I’ve just finished reading Wilson Neate’s excellent book about Wire called Read & Burn. Much like Wire’s proclamations in 1977 that for the band there were to be: “No solos; no decoration; when the words run out, it stops; we don’t chorus out; no rocking out; keep it to the point; no Americanisms,” Neate states of the book that: “This book was not read, vetted, or approved by Wire; this book is not a biography of Wire collectively or individually; this book is not about the band-members’ solo projects; this book does not forensically dissect each of Wire’s albums; this book does not mention every Wire song, record sleeve, tour or gig; this book does not provide a complete discography.”
Except for the first statement above about Wire not approving the book, the remainder of Neate’s manifesto is somewhat inaccurate. It is a biography, it does forensically dissect Wire albums, and it has a pretty comprehensive discography at the back. Even the first statement is at odds with the fact that Wire sell the publication as part of a package with their latest album: Change Becomes Us.
Despite this, Read & Burn tells the fascinating story of the band from their pre-Wire days at art school up to the rationale behind 2013’s Change Becomes Us. On the surface of it this book will seem to have little to interest non-Wire fans. The trawl through album tracks and how they came about will be excruciating for those who don’t know the work. At times, and I count myself as a Wire fan, I had to go back and listen to tracks to brief myself on what was being discussed. But this aside, what I would recommend it for, to the non-Wire fan, particularly those who work in creative fields, is the insight into creative tensions and artistic endevour. Throughout the book it highlights different takes by individuals about the same events, and how collaborative working is a difficult beast when egos and pretensions clash. The fact that each band member, (and band associates), were interviewed separately allows individuals to recount their side of the story, deconstructing their methodologies, likes and dislikes about what they’ve done, all the while being acutely aware that each member of the band will probably read the book at some stage. Each band member are all highly critical of Wire as a project, of each other, and of their output. But they intelligently examine what they’ve achieved collectively, from the prospective of creating sound experiments and art pieces that form a body of work by Wire, (there is often a sense of detachment when they use the band name, as if it is a living entity in itself). And as pretentious as that sounds, Read & Burn can be read more as a study of the psychology of artists working together than anything else, which makes it all the more interesting than your average rock biography.
The fact that Wire are still going after all these years, through almost wilful self-destruction, (and not in a standard drink and drugs narrative), is remarkable. As a catalogue of advice of how not to create a successful band, the following should probably be taught at rock schools everywhere: they refused to play old music at their gigs up until recently, (they once hired a Wire tribute band to support them live so they didn’t have to play old material): they wilfully alienated fans by staging experimental performance art pieces at shows; they would showcase new and developing work live; they immediately rejected the punk scene that spawned them on the release of their first ‘punk’ album; they created sound experiments based on their own invented ‘dugga‘ rhythms and played the piece that came from this, Drill, live on American TV rather than their latest single, much to the annoyance of their record label; guitarist Bruce Gilbert refused to play on tracks that were too pop orientated for his liking—all these things, and much more, show the band as being wilfully perverse in their approach to earning a living from what they did. Much of this is down to the creative tensions in the band, of four people who clearly don’t particularly like each other, but who realise that as a creative unit they make something special, something that has a degree of uniqueness and as a result is a refreshing antidote to your average band fixated on stardom who will compromise any integrity they might have in the quest for success.
Wire have always been concerned with being contemporary and not playing the punk cabaret circuit of their 1977 peers, this drive has kept them pushing forward throughout their lifespan. For the non-Wire fan out their, you’ll need to skip through the muso moments in this story. But if you work collaboratively with others, this book will reveal itself to you as a brave and honest depiction of the realities of ego clashes and mixed agendas, poor communication and assumptions, deliberate obstinance and artistic integrity. And with this, they individually demonstrate a collective sense of what constitutes their aesthetic collective identity, and use this as a measure for what they do and do not allow Wire to do artistically.
Listen to Wire’s latest release, Change Becomes Us, on Soundcloud.