . different about Wire. Newman’s sardonic voice — capable of being plaintive and yearning in one song (say, the shimmering effervescence of 154’s “Map Ref. 41ºN 93ºW”) and snarkily nasty with punk vitriol in the next (the pummeling proto-hardcore of Pink Flag’s “12XU”) — always met the music at odd angles. Which makes sense, since the simple no-fills clunk-clunk of the drums and the martial rigidity of the bass and twin guitars compelled their songs to move in straight lines. They had a prickly, studied attitude, like a buzzkill at a party. Newman recalls, “When Wire first played America in 1978 at CBGB’s, we were told that we couldn’t play, because we didn’t have proper songs, that they didn’t end properly. Bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash were playing much more traditional rock songs than us. And for me, I could see them for what they were: there was great entertainment value, but it wasn’t so . . . interesting, what they were doing musically.”
What Wire were doing musically was, as Newman puts it, “taking a cutting tool to the whole notion of rock.” Their debut, 1977’s Pink Flag, was not so much a call to arms as a frigid and sarcastic commentary on the notion of rock and roll itself: 21 songs in 35 minutes. But instead of a relentless rock assault, you got a series of short, disturbing vignettes: melodic songs, energetic rave-ups, with all the indulgent fat of typical ’70s rock shaved off. “Rock music was mainly very tedious,” says Newman. “You see, the thing is, I don’t like rock and roll, and I never have. Fifties rock and roll, I mean. I grew up with this sound in the ’60s, which somehow seemed to be more in color, whereas the ’50s were more in black and white, or even brown and white. And the music all seemed very dreary, so I don’t have any warm feelings towards most rock and roll, so I don’t need to defend it or be in the tradition of it. So I’m quite happy to just, you know, take a big mallet or sledgehammer to it and smack it around a bit.”
Those sound like fighting words, and they make the Wire æsthetic sound more confrontational than it is. So much of the Wire style has involved creating music with an almost postmodernist deconstruction and reconstruction of rock conventions: remove the solos, remove the verses, remove the intros and outros, remove the drum fills, then rearrange the pieces and see what you can make with what you have left. Their latest, the poppy and tuneful Object 47 (so named because it is the 47th “object” they have released, counting singles, compilations, etc.), finds them crafting straight-up pop songs with surgical precision — they’ve written catchy tunes before, but it’s startling to hear such an act of reinvention from a band on their 11th album in three decades. Newman: “Every album has got to somehow be a commentary on the one that preceded it. Even the Ramones couldn’t even keep up making every record the same as the one before. The thing is, if we’re gravitating more towards noise [on one album], and then if we’re not doing noise anymore [on the next album], people who like noise think we’re traitors.”
There isn’t much seditious talk about Object 47 — “Perspex Icon” and album opener “One of Us” are catchy and driving enough to obliterate any objections to the less-distorted æsthetic — though it certainly is a change from 2003’s distorted and rockingly intense Send. “That album was partly about proving that we could still get it up. And it came out in that rush, that millennial-cusp type of rock, which was stuff that was going on at the time that has kind of subsided now. That full-on rock thing from the early part of this decade, I’m not feeling that anymore at all. I’m kind of feeling, in general, very bored with rock music.”