This is twenty-two songs over thirty-seven minutes. It’s fast, precise punk rock. The Ramones may be the band that did it first and best, but Wire was equal in their minimalism. This album is simply fantastic. Literally. It is simple, and it is fantastic.
Wire, the London-based purveyor of short bursts of punkish guitars and feedback, is one of the most influential bands of the past thirty years. You’ve heard them more than you realise. I certainly heard of them when R.E.M. ( oh, them again…) covered this albums stand out track “Strange”, and later when Elastica was sued because “Connection” sound almost exactly like this albums “Three Girl Rhumba”. Years of promising to actually listen to this album went by until I decided to do a weekend project where I sat and listened to every single record in my collection from 1977.
It’s safe to say I spent the better part of that weekend listening to just two- this one, and Talking Heads: 77.
It’s an album that relies on these quick bursts of energy. Colin Newman and Graham Lewis, who remain the band’s heart and soul, and former members Bruce Gilbert and Robert Gotobed, often have songs lasting less than a minute, even as brief as twenty-eight seconds ( “Field Day For the Sundays”). Only two songs top three minutes. This is dark irony speedily spit out at you. It’s very British. Somehow. The clear Lincolnshire and London accents of Graham and Newman are clear, but they don’t wield them like weapons the way John Lydon did.
The best known songs, “Strange” and “Three Girl Rhumba”, are both blessed with then-unique and very memorable melodies, with the latter’s memorable spiky guitars literally ripped off by Elastica ( I am not joking, and I would also like to point out the similarities between the chord progression between Wire’s “Ex Lion Tamer” and Elastica’s “Stutter”). “Three Girl Rhumba” delights in its bright melody and memorable hook. “Strange” is more hesitant, drenched in detachment, and feels darker and heavier, and the lyrics equal in this atmospheric number- “There’s something going on that’s not quite right” Newman intones, making it more creepy by being totally flat in his vocal, as the song collapses into distortion and faraway percussive noises.
Other memorable songs are the classically punk rock “Ex-Lion Tamer”, the poppish “Mannequin” (with its harmonies, lalalas, and whoos, it remains the closest thing Wire ever wrote to a mainstream song), and the bleak and brutal opening track “Reuters”. “Reuters” tells the story of an overseas journalist in a war zone, and it ends with Newman’s screaming of the three crimes witnessed- “LOOTING! BURNING! RAAAAAAAAAPE!”- before ending on a rather countrified chord.
I also admit a soft spot for the acidic, short second track “Field Day For the Sundays”. Who needs six minutes of orchestrations and soaring semi-operatic vocals to make a point?
The album has no excess, remains fast and furious through all twenty-one tracks. The moments of humour shine, like the count in en francais on “Surgeon’s Girl”, and the darker moments stick in your head, like the title track’s droning guitars and indecipherable lyrics. It’s a rare album that deserves no cutting whatsoever, but also needs no bonus track on rereleases ( two rereleases had bonus tracks that infuriated the band, who succeeded in having them removed for the latest remasters). Rare are albums so perfect they need nothing but a willing listener with an open mind and a wish to take in noise and emotions of this musically pure, densely philosophical, brilliant album. It is well worth the half an hour of your life.