Wire were never much for fan service. On the televised performance captured on the Wire on the Box: 1979 CD/DVD set, bassist Graham Lewis bats away an audience member’s demand for “I Am the Fly” by gravely informing him, “We don’t play requests,” like a boarding-school headmaster telling an orphan there’s no more porridge. That philosophy has served them well: The UK art-punk pioneers have thrived for the better part of 45 years by largely avoiding the things that 45-year-old bands do to stay in the newsfeed, like anniversary tours, trendspotting collaborations, or self-mythologizing biopics. Wire don’t give the people what they want so much as what they think they deserve.
But while Wire have always been paragons of anti-nostalgia, they also recognize that a lot of the stuff that gets left off their albums takes on a life of its own, acquiring a mythic status among fans that its creators never quite intended. And though they haven’t been shy about bringing castaway material to market via live albums or modernized re-recordings, Wire’s latest move constitutes their most extreme act of pride-swallowing to date: They’re giving an official release to an old bootleg they once wished never existed, but have come to recognize as a valuable snapshot of their evolution in its most dramatic phase.
On their 1977 debut, Pink Flag, Wire made a convincing case for being the world’s first hardcore band, setting new standards in brevity and velocity that the likes of Minor Threat would later use as their starting point. But within its opening seconds, 1978’s Chairs Missing reduced that legacy to an afterthought, introducing a more patient yet more peculiar strain of avant-pop that, with 1979’s 154, opened up into vast expanses of synth-frosted ambience and mutant prog. Cue up these three albums back to back to back, and you could be forgiven for wondering if you were still listening to the same group. But when it first surfaced on some fly-by-night imprint in the early ’80s, the unauthorized Not About to Die revealed a steady linear trajectory connecting albums that seemed to be separated by leaps and bounds. Comprising cassette demos passed around the EMI offices circa 1978-79, Not About to Die functions as a real-time document of a band caught between the idea of cranking out Pink Flag II and the reality that they were already getting bored of punk.
The songs collected here have dribbled out on various official releases over the years, whether through now out-of-print compilations or as reissue bonus tracks. This edition of Not About to Die brings them to vinyl for the first time, presenting a standalone “lost” album that provides a clear, chronological view of Wire’s metamorphosis in the late ’70s. And while the new remastering job can’t completely mask the album’s dubbed-cassette roots, the wobbly fidelity is ultimately overpowered by the kinetic thrill of the most innovative band of punk’s first wave. Of Not About to Die’s 18 songs, only half wound up seeing official release at the time, and the rest damn well deserved to.