Pink Flag, by Wilson Neate
There’s a lot to like and a lot to admire about Wilson Neate’s Pink Flag (2008) in the 33 1/3rd series, and if in the end I have my reservations, they’re primarily reservations about the album, and reservations about the book only because Neate didn’t anticipate me as its reader.
Neate opens personally, narrating over two and a half pages how he first heard Wire, but the book really begins with the second chapter. Here Neate introduces us to the band, member-by-member. Doing this also enables him to establish some of the main reference points: the bands they were listening to in the 1960s and early 1970s; art school and Brian Eno. Here, as throughout the book, Neate draws on extensive new interviews with the band members. Chapter three traces how they fitted into the punk scene, which they were part of, but which was settling into cliché by the time of their first performance. They were significantly older than many punk bands (the oldest, Bruce Gilbert, turned 30 in 1976), and their experience and their art-school background gave them some critical distance from the scene. Chapter four gives us both an analysis of the main concepts at play in the structures of Wire’s songs, in particular, ideas about framing and subtraction. And it also extracts the maximum comedic potential from the presence, personality, and removal of George Gill, one of the band’s guitarists in its early phase:
Gill was Keith Richards played by a Yorkshireman, a blunt, acerbic blues-rock purist …. flatmate Slim Smith remembers: “He was the college’s main rabble-rouser, always causing trouble in class and drinking heavily, which occasionally resulted in getting into fights.” Gilbert goes further, commenting that Gill often “looked like he was about to break into a fight with himself.” (p.59)
The fifth chapter turns to the recording of the album. Neate points to there being disagreement about how important producer Mike Thorne was in creating Wire’s distinctive aesthetic and sound: the release in 2006 of their 1977 gig at the Roxy seems to have demonstrated that the band had nailed it before the producer became involved; on the other hand, the interviews with Thorne that Neate draws on throughout the book create a very sympathetic impression of him, both as regards the technicalities of production and the management of a band who were new to the studio environment and somewhat overawed by it. There’s also a fabulous anecdote of Bruce Gilbert overindulging in Thorne’s herbal cigarettes on the first day to the extent that he thought they’d completed the recording and could pack up and go home. (In fact the recording took about three weeks, with another three needed for mixing.)
The chapter of track-by-track analyses draws out the more general ideas in relation to particular songs, and sets further ideas in motion, placing songs on a spectrum of orthodox to experimental. As there are twenty-one tracks on the album, each analysis is necessarily brief, some of them not more than a page, and in consequence, and by contrast to what went before, the chapter somewhat disjointed. The final chapter, a mere six pages, considers the afterlife of the album, particularly as regards the revision of songwriting credits. Neate takes what could is potentially a dry and technical question and uses it to reopen the larger conceptual issues underpinning Wire’s work — above all, what is a song — but it’s still not the conclusion I’d hope for in a really great book.
But I may not be Neate’s ideal reader. I came to Wire relatively late, via their On Returning compilation CD, and have mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, they were capable of writing the most insanely catchy high-tempo guitar songs — ‘Dot Dash’ in particular never fails to delight — but in spite of the energy and the at times snarly vocals, there’s something dry and cerebral about their work that means it feels one dimensional. In this respect they’re like several other late 1970s bands: Talking Heads, another band with an art-school background, similarly accentuate the cerebral. Likewise with them, I’m always pleased to hear their music, but in some way it doesn’t stay with me.
Neate’s book makes me admire Pink Flag more, but it doesn’t make me love it. He does acknowledge that the band were sometimes ‘seen as too intellectual’ (p.40) and as ‘sterile’ (p.43), but his book isn’t designed to engage with those sorts of criticism: discussing Wire’s work in terms of framing keeps them at the cerebral level. It’s much harder to devise a critical vocabulary that will allow the reader to recognise a flicker of an emotional reaction to a band and then to nurture that reaction into some kind of love for them. I wonder if, by interviewing the band and the producer, and building his book around those interviews, Neate got a narrow perspective, as any historian might if working with a limited set of sources. There’s relatively little by way of quotation from contemporary reviews: how might the book have read if Neate had taken negative reviews as his starting point and worked outward from there? Having said that, I’ve enjoyed Neate’s writing and analysis, and am tempted to read his later book, Read & Burn: A Book about Wire (2013).