Wire - 12XU
Final track from “Pink Flag” (1977)
There are so many problems with saying that Wire’s debut album Pink Flag is the greatest rock album of all-time. It’s always hyperbolic. I always change my mind. The claim is even controverted by my own stupid list. Still, whenever I actually listen to Pink Flag — rather than just think about it, say — I get the immediate and unshakeable idea that it’s the greatest rock album of all-time. The album lends itself to hyperbolic thinking, even though it’s not the sort of shiny, conceptual edifice that’s commonly used to construct interesting aesthetic arguments. And maybe that’s why, in fact, it strokes the passions so hot.
I am not wired to resist a good passionate aesthetic argument, though. My mind flies from Pink Flag’s first song — which disconcerts the listener by drawing out the word “rape” over several bars as it peters out — to its last song, “12XU”, which famously begins with Colin Newman counting the band in, “All right. Here it is, again, and it’s called ‘12XU’!” It might be obvious, but “1, 2, X, U” cleans up the dirtier “1, 2, fuck you”. Could the band not swear in 1978? On an album full of sexual innuendo and violence? From a band with a song called “Marry Is A Dyke”? The count in is something of a mystery to me. Time for research?
In the amount of time it’s taken me to go back over the song in Wilson Neate’s excellent 33 1/3 book on the album, I could have listened to it eight times. (In fact, I did.) At nearly two minutes, “12XU” one of the longer — and more complex — songs on the album.
Pink Flag is the sort of album that’s not very complex, unless you think about it too much.
The bit in the book about “12XU” focuses on the count in. The reason Newman says, “Here it is, again” is because the recorded version is like the hundredth take. In between takes, he’d slug Souther Comfort. He was blasted on record. Mike Thorne, the album’s producer, recalled sitting at the mixing desk.
I think it was five or six takes of this intensity before they got it spectacularly. They didn’t stop. It’s clinically precise, but had to complement the original feeling of people hanging on for dear life. That’s a feeling you strive for in music, that things might fall apart at any moment but marvelously, when you hit the the heights, they don’t.
From listening to Pink Flag, it’s perhaps impossible to tell that the band was actually not very talented. Wire was an idea band. The beautiful tube crunch and crisp percussion they managed to get on record were intellectual fruit. You begin by thinking to yourself that the thing about Wire is that Wire is tight. The band itself ended up at tight because that was the only technical virtue in reach. Tightness is merely a manifestation of will. Tightness is its own sort of virtuosity. Crunch is a technical genius. Rhythmic swing is an accidental gift. “12XU” has all that — a doy — since it’s on Pink Flag.
“12XU” is idiomatically speaking one of the album’s heights. It doesn’t have the sexy exuberance of “Strange” or the majesty of “Ex Lion Tamer”. It’s not as effortless as “Fragile”, or as funny as “Start To Move”. What it is is a strangely thrilling distillation of an already heavily distilled musical experience. The snatches of lyrics — “Saw in you in a mag / Kissing a man” and “I got you in a corner / I got you in a corner / I got you in a corner” — sound somewhat political, somewhat aggressive, and somewhat sinister all at once. Musically, as the book points out, the song doesn’t really use traditional chords, though it sounds like it’s using truncated power chords: the root and the fifth. I’m pretty sure most songs on Pink Flag don’t really use complicated chords, so this isn’t a big deal. The bigger musical deal is that on “12XU”, Wire has provided the template for all manner of hell raising, from the noxious punk a few years down the road, to the indie rock of a few years after that, all the way to the sort of aimless, bridgeless guitar skronk that’s been able to subsist, nowadays, against the more immediate and visceral allure of dance-infused (and xstep) rap-pop that marks the point of popular and critical convergence. It’s a wonder anyone uses guitars at all.
Another thing is, though, that I’ve never listened to Pink Flag without wanting immediately to pick up a guitar and play.
This has been a terrible year for guitar rock. Even if you don’t go as far as Jon Caramanica (“at this point rock is becoming a graveyard of aesthetic innovation and creativity, a lie perpetrated by major labels, radio conglomerates and touring concerns”), it’s pretty clear that the most exciting thing to happen to rock was for it to just fucking relax for a minute.
Wire — authors of perhaps the best rock album of all-time, remember — couldn’t even sustain the unbelievably high energy level (and savant-like puissance) of Pink Flag. They’d take an already artistic take on punk and sublime it more and more over two subsequent albums. For chrissake, the credits to 154 list players for alto flute, electric viola, synthesizer, and cor anglais. It took less than two years (and exactly 154 gigs) for Wire to burn bright and then undergo that drastic chemical process that leaves you with something, well, else.
Every song on Pink Flag is timeless. It sort of seems like that descriptor gets tossed without concern for safety all around the critical landscape. More than a few critics have suffered some gristly lawn darts-esque injuries to their credibility by using the term indiscriminately. Still, I’d place a wager of all my critical capital on Pink Flag sounding as fresh and exciting today, right this moment, as it did when it was created. If you got the Jonas Brothers to re-release Pink Flag, it would immediately become the most popular rock album of the nascent decade. (Not a high bar, I understand.) The album is fucking fresh. On those terms, any song on the album — even its last one — is going to be a doozy. So it’s cool that “12XU” rises above its legacy status and grabs the brass ring on its own merits. Its most notable aspect, at times for me, is its almost demure self-censorship. Wire wrote an album in the grand English tradition of hating virtually everything about England, but it couldn’t say “fuck” on the count in. When it came time to write a chorus, they didn’t. When they were only half way done with writing the words, they stopped. Like a lot of Pink Flag’s songs, it’s a song entirely marked off by negative space. But at the same time, “12XU” sounds as present as a pie in the face. Even at less than two minutes, it’s twice as long as many of its cohorts. To slip into useful cliche, there’s a lot of there there. It’s a sonically intriguing song that’s never not muscular. A fitting eulogy for the end of the band’s first, best act. Again, if you think about it, Pink Flag is intellectual enough. Politics and ideas aside, it’s an aesthetically challenge; at the same time, it rots the sweet tooth of any rock fan. I could listen to any of its songs on one-track repeat all day, and at this point I’ve listened to “12XU” about twenty times. I’ll never tire of hearing it. It marks the instant, frozen in time and encoded forever (one hopes) in ones and zeroes, where one of the brightest bands burned brightest.