Review Summary: A fresh and experimental debut, pushing punk in new directions with formidable power and artistic grace.
Colin Newman has never really been one for hyperbole or grandiose posturing; soapbox rants and excessive preaching aren’t his style. Whilst Wire spawned in the punk era of the late 70s, they created a unique aesthetic that distinguished them from many of their contemporaries, combining a raw and raucous sound with dynamic tempos and artistic flair. Although the prominence of more atmospheric and textured landscapes would be developed on further albums, Pink Flag arguably provides the groundwork – and solid groundwork at that.
The typical punk influence on this album is clear, from both a sonic and ideological perspective, but in a tidier format . The opening track Reuters begins tentatively with a repeated lone note, and the gradual addition of Gotobed’s steadily pulsing bass drum is combined with angular chimes, and opens out into a thunderous wall of dense guitar, as Newman paints a sinister portrait of a growing dystopia. It’s affecting and direct, devoid of superfluity and frill. This directness is something that characterises Pink Flag in its entirety: there are no turgid or protracted statements, nor are there self-indulgent odysseys, typical of the progressive rock tradition that came before. The fact that there are 22 songs crammed into the space of less than 40 minutes is a testament to this, with brevity being the order of the day on songs like Field Day for the Sundays and Brazil.
Despite the stripped down and minimalist nature of Wire’s approach, they still are capable of creating an enveloping, thick and gritty atmosphere through the combined layering of their guitar work. The titular track exemplifies this power, with muscular guitar providing a formidable backdrop to Newman’s defiant cries of “How many dead or alive?”. The thing about Pink Flag, however, is that it’s not solely one line of songs to cave your mind with thrashing intensity. The beauty lies in the juxtaposition and dynamic created through alternating phases of melody, rhythm and timbre. Take Fragile for instance: it possesses none of the heavier distortion present elsewhere, but is cleaner and more delicate, making for a tasteful and poppy contribution. Mannequin follows in a similar vein, and is perhaps the best example of the softer aspect of Pink Flag. A tight rhythm section steadily sets pace as ethereal backing vocals weave in and out of guitar sheen, culminating with a saccharine and highly satisfying coda.
Lyrically, the album is typically thought provoking without being patronising or conceited, and Newman’s witty and tongue-in-cheek delivery charges the songs with a respectful potency. Ex-Lion Tamer cheerfully mocks living room laziness, but is endearing rather than sardonic; and 12XU rocks out an attack on sexual intolerance with edgy intensity and bluster. Even songs with more ambiguous lyrical connotations seem to carry a resonance. The dark and morbid Strange tells a tale of vulnerable solitude through Newman’s sinister whine; who cares who little ‘Joey’ might be when you just have to sit back and succumb to the energy of the slowly plodding, ominous guitar, complemented by darting peripheral stabs and ghostly, squealing echoes haunting the background. This, combined with the gliding cool of Champs proves it aint just choppy, angular freneticism that sells, and boosts Wire beyond the status of your average one trick pony.
Pink Flag is by turns angry, dark, witty and tuneful - yet still retains a unique identity throughout. In hindsight, it may be easy to forget its impact and uniqueness, especially with the gradual development of their aesthetic over subsequent albums. But it’s their ability to vary the nature of their sound, combining raw punk speed and power with atmospheric textures and sweetly melodic daubs that makes this album a clear winner – both then, and now.