Jul 13

Wire: “Ex Lion Tamer”

Wire -- Pink Flag

Click the image for a somewhat bizarre, unwitting recreation of this album cover by the folks at the Old Fort in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Wire’s 1977 debut album, Pink Flag, is perhaps the greatest blending of punk and art-rock ever released (not to be confused with the bloated art-rock of bands like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; Wire is, more accurately, art-punk). Regardless of its specific sub-genre, it is one of the all-time great punk albums — taut, terse, and to the point, its 21 songs blow by in something like a blur. Yet the album feels more “crafted” than other albums from the original punk era — no song feels completely tossed off, every note feels like it has a point.

Wire went on to continue to expand upon the “art” portion of that equation on future albums, with excellent results at first over their next couple, but getting progressively more hit-or-miss as they moved away from the directness of the punk power chords. Nonetheless, they were extremely influential on scores of bands that followed: R.E.M. (who covered this album’s “Strange” on Document); Guided by Voices (a significant portion of Robert Pollard’s songs sound like they’re based on “Outdoor Miner” from Wire’s second album, Chairs Missing); Elastica (who lifted the intro and underlying riff of their hit, “Connection,” directly from this album’s “Three Girl Rhumba”); and many more.

For a long time, my favorite song from Pink Flag was the 1:58 whirlwind, “1 2 X U,” which ends the album. And while I still love it, over time it has been replaced in that position by the anthemic “Ex Lion Tamer,” which ultimately has greater depth and for my money is simply one of the high points in the entire history of punk. It’s a cynical jab at those who would live their lives via television rather than in the real world:

There’s great danger
For the loneliest ranger in town
No silver bullets
Tonto’s split the scene
Next week will solve your problems
But now, fish fingers all in a line
The milk bottles stand empty
Stay glued to your T.V. set

Just as relevant (maybe more so) today as it was then, right down to the fish sticks — although it would have been expanded to “Stay glued to your computer/smartphone/tablet.” But that wouldn’t have fit into the song’s meter nearly as well. And why that seemingly unrelated title? Well, the best I can determine is that the song was originally about a lion tamer, but then it got a complete overhaul, at least lyrically, hence making it ex-“Lion Tamer.” Although it really doesn’t matter, since, to paraphrase Shakespeare (in a way he would have had trouble imagining), “Ex Lion Tamer” by any other name would sound as awesome.

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