Friday, March 14, 2008

No. 410: Pink Flag

In order to cast a wider line of opinion, I've enlisted a few people to help out in writing some of the pieces on this site. That tradition continues today with noted commentor Padraig, who gives us his take on Wire's "Pink Flag." Enjoy.

Why Rolling Stone Gets It Right: Smarter than the Clash and infinitely more musically progressive than the Pistols this album very much prefigures post-punk’s re-imagining of traditional guitar rock. Along with Marquee Moon and Gang of Four’s first album pretty much the template for weird, arty dudes with guitars.
Why Rolling Stone Gets It Right: It could stand to be a lot higher – unfortunately then we’d have to bump that Moby Grape album down a few spots and we all know what an awful tragedy that would be, right?
Best Song: They’re all great, particularly "Mannequin" a fantastic, chilling anti-love song
Worst Song: I don’t know. "Commercial", maybe? It’s a joke based around the title. Even if you don’t like a song only 5 of them break the 2-minute mark so they’re over quickly.
Is It Awesome?: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

"Pink Flag" is the point where the British punk equation of Ramones 1-2-3-4 + rotten attitudes and dumbed-down politics (and a more than a bit of Malcolm Maclaren’s impresario sleight of hand, natch) takes a turn inward, toward uneasy spaces where self-doubt can creep in and fester. It takes the minimalism of early punk rock to an entirely new level, and as the AMG review bluntly states, "If a musical hook or lyric didn’t need to be repeated Wire immediately stopped playing". However, despite their brutally spare economy the songs still pack a devastating wallop. Nothing is wasted.

It certainly helped that, unlike most first wave punk bands, Wire could really play. They were not, at the time of their debut album at least, virtuosos, but they were legitimate musicians who get into a groove and hold it. Unlike most of their contemporaries Wire weren’t just reaching back to Chuck Berry and the garage rock bands of the early to mid 60s. Rather, they were breaking rock and roll down into its’ individual parts, paring away the excess and rearranging the remnants to suit their own needs.

Within a year or two a slew of white guitar bands would follow in their wake, putting out their own interpretations of various forms of black music through punk’s harsh, searing lens. Where Gang of Four took on funk, Public Image Ltd. did a loving piss-take of disco and everyone professed an undying love of dub reggae, Wire did rave-up robotic R&B, twitchy, spastic & bug eyed. The groove of "Strange" for example, almost sounds like a more experimental Motown b-side circa 1968 or so slowed down to the pace of molasses – oh, and with a nasally British guy singing, of course.

The lyrics are equally great and they touch on themes that had always simmered beneath a lot of popular music but would really come to the forefront in the wake of punk rock’s scorched earth campaign against everything pompous and grandiose. Alienation and paranoia are prominent themes and the never-ending Cold War gets a number of oblique references. But the best songs, ironically enough are their love songs, which like their music, take classic, timeless tropes and flip them on their heads. "12XU" only has two lines "Saw you in a mag (smoking a fag), kissing a man/I got you in a corner (cottage), got you in a corner", but they communicate more than some bands do over their entire careers.


bob_vinyl said...

I've always found Pink Flag to be one-dimensional and dull. I see the Fall and Gang of Four as being the two biggest influences on post-punk.

Anonymous said...

I like to put on "Strange" and watch everyone around me say, "Oh man, I love the Toadies."


padraig said...

well, I don't know as I can agree Bob. the "biggest influences" on post-punk, aside from punk itself and the legacy of guitar pop, from Chuck Barry to the Mods, that punk was reaching back to, were the various forms of black music popular in the UK in the mid-late 70s; soul & northern soul, funk/disco, and especially roots reggae & dub.

"Pink Flag" was released in 1977. I'd challenge you to name an album released by a guitar band that year, besides "Marquee Moon", that was anywhere near as forward-thinking. that's why it is, along with stuff like Gang of Four's debut (one of my favorite records ever) and the first PiL album, influential - they all predate the explosion of post-punk bands by a year or two. It's definitely not very wide in scope but that would come with their next two albums, perhaps you're familiar with "Chairs Missing" and/or "154"? both of which continue to play down the trad rock elements in favor or more Eno-style ambience, keyboard stuff, experimentation, etc.

Wire is one of a handful of bands, along with the Buzzcocks/Magazine, the Slits, Subway Sect (see the Orange Juice cover of "Holiday Hymn") and maybe some of the more avante-garde anarchopunk bands (Zounds, The Mob, etc.) that make up the direct link between the original punk bands of '76-'77 and the post-punk's experimental willingness. The Clash as well, I guess, though their superstardom kinda put them on a different level.