Royal Festival Hall, London, UK (February 28, 2000)
The concert took place at the Royal Festival Hall, on the South Bank of the Thames. It is an amazing place—not really a rock venue at all—it's actually a kind of cross between a museum and an opera hall; very posh with box seats on the side, plus an actual Royal box that was made use of in a typically absurdist manner.
But first, a quick note in regard to posh English concert halls—there are bars everywhere! There was a big pub on the main floor, open to everyone. No roped-off area like you might expect in America. They also sell alcohol in small bars just off to the side of each entry level in the hall. Not just beer, either—but real liquor! And you could take it with you to your seat, so long as you kept it in a plastic cup. So, you have to imagine this really fancy, plush hall, with a crowd of people carrying plastic cups of beer—definitely an odd picture for me, anyway.
The show began precisely at 7:30, as promised on the ticket. The hall went dark and a projection screen began showing the Rockpalast German TV broadcast of a live studio Wire concert from 1978. The German TV audience looked stunned by what they were seeing, which was a very skinny bloke playing drums; a forceful leather-clad punk playing bass, challenging each member in the audience with his eye contact; a singer dressed in a white shirt and tie, playing a strange Vox white guitar jumping around like a demented mannequin of a businessman; and a guitarist staring at his instrument like he had never seen one before and had only been just introduced. The songs were short, abrupt, arty, brutal, and just plain strange. Yet somehow they were recognisable as pop music; it was as if someone had given an instruction manual on how to play earth pop/rock music to an alien race, and we were watching the broadcast.
The video concluded, and Immersion took the stage. Now, Wire has always been more of an idea than an actual band, so there are many solo projects from three of the members (the drummer being mostly concerned with organic farming outside of Wire). Therefore, the opening acts for the show were two of the solo projects from the lead singer/guitarist and the bassist—Immersion and He Said, respectively.
Immersion consists of the lead singer, Colin Newman and his wife, Malka Spigel. They entered the darkened theatre and stood at the bottom of the video screen, with their back to the audience, never moving from that spot, never turning to face the audience, never even acknowledging our presence. Actually, this was fine because that would have detracted from the visuals and the sound. Immersion is basically trance/ambient techno. They created huge swells of sound, and showed huge still pictures and looped videos on the screen. The pictures were stark close-ups of everyday objects, usually with bright, primary colours.
This was all quite enjoyable and totally different from what was to come, which was a disturbing video of an androgynous naked figure screaming mutely, while hardcore industrial music played. Welcome to He Said. The band came out while the video played. This version of He Said consisted of Wire's bassist, Edvard Graham Lewis on bass guitar and vocals, Susan Stenger (from Band of Susans) also on bass guitar and Andreas Karypyd on a Macintosh Powerbook. They had a heavy industrial sound, and a video accompaniment. The videos consisted of things like trains running, or windmills spinning, looped endlessly. Very modern visuals - sort of like a demented industrial training film. Their set ended with Lewis screaming at us "YOUR LACK OF RESPECT APPALLS ME!" Then the sound cut abruptly and they left the stage.
Next came the weakest part of the evening—two 'DJs', playing loops consisting of snippets of Wire tracks, while a single white dot blinked on the screen. Occasionally, a second dot would join the first. Most of the audience left to get more alcohol. An interesting note about this, though, was that one of the DJs was Mute Records boss, Daniel Miller.
Then, an announcement was made: "This show is in the honour of The King of Elgerland-Vargerland, HRH Carl-Michael Von Hausswolff." A spotlight came on, turned toward the Royal theatre box, illuminating a figure dressed in white, with what looked like a belt around his head. Some weird orchestral music played, like a twisted Pomp and Circumstance while the figure waved at the audience, accompanied by two more figures on the video screen, also waving at the audience.
And, now, another little side note—this time about Wire. From 1977 to 1979, the band cut three cutting-edge albums. Only the first could be called 'punk rock'. By the second and third albums, Wire had moved beyond that tag into a strange, arty minimalist style. Then the band broke up, only to reform in 1986 with a lush, electronic, synthesiser driven sequenced sound. Then in 1991 they broke up again. On the basis of the solo projects, I was expecting a lot of technology.
Well, after the spotlight faded on the King, the stage lights came on, and Wire hit the stage. They began with a revamped version of one of their 1977 songs, Pink Flag. No video, no other tricks. Just the four members, playing as if it were 1977 again—totally stripped down and raw, much like the German television experience, but older and wiser. They presented the same sort of image—skinny guy drumming; vicious looking, but older, bass player; lead singer still playing the Vox guitar, but not bobbing quite as much as he used to; and another guitarist still staring at his instrument like he'd just met it. There were no sequencers or keyboards at all. This made some of the musical numbers from the 1986-1989 period sound a little strange, but it was still fascinating. By the time they reached the end of their first set, Heartbeat, a dancer named Michael Clark and two members of his dance troupe came out, dressed only in white, and did an interpretative, modern dance around Wire while they played. As Wire played the final parts of Heartbeat, the guitarists and the bass player slowly left the stage one by one, until only the drummer and the dancers remained. The drummer continued to thump out a heartbeat-like rhythm on his kick drum, then even he left. All that remained were the silently moving, white-clad dancers.
Then the video screen flicked back to life. Another video from a television show appeared—American television this time. A hilarious video from Fox's The Late Show with Joan Rivers was shown on which Wire appeared during the '80s. Wire performed the song Drill and was then interviewed by the guest host, Suzanne Sommers, who obviously had no idea who they were. Here's a sample quote (courtesy of Howard Spencer):
Suzanne Sommers: "Would you like to introduce the band?"
Bruce Gilbert (guitarist): "Certainly. On my right we have Graham Lewis, our anthropological expert." (At this point the camera cut to Lewis who was videotaping everyone with a handheld camcorder.) "Behind me is Robert Gotobed, our agricultural expert." (Close-up of Gotobed, looking like a deer caught in headlamps.) "And this is Colin Newman, who I've only met."
Sommers: (nervous laugh) "So you picked him up on the street?"
Gilbert: "That's right!"
The video over, Wire slowly came back to finish the song, at which point the dancers slowly left. Wire had begun the second half of the show, but now with video accompaniment from a live camera pointed at a circular mirror behind the band. This gave the appearance of a fish-eye's view from behind the band, looking out at the audience.
Mercy was the last song in the second set. They put down their instruments, waved at everyone, and left the stage. Wire came back a few minutes later for the first encore—Two People in a Room. Then they left again. The audience demanded a second encore, which was duly given. Colin Newman, pausing before beginning what would be Wire's last song of the evening, stood at the microphone listening to the audience shout for a few seconds. He leaned into the mic and said "Well, you can shout all you like, but you won't be able to shout... 12XU!" Bash, boom, 12XU, and then the show was over. It was 11 pm precisely.
I managed to pick up a T-shirt, a pink flag in a plastic dome, and a new CD from their rehearsals for 35 pounds. And, then it was really over.
In retrospect, I think the show didn't quite live up to the expectations I'd had. However, I'm not sure if anything really could. I mean, I flew all the way from Seattle to see the show, and I was probably expecting the Second Coming or something. Still, it was an amazing night, and I'll probably be talking about it for years to come.
One for the books, really.
Paul A. Pietromonaco
Photography: Fergus Kelly