Jon Savage And Wilson Neate Discuss Wire And Punk

To coincide with the publishing of Wilson Neate's book on Pink Flag, we publish a conversation between the author and writer Jon Savage

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Wilson Neate: Can you tell me a bit about your first encounter with Wire?

Jon Savage: I was training to be a solictor, I was an articled clerk — that was my day job — and I was writing for Sounds at the same time. I started in April ’77 and that happened because I’d done a fanzine called London’s Outrage, which was about punk rock. The whole punk scene was so small and I remember I’d met Dave Fudger, who I think got me on to Sounds, at a Clash gig in October 1976. Of course, Dave was a great promoter of Wire and, in fact, later on he became their music publisher at Virgin Publishing. He was quite an important person. And so because the scene was so small, you could get noticed: I did the fanzine and that got me picked up by Sounds. They were doing a generic round-up of punk rock groups called Images of the New Wave, or something naff like that, and my first task was to interview Wire. It was a little 50-word piece. I think Colin was still calling himself Klive Nice at that point and, much to everyone’s continued amusement after 30 years, Graham was calling himself Hornsey Transfer.

WN: So when was the first time you saw them perform?

JS: I first saw them at the Roxy. It was one of those big nights when all the groups were playing there, April 1st and April 2nd. I saw them on one of those nights.

WN: Was it just the four of them by that time?

JS: Yes, they were a four-piece by then. There was no George Gill. I don’t have enormous memories of seeing them play after that. My memories of Wire are mainly to do with actually hanging out with them, having a drink, because they used to hang out at the White Lion, which was the pub around the corner from the Sounds office on Long Acre in Covent Garden. Wire used to drink in there and they were also great friends of a friend of mine, Jane Suck. Oh, and the other thing I remember, in fact, is Dave Fudger giving me their early demos, which later came out as Behind the Curtain. I also remember going around to Graham’s flat in West Kensingston. Those are my main early memories.

WN: From the times you saw them play, do you recall anything striking about the way they presented themselves, in comparison, say, with the other bands of the period?

JS: Well, they were a bit older. They weren’t completely adolescent and they weren’t pathetic — a lot of the punk groups you saw at the Roxy were completely hopeless, they couldn’t even stop and start at the same time. They weren’t teenagers like the Cortinas and they weren’t pathetic like someone like Eater. They obviously had a clear idea about visual presentation. They were very stylised and in fact they sounded much better than most of their peers; hence all the comments about their material for the Roxy London WC2 album being sweetened, which of course it wasn’t. It’s just that Wire worked harder and had a better idea of what they were doing. And I liked the fact that Graham seemed quite middle class. I thought that was amusing, particularly when he lost his temper at the Roxy and told someone to fuck off in a rather genteel voice. And onstage Colin was vaguely menacing and quite conversational. I liked that too.

WN: Could you give me a sense of how they were perceived by audiences and by the other bands?

JS: They were always outside of everybody. They weren’t an inner circle punk rock group. They weren’t matey with the main players. They weren’t keyed into the groups around the Clash and the Sex Pistols, the punk inner circle. They were always quite separate, which was never anything that bothered me. I thought they were very much of the time, actually, because I liked the fact that the songs were so short and quite accelerated. That seemed to go with the ideas I had at that point about acceleration, and they also developed the ideas that the Ramones had been playing with, which was to do very short songs, which I thought was a terrific idea.

WN: Going back to your comment about Graham’s accent and diction, do you think people saw Wire as middle class? Do you think that contributed to their separateness?

JS: Probably. But there was so much bad class faith at that point in pop music that I don’t know whether they were or not. But I certainly remember it as being quite striking. I thought, "Good on you!" In fact, there were quite a lot of middle class people in punk; in fact, there’s a lot of middle class people in the music industry and the media industry, and a lot of them try to hide the class that they came from, which I think is a particularly pointless activity.

WN: A lot has been written about the importance of the art schools in the development of British music. Do you think this was an important factor in Wire’s case, given that three of them come from that background?

JS: I think it would have to be, really — first off, because they were a bit older and secondly because it would have given them ideas about how to present themselves: it would have given them ideas about clothing and it would have given them ideas about sleeve design. I think it must have influenced them considerably.

WN: It seems that Wire often get omitted from popular narratives of punk (most recently, for example, in Don Letts’s Punk Attitude). Why do you think that is?

JS: Well, in the Don Letts case, it’s because Wire don’t have the right attitude. It looks a bit like sour grapes for me talking about other people’s narratives of punk because I’ve laid mine down in England’s Dreaming — and Wire were definitely in there — so that’s really my attitude about the whole thing. But, as far as Wire are concerned, I don’t know… People got obsessed about the Clash and the Sex Pistols I think, maybe the Clash more than the Sex Pistols. The Clash seem to be leading the way in the whole punk rock nostalgia business at the minute. And the Clash had a lot of followers and they had a lot of groupies. And the Sex Pistols did less, actually, to their credit. The Sex Pistols had a really tight group around them, whereas the Clash had all these dreadful fans and kind of male groupies hanging around them. And also, there was this impulse to be street street street, which, again, was a whole lot of fucking bollocks, really, although there was quite a lot of class rage in punk. People tend to have very limited definitions of punk that have to do with youth or a particular musical template or a particular class base, as opposed to the idea of constant reinvention. People are rather fundamentalist about punk, which seems peculiarly pointless. I always thought punk was about being new, which was why I liked Wire in the first place. You know, I remember going to see the Jam playing with the Subway Sect in January or February ’77, and Subway Sect were new. They were doing something new and they were therefore terrific; the Jam were doing something old, therefore they were shit. And I know what Wire and I have in common was that we thought the Jam were just absolutely terrible, which of course they were. But, again, now they’ve been put in as a central punk rock group — and they just weren’t.

WN: In what ways would you say that Wire weren’t a punk group?

JS: Well, except for the wonderful ‘Mr Suit’, they didn’t really do "fuck you" songs, although I have to say that ‘Mr. Suit’ is one of the very best punk "fuck you" songs — it’s very entertaining, it still makes me laugh. And they didn’t really do rama-lama, you know, na-na-na-na-na-na, the Ramonic template; that said, they seemed to take from the Ramones in a really creative way. And in fact the songs are quite a different variety on Pink Flag, which was most people’s major exposure to the group: there’s ’60s garage stuff, which I really liked. I mean, ‘Feeling Called Love’ sounds just like ‘Wild Thing’, which I thought was extremely amusing. And then, obviously, something like the track ‘Pink Flag’ goes way beyond all that. Most punk rock groups tended to find just one mode and stick to it, really. It was all pretty much the Ramonic thrash, or else refried Mod in the case of the Jam. There’s a variety of styles and approaches on Pink Flag.

WN: Bruce Gilbert invokes the avant-garde notion of the "living sculpture" to characterise Wire. How successfully do you think the band blurred high culture and pop culture sensibilities?

JS: I think quite successfully. I know they’re still the art world’s favourite punk band, which is testament in itself. Being arty myself, I really liked them because they kept on changing all the time. Also, I was interested in the differences between the demos and the early LPs. I think the least successful part of Wire was the interviews. I think they used to get too self-conscious in interviews and strangulate themselves, basically. But the rest of it was all pretty good stuff as far as I was concerned. The LPs were terrific, all of them sounded really good. They were melodic and the lyrics were usually pretty interesting and the ensemble playing was always quite kinetic, and they did rock. So it was a good mixture: they could do art, they could do rock and they could do pop. They didn’t give too much away and didn’t ally themselves with any fashionable cause or politics — they didn’t really link themselves to that particular time, whereas a lot of punk stuff sounds like a rather bad teenage diary and they didn’t do that.

WN: Which of the first three Wire albums do you like best, Pink Flag, Chairs Missing or 154?

JS: Well, I’ve gone around the houses on this one over the years. It changes all the time, really. I used to really like Pink Flag and then I used to really like 154 and now I really like Chairs Missing. I think they’re all good enough to be the "best" and it depends on how you feel at a particular time. I’ve always slightly underestimated Chairs Missing because I had the demos and I really liked them and then I was slightly disappointed when I heard the actual album — but now I think it’s really terrific. So it goes around and around and around and around, as far as I’m concerned. They’re all are really good. There are pluses and minutes in each case, but they’re all A+ albums. So there you go.

WN: How about a couple of favourite tracks?

JS: Well, I just love ‘Mr Suit’ because it makes me laugh. As I get older, what appeals to me most about punk is the humour because we were all terribly busy being serious young men at that point. So it’s quite nice now just to have a laugh with it. It’s just so fucking funny. What else do I like? I know I really like ‘Too Late’ on Chairs Missing and I’ve discussed it with Colin, who thinks it’s a bit of a shit track, really. I quite like the fact that the actual song goes on for about a minute-and-a-half and then you have this endless jam at the end, which was quite unpunk.

WN: You mention humour. Where do you think the humour is in Wire? My sense is that it’s something that’s often overlooked or missed.

JS: Well, I found humour when I met Wire. We used to have a laugh, and so that would have encouraged me to see it. So I was privileged, in a way. I think British humour’s very sarcastic and often very much to do with context and time and place. And you could easily take ‘Mr. Suit’ as a very angry song, for instance. In fact, it is a bit angry but it’s howlingly funny, as I said before – the idea of that stupid chorus in the background going "no-no-no-no-no-no Mr Suit" in that rather clipped punk style is a hoot. And yet we can all identify with that song – "I’m tired of fucking phonies, that’s right I’m tired of you." It’s that very punk YOU, that very punk vocal. Another thing that made me laugh was that I went to Colin and Malka’s place a few years ago and he had one of those classic photo booth photos on the wall . . . and when I think of Wire I think of those photo booth pictures that we all used to take of ourselves during that period, where we’d kind of put our heads back and open our mouths and look really stupid. And we weren’t stupid — it was just fun to play at being vacant. So, anyway, he had one of those pictures on the wall, where you roll your eyes up and open your mouth and go DUUUUH. And so that’s sort of what I feel about what a lot of us were doing during that period. We were trying to be stupid, but we weren’t stupid — you know, we were just playing around with ideas of simplicity and earthiness, really.

Read an extract from Wilson Neate’s 33 1/3 book on Pink Flag

Find out more about 33 1/3

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