Royal Festival Hall, London, UK (February 28, 2000)
I think most of us had got the punchline before the show even started. Here we gathered—a legion of Wire fans patiently waiting in Royal Festival Hall for the long anticipated return of the band. It was to be the latest and best of Wire's two-finger salutes to 'establishment', partially returning to the band's brash punk origins and unleashing it within the environment of the United Kingdom's premiere arts venue. Punk as high-art, once again? I suppose Bruce Gilbert would simply say it was the obvious thing to do.
An air of retrospect was prevalent. Apparently, Wire was to perform pieces from the '70s EMI albums only, but leaked reports from Dublin and Nottingham confirmed that this was not the case. However, we were first introduced to the '70s Wire with a sizeable chunk of the 1978 Rockpalast show. This was projected onto a large video screen at the back of the stage, allowing everyone to arrive, and giving Wire high standards to live up to. Having seen the video before, I wasn't really that interested—I wanted to see live, not pre-recorded stuff.
The video cut; two figures walked on stage and Immersion began. Low Impact audio was accompanied by video loops containing scenes of London and Malka's photography while Colin and Malka remained almost motionless on stage. It was evident that some live elements were being introduced, but impossible to tell what they were playing and what machines were playing.
They started subtly, perhaps tentatively, but finished well, the last piece being a combination of a gutsier audio track and a rather amusing video piece. Said piece was a black and white image of Colin holding a large white card over which various hand-written phrases were laid, 'Everything after Pink Flag sucks', 'What you see is what you get,' and some rather unsubtle advertising for Post Everything and Swim Team 1! As always, it proved the simplest ideas are often the best.
A short film followed, Susanah Akerland and Gunilla Leander's Universal Body, which had a Graham Lewis soundtrack. After this, the newly shaven-headed one wandered on to the stage along with cohorts Susan Stenger on bass guitar and Andreas Karperyd playing a Macintosh laptop.
He Said was also accompanied by visuals, although its set was more sonically oriented. The vast majority of the material was new or severely altered, taking elements from much of the Lewis back catalogue: grumbling rhythm tracks (presumably being mixed and manipulated by Karperyd), clanging bass-lines from Stenger, and obscure, deep vocals from Lewis. Bizarrely, the set was wrapped up in two truly horrible tracks, especially the utterly pretentious outro, which sounded like an art student had wandered into a poetry slam with all their misgivings, a tape of noise and a bass guitar. Presumably it was all part of the joke.
One thing that wasn't funny was DJxDJ, a combination of Daniel Miller and Seth Hodder manipulating Wire sound loops. In theory, this actually sounded pretty good and was initially interesting. Miller and Hodder were hidden in the darker recesses of the stage, so all one had to visually focus on was a flashing white circle on the video screen. Unfortunately, that circle fast became the most interesting thing in the room.
The problem was not the sound as such, just that they didn't really do enough with it. Playing one '80s Wire loop after another, cross-fading them into each other just wasn't enough to justify the amount of stage time.
Then 'royalty' was announced. One of the Kings of Elgerland-Vargerland, HRH Carl-Michael Von Hausswolff, appeared on a side balcony slowly waving at the crowd. Fake cheers erupted. The light went off. A white stage-light came on. Wire was back!
Those who had gone in cold and been following the 'greater Wire' for the past few years would have been in for a bit of a shock. There were no electronics, just the same level of honesty that Wire entered the '80s with: four blokes on a stage playing their music under a single coloured light. The difference was within the sound itself—somehow more powerful, more guttural than before.
A fantastic Pink Flag began the proceedings—the audience getting used to Wire becoming a rock band, or at least something similar. Silk Skin Paws then laid to rest the '70s only promise, offering a take on the track that stripped away the dirge-like layers of the original, leaving a more fragile, coherent and exciting sound.
So much for RFH being a seated venue...
Half-way through the first set we were introduced to Art of Persistence, a new piece that seemed to combine Ally in Exile and Witness to the Fact with Our Swimmer and Wire's new-found rocky edge to great effect.
A raucous, shortened Advantage in Height then closed part one, giving way to the background buzz of Heartbeat. One by one, Wire left the stage until Robert was left alone. People dressed in white then proceeded to move angularly round the stage; sometimes crawling around, other times mocking the band, striking poses in front of microphones.
Clark and company ape Wire
The lights dimmed and the video screen gave everyone Drill, along with Wire bemusing the host of a USA prime time TV show by Graham filming her with a camcorder and Bruce trying to convince her that Graham was Wire's 'anthropological expert', Robert was their 'agricultural consultant' and that they had just met Colin on the street corner (Colin: "I don't know these guys").
Wire returned. The people in white gradually left. The set began again; this time backed by a minimalist video of the back of the stage as projected into a mirror. Not exactly engaging, but the music more than made up for that. We heard another new song, He Knows, then Strange, A Serious of Snakes, Another the Letter, and Mercy. And then: nothing. Wire left.
Four people on a stage
One got the feeling that Wire would be lynched if it didn't return for at least one encore. Back they came for another piece: an annihilated version of Two People in a Room that was over in an instant. Then they went again and returned one more time, standing on stage listening to the baying crowd, just waiting for one of them to state the obvious choice of finale. Colin's retort: "Well, you can shout all you like, but you won't be able to shout... 12XU!" And so the quartet launched into the fastest version yet of Wire's seminal punk 'epic'.
At the end, little applause was in evidence as Wire shuffled off stage, Graham and Colin pausing briefly at a microphone to offer thank-yous.
Perhaps people were mesmerised, shocked, annoyed or elated. Perhaps they were all of these things. After all, as I have mentioned, this is one of the United Kingdom's premiere high-brow arts venues and Wire finished by playing a suitably mangled, upbeat version of its most dissonant punk 'epic'.
Personally, I thought it was hilarious.
Photography: Craig Grannell