Royal Festival Hall, London, UK (February 28, 2000)
"Who's Colin Newman? Who's Colin Newman?"
That was the question on the lips of more than a few of the people to whom I tried to flog a copy of my 'zine Cracked Machine, in the pages of which lurks an interview with Mr. Bastard himself.
Strange, I'd expected the place to be heaving with Wire bores like myself who can sing all the songs and expound at length on the obvious influence of Dome on a modern musical modernity in the post-modern metaversical abstract (translation for people who don't read Resonance magazine: "Ho! Sounds like Dome!"). But no! Because contradictions will arrive with every step and turn: many appear to be playing the part of the mildly curious voyeur, witness to an unpredictable, rapidly unfurling fact.
Preceding Wire 'beat combo' interaction, Mute records mini-mogul Daniel Miller and Seth Hodder multiplied Wire back catalogue by itself in a DJ set, during which I nipped out to the balcony to fill my lungs with muggy Thames air. Here, a surprisingly large number of people were ignoring the epochal events inside to indulge in the dying art of conversation.
"What was all that about then?" asked one young wag, "Who on earth was that fellow and what was his problem?"
The man in question was a naturalised Swede by the name of Edvard Graham Lewis, erstwhile unnaturalised Wire bassist, last seen on stage delivering a bombastic denunciation of the gathered throng whilst his accomplices Susan Stenger (Brood instigator and ex-Band of Susans) and Andreas Karperyd (of Omala) whipped up a ravishing noise storm on bass and laptop respectively. His problem, as far as I could tell, seemed to have something to do with money.
"Oh no, he's not in Wire is he? They're going to be crap aren't they? Do you know if they'll play I Am The Fly? Think they'll do any of their Elastica covers?"
Well at least it seems some of the younger folk here had a healthy disrespect for the 'living legends' shtick with which the Festival Hall publicists have saddled Wire. A bit like Wire themselves. There goes Robert (Gotobed) Grey harvesting his organic sprouts—another legendary first! As for my predictions for the main event I'd have bet on one of two extremes: either an updated breakneck sprint through Pink Flag in its entirety or the typical trick of replacing the old with the new. Or even, perhaps, replacing the old with the moon...
Hiding sharpish behind a column between SALE and ZDRK, in a drunken instant I found myself whisked back to my seat where the kings of Elgaland and Vargaland were waving benignly to us from a two dimensional projected podium. Elgaland and Vargaland are areas of previously international ocean claimed by Leif Elgren and CM von Hausswolff, conceptual sound artists with surreal monarchist pretensions. Who do they think they are? Bleedin' dolphins?
A couple a few rows away rose in honour of their pretend sovereigns. Suddenly the lights came up and we were sold up the river to the red slave trade. Synchronise watches... here they are again... Wire!
I almost choke with glee as the unmistakable Reuters riff rings out. Except I'm mistaken, it's actually Pink Flag. Having drunk the best part of a bottle of whiskey, saving the worst part for later, I excuse myself such a recognition faux pas.
The song is stripped of its drum rolls, pared back to pure click track precision. Two guitars, bass and drums and nothing else: the profound simplicity of art pop perfection. Lewis' bass has grown a head since his He Said spot and Colin keeps strumming his trademark semi-round body Ovation guitar. Robert Grey doesn't go to bed anymore; too busy making African drums and organic farming. He sits bolt upright throughout and propels Wire with incisive mechanical beats and almost inhuman hi-hat exactness. His fine honed musculature encloses a powerhouse of cyberman proportions. And he makes it all look so effortless (practice makes perfect).
If Robert is the essential heartbeat of Wire, Colin and Graham provide the song-form spine. Often, especially on the earlier songs, bass and guitar seem to trade melodic and rhythmic roles. The process is organic, almost imperceptible, and the band as a whole renders much of the old material in the set tougher texturally than the recorded counterparts.
Bruce Gilbert's guitar playing is the element that often lifts Wire into otherworldly dimensions. Whilst the rest of the band strike out, sometimes frenetically, building sheer blocks of rhythmic tension, Bruce hangs angular strums and filigree plucked chords scintillating in the air, a harmonic interaction at best possessed by genius, at least utterly unique. On some of the earlier material the three guitars merge into a sonic maelstrom only surpassed by Glenn Branca's guitar orchestra. Ultimately it's this simple yet devastatingly effective manoeuvre which lifts Wire above mere rock/pop.
They're headlong into Ahead when I realise its actually Silk Skin Paws they're playing. I stagger from my seat into the aisle, singing along merrily. "I can't have you standing here," a slightly worried looking usher tells me. I try to shift the blame to the worm in the bottle but she doesn't seem to understand so I return to my seat, singing along merrily. Meanwhile 40 Versions are all dying to get the part and quite soon a schism with an 'ism' occurs. Boiling Boy contains the lyric that perhaps best describes the raison d'etre of Wire: "He transferred his soul to his imagination, his atoms were excited and he glowed in the dark."
Bruce doesn't glow in the dark, though, at least not this evening. He may have locked up his hat earlier, but that's his business. As he hunches over his guitar, seemingly oblivious to the requests for German Shephards flying at him from several directions, he does look quietly satisfied. But then Bruce always seems to look quietly satisfied. Graham wields his bass almost weapon-like, legs akimbo, haughty and imperious. When not singing quality surreal couplets such as "A total eclipse arrives now and Niagra falls," and "I'd rather make furniture than go to midnight mass," Colin leans low and prowls the stage.
The first of two new songs, The Art of Persistence, has been built from the stripped chassis of Ally In Exile. In its early draft it sounds like something from Colin Newman's Not to album, or maybe a spectral presence from another reality in which Wire continued to record together throughout the early eighties. As such it is pure eardrum buzz. Colin abandons his guitar to deliver the Lowdown, perhaps the song most faithful to its original recording. Then it was the Pink Flag song they retained in the live set the longest (barring ironic 12XU exhumations).
I start to think it would be very nice to hear Mercy, and I am not to be disappointed. It eventually crashes over us like a tidal wave, and is the high point of a nigh on flawless set. Eager fans holler requests, oblivious to the fact that Wire probably can't hear them from the other end of the large hall. "Please don't play Mr. Suit," yells one silly sod. Wasn't me, honest.
Abandoned now the grass grows out of the head and groin of the dome. Men in white with an advantage in height bearing fish bones and a mad man's honey stride by, in appearance unique and in action delivered. Mesmerised hearts beat slowly. Bruce leaves his guitar to drone a while and a white clad dancer glides into his deserted right hand position. As Colin abandons his central station the first dancer slips into his shoes and another takes on the role of the Bruce ghost. Graham leaves next and a triad of pale replicas completes its semi-circle. Robert waits patiently behind the drum kit. Is this some surreal critique of Wire copyists? A calculated subversion of the encore cliché? An indication that whilst the various members of Wire may go their separate ways, the spirit of their collective endeavour will always remain? Or just an arty bit of mime that gives them time to cool off for a few minutes before their inevitable return?
On returning, another new song unfolds. He Knows is the most reflective moment of the performance; the calm before the storm. Pretty soon we're Being Sucked In Again. Something Strange is going on as A Serious Of Snakes slither back into the past to the heart of ancient Persia. Another the Letter, Mercy and Two People in a Room flash by in a glorious blur. I'm not sure if I'm dreaming. I realise that I've travelled down to London to shout out various shipping areas and insults such as tulip and pea brained earwig in the Royal Festival Hall, without fear of censure. For such cultural originality Wire must surely be congratulated. All too soon it's almost over as that little number 12XU inevitably hurtles by. Oh no, no, no!
But that's not the end of this review. Oh no, you don't get away that quickly! I haven't told you about Immersion, Michael Clark and the vintage Wire film footage, so sit down.
Sarah Bernhardt's hand gripped me in icy panic: Practice Makes Perfect was leaking out of the auditorium and I was stuck outside behind too many people as ushers ushered way too slow. By the time I realised it was only a film I was missing the relief was palpable. It crossed my mind that they might have decided to play at the start of the event to give Robert time to get back to the farm for an early morning awakening.
The film was nearly over by the time I took my seat, but it was nice to see Colin's neck dislocating tortured birthday teddy impressions. These days he's happy to bob his head from side to side a little slower, but then Immersion weren't exactly playing speed metal. What the hell am I on about? Immersion weren't playing speed metal at all. They have about as much to do with speed metal as a polar bear stranded on an iceberg. But they weren't stranded on an iceberg either. Colin and his wife Malka Spigel were stranded at the back of a huge stage, cluttered with music making gear glowing with the promise of future performance potentials. Realising that the spectacle of two people in a very large room fiddling about with a mixer and suchlike is rather less exciting than the old beat combo routine, they wisely turned their backs on the audience and utilised the cinema screen backdrop to it's full potential.
A series of Swim related digital images floated by, including a photo of Colin holding up a canvas on which various messages appeared. A few chortles were heard when it read, 'Everything after Pink Flag sucks'. Images of Malka's plastic fish and swimming pools might have been a little obvious, but they fit the music well. Dahab and Days Under The Sun are definite highlights of their recent Low Impact CD on which they extend the more textural elements of their previous output. It was good to hear this stuff loud since my stereo simply can't handle the bass frequencies at high volume, although Immersion turned out to be the quietest turn of the evening.
Things certainly took a turn for the daft when Michael Clark's face loomed up on the big screen, gurning like an early seventies Dr Who villain and biting the head off a rose bush. Graham Lewis wrote the plant gobbler's score and was soon up there in person. His trio performed an eclectic set in front of a repeating loop of a train chugging slowly by. A curious coincidence occurred here: Immersion had used footage of an old tube train earlier. He said a sly dedication to 'the trainspotters' before singing a song about being hung up to dry whilst building an arch. Anyway, I spotted the reference to an old Gilbert & Lewis instrumental, but I refused the derisive trainspotter tag. If you must, it's a Wire bore I've become. Hum, hum... hum, hum. Bore, like a drill bores.
And that's how it all ended. As 12XU abruptly cut out, the big screen flickered to life and a virtual Wire phantom dugga dugga dugga'd back in from some Stateside eighties TV spot. Drill had been perhaps the set's most obvious omission, but Wire was hardly going to let the event recede without just a little monophonic monorhythmic repetition. Then a priceless celluloid Wire moment: the daffy blonde presenter thrusts a microphone under Bruce's nose and asks him to introduce the band. Robert is introduced as the band's farming expert and Graham their anthropological consultant. But not even Bruce can remember who that other bloke is. He's just someone he bumped into on the street that day. And over the USA, great urban angels howled, "Who's Colin Newman? Who's Colin Newman?"
Wire's on its way there in May to set them right back.
Photography: Fergus Kelly