Book Review: Read & Burn: A Book About Wire by Wilson Neate

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If ever there were a band whose career deserves a thorough examination, it is Wire. With Read & Burn, author Wilson Neate has delivered that, and much more. It is a book I have been waiting a long time for, and had pretty much given up hope of ever seeing. I have read a lot of rock biographies over the years, and this is one of the few that truly does justice to the group at hand.

In chapter one, "Four People in a Book," Neate introduces us to Colin Newman (vocals, guitar), Graham Lewis (bass, vocals), Bruce Gilbert (guitar), and drummer Robert Grey (Gotobed). These are the four men who collectively came to be known as Wire. One of the interesting things I learned here was the history of the drummer's name. The name "Gotobed" was not invented, it was actually the family name. Robert's grandfather changed it to Grey, as he felt Gotobed was a name that people would not take seriously. Robert simply reverted to the original family name. He later came around to his grandfather's point of view, and now calls himself Robert Grey.

While it is certainly important to introduce us to the band members, the real tone of the book is set in the second chapter. In fact, it is laid out in the first sentence: "Pink Flag is an impressive record, but not a great record; it's Wire's best-known record, but not their best." With these words, Neate lets us know that this is not going to be a gushing love letter to the band. Read & Burn is a critical biography, in the very best sense. The author is a lifelong fan of Wire, and respects the group and their fans enough to tell the truth. It may not always be pretty, but it is honest.

Setting aside their music for a moment, one of the most interesting things about Wire is their incredibly unorthodox career arc. It is unlike that of any other band I can think of. They were part of what Neate calls the  "Class of '77," the English punk rock Year Zero. It was quite a year in music, and saw the LP debuts of The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Boomtown Rats, and Elvis Costello (who was considered punk at the time). If you open that up to US bands, we can include Television, Richard Hell, Talking Heads, get the picture.

With the 21 songs on Pink Flag, only two of which are over 3:00, and one just 28 seconds long, Wire certainly appeared to be part of the punk brigade. For the Class of '77, the second album was the one that really told the story though. Would there be a future for these groups, or not? The Pistols never made one, but like The Clash, Wire did. With hindsight, we can see that both were moving forward, in their own ways. The progress from Pink Flag to Chairs Missing (1978) was very impressive, and even more so with 154 (1979).

For a lot of people, the Wire story ends here. Three albums that showed amazing growth, but did not sell. They were dropped by EMI following the unspectacular commercial performance of 154, and that seemed to be that. I recommend those three albums to anyone who has not heard them. But there was a great deal more to come. Neate calls Wire a "living sculpture," which is a way of saying that their career has been an ongoing art project. Read & Burn charts their activities from 1976 to 2012. They have had second, third, fourth, perhaps even fifth chapters since they first called it quits in 1980. This is one reason that their story is such a compelling one.

The second chapter of Wire began when they reconvened in 1985. The four individual members of the group had been active in the years 1980-1985, but outside of some cursory mentions, Neate does not go into much detail about them. This being a book about Wire, I understand his position, although I kind of wish he had. But I understand his reasoning, as the members' extracurricular activities are not the subject of Read & Burn.

When Daniel Miller signed Wire to his Mute label, they finally had a corporate "boss" who understood the artistic mindset of an artist. Miller is that rare industry honcho who would call himself a musician first, and label owner second. If anyone could work with Wire, and understand what it is they were out to achieve, it was Miller. 

The "new" Wire was a different beast from the Wire of 1980. The four-song EP Snakedrill came out in 1986, and  was their first release on Mute. In 1987 the released their first full-length LP for Mute, The Ideal Copy.

As embarrassing as it is for me to admit, I had yet to listen to Wire by this time. I had heard of them, but had never bought any of their records. The first Wire song I ever heard was "Kidney Bingos," on the local college radio station in 1988. It was so different from what I expected that I thought had misheard the DJ when he said it was the new Wire song. That tune came from their second Mute album, the wonderfully titled A Bell is a Cup, Until it is Struck.

I had read enough about Wire to know that the incredibly catchy "Kidney Bingos" had to be an anomaly. I bought A Bell is a Cup, and still could not reconcile their reputation as a first generation punk band with it. So I took the plunge and bought Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154. I loved those records for different reasons, and found myself fascinated by their whole situation. The career arc of Wire continued to mystify in 1991 with an album titled The First Letter. At this point they were calling themselves Wir, in acknowledgement of Robert Gotobed having left the band.

That was 22 years ago, and Gotobed is back, as Robert Grey. Bruce Gilbert left in 2003, and apparently is out for good. It occurs to me at this point that I am simply summarizing events, which is not at all what Read & Burn is about. If you just want that, then there is a very generic chronicle of Wire's career available on Wikipedia. What Wilson Neate has written is a 430-page book that tells the whole story, and discusses all of the records in detail. Read & Burn is much more than a simple chronology. To me, it is the definitive Wire book.

I would like to mention a couple of other elements about this book that  impressed me. One is the minimalism of the chapter titles. Outside of the first chapter, "Four Guys in a Book," and the final "Famous Last Words," all of the chapter titles are simply the years that are being discussed. I mentioned the second chapter, which deals with Pink Flag. The title of that chapter is "1976-'77." The next chapter, which is devoted to Chairs Missing, is titled "1977-'78." And so on, although some cover longer periods. For example, there is chapter nine, "1990-2000." All together there are 14 chapters. It is a very cool way of presenting the information, and perfect for Wire.

Read & Burn is published by the English publishing house Jawbone Books. The look of the book is very impressive, not overtly ostentatious, but very clean, just a perfect look for a book about this group. As I said, the story of the band is one that was crying out to be told. And in kind of a secondary way, the look of the physical book is very impressive as well.

I use stereotypes way too much, but please indulge me here. If you like albums, or even compact discs as objects alongside of the music they contain, I think you will understand the following. I now own 154 (with the bonus EP) on vinyl, because to me it is a total package. Sure, I could download it all and have the music, but that is only half of it to me. The same holds true with books. You need the physical edition of Read & Burn to get the full effect. The cool thing is that even though Jawbone are an English publisher, their books are distributed in America by Hal Leonard. Instead of paying import prices, Read & Burn will cost you less than a CD.

One final note, American punk legend Mike Watt wrote the Forward, which is very cool in itself. It may have taken a long time for someone to tell the story of Wire in the manner that they deserve, but Wilson Neate has done it with Read & Burn. This is an excellent book in every respect.