As founder and frontman of legendary post-punk iconoclasts Wire, Colin Newman has been at the forefront of experimental rock music for almost 40 years. Having started the band with friends from Watford Art College at the height of punk’s influence in 1976, Newman and Wire went on to release a trio of pivotal albums in quick succession that would alter the genre’s boundaries forever.
The quartet went on hiatus in the 1980s as Newman launched a solo career but enjoyed a renaissance towards the end of the decade and again in the 2000s. Nowadays, besides still playing with Wire, Newman produces records, has an upcoming album from his Githead project, runs the group’s record label pinkflag, as well as overseeing the DRILL music festival, which has progressed from London and Seattle legs to an upcoming debut in Brighton.
1976: Forming Wire
Wire emerged out of an art school end-of-term party performance in 1976 but we count the “real” start of Wire as 1st April 1977, the date of the first performance of the classic four-piece at [famed former London nightclub] the Roxy as part of its ‘Punk Festival’. The performance was recorded and two songs were later released as part of EMI’s Live at the Roxy compilation. By September of that year we were already recording our first album, Pink Flag. Although our live debut was in a punk club, from the outset we were neither loved by punks nor aligned with their ethos. Our songs were either too slow or too short and we were way too pretentious and proud of it! The term ‘post-punk’ wasn’t really coined until recently but I guess that’s what we were.
1980: Putting Wire on hiatus, going solo
Reviews for our third record 154 hailed us as one of the most important bands of our generation, yet within months of its release Wire had ceased operation. We were highly disillusioned with a tour supporting Roxy Music in stadiums around Europe and had looked for new ways to stage our performances. Several nights of performance art and music at [former Camden venue] the Cochrane Theatre in November 1979 were well received by audiences but critically panned. Then things reached a nadir with a low-budget attempt to mix a dadaist event with a performance of almost entirely new (and largely under-rehearsed) music at the Electric Ballroom in February 1980. What had worked in a theatre floundered in a rock venue and the band subsequently fell apart after disagreeing on how to move forward.
1985: Watching Wire’s influence grow, reforming the band
It’s hard for current generations to look back and see things through the lens of the 1970s but during that era Wire weren’t really known outside of the music press. We got little radio exposure, almost no TV and when Wire went on hiatus in 1980 we could have easily never returned. Fortunately amongst our original fan base were some of the shapers and movers of the next generation; indie label bosses, musical and visual artists as well as writers. By the mid-1980s, a large number of quite diverse artists started to claim Wire as an influence and in 1985 we re-emerged with a leaner, more electronically-based sound.
"We were neither loved by punks nor aligned with their ethos. Our songs were either too slow or too short and we were way too pretentious and proud of it!"
2000: Launching the pinkflag label
In the 70s Wire were on EMI, a major label, then during the 80s we were on a major indie label, Mute. By the new millennium it was time to fly our own – pink – flag. Since Wire had been largely non-operational throughout the 90s we had no idea if we still had an audience, so our label’s initial releases were short mail order runs for fans. Fortunately the first proper CD release, Read & Burn 01 sold very well with virtually no press or radio exposure and the following album (2003’s Send) did even better. By the mid-2000s, pinkflag was the US licensee for Wire’s first three albums and now everything about our label is self- financed and there because it serves the artistic needs of the band.
Present day: Putting on the DRILL music festival
We felt that the mainstream festival scene had become too much of a rite of passage for young audience members and a meat market for bands. So the idea came to us to try and put together our own festival, DRILL. This year’s line-up encompasses everything from Italian prog, hip-hop and sensitive singer-songwriters to full-on noise rock, krautrock, experimental electronica an orchestral brass section. With our actions, music, performances, label and now our festival, we’re trying to prove that artists don’t need to be passive within the major label industry.
DRILL: Brighton runs from 4-7 December, featuring Wire, Swans, Savages and many more