This anticipated Record Store Day exclusive is the UK punk icons’ most feral and creative release
Do you remember a time when rock’n’roll was just a rumor? A muffled roar and holler behind the closed door of an older sibling’s room; a curious, alliterative clump of words said, adamantly but questioningly, on the evening news; a few very loose notions assembled from the record sleeves stacked messily underneath a cousin’s hi-fi console.
Remember when it seemed that rock ‘n’ roll could — it must — be anything strange, beautiful, evocative, or noisy? Maybe rock ‘n’ roll was the cranky hum the refrigerator made. See, I had heard just a little about rock ‘n’ roll, and it seemed perfectly sensible that’s what it was. Maybe it was the whistle of the far-off highway very late at night. Maybe it was the hiss and crackle the radio made when it was between stations (that was definitely a contender, for a little while). Maybe it was your heartbeat, heard when you pressed your ear against the mattress. Or perhaps it was that ice-and-glass feeling you got when you sat up at the top of the stairs in the dark listening for burglars? Or maybe the way your throat hopped when a truck went over a bump in the street?
Rock ‘n’ roll was all those things, because rock ‘n’ roll was everything we felt but could not name, everything we heard that scratched our heart. This is what rock ‘n’ roll was when it was just a mystery, and it is still that. Or at least it should be.
It came as an enormous disappointment when the great bulk of what we call rock ‘n’ roll defied the absolute lawless, primitive land of the heart and the imagination we had hoped it would be. We wanted rock to be the thrill and fear of hearing the doorbell when we were a child, we wanted it to be the darkness or light behind the door we had not yet opened. But instead, we got the fake revolt of Woodstock (where fashion as opposed to action was encoded as the modus operandi of rock ‘n’ roll); the neo-Music Hall/Buddy Holly-isms of the Beatles (gorgeously accomplished and revolutionary in execution, but so formalized as to put the entire genre in a jail cell of traditional song structure); the pretzel logic of prog and Dead-ism (like the train to Hogwarts, you had to believe in it before pretending to actually enjoy it); and the sexist and homophobic stink of the whole carcass.
We have lived with that dissapointment our whole life. Oh and not to mention Punk Bloody Rock. Do you remember a time when Punk Rock was just a rumor? When you felt it must be everything and anything that was not the sibilance of Kansas blown through a humid breeze in the high school parking lot. You thought, ah, finally rock ‘n’ roll can be what I thought it would be before actually hearing it ruined it. But, with some very few exceptions, it was all just Ronson and Wilko, amped up and acting fed-up. It was the same thing, only a little better, but just as spiritually rancid.
At its very best, rock ‘n’ roll is feral, or ridiculous, or deeply emotive; say, Tony Conrad, Billy Childish, or Neu!, the Rivingtons, the Treniers or the Dave Clark 5, or the Beach Boys or R.E.M. But most of it? Well, we had a good time, but we had been had. The mysterious lawless land that we had hoped rock ‘n’ roll and punk rock would be was largely a myth.
But then there was Wire.
When I consideR Wire, this is what comes to mind: Pretty much everything we think we know about rock ‘n’ roll is wrong. If it weren’t, we would recognize Wire for what they are: One of our very greatest bands. For 44 years, Wire has defied all the rules. They are not so much a transitional band – you could argue that they never caused a “scene change” in the way, say, Kraftwerk or even PiL, Joy Division, or R.E.M. did – as they were a band always in transition. That is, Wire made (and make) astounding leaps from album to album, year to year, in a way only the greatest classic rock bands have; and even more significantly, they do this while exerting an unprecedented – and I do mean without precedent – sense of quality control. Wire has released brilliant albums, year after year (with some gaps for hiatus, and a curious soft spot in the 1980s), for 44 fucking years. There is no comparable track record, not in the entire history of rock. I have referred to this — many times before, as it happens –as The Wire Miracle. No band – NO BAND – has been so good, so consistently, for so long.
Wire’s newest release (for Record Store Day, though it will get a wider release) is PF456 Deluxe. Essentially, it compiles the extraordinary work Wire did in the first years of this century, originally released on EPs Read & Burn 01 and 02, and 2003’s Send album, along with both sides of 2000’s “12 Times You” 7 inch (collectors should note that this is most certainly not a re-release of 2002’s PF456 Redux, which contained crudely edited versions of much of the same material – we note that Wire being Wire, the crude edits were an intentional artistic statement). In any event, PF456 Deluxe marks the first time this extraordinary stage in Wire’s artistic evolution is available in one place, and it’s all sealed in an exquisite package, containing two ten-inch records, one seven inch single, and an extremely detailed hard-cover book.
The era of Wire documented on PF456 Deluxe is simultaneously the most feral and the most artistic in Wire’s extraordinary arc. It found the band returning to the telgrammatic bulletins, chopping chord bursts, and short, blunt, shocks of roar, rhythm and speed that marked their legendary 1977 debut album, Pink Flag; but the early 2000’s, Wire approached punk as a readymade, a form of art to be manipulated, distorted, cut up, and gutted. PF456 Deluxe is full of blurred, hollered, repetitive riffs, a kind of reduced industrial punk that still carries the weight of grace and terror. Lurching, oversped, underfed, terrifying, repetitive, abbreviated, much of PF456 Deluxe feels like a strange blend of rage and ambience, menchanix and human motility, as stark, compressed landscapes – Discharge via Bladerunner? – are broken up by moments of silence, slow and beguiling melody and text, and music concréte. PF456 Deluxe has the effect of a long licorice strip of imagination, beauty, fear, and primitive sensory response cut up into art and song.
The remarkable era of Wire documented on PF456 Deluxe is the only time in the band’s history that the music was primarily driven (only) by two band members – Colin Newman and Bruce Gilbert. Bassist Graham Lewis was living out of the country at the time and contributes very little to the PF456 era, and drummer Robert Grey was mostly up at his farm, though he sent in separately recorded drum tracks, which were incorporated into the songs, often via loops and with sound and speed altered.
“I think, honestly, in the history of Wire it’s an outlier,” says Colin Newman, via phone. “It’s something that had not happened previously, and will never happen again. It is, for the most part, just Bruce and I. If there was a question, ‘Oh, how do you make a Wire record?’ —this was one answer. If you want to take one line to describe the whole project, it was an experiment done for no money. That’s exactly what it was. We had no expectation, no real sense that we had any idea what we were doing, apart from the fact that we roughly knew how to make records, because we’d been making them for years.”
Wire had been on hiatus, essentially, for ten years when they reconvened in early 2000 to perform live as part of a Living Legends Festival at Royal Festival Hall. Very shortly afterwards, Gilbert and Newman got together to produce new Wire material, greatly fueled both by the energy and experience of playing live again and by the desire to make a clean break from the “classic” Wire material performed at the Living Legends event.
“The very first thing in the whole 456 project was ‘1st Fast’, Newman continues. “ I did it on my own, basically, and it was kind of a manifesto: super speed, chopped up, kind of in your face, ‘Coppiced riff meets aphorism’ was kind of the central line, as far as I was concerned, and I think that became the touchstone for how that work would go on. So there was a conceptual idea, and that was something that was around in music at the time: music with a rock tonality going very fast.”
Like each and every record released during the time Bruce Gilbert was in Wire (he left in 2004), PF456 Deluxe is remarkably different from any other Wire release. In fact, almost every Wire album seems to feel like a condensation of an entire stage of development, each album its’ own career.
“Well, I suppose, as a theory, as an approach, we thought of every new project as Year Zero,” says Bruce Gilbert, speaking separately from Newman (although Gilbert has worked apart from Wire for 17 years, he was eager to be part of the promotion of the PF456 Deluxe project). “We had to start from that attitude. It probably helped that we didn’t have a lot of early success to spoil that, or mar that attitude. We were never stuck or bogged down with our history too much, which is one of the blessings of not being particularly commercially successful.”
PF456 is very much just you and Colin.
Gilbert: That was unfortunate in some ways because one of my favorite bits of the Wire experience was trading work, being in a rehearsal studio, experimenting, jamming, I suppose. But we were stuck with a set of circumstances which made it so that the only way to produce the work at that point was for me and Colin to work with just the two of us, and cook up ideas without the other two, although Colin had assembled enough information from Robert for us to have a rhythmic basis. He lived in the north of England and was very busy as a farmer, so he couldn’t possibly have gone to Colin’s studio twice a week, and of course Graham was in Sweden. He had to make his contributions after the fact.
I keep on coming back to this idea that PF456 is simultaneously Wire’s most feral yet most artistic body of work.
Newman: “I was coming at this from, basically, the back end of drum and bass, which had become, at that point in the very late 1990s, something called Dark, which had a very aggressive tonality. That double-speed drums that you had in drum and bass which was, at that point, quite unique – now, drummers have learned how to play like that, back in the 1990s, drummers did not play like that, believe me. This evolved into, for a very short period of time, very dark, quite aggressive way of approaching music, and I thought, well, if we were to go back into rock music, that would be the entry point.
Gilbert: Simple and direct, though there is a bit of finesse. I think there’s an element of rage going through it, rage and cynicism going through that work, but a sense of humor, as always.
In my notes, I kept on jotting down, “Loud and Low Volume. Band in a shoebox.”
Newman: Absolutely. I remember, we got test pressings back on this album and I was like, wow, I’ve never heard anything like this. It was just loud, right through. It’s unremittingly loud. Even if you have it on quiet it’s loud. There is something humorous about that. There is a lot of compression. It is massively over-compressed. That’s another reason it sounds so claustrophobic, is because it’s been compressed to fuck.
Even if it is one of Wire’s most satisfying projects – man, it’s like listening to a punk rock band on a tightrope with Duchamp chasing them – Bruce Gilbert left pretty much at the end of the PF456 era.
Newman: He liked the purity of the process of making the object – that’s very much how he would describe it, “making the object” – and then, his idea would be to turn up at the gallery opening, have a few drinks, and bugger off. He tends to view the world in that fine-art kind of way.
Gilbert: I’d rather not look back, literally, to previous work. Touring the work was never my favorite thing, though sometimes playing was a pleasure. The touring was something I never really liked, and I liked it less as time went on. In the studio, one would, hopefully, get so engrossed in the work itself that we didn’t think about – or I didn’t think about – how it was going to be presented on stage, or how you were going to keep up the energy maintain performing the work over and over again.
The PF456 era is referred to as the third time Wire reconvened…but, to be completely accurate, wouldn’t the time you got back to releasing albums without Bruce in 2008 be the fourth time?
Newman: Wire fans refer to the whole period since 2000 as Wire Version 3. But the Send/PF456 era is 3.1, and after Object 47 it’s 3.2…though I suppose you could say that since Matt Simms joined the band, it’s 3.3. I have no idea, I have lost count. There was, certainly, a kind of hiatus between 2004 and 2008, but releases, and re-releases, did continue to come out during that time. Wire did not go out of consciousness entirely. To be honest, the most interesting thing that’s happened in the last five years in regard to the nature of Wire was when we did the presentation for the funding for the documentary, back in 2019, and we had five members of Wire onstage – that’s the current line-up, plus Bruce. I thought it was going to feel really weird, and it didn’t at all, it felt quite normal. That’s something that sort of nags at me. Bruce is never, ever going to be a member of a touring band again, but maybe Wire could do something with him again at some point? Maybe it’s not possible? I don’t know. I know that socially it might work.
VIDEO: Wire Live at Rockpalast 1979