Pink Flag by Wire (Harvest)

ONCE a week, I was banished to Record Village’s other shop, a bus ride away in a nearby small market town called Brigg which was if anything, even bleaker than Scunthorpe, but much more countrified.

The manager got a day off midweek, so I minded the shop and had to deal with one, maybe even two customers a day. The heating always seemed to be turned off. It was pretty grim.

It would have been very boring but for the fact that, y’know, I was hanging around in a record shop – even if it was a bit of a shite one – and I ended up working my way through the shop’s entire stock, more or less. For someone like me, it was nerdvana.

We weren’t really supposed to play interesting stuff in the main shop and generally had to stick to a rigid playlist of whatever major label crap we happened to be pushing that week. There wasn’t quite as wide a range of stock in the Brigg shop but there was enough to go at and I began to look forward to my weekly excursions to mid-Eighties medieval Lincolnshire.

One miserable, God-forsaken, never-ending, quiet-as-the-grave Wednesday in Brigg I heard some new Factory record which turned out to be the raw, wobbly and utterly magnificent Squirrel And G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out) by the Happy Mondays. You can imagine how pleased I was.

Wire were another one of my Brigg discoveries. My uncle Rich was into them, I think, but I only had ears for reggae when I was a kid, a lot of the time, and they didn’t make much of an impression. Later on, Doug probably played them, but I’d have thought they were just another of his dull trad-dad pub rock new wave bands, like Television, Chelsea or the Stranglers.

How wrong can one man be?

I heard Minor Threat’s cover of 12XU on Flex Your Head, a stupid expensive imported compilation of Washington DC hardcore acts, and I distinctly remember thinking it was better than the original. But someone had written a piece about Wire for my fanzine so I dug out Pink Flag on one of my weekly trips to Brigg and, finally, got into it in a big way.

While the rest of the world seemed to be rockin’ out to Livin’ On A Prayer, I was getting off on Sonic Youth, the Buttholes, Big Black, the Fall, the Membranes, Bogshed, Camper Van Beethoven and the like, as well as tons of reggae and dub.

The indie stuff I liked was maybe at times a bit self-consciously arty, it might occasionally have been a bit too-cool-for-school, but it was all about big tunes, melody, adrenaline and y’know, not being stupid. Well, not being stupid most of the time, at least. Pink Flag fitted right in – despite being a decade old already.

A collection of short, punchy blasts of art-school angst, Pink Flag had none the lyrical absolutes and certainties of Wire’s punk rock contemporaries. Nothing is obvious, nothing spelled out for the listener. Most of the time anyway – Mr Suit (“You can take your fucking money and shove it up your arse..”) didn’t leave a lot to the imagination.

There was a huge amount of variety in Pink Flag’s 21 short, sharp tracks, but the whole thing fitted together perfectly. Its all-too-brief songs never fail to leave you wanting more.

Ex-Lion Tamer seemed to turn disappointment and soured dreams – “but now, fish fingers all in a line, and all the milk bottles stand empty” – into a soaring, joyous pop anthem.

Edgily experimental songs like Reuters, Lowdown and the title track were balanced with the sped-up punk rock rhythm and blues of Field Day For The Sundays, Start To Move, Brazil and It’s So Obvious.

The breezy sentimentality of the almost-ballad Fragile is squeezed in between the super-paranoid drone-rock of Strange and Mannequin, the perfect summer pop song – complete with backing harmonies – only with singer Colin (“Black hair”) Newman delivering a series of withering put-downs instead of the usual lovey-dovey platitudes.

And am I just imagining a trace of the funk in Robert (“Six-foot three-inches”) Gotobed’s drumming in the wonderful Three Girl Rhumba?

The album ends with 12XU, a particularly urgent, nasty and brutal example of the time-honoured stop-start, quiet-loud tomfoolery, maxing out on Bruce (“Blue eyes”) Gilbert’s big, big guitar and Graham (“Nine-stone six-pounds”) Lewis’s equally expansive bass. The terse haiku of its lyric seems to imply the darker, seedier end of sexual obsession (“Saw you in a mag, kissing a man, smoking a fag, kissing a man ..”) but I didn‘t really have a clue what it was about and I couldn’t have cared less.

I used to turn the volume all the way up to Very Loud Indeed and blast out Pink Flag into a baffled and uncomprehending Brigg. I was too busy pogoing and playing air guitar to worry about what Wire were actually going on about.

Meanwhile, while all this is going on, Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley’s number one chart-topping smash-hit Jack Your Body was probably tinkling away on the radio in the back room. Too wrapped up in the music of the past to hear the music of the future, I had the sound turned down.

I think there’s a lesson there for all of us.

Okay, there’s a lesson there for me.

Fast-forward a couple of years and I’m living in Leeds. It’s the night before I start my new job as an Our Price counter-monkey in York. I make the fundamental mistake of going to a hippy party in Hyde Park and having a drink of what I’m told is “a trippy brew”, assuming it’s the usual port-based party punch with a few magic mushrooms added for extra zing. It turns out it has a shit-load of acid in it too.

Sleep is suddenly out of the question and I’m still tripping the light fantastic on the train to York the next morning. All things considered, it’s not an ideal situation and probably not the best start to my new career, but I manage to get myself reasonably together with the aid of a couple of spliffs and a pint of orange juice as I navigate the narrow streets of Ye Olde heritage York.

Luckily, all we’re doing is taking records out of cases and filing them in big storage cabinets – Our Price had just bought a load of Roger Ames’ northern Virgin franchises or something. Maybe it was the other way round. I wasn’t paying much attention. They’re all twats anyway.

The shop is on a street called Coney Street which is, depending on who you talk to, either an old English reference to Rabbit Street or an old English reference to Cunt Street – the latter being particularly appropriate, I would suggest, for a street with an Our Price shop on one side and a Virgin on the other.

Our Price was owned by WHSmith at the time. As a result, the management were, to a man, dead-eyed, soulless career bureaucrats rather than the music-loving financial kamikazi pilots I‘d previously worked for.

My workmates, on the other hand, were the kind of motley crew you find in record shops anywhere and everywhere.

There was Russ, the vaguely untrustworthy Canterbury wide-boy with his Zappa obsession and improbable tales of anonymous sex in Bradford pub car parks. The sweet, beautiful and lovely Anjali from exotic Sunderland, who could melt even the coldest heart with her ready smile and life-affirming cleavage.

Paul, the son of the owner of Leeds’ premier white-stilettos-and-loafers cattle-market, as common as muck, as rough as you like, and as East Leeds as it gets. Nice lad. And well-spoken, bright and funny Leeds Uni graduate Fran, who always seemed to be making jokes about having a lot of body hair, though she was a pleasant enough woman. She was certainly no more dysfunctional than the rest of us, put it that way.

She and Paul later had a surreptitious fling in direct contravention of company policy, which barred people in relationships from working at the same branch. As I say, Our Price was a miserable, nasty, small-minded company managed by mean-spirited, paranoid, petty wankers. I hated the lot of them.

There was some deputy manager prick whose name I don’t even remember – actually, it was probably Andy. It always is – who tried to mask his seething, middle-management self-loathing with a thin veneer of blokey bonhomie. It didn’t work.

Our glorious leader, whose name I’ve managed to successfully erase from my memory, was the kind of plump, clammy misanthrope who can make your skin crawl just by walking in the room. He would have been a repulsive character whatever his sexual orientation but the fact that he was gay just seemed to make it worse.

No excuses. It’s embarrassing, but that’s how I felt at the time.

He was also a southerner, with a nasty, nasal accent to match. And his habit of referring to records as merchandise drove me to distraction. I thought he was the anti-Christ.

He wasn’t my biggest fan either.

Anyway, there was very little agreement among the staff about what we’d play on the shop’s system – and Jabba the Hut insisted on listening to the Pet Shop Boys a lot (it could’ve been worse, I suppose) – but Fran liked Pink Flag, I liked Pink Flag, other people started liking Pink Flag, eventually. We ended up playing it pretty much every day, right from the start.

We were probably there for less than a week but it seemed to make the whole experience more bearable, somehow.

I’d like to think, that somehow, somewhere, one of my former co-workers (perhaps risen to the giddy heights of area management at WHSmiths) still has enough humanity in their cold, dead heart to remember what it was like to be alive when they hear the amphetamine-rush of Mr Suit on some car advert sometime, as they inevitably must.

Anyway, Our Price were opening a new store in Leeds, so we all moved over there to stock it with ‘merchandise’ from the York shop. I wasn’t there for long before I got sacked.

My principal crimes were taking too long to file albums (I was correcting other people’s mistakes as well as filing my own stuff) and not being able to operate an electronic till (I’d had no training whatsoever). There may have been issues around my time-keeping as well (guilty as charged).

It was also, no doubt, absolutely obvious that I just didn’t give a fuck about working in some hellish corporate music-supermarket. And who knows? Maybe my boss wasn’t quite as thick as he seemed and recognised a faint whiff of homophobia in my surly insubordination.

While the pay was better than the dole, it was still a pretty derisory amount of money per week and I was glad to see the back of the place. I’m not big on regrets but I truly regret not having the foresight to carry out some completely disproportionate act of pre-emptive workplace sabotage before I was fired and unceremoniously escorted off the premises.

Pink Flag disappeared at some point, but I couldn’t even begin to pinpoint when or where or how. I probably flogged it to Desperate Dan’s in Hyde Park for a couple of quid. As far as I’m aware, the guy behind the counter wasn’t called Dan – but I was most definitely desperate when I sold records in there.

I sometimes wonder just how many of my old records are still in those dusty, chaotic old racks. Does Desperate Dan’s still exist? I hope so. Where would old Cud records go to die otherwise?

Fast-forward another 20 years and I get a copy of Pink Flag, somewhere or other, at some point – I forget, okay? It seems I can now remember things that happened a couple of decades ago but I’ve no idea what happened last year. I’ve skipped a generation. I’m turning into my granddad.

It appears that Pink Flag is now, officially, A Seminal Album By An Influential Band. The readers of Rolling Stone voted it number 410 in the magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Predictably enough, Sgt Pepper is number one.

Yawn.

The first thing that hits you is how short some of the tracks are – Field Day For The Sundays clocks up at 28 seconds, Brazil just 41 seconds. They’re short and to the point.

People may have been ripping off Wire’s sound for ages – the similarity between Connection by Elastica and Three Girl Rhumba was so great that the lawyers got involved. Blur should count themselves very lucky to have avoided the same fate – but listening to Pink Flag now it becomes clear just how firmly Wire are established in the indie songbook.

Bloc Party, the Arctic Monkeys, the Gossip, the Futureheads and Franz Ferdinand have all learned a lot from Pink Flag. In the wider arena, the mighty Rudimentary Peni are clearly big fans of Surgeon’s Girl – and they often adopt Wire’s brevity when deciding the length of their songs. You can also hear Wire’s influence in any number of bands who have covered them over the years, from REM and My Bloody Valentine to Henry Rollins and Big Black – in fact, Big Black seemed to base their entire sound on the visceral splatter of 12XU.

pinkflagWire’s formula isn’t deceptively simple, it’s just simple. Guitars, drums, vocals and that’s it – the odd flute and violin aside. It was minimal, it was repetitive and it was basic but it worked, beautifully. Even the cover still looks great. And I still have no idea what half of the songs on Pink Flag are about. Clueless. I couldn’t care less, even now.

She’s clearly a lady of taste and style, but I’m still surprised when Lauren takes a liking to Pink Flag. I end up getting her the 30th anniversary CD for the car.

It’s released on the band’s own pinkflag label, which is run by Colin Newman himself. The band are currently back together again.

They originally disbanded in 1980, then got back together in 1985, before splitting once more in 1992 and getting back together in 2000. At one point in the early Nineties, Gotobed, realising that a live drummer wasn’t needed in a band working primarily with keyboards and sequencers, effectively sacked himself. The remaining members responded by renaming themselves Wir.

Over the years, they’ve strayed further and further from the blueprint they seemed to draw up with Pink Flag, with experimentation and innovation clearly still as important to them now as it was then.

Four years ago, they collaborated with Jake and Dinos Chapman on a series of gigs entitled flag:burning, where they played Pink Flag in its entirety, closely followed by the whole of their then-new album in order to “erase this celebration of Pink Flag’s iconic status”.

It turns out Doctor Drew booked them to play at Futuresonic earlier this month, God bless him. They do a pre-gig Q&A at the venue, but I know that the chances of getting the little lady out of the door that early in the evening are remote to say the least, so I‘m resigned to missing it. We eventually arrive at the Contact, a little bit pissed, just before they’re due to hit the stage at 10.30pm.

Almost inevitably, I’ve got the wrong venue so we gulp down our drinks and we head to one of the smaller Academy venues in the main uni building next door. By the time we’ve tramped up three flights of stairs – I nearly have a whitey – and bought more drink, they’re well into their set.

Everyone is present and correct: Robert Gotobed Grey, Colin Newman, Graham Lewis .. well, almost everyone – Margaret Fiedler McGinnis of top post-punkers Laika is standing in for Bruce Gilbert, who’s decided he doesn’t like touring and has left the band again. The rest of them look like they’re enjoying themselves. There’s a decent crowd in too.

Though I love Pink Flag, I’m not a huge fan of their other albums and they play a fair few songs I don’t know, but the pair of us like them a lot. It turns out that much of the stuff they play is from their forthcoming album, Object 47. They finish with tunes from Pink Flag – 106 Beats That, Lowdown, Pink Flag, and a storming version of 12XU that sounds more like Minor Threat than Wire.

It’s raw, thrashy, a bit messy. It’s really fucking cool.

I might even prefer it to the original.

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Filed under hip replacement, punk rock

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