flag:burning, Barbican, London, UK (April 26, 2003)
Nostalgia ain't what it used to be. Unlike past-it punk bands, wringing the dying gasps from a dated back catalogue, Wire has always sought to destroy its legend. And so it was with flag:burning, part of the Barbican's Only Connect series. The seminal Pink Flag LP was played in its entirety, echoing the absurdist nature of 2000's reformation gig at Royal Festival Hall: punk as high art. This time, others were in on the act, and Jake and Dinos Chapman yanked Wire's hallowed 'epic' album from its lofty heights, juxtaposing it with inane, smiling, sweaty youngsters doing step workouts on a projected backdrop.
Wire played on, seemingly oblivious to the Chapmans' joke, which, while amusing, rapidly wore thin. Was the aim to ridicule or bore? Wire members often comment that Pink Flag doesn't deserve the status many seem keen to bestow upon it. Such feelings evidently don't affect performance, though, and almost every track from the album was played with absolute precision; with some irony, the only slip came during The Commercial. Many tracks seemed oddly contemporary—showing just how far ahead of the game Wire was in 1977.
12XU blasted past, and with its final words, the lights were dimmed, but Wire didn't leave the stage. Surely Wire wasn't to provide an encore—Dot Dash for the CD-buying generation? Not at all—instead we discovered the true depths of the Chapmans' wry sense of humour, as several nubile bodies, clad in pink, took to the stage and treated us to a live aerobics show, backed by a powerful, updated version of Pink Flag.
Along with providing a much-needed punchline for the Chapmans, it demonstrated how far Wire has come since its reformation in 2000, and became a bridge to the band's new sound. Stripped and honed, Pink Flag sounded awesome, relegating the recently heard 1977 version—and by association, the entire album—to the history books.
Project Dark then spent forty minutes mangling various Wire tracks in the foyer while fans, old and new, anxiously waited for part two of the gig itself. On returning, we found Wire deconstructed, with each member of the band in their own 'box'. The lights dimmed and pulse rates appeared on the front of each. The opening hum of the epic 99.9 filled the room, threatening to deafen the audience; soon, Newman's box pulsed with light as he barked the infrequent text to the track.
Wire was fragmented, but its sound whole. The band never put a foot wrong, as various Send tracks bashed our ears into submission. Es Devlin's set-up evolved, blowing away the Chapmans' comparatively throwaway effort, just as Wire's music trampled its history to dust. Other Wire cages began to pulse with light, while Newman's projected mouth mimed words to another track. Eyes appeared on the boxes containing Lewis and Gilbert, and a nose on Grey's, while the cage backs began to glow with light from microscopic elements, swimming and swimming.
All too soon, it was over. The cages glowed red, and the pulses read zero. The audience screamed for an encore, but it was not to be. This was a precision event, and anything more (Drill in a box?) would have diluted everything.
Very rarely, you watch a live act and realise there is simply nowhere else to be. Flag:burning was one such occasion, and while Pink Flag is now crumbling ashes, Send rose majestically to take its place.
Photography: Mark McQuitty