Wire formed in London at 1976, instantly making the band —iconoclastic, experimental, and rebellious as they were— peers to the burgeoning punk movement. They were, however, never really a punk-rock band. They were too technically proficient, too intellectual, too leery of being part of the scene.
Yet, their debut album, 1977's Pink Flag, still plays like a punk record. Made up of a host of minute-long songs, it finds the off-kilter outfit making erratic, fragmented compositions from those punk staples: fuzzed guitar riffs, smashed drums, and barked, boisterous vocals. Before punk was even born it was, in some ways, proto-hardcore: fast, cheap, and under intense, precise control.
Their second LP, 1978's Chairs Missing, charts a huge departure, however; Wire's artistic growth and increased musical complexity mirroring the scene's swift shift from punk (adolescent, snotty, reactionary) to post-punk (forward-thinking, fearless, considered).
The differences immediately jump out: producer Mike Thorne plays piles of synthesizer and keyboard on the record, the buzzsaw guitars are stripped away to focus on the interplay between Colin Newman's less-shouted singing and Graham Lewis's bassplaying, and "Mercy," in an anti-punk move, goes for six whole minutes.
Chairs Missing has more of a feeling of being an odd pop record; as interested in melody as menace, in musical ideas as shouted rebellion, in personal evolution as societal revolution. It's the sound of a band shaking off the baggage that came with their first album; challenging the very notions of what they are supposed to be.
"Outdoor Miner" sounds like a classic pop-song, like Wire had been listening to The Byrds and The Zombies: all jaunty A-chords and washes of vocal harmony. "Used To" is a quizzical pop-song built on pushed-forward bass and Newman's layered singing, the whole intensely reminiscent of Brian Eno, an admitted influence on Chairs Missing; essentially the guy who inspired why to put 'ambient synthesizers' all over the LP.
After "Practice Makes Perfect" introduces the album with a stalking, staggering, horror-house rave-up of uncoiling guitars, intricate percussion, looming ambient noise, and tortured screams, it's the second song, "French Film Blurred," that truly ushers in the new Wire era. The drums are just high-hat hisses, the guitars are bright and chiming, Newman is singing calm and clear, and there's synth sound lingering throughout.
Listening to it, and Chairs Missing, now, there's certainly not the same sense of confrontation. Wire, after all, aren't remembered as a punk band at all; so hearing these adventurous, strangely contemporary-sounding songs just feels like sitting down with a really well-realized, smartly-assembled album. But, in 1978, coming out less than ten months after Never Mind the Bollocks... Here's the Sex Pistols, Chairs Missing was a fearless departure from punk's rudimentary blueprint.
Record Label: Harvest
Release Date: August, 1978