pink flag was screaming
How many dead or alive?
It's difficult to write about a classic record. While not quite the Sergeant Pepper of the new wave, since Pink Flag's release in 1977 it has featured in so many personal-best lists and its contents have been subjected to much curious analysis and speculation. The album is Wire at the point of metamorphosing from assimilated punks (with the sound and stance that gave them birth and life) to the experimentalists who emerge from the chrysalis on their second album, Chairs Missing. You never seem to know that you're doing something enduring at the time. The review polarity between five star accolades and rabid put-downs showed we'd at least got under someone's skin, but you never know how long the rash might persist. For some, Pink Flag is on a pedestal. Strange people that they let onto pedestals, these days.
Wire were an unopposed EMI signing from the time I played Nick Mobbs, my boss, The Roxy roughs on a car cassette. I had bent his ear about the Sex Pistols, and that seemed to deliver. Even live at the club, Wire's sound was good enough for a real record. We did some demos of further songs, including Mr Suit and Pink Flag in the eight-track recording studio that was a treasure in the basement of the company's Manchester Square offices. No further persuasion was necessary. The rank and file of the company had been very upset by the firing of the Sex Pistols by a senior management none of us had ever met, and the A&R department had become to all intents and purposes a welcoming punk hangout. This revival of EMI's musical intelligence would carry on for three or four exciting years.
Wire also combined compellingly the visual and the musical, a lineage which had at the time an honorable and productive tradition in Britain, that of the art school dropout. (The punk movement was also very strong on graphics.) Many sixties bands had been nurtured at art school, an institutional result of progressive social policies aimed at giving the masses access to education and therefore insight. As the Establishment now knows, revolting students will learn at your institutions, then throw them back in your face as new ideas. Such revolting students nowadays. The sort that Leonard Rossiter used to rail against in the TV series (regular on PBS) Rising Damp is an endangered species. The shapes that the visual senses require seem to provoke music. Wire straddled the line (Colin was at one stage Bruce's pupil when they were both at Watford Art College). The cover of Pink Flag was spotted in the west of England on their way to a gig, a parade ground with a flagless pole and a suggestively curving ground which seemed to fall away to nothing. A photo of the pole and a slap of paint would make the enduring pink flag.
Despite their short existence, Wire had already started throwing away songs as new ones proliferated. We came up with the list of 21 to be recorded, which eventually ranged in length from 3:58 down to Field Day For The Sundays, a perfectly formed pop song at 0:28. This wasn't a standard album where you record twelve songs, drop the two weakest and then rearrange the survivors into the most effective running order. The songs needed context, so we sat for an afternoon in my basement and emerged with the two sides' running order. It remained unchanged, and gave each song at its recording a clear sense of where it belonged. The apocalyptic title track obviously ended side one, just as the jauntily cynical The Commercial clearly had to open side two with the ad break. Reuters set up side one with menace, nasty things happening to 'your own correspondent', an epic by Wire's abridged standards neatly followed by Field Day For The Sundays. Given these reference points, organizing the running order wasn't the web it might have been.
Practice, rather than analytical rehearsal, was the only thing the group needed to do before arriving to record in Advision. To help the group's sound, I augmented my collection of guitars and amps, so that the sessions had a most non-punk Les Paul Pro guitar and a Music Man combo amp. The group had replaced their collapsing Roxy equipment, and Colin had bought himself a new Ovation electric guitar in white, which we all agreed looked very nice on him. Also for me was a Yamaha electronic piano tuner, £500 ($800) for something that is $80 now. Contrary to what you might expect of the staple punk sound, those big, distorted guitar sounds have to have an in-tune instrument, otherwise the power is gone. For best results, the instrument itself must be carefully adjusted, even after each string change.
Despite their attitude, I knew that the group would suffer debut nerves in the recording studio. Everyone does. The first day was thrown away in the interests of settling in comfortably and getting the sound. Assisted over the day by a prodigious amount of home-grown, Wire played all 21 tracks, and felt at home. Bruce admitted later to coming round out of the haze at some point and realizing that the album had been completely finished without him.
Unlike the normal, clinically regulated sessions typical of the time, Robert's drums were placed in the middle of the large studio, to hear real ambience. Colin was isolated in the booth where the drums might have been. The group could hear each other and converse, not a possibility on contemporary supersessions where the musicians were isolated, cut off from each other in the interests of the sound itself.
Some of the songs stretched them to their technical limit. 12XU, remade after its appearance on The Roxy album took several takes to get, hanging on by the fingertips, and it shows wonderfully. Both Colin's introduction and his vocal are live. Lou Pinada, the owner of the café near their Thorne Road rehearsal space and dedicatee of the song, would have been proud. Singing songs with that intensity, going for a live take every time (all vocals are the live original except for Strange and parts of Lowdown, is a real testament to their latent competence. Colin applied himself heroically, taking a sip of water before every take after he had found out that it brightens up your voice timbre. Lots of visits to the toilet. Southern Comfort was also applied medicinally, and he would emerge with bloodshot eyes to scare us at the end of a particularly intense day.
Strange, later to be covered by REM, had new elements pointing where we might go on the next album. There are always one or two tracks that do the anticipation. The warbling in the middle is about ten alto flutes played flutter-tongue (by my flute teacher, Kate Lukas, a virtuoso and performer of tough contemporary art music in London at the time) a semitone apart, a completely uncategorizable noise. As with many of the tracks, I wish we had been more aggressive and blatant in the mixing, so that events like this were more in your face, changed the contour of the recording more assertively. Vocals, too, were kept low in deference to the chainsaw guitar sound and the punk style of the time.
When you hear things you might now do differently, it's tempting to return and rework, but you get stuck in retrospection. And people like the album, even now. Maybe it wouldn't be as good if made with hindsight supported by stronger technique. Maybe it is simply of its time. But it should certainly left untouched. Without a second's hesitation, I know that would be the group's opinion, contrasting with the insecurity of many who rework classics in search of a more accurate delivery (Marc Almond's resinging of Tainted Love for its reissue is a prime example).
Musically, I would provide the most basic direction where needed, and they thrived on it. I doubt that the condescending attitude of many studios at the time would have produced much result. Sometimes it hurt. The cutting guitar solo in Lowdown, which filled the gap you hear on The Roxy album and takes the song higher is fitted into an odd number of bars just defined by where Colin felt like cueing the chorus when the track was laid. It feels perfectly natural, but count the bars for yourself and see why I had to be out in the studio counting for him. And waving the arms wildly to show the accents coming. It took a long time to get right. Muscles were sore the following morning, although I suppose I was 29 at the time.
My best contribution to Strange is the clattering you hear taking the track out. Late in the session, it seemed that some banging would complement the wind-down, so I took Robert's drum sticks and did a sound check on the fire escape door at the back of the studio. I still remember clearly where I hit the door, the shape of it, and the lighting at the time. Three tracks of manic banging and the cut was finished. The group in the control room thought I'd gone crazy, and I thanked them for the compliment when they told me later.
We threw a lunchtime playback party for the record company at the studio, and perhaps 50 people turned up. I had forgotten, in 1999, that this used to be a routine for us. The gulf between artist and record company is generally much greater now, and it's a pity. Some others in the company were not so supportive. One comment from an engineer at Abbey Road, provoked by mastering engineer Chris Blair's playing him this interesting new thing, was that it was 'the worst sound' he had 'ever heard'. You can't please everybody, they say.
Nor me. The well-meant addition of extra tracks (typically, and in the US, the B-side for a subsequent single Options R) destroys the coherence of the album we made. The structure of the music was embedded in the LP, and the extra track after 12XU confuses what was a clear 40-minute experience. Options R is external to the context in which we sequenced the songs. Stop the clock before it, then enjoy it separately.
- MT March 2000
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