Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Wire

  • Pink Flag [Harvest, 1978] A
  • 154 [Warner Bros., 1979] B
  • Document and Eyewitness [Rough Trade, 1981] B
  • And Here It Is . . . Again . . . Wire [Sneaky Pete, 1984] A
  • Snakedrill [Mute EP, 1986] B+
  • The Ideal Copy [Enigma, 1987] B-
  • Kidney Bingos [Restless EP, 1988] C+
  • A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck [Enigma, 1988] B+
  • Silk Skin Paws [Restless EP, 1988] C+
  • It's Beginning To and Back Again [Enigma/Mute, 1989] B-
  • On Returning (1977-1979) [Restless Retro, 1989] A
  • The Drill [Mute, 1991] Dud
  • 1985-1990: The A List [Mute, 1993] A
  • Behind the Curtain [EMI, 1995] B+
  • Read & Burn: 01 [Pinkflag, 2002] A-
  • Send [Pinkflag, 2003] A-
  • Live at the Roxy, London-April 1st & 2nd 1977/Live at CBGB Theatre, New York-July 18th 1978 [Pinkflag, 2006] ***
  • Object 47 [Pinkflag, 2008] B+
  • 14 September 2002, Metro, Chicago [Pinkflag, 2010] A-
  • Red Barked Tree [Pinkflag, 2011] **

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Pink Flag [Harvest, 1978]
The simultaneous rawness and detachment of this debut LP returns rock and roll irony to the (native) land of Mick Jagger, where it belongs. From a formal strategy almost identical to the Ramones, this band deducts most melody to arrive at music much grimmer and more frightening: Wire would sooner revamp "The Fat Lady of Limbourg" or "Some Kinda Love" than "Let's Dance" or "Surfin' Bird." Not that any of the twenty-one titles here have been heard before--that would ruin the overall effect of a punk suite comprising parts so singular that you can hardly imagine them in some other order. Inspirational Prose: "This is your correspondent, running out of tape, gunfire's increasing, looting, burning, rape." A

154 [Warner Bros., 1979]
Predictions that these art-schoolers would turn into art-rockers no longer seem so cynical. Their gift for the horrifying vignette remains. But their tempos are slowing, sometimes to a crawl, as their textures venture toward the orchestral, and neither effect enhances the power of their vignettes, which become ever more personalistic and/or abstract. B

Document and Eyewitness [Rough Trade, 1981]
At first I diagnosed the grungy sound and semipro execution of this live LP-plus-EP as the band's worst case of arty-farty yet. But for all the chatter and false starts and extended instrumental nothings, it packs real momentum--you could even say it gets wild. The new songs are worthy of the name, too. So when it comes to arty-farty, I'll take this over the neaty-beaty of 154. By a hair and a half. B

And Here It Is . . . Again . . . Wire [Sneaky Pete, 1984]
Documenting the evolution of punk's quintessential self-conscious aestheticians from semicompetent but never exactly crude thrashers to polished but never exactly slick art-poppers. The seven-title selections from the near-perfect Pink Flag, all 12:15 of it, leads off with the fuzzed-up live Roxy London WC2 versions of "Lowdown" and "12XU" and has the effect of transforming that twenty-one-track marvel of seamless pacing into a string of sardonic punk blowouts. The succinct 1978 single "Dot Dash" and the all-out 1979 single "A Question of Degree" ease the transition in and out of the transitional Chairs Missing. And the three survivors from 154 sound like popular music--or at least popular art. A

Snakedrill [Mute EP, 1986]
"`A Serious of Snakes'" is 154 updated technologically, rhythmically, and spiritually, which is almost to say transformed utterly--dance-trance with a nasty surrealistic edge. "Drill" does the same for Pink Flag. "Advantage in Height" is less of both worlds. "Up to the Sun" is a cappella noodling. Welcome back. B+

The Ideal Copy [Enigma, 1987]
The Wire of punk myth abraded like the smell of gunpowder, fucking in the sand, a scouring pad. This is more like digital sound turned up too loud, a cold shower, a dash of after-shave: chronic alienation converted into quality entertainment. Except on a terrible track that outdoes slow Roxy Music, it's pretty bracing in both rock and disco modes. It's also nothing more. B-

Kidney Bingos [Restless EP, 1988]
Live remake from their last EP and next CD, live remake from their last LP and next CD, studio preview of their next LP and next CD, studio preview of their next CD, remix of said preview not currently scheduled for rerelease. Talk about for vinyl junkies only. C+

A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck [Enigma, 1988]
Waiting for my annoyance to articulate itself, I found appropriate contexts--subways, elevators, etc.--and stuck this into my personal portable. Where to my shock it proved fun fun fun. Maybe they are about to jump to Windham Hill, but only because Windham Hill wants to escape its suburban demographic. Mellifluous, deceitful background rock--but ugly, and with a kick. B+

Silk Skin Paws [Restless EP, 1988]
Sez the cover sticker on these three remixes and one previously-unavailable: "Specially Priced Mini-Album for the Wire Connoisseur." Sez the label: "45 RPM." Thus assuring that Wire connoisseurs will be the first to learn that Mighty Mouse has joined the group. C+

It's Beginning To and Back Again [Enigma/Mute, 1989]
In an arty variation on the remix best-ofs that pass for new dance product these days, they recorded some concerts and reworked them in the studio and then reworked that. I don't know whether the new versions are better art than the old ones. But formalists rarely can tell the difference between progress and attenuation. And as the ear candy once-removed that is Wire's current calling, this wanders. B-

On Returning (1977-1979) [Restless Retro, 1989]
With Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154 all back in catalogue on the same label, there's a sense in which this compilation is de trop. Drawing heavily on all three, not as effective a unit as Pink Flag yet kicking off with thirteen of that masterpiece's twenty-one cuts, failing to convert this original skeptic to such 154 indulgences as "The Other Window" and the deadly "A Touching Display," mastermind Jon Savage presents a lovingly literal best-of rather than a half-collectorama half-intro like the 1984 Sneaky Pete anthology. But does it hold up, grabbing your collar with one brief, bitter tune after another for almost the entirety of a thirty-one-cut CD. They're not the only punks whose public protests eventually revealed their roots in personal frustration. But their plaints don't seem merely private. They seem emblematic of a time whose cruelties didn't begin and end with alienation, as sad art students sometimes believe, but for damn sure included it. A

The Drill [Mute, 1991] Dud

1985-1990: The A List [Mute, 1993]
Those who disdain Wire's second coming don't understand how the Sex Pistols and ABC could have been born of the same impulse. First freeze-drying punk, then rendering neodisco slick into Teflon sausage casing, this band knew. And by now they've recorded more memorable music than the Pistols and ABC put together--while maintaining an aesthetic distance so severe they make Sham 69 and Frankie Goes to Hollywood seem archetypal by comparison. To program this summum they invited supporters to vote on their finest recent moments, then laid the highest finishers end to end until the CD was full. Number 16 does drag. A

Behind the Curtain [EMI, 1995]
For Pink Flag as opposed to Wire cultists, and of course there's a difference. We prefer them at their punkest, fastest, and shortest, as with the many titles on this 1977-78 outtakes comp that didn't make any of their first three albums or the On Returning best-of, all 17 of which fit easily on one side of a C-60. These include the five live songs not on Roxy London WC2--"Mary Is a Dyke"! "New York City"! "After Midnight"! (Eric Clapton's!)--as well as preliminary settings for riffs that will resurface in other guises. The other 14 tracks are punker, faster, shorter, louder, and/or rougher versions of songs Wire cultists have never forgotten and never mind hearing again. B+

Read & Burn: 01 [Pinkflag, 2002]
Old art-punks sing hallelujah--the godfathers rock again. Only these songs are so much bigger and louder, so developed, that it seems like Pink Flag was the idea and this is the realization. Only with art-punks ideas really count. Pink Flag was geeky, scrawny, catchy--and exciting that way. The first EP of a six-part concept just flattens you. Which can be fun too. A-

Send [Pinkflag, 2003]
Up against the fussy vocals and structures of 1993's excellent second-phase best-of The A List, the muscular mud of what amounts to a third-phase best-of--they were going to release six consecutive EPs until this album occurred to them--is a deliberate regression. The model isn't Pink Flag, it's Roxy London WC2. Melodically, "In the Art of Stopping" is a relative of "Mr. Suit"; sonically, it's a relative of Slaughter and the Dogs. In short, they "rock." Finally. A-

Live at the Roxy, London-April 1st & 2nd 1977/Live at CBGB Theatre, New York-July 18th 1978 [Pinkflag, 2006]
First Cockneyfied punk aspirants, then art-rockers in utero--the madness to their method ("Mary Is a Dyke [1]," "Mercy"). ***

Object 47 [Pinkflag, 2008]
Deprived of Bruce Gilbert's guitar, these fractious lifers return to and improve on their dance-rock '80s. From the scene-setting new-wavey relationship-gone-sour of "One of Us" to the climactic electropunk historo-fatalism of "All Fours," though not always in between, they remind you why they were a great band. But they should know better than to dis the Mekons, who still are a great band when the time seems right. B+

14 September 2002, Metro, Chicago [Pinkflag, 2010]
"The best rock show I've seen in years," I crowed to my diary about their visit to the Bowery Ballroom on 6/27/03, when they were still flogging the same '02-'03 Read and Burn/Send material they detonate here. The cruder, broader, louder live versions are executed in precisely the same arrangements as the studio originals, and after the seven-minute buildup of "99.9," every song they choose to play rocks. Avant-garde dabblers who counted punk among their disciplines, they made their decision to define the concept of unrelenting and moved on. Just this year, at the Bowery 4/6/11, their formalism was equally uncompromising. But it treated rock as the one option among many it is. I was disappointed. A-

Red Barked Tree [Pinkflag, 2011]
Even formalists get the grays--well, especially formalists ("Bad Worn Thing," "Please Take") **