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33 1/3: Pink Flag (2009) May 27, 2009

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Music.
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Wilson Neate: Pink Flag

Wilson Neate: Pink Flag

Jeffrey Roesgen’s book on the Pogues (below) shows how good a book about an album can be by doing the unexpected. Wilson Neate shows how good a book about an album can be by writing a conventional work that does everything it needs to.

Pink Flag is Wire’s first album. It was released as part of the first wave of UK punk in 1977, and it’s been a touchstone for a lot of musicians ever since. However, it’s neither typical of UK ’77 punk nor of Wire’s long career, so Neate uses a fair bit of the book to put the band and the album in context. With 21 short, punchy, loud guitar songs on one LP, Pink Flag audibly shares a great deal with several other punk albums of the time, but according to band members and others quoted in the book, Wire was seen as something outside the core punk scene, being a bit older and more self-consciously approaching music as an art project, rejecting conventions of rock and roll that were still largely unchallenged by punk rebellion. At the same time, the loud racket of punk, much of it played by people just learning to play their instruments, was an obvious opportunity for a bunch of art school types who were also just learning to play instruments. They made a lot more sense in the punk context than they would have elsewhere at the time.

I think Neate somewhat overstates the exceptionalist case for Wire and Pink Flag. Few of the bands worth remembering from punk’s first wave adhered to a rigid and rockist punk formula through their careers. After the Sex Pistols, John Lydon went on to the very different Public Image Ltd; Howard Devoto left the Buzzcocks and formed Magazine; the Clash, the Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and others moved away from the core punk sound after an album or two, building on new influences and developing new styles. Wire was hardly the only band of that time to do something recognizable as a punk album and then go off into a dozen different directions. Still, it’s not exaggerating to say that Wire’s members have approached their career over the decades as more of an art project than a rock band, and many of their solo projects make that even more obvious.

Anyway, in addition to providing that context, Neate tells the history of the band and the work they did on the way to recording Pink Flag. He provides a lot of detail on the recording of the album, discussing all the songs individually, and he quotes the band members, the producer, and a number of other musicians along the way. Wire’s members seem to have been quite candid and open in their discussions, and there’s a lot of interesting information here. Other people Neate talked to include Pink Flag producer Mike Thorne, later musicians like Henry Rollins (Black Flag, the Rollins Band), Ian McKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi) and Graham Coxon (Blur), rock writer Jon Savage, and many many others. the book provides a knowledgeable and intelligent look at the band from the inside and the outside.

I read somewhere that there was originally some interest in doing a book on Wire’s third album 154 instead of Pink Flag, but the latter is much more well known in America and is more often mentioned as a key influence. Fortunately, there is another book, Wire: Everybody Loves a History, which also features a lot of input from band members and covers the band and  various side projects up to 1990 or so. It’s out of print and may be hard to find, but it’s worth tracking down. It’d be great to see an updated edition some day. Another writer has recently produced a book on Wire, but from all reports it’s replete with errors and the band doesn’t recommend it.

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