flag:burning, Barbican, London, UK (April 26, 2003)
It's not the past again... or is it? Pink Flag and Send double delight for our delectation tonight: first and last, back-to-back. From the back of beyond to the front of the queue... lightning strikes twice, and once again, Wire will prove without question that they are well up for the challenge, such is their enthusiasm to embrace the concept of tonight's show, which, in part, is to 'reclaim' the classic Pink Flag from its iconic status—a celebration which will be 'erased' by the performance of Send. Celebrate/erase... I don't know, it all seems like a celebration really, especially for those who are positively salivating at the thought of hearing the beloved Pink Flag played in its entirety—a treat for any hardcore fan.
In the leaflet accompanying the show, novelist and critic Michael Bracewell gives us a potted history of Wire's approach to song construction and the live arena, stating how "Wire exchanged the traditional heroicism of live rock for the rhetoric of incitement, while remaining irresistibly entertaining," referring specifically to their infamous Jeannette Cochrane and Electric Ballroom appearances. He goes on to say how "flag:burning is entirely within Wire's mission to renew their creativity and their identity through disruption, disturbance and collaboration with other media and artists." This man talks the talk, but will Wire walk the walk? There is perhaps a danger in isolating these performances as possible indications of what to expect tonight, as they were part of a very different era, socially, politically and culturally. Given the present conservative cultural climate, it's hard to imagine The Barbican as the venue for genuine acts of transgression. Of course, none of this is overtly stated as part of the agenda, only vaguely hinted at, as a flavour to precede the proceedings.
With the deliberate conspiracy of silence surrounding what the so-called 'bad boys of Brit art', Jake and Dinos Chapman have in store for us, expectations are running high. Particularly when, in a Sunday Times interview, the Chapmans' only concession to an answer about their contribution was that "it will be slightly spiteful, entertaining, but on a bit of a sadistic register. Quite English." Quite. Will Wire be playing amongst some grotesquely mutated mannequins? Or will there be projections of hellish war footage? Nothing so literal: instead we got projections of endless step aerobics videos throughout the entire 21-song set, each song kicking off a different video.
This was mildly amusing for a few minutes, but as a concept, it was a thin joke that wore thinner and thinner as the set progressed. To this extent, when Wire played the C21 Pink Flag at the end of the set, the impact of the live pink-clad dancers (calling to mind the Document and Eyewitness cover), and flashing halogens that accompanied the song, though enjoyable, was considerably lessened, as we were so sick of watching aerobics videos. This meant that Wire were pushed right to the back of the stage for the entire set to allow space for the dancers. This didn't help, as it seemed to make it difficult to connect, from the point of view of both the band and the audience. Ironic that it should be part of a festival called Only Connect! Though perhaps the Chapmans hit their target: they pissed us off. Maybe that's where the notion of spitefulness comes into play. But sadistic? I don't think so. Perhaps they should have stuck with the idea of Pink Flag on ice...
That said, if you could screen out the videos, as I think a lot of people tried to do, the music was highly entertaining, as the boys were in top form, delivering the songs with the tautness and precision that is their trademark. They had really done their homework relearning these songs, which appear deceptively simple, but have some structural oddities, in particular 106 Beats That, which Bruce, whilst learning it, referred to as "Wire's Rosetta Stone". 106 beats Bruce? Not quite! He thinks these songs have far too many chords anyway.
It was indeed a treat to hear Pink Flag straight through, so completely faithful to the original versions that it inevitably leads one to wonder: how much of a 'reclamation' is going on here? More of a sense of fond recreation, with a surprisingly contemporary feel, even if there was a sense of going through the motions. This is not to suggest that their hearts weren't in it; on the contrary, it may be more of a problem of venue, which, in this case is designed for orchestras. It doesn't do guitar bands any favours. Didn't they learn their lesson from RFH? Wire have always worked best in more intimate surroundings. For those lucky enough to have witnessed the warm up, it was, by all accounts, an incendiary affair. Did they really think that playing it straight was anything other than a celebration? Wire's past has proven a rich seam to mine, both for performance and as a springboard into new work. Surgeon's Girl (complete with French intro) had accelerated to such an extent tonight, that Graeme Rowland's assertion that Ist Fast is directly related was bang on.
Because of the title of tonight's show, I think people expected some act of sacrilege, as though the flag would, if not literally, certainly conceptually, be burned. But look closely. The all-important colon between the words is a semantic wedge that drives the two halves apart—in two halves, but quickly growing whole—a typical bit of wordplay as is their wont, whose partial ambiguity inevitably plays upon people’s expectations. Pink Flag. Read and Burn. Then. And now. There maybe a story to be told, but it's not the past again. But who cares? Everybody loves a history!
A substantial intermission ensued and, while everyone was tracing a beeline to the bar to witness a flogging of beer, the Chapmans and Project Dark's Kirsten Reynolds took the sampling scalpel to Wire's back catalogue on a stage in the foyer.
To the shrine of the nomads the pilgrims are flocking, and it was the best part of an hour later by the time all the pilgrims were rewarming their seats eagerly awaiting the Send set. What we were greeted with can only be described as an arresting sight. In appearance unique, from 'People In A Room' to people in rooms, four boxes, approximately 15-foot square, akin to miniature theatres, each housing a member of the group, were arranged in a row across the stage. The set began with 99.9, while projections of ECG waves with corresponding numerical readouts of each player was projected on the surface of the boxes. At one point, providing a nice bit of unintentional conceptual continuity, BCG's ECG hovered briefly around the 99 mark... Wire were in their element now, as they leapt headlong into the songs as if to say, "Yeah, that was us then, but look at us now! Watch us burn! This is where we're really at! Look out below!"
Wire hit the ground running, barely stopping between songs, desperate to keep the momentum up, as they reached escape velocity, burning like a comet. "One thing Wire do really well live is excel at power," Colin said in a recent interview, and remarked how there " may be some subtlety in the interplay," but they generally "go for the jugular". Colin and Bruce jokingly refer to the current material as "heavy metal dancefloor". Dance methodology. Punk-rock thinking. Not punk rock, though, because, as Colin says, "punk rock as a term is completely meaningless." Wire played with a rage and intensity, as though their lives depended on it. In action delivers: the guitars on Read and Burn were particularly abrasive, sizzling like water on a hotplate. One minor criticism, and it's not even to do with the playing, but the vocals on Agfers of Kodack were very poorly mixed for most of the song, which was a shame, because it's Graham's only vocal contribution to the new material. Robert's beloved old kit had been replaced with an electronic one—reconciliation between labour and technology? Agrarian meets industrial? Sinews and wires pumping in parallel, he pummelled vigorously, providing the steady state heartbeat, greatly accelerated as it is for this material. As Colin said in another interview, Robert's the absolute bedrock on which the material rests. Or, a beat farmer, as Ian Penman once called him.
The front projections were now augmented with rear ones of synaptic activity within the brain. These were not the band's brainwaves, as that would have exceeded budget limitations. This was generic footage, which created a nice continuity of image across the boxes, each projection reflected fourfold within the foil lined inner facets of the boxes, creating interesting Rorsharch effects. Then, continuing the idea of isolating elemental material, images of parts of the band's faces were projected on the front of the boxes. Graham's right eye and Bruce's left eye appeared stage right and left, casting a cold eye on the crowd, like two silent sentinels. Graham's bloodshot eye was like a massive Photoshop icon made flesh. Bruce's jaded eye seemed like a world-weary witness that's seen it all. Whilst Robert's nose sniffed us out, Colin's mouth demanded our attention, as he sung in sync to a prerecorded video. Well, mostly in sync. It only slipped significantly out of register a couple of times, which was a shame, as the effect was powerful. Still, can't have been easy. It was like some absurd take on Beckett's Not I. But instead of a breakneck pace, manic monologue in the third person, we got a hectoring, defiant diatribe, delivered with a palpable anger that was reflected/intensified by the deep red that flushed the boxes at certain points, whilst the music continued at breakneck pace... keep on repeating, repeating a chord... If the music on Pink Flag appears stripped, then the Send material is about as bald as it gets.
One of Es Devlin's teachers was Jocelyn Herbert, who was the designer of the original production of Not I, where they had to tape Billie Whitelaw into her chair, head locked in position so her mouth wouldn't move out of the light. Similarly, Colin had to fix his head absolutely still against the wall whilst filming the vocals. Devlin really got her finger on Wire's pulse (literally!). Her design was a fascinating concept that worked on various levels, and captured the current Wire zeitgeist very powerfully—fragmented cells of intense activity working in unison, blind to each other, but linked as though of a swarm mind, hyperkinetic little powerhouses, which partially describes Wire's current working methods. The back-projections made me think of DNA, the building blocks of life. Very apposite in terms of the creative process, DNA's the ideal copy, the most ambitious thing—it copies itself! It's the 50th anniversary of DNA's discovery this year, and, continuing the (slight) Beckett thread, the 50th anniversary of Waiting For Godot! Scientific and theatrical landmarks! So where do Wire fit into this? A musical landmark, of course! A significant contribution to 20th century culture!
Never lacked a sense of theatre. Devlin, who Colin quite rightly described as "a whirlwind and force of nature of her own" really delivered the goods in terms of a theatrical concept, which was unlike any other way I'd seen a band presented before. She said, "I knew instinctively I wanted to challenge the accepted silhouette of a band. That hump-backed band-shaped eight-legged creature." After immersing herself in Wire culture (interviews and so on), she free associated from the Read and Burn text: "DNA process of reading code and burning copy; the ECG machine—light burns in the LCD display having read the electrical impulses burning from three sources around the heart... synaptic activity from within the brain—cell reading cells and burning bridges between them." The four boxes also brought to mind the idea of the four chambered heart. "We're like marionettes in your little theatres," Colin remarked to Es at one point during the set-up. They also reminded me of The Numbskulls, playing inside their own heads. A strong sense of claustrophobia too, as befits the tough feel of Send. Although there were parallels, in terms of 'apparent' simplicity between the two sets, because of the full-on theatrical presentation, and the sheer vitriol and brutality of Send (happiness is a warm guitar!), they seemed aeons apart. Wire were unequivocally staking their position: fast is culturally appropriate again, we're back in the maelstrom, and we have by no means mellowed with age! On the contrary, there's still plenty that pisses us off! The set (not strictly a complete Send set, owing to issues of time and practicality) ended with I Don't Understand, then Wire de-velcroed and disembarked. The ECGs read zero. The lights came up. This sudden departure seemed a bit anticlimactic, and caused a bit of uncertainty in the crowd, who, naturally bayed for more, but it wasn't that kind of show.
flag:burning presented Wire in a sort of historical parenthesis, bookended by their oldest and newest work. As such, it displayed a band very much in charge of a history they seem to not want to lay to rest. And now, after years of less than ideal production situations, they are completely in control of the means of production, and are very much the better for it. Wire reignited three years ago when asked to be part of The South Bank's Living Legends series, which Colin described as "a dubious honour". But hang on a sec. Just look at the history. Study the ripple effect. The ongoing self-questioning and reinvention. Never content to rest on their laurels, Wire are always looking ahead. 26 years on, they're still vitally current. Of course they're living legends! Don't be so meek! But, of course, not legends in The Rock Hall Of Fame sort of way, which is perhaps what Colin was bristling at.
The only 'erasure' that was going on tonight was the sheer power of Send to supplant Pink Flag, but then that's not exactly surprising, or particularly interesting. What was interesting was that they could celebrate their history without the rank odour of nostalgia.
Photography: Fergus Kelly