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Inside Wire’s Long Battle to Release Its Influential Early Albums

“There is planning, and then there’s plaaannnnning,” says Wire singer/guitarist Colin Newman with a laugh about the timing and negotiations behind winning the rights to the influential quartet’s first three punk-era albums. Last month the group re-released those classic albums released between 1977 and 1979 — “Pink Flag,” “Chairs Missing” and “154,” none of which could accurately be described as punk rock but often hewed to spare arrangements and tight songwriting — on its pinkflag label as separate 2-CD packages, complete with books and rarities appropriate to each album. New vinyl versions and standard CD issues of each original album due for release on July 6.

“When we first released ‘Pink Flag,’ it got lumped in with every other punk release,” says Newman of Wire’s debut album, which was released in the U.K. just weeks after Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind the Bollocks.” “I believe that fresh ears and new audiences will reveal the truth about those early Wire albums — that there were many different sounds synthesized into one thing.” Yet the group’s influence was arguably felt more strongly in the decades that followed, with acts ranging from Minor Threat, Blur, New Order, Hüsker Dü and R.E.M. all covering their songs and/or citing them as a major influence.

The group (pictured above in 1977) says its long journey to self-release those albums — all originally released by EMI —has nothing to do with the requisite sentimentality that strikes most rock elders. “We’ve always eschewed any hint of nostalgia,” says bassist/singer Graham Lewis, who founded the group in 1976 with Newman, drummer Robert Grey and guitarist Bruce Gilbert (the latter of whom left in 2006). The group continues to play an abrasive, angular and atmospheric brand of art rock with lyrics marked by low-level anxiety and high existential crisis.

Why Wire is bothering to look back some 40 years after an aesthetically fruitful 21st-century revival (they’ve released seven albums since 2003) is two-fold. “It’s the first time that pinkflag have the right to release the entire ex-EMI 1970s Wire catalogue worldwide — that includes the singles, B-sides and demos as well as the albums,” notes Newman, who acts on the band’s behalf as a pinkflag label boss-curator. “That’s empowering.”

It’s a role he also holds at swim ~, a label he runs jointly with his wife Malka Spigel, the one-time Minimal Compact vocalist who also makes music with Newman under the name Immersion. Lewis adds that in 2018, he’ll release solo projects recorded with Wire’s newest member Matthew Simms: one as UUUU with Valentina Magaletti and members of Spiritualized, and the other with Stooges bassist and indie icon Mike Watt as Fitted. “Those old Wire albums are a nice country, and I’m proud of them,” Newman says. “But I don’t live there.”

The story of how Wire got back its first three albums from EMI is nearly as dramatic and intense as the music itself.  Ever since licensing “Pink Flag,” “Chairs Missing,” and “154” for re-release in 2005, Wire longed to own their albums. “At that point, EMI was not about selling off its catalog, so there was an impasse” says Newman. Fast-forward to 2013, and “EMI went bust,” teases Newman. Under the terms of Universal’s acquisition of EMI’s recorded-music assets, Warner Music Group was able to acquire the Parlophone Label Group, which included recordings by artists like David Bowie, Blur — and Wire.

“What happened then is quite involved with famous names I can’t discuss,” says Newman. “But I’ll tell you all without showing Warners in a bad light.” Warner’s acquisition of Parlophone faced some regulatory hurdles of its own, thus “they volunteered to sell parts of the catalog they acquired to independent labels,” Newman says. “However, the deal that WMG worked out with the independents was that they did not allow artists to buy their own catalogs. Now, you can have any argument you want, but pinkflag is a label, an artist-owned-and-run label.” The situation was at an impass until “one very important figure in the music industry who just happened to be meeting the WMG boss for dinner” made it happen. “We went from complete despair to it being on and all ours,” says a relieved Newman. “No one will take it from us.”

Prior to these rereleases, Newman believed that the material on the original albums was far superior to the outtakes and demos. “Our logic was ‘why would anyone want to hear something inferior?’  But, from a fan’s point of view, you’re withholding, not supplying them with the full story. So, with the rereleases, we’re clearing the decks – literally, as we found the 2-track tapes exactly how and where we left them on the shelves – without judgment and re-mastering the demos and rarities just as we did the album versions.”

A more amazing piece of the puzzle, in Newman’s estimation, came with the discovery of color photos never before used in any capacity. These band shots were snapped by Newman’s first wife, photographer Annette Green, who also did the cover images for “Pink Flag” and “Chairs Missing.” She took “formal and informal shots of us, posing and not posing, all whether we looked stupid or not. When she and I split up, Annette disappeared and left all of her possessions in a lock-up in Manchester that I knew nothing about. I ran into an old friend of hers whose son happened onto it and asked if I wanted a look. It was a goldmine — all color shots of us from a time when nobody was using color shots.”  Thus, the deluxe re-issues of “Pink Flag,” “Chairs Missing,” and “154” eschew the “scrapbook” look of old posters, news clippings and concert tickets.

“I wanted these new versions to be present,” says Newman. “The photos seem as if they were shot yesterday; they don’t look aged or date-stamped. I don’t believe that the music is date-stamped either. That suits us, as Wire has always been about moving forward.”

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