Pink Flag isn’t punk. But of course it is.
There was once a group of young British art students who were already tired of punk music and culture, and wanted to take it to the next level. They decided to analytically inspect the art around them and reinvent it in a new, alien form. This collective clinically dissected the tropes and formulas of punk rock, and applied them in scrambled, uncannily intuitive ways. The crucial factor was that the songs were still blistering, fun, and catchy, while serving up all their ideas in a startlingly concise manner. Years later, they are still known for bearing the standard of short songs, frequently eschewing unnecessary repetition and even typical pop tune structure. Their terse, oblique method of writing developed a certain artsy mystique – they would sometimes start a chorus, only to finish one line and never repeat it. Other times, their verse would merge with the bridge and continue on and a chorus would never arrive. Occasionally, the verse would be the chorus. And on and on. Deconstruction at work. Equally bizarre was the subject choice – thus far, punk was a young man’s domain, all about dissatisfaction, fun and rebellion. These musicians wrote lyrics about radio programs, the end of the world, tabloids, decay and concepts that are too obtuse and veiled to really guess. Sentences and ideas run together with little of an overarching concept. The music was still loud, fast and simple, but also contained the seeds of change. Tempos would start and stop, guitars were overdubbed, sometimes playing very tonally complex parts, the vocals delivered in the obligatory sneer but with a cold, enigmatic air to them. It seemed at first glance to come from the heart, but upon closer inspection, something was definitely off. The audience was being manipulated. The bizarre distance this band created between content, appearance, subject and sound became readily apparent, creating a highly innovative attitude and aesthetic. With the advent of the movement they helped to build (commonly called post-punk), song structures and pop traditions were being transparently pulled apart and defied. However, these cultural hijackings were often deployed in the guise of old-school music styles, making a strange new strain of guitar rock. In terms of influence, they were giants. A later band called Minor Threat took the extremely sparse, aggressive aesthetic of this album and created hardcore punk. This group also illustrated what happened when two completely contrasting ideologies were smashed together. They made progressive punk, upholding ideals from both mindsets in an act of spectacular cognitive dissonance. Furthermore, their playing skill is excellent. It is my opinion that Pink Flag boasts one of the most gratifying, multi-dimensional guitar tones you’ll find in rock and roll. The band would go on to produce two equally good albums that similarly satirized and deconstructed post-punk and goth music (Chairs Missing and 154, respectively). But Pink Flag was their biggest breakthrough. It sparked the increasing use of irony in pop music.
This band was called Wire. Few people have heard of them. They deserve to be heard by more.
Key track: “Strange”
See also: Marquee Moon – Television (1977)