#412: Wire, "Pink Flag" (1977)

“No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones,” Joe Strummer and Mick Jones harmonize—if that’s the right word—on “1977,” the B-side of the Clash’s first single, “White Riot.” With one catchy, singalong chorus, they clear away twenty-three years of (white) rock hegemony; the song’s very title is a call to look to the present, not the past, for pop vitality. The Clash record the song in February, 1977, and CBS releases it a month later. It isn’t the first U.K. punk 45—that was “New Rose” by the Damned, in 1976—but punk hasn’t yet spread far beyond New York and London. Still, Mark Perry has already claimed in his fanzine, Sniffin’ Glue, that “Punk died the day the Clash signed to CBS.”

During a late 1970 White House trip, Elvis Presley tells President Richard Nixon that the Beatles are a primary cause of youth drug use and anti-American protest, and leaves Washington with an honorary DEA badge—though the Beatles, of course, officially split eight months earlier, via a press release from Paul McCartney and a report in the Daily Mirror the next day. In 1977, Elvis, overweight and stupefied on a cocktail of Demerol, Desbutal, Dexedrine, Dilaudid, Placidyl, Quaalude, and other drugs, spends most days in his Graceland bedroom. (“The medicine within me / no doctor could prescribe,” he sings on “Way Down”—his last single, released in June, 1977—though Dr. George Nichopolous writes scripts, according to Joel Williamson’s Elvis Presley: A Southern Life, “for him for at least 8,805 pills, tablets, vials, and injectables” in the first eight months of 1977.) On August 16, paramedics find Elvis, in mismatched pajamas, dead on the floor of his bathroom. For decades, his fans believe that he staged his own death to escape the pressures of fame. The first Elvis sighting occurs on August 18, 1977: he is seen pumping gas into his Cadillac at a service station in Georgia.

In 1977, John Lennon, living in the Dakota on the Upper West Side, spends “entire days in bed, blaming his ill health on sugar, wine, tobacco, and marijuana, all of which he continually vowed to give up, though he lacked the willpower to do so,” according to writer Geoffrey Giuliano. Yoko Ono flies to Colombia with her Tarot reader to visit a “witch,” whom she pays sixty thousand dollars to perform rituals to help her husband’s flagging career. Upon her return, Lennon meditates, practices yoga and self-hypnosis, and resumes a macrobiotic diet. A month later, inspired by The 700 Club, Lennon announces to his friends that he’s been born again. In the Virgin Islands, Paul and Linda McCartney stay on a yacht in Watermelon Bay, recording songs for a forthcoming Wings album. George Harrison, in a 1977 television interview, calls promoter Bill Sargent’s fifty million dollar offer for the Beatles to reunite “crazy, you know? It’s trying to put the responsibility of making the world a wonderful place again onto the Beatles. You know, I think that’s unfair. I know a lot of people like the Beatles, but it’s like, eight years ago we split up, and it’s like difficult, you know?” Ringo, in an interview of his own, claims that he’s “getting happier all the time.”

In February, 1977, the Rolling Stones sign a four-album, $14 million contract with EMI Records. “None of it’s got anything to do with money, oddly enough,” Mick Jagger claims in a Rolling Stone interview later that year. “I mean, it translates itself into money, but none of us are greatly concerned with making money.… I just try to make the best music I can.” (Addressing his “staunchest critics, the English punk rockers,” Jagger says, “I think the Sex Pistols have copped out. Now they’re on the front of Rolling Stone. That’s a real cop-out. I mean, if I were Johnny Rotten, I wouldn’t do either. I’d tell them to go fuck themselves. But that’s not important. The important thing is the Sex Pistols are all right, and all that. Not a bad band, not the best…”) Keith Richards is arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who find an ounce of heroin in his Toronto hotel room. (Asked by Rolling Stone if the band will tour if Richards goes to jail, Jagger responds, “If he were in jail for a long period of time, I suppose we’d have to. We can’t wait five years. In five years we won’t be touring at all…”)

Nostalgia is an easy target in 1976 and 1977: in the aftermath of Nixon’s resignation and the fall of Saigon, the United States celebrates its Bicentennial with a safe, selective reading of its history. The American Freedom Train, painted red, white, and blue, carries historical artifacts (George Washington’s copy of the Constitution, Paul Revere’s saddlebags, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s robes, John F. Kennedy’s draft of his inauguration speech) and Americana (the dress Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz, a pair of Joe Louis’s boxing trunks, moon rocks) throughout the continental U.S. In Vincent Collins’s cartoon Bicentennial, produced by the United States Information Agency, a bald eagle hatches from an American flag egg with the sound of an explosion, and a cornucopia fires Model Ts, hamburgers, hot dogs, television sets, and baseballs from its mouth.

Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee prompts a similar outpouring of national pride. Bonfires are lit the length of the country from one the Queen ignites at Windsor Castle; a million people line the route to St. Paul’s cathedral to watch the royal family roll past in a golden carriage, on their way to a thanksgiving service, and another five hundred million tune in on TV; street parties are held across the country.

In such contexts, and in the context of 1970s rock, slagging Elvis, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones is neither revolutionary nor interesting, and pretty soon the tropes and gestures of punk have ossified nearly as much as those of classic rock. I don’t want to indulge fantasies of authenticity, but still, what sounded—or, let’s be honest, looked—fresh and intriguing in 1975 and 1976 is quickly co-opted and commodified by 1977. (“They walk around together / and try and look trendy / I think it’s a shame / that they all look the same,” Dan Treacy observes in 1978, in the Television Personalities’ “Part Time Punks.”)

In December, 1977, Wire release Pink Flag—maybe the last punk LP, maybe the first post-punk LP. In either case, it’s a necessary corrective to both classic rock and punk orthodoxies. Art-school graduates, the band (Bruce Gilbert, Robert Gotobed, Graham Lewis, Colin Newman) have taught themselves to play their instruments since forming the previous year. The record begins not with a jolt, but a plucked bass note and slowly building drums: this song, called “Reuters,” offers the report of “our own correspondent”—“prices have risen since the government fell, casualties increase as the enemy shell.…”—and indicates the cool detachment with which Wire approach songcraft. “It’s So Obvious,” a fifty-two second surge, makes the Ramones sound slow and makes the Clash’s B-side from earlier in the year sound like straightforward rock and roll. If those bands are punk, what is this?  The guitars crunch, the bass gallops along, the drums tick without flourish. But the lyrics express disgust mainly via the tone of voice in which they’re delivered. Colin Newman yelps, “This is ’77, nearly heaven, it’s black white and pink, just think, there’s more to come, hum hum hum hum, it’s so obvious. Well it’s all right, just listen, can’t wait for ’78, God those r.p.m., can’t wait for them, don’t just watch, hours happen, get in there kid, and snap them.” The entire presentation is precise-but-cryptic, almost an obscure mathematical expression. The best of the LP’s twenty-one tracks—only three of which exceed three minutes, and thirteen of which are half that length or less—consist of beguiling, stylized fragments: they’re at turns catchy, noisy, pretty, familiar, disorienting. The minute-twenty-five of “Mr. Suit” might be the origin of American hardcore, while the minute-nineteen of “Fragile” might be the most exquisite minimalist ballad of that era (at least, until Wire release “Outdoor Miner” in 1978).

“The whole idea around punk was that it was supposed to be new,” Colin Newman is quoted in Wilson Neate’s book, Pink Flag. “Where in 1977 it was failing in its promise was that it didn’t deliver anything new. Elements of punk were starting to look awfully like rock ’n’ roll, and that was the one thing I was totally convinced about: it didn’t matter what I was doing, it shouldn’t be rock ’n’ roll.”

Greil Marcus, in his 1978 Rolling Stone review of Pink Flag, pegged the band—the lyrics, in particular—as “almost hysterically Opaque” and “pointed straight toward art rock.” But what better response to an era of easy pronouncements and whitewashed histories than obscure utterances whose meanings can’t be diminished to the sloganeering of most punk—of most rock—much less the sloganeering of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic? I’ll take “Tears fall in slivers, you broke my shades, the light too bright, let me bury my heart” (from Pink Flag’s “Fragile”) over the single command I recall most vividly from the 1970s: “Have a Nice Day,” with the accompanying yellow smiley face.

In 1977, I begin first grade in Miss Charamella’s classroom at May Street School. What I know of pop music comes through the AM radio in my parents’ car, or the sixty or so LPs—Motown and Stax, folk, and, yes, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones—my mother’s younger brothers haven’t borrowed from her permanently. Like many others, I discover punk only well after the fact: and when I do, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the Clash, the Dead Boys, et. al., sound too obvious, too simple, too similar to the rock they allegedly deposed. Instead, I fall for Joy Division, the Slits, Swell Maps, Public Image Limited, Wire—the bands that follow the initial wave of punk, that twist and distort whatever expectations I bring to their music. I find Pink Flag at Rockit Records in the second half of the 1980s. Many of us believe, at least sometimes, we should have been born earlier: if, when I look back at it now, 1977 seems to involve so many fantasies—the fantasy of a reunited Beatles or an Elvis alive and well somewhere in hiding; the fantasy of a national past that never existed; or, in the cases of, say, disco or Star Wars, the fantasy of escaping a reality that feels boring—then maybe my fantasy is to have encountered Pink Flag when it came out, to have experienced it not just retrospectively. But the past is never the ideal time in which to have lived.

The Clash appropriate—homage or parody, take your pick—the sleeve art of Elvis’s first LP for their own London Calling in 1979, around the same time CBS promotes them as the “only band that matters,” and around the same time they maybe start believing it. That same year, Wire release 154, their third LP in three years, and on tour, as if to undercut rock’s reverence for past hits and crowd favorites, they play almost exclusively new material. And as McCartney did at the start of the decade, the band offers a statement to the British music press effectively announcing their break-up in business terms—a split from their label, which becomes a lengthy hiatus as band members pursue various solo and side projects. Mike Thorne, Wire’s producer and unofficial fifth member in the late ’70s, says that “The head of EMI put it quite succinctly. Something like, ‘A record company is not an Arts Council.’” It’s an easy observation, since the company is doing well via its other commodities. The Rolling Stones, still recording under that contract signed in 1977, release Some Girls in 1978, and its first single, “Miss You,” goes to #1 on the Billboard chart in the U.S. (“Beast of Burden” and “Shattered” also make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1978 and 1979.)

As the elections of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 demonstrate, cultural nostalgia is a potent force. If ostensibly forward-thinking punk fans and music critics can’t be bothered with interpreting ambiguities in a Wire song, then certainly the flag-waving revelers and paradegoers of 1976 and 1977 don’t “want to have,” as President Jimmy Carter infamously invites them in one televised speech, “an unpleasant talk…about a problem unprecedented in our history,” or to be warned that “the oil and natural gas we rely on for seventy-five per cent of our energy are running out.” They don’t want to be told (as Carter does two years later, in his “Malaise Speech”) that the nation suffers a “crisis of confidence…that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will,” nor scolded that “human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns.” They don’t want, during a series of strikes in the coldest winter in recent memory, to hear Prime Minister James Callaghan return from the Caribbean to claim that only a “parochial view” of labor unrest suggests there is “mounting chaos” in England. No, they want a smiling, rugged former movie star—or a no-nonsense, tough-talking grocer’s daughter— to tell them that everything is okay, that everything will be okay, that nothing is required of them but a little cheerful hard work: Have a Nice Day.

—Joshua Harmon