On The Rocks, London, UK (April 24, 2003)
Walking into an East London pub and seeing Wire on stage soundchecking is a good sight for these eyes! Bassist Graham Lewis had informed me that there would be a secret warm-up gig for their flag:burning event at the Barbican two days later. There, the plan was to play the entire iconic Pink Flag album and then, after an interval, some current material, much of which found its way spitting and snarling onto the new album, Send.
Rhodes had been billed as support to Klang, but didn't show, although Wire in their stead was more than adequate recompense for just about every alien on board. They'd been billed on the venue's Web site as The Pink Flags, so it might've been so obvious. The amusement factor of Wire playing Three Girl Rhumba whilst supporting a former Elastica guitarist's new band was not lost on any who could spot the connection.
Besides the few who'd sauntered in early and heard them play Reuters and Ex Lion Tamer for the soundcheck, I only knew around twenty people who were aware that they were about to hear the most interesting band of the punk-rock-77 era play the best version of their first album from points A to B (again avoiding C, D and E, which is where you play the blues). However I'm sure there were a few more than that 'in the know'—there was much excited dancing towards the low stagefront and a real party atmosphere in one of the hottest gigs I've been to in a long time. In fact, it was so hot that my friend Aneeta and I left before Klang even played, but were later told by Wire fans that we hadn't missed much. Lets face it, when your favourite band play one of the most special gigs you've ever been invited to, not much is going to seem like a worthy follow up.
Aside from Bruce Gilbert fluffing the second chord of Mannequin—no doubt too-many-chord cursing—the band was in fine shape and played the album very faithfully. Some songs had more venom and precision, especially Surgeon's Girl, with hilarious Lewis nonsense back-up shouting at the end. Pink Flag was pretty much returned to its original drum-rolling shape, but with less jovial vocals from Colin Newman than on the album, but seemed harder and more compact. Reuters, on the other hand, had an extended intro and some added updates on the mythical weapons of mass destruction from Lewis. Meanwhile, Champs had lost the splanging guitar overthrubs.
Colin Newman downed guitar on several numbers and seemed to be really getting into singing the old songs. They might've even lopped a few seconds off those songs that are short because they aren't long, like Field Day For the Sundays and Different To Me. What was very apparent when they played Lowdown, Strange and 12XU was how much they've improved as a live band since the first retrospective at the Royal Festival Hall back in 2000. I was double glad to have witnessed this unique event, as the sound at the Barbican was just not loud enough and the experience was so much more of a rush-and-roar in an intimate sweaty pub.
After by far the best live version of 12XU I've ever heard them pull off, some monkeying heckler couldn't help but shout, "You Can't Leave Now!" But, of course, they were gone. They repeated the exercise for the very last time a couple of days later, and the fact that the sound for the new Read and Burn/Send songs was so much sharper seemed to suggest that maybe they were intentionally trying to sabotage Pink Flag. However at the warm-up there was no doubt that it'll always rock plenty even if they have no intention of repeating the exercise.
Perhaps next time they pay the silly chaps of the art scene to hijack ugly Americans to do step aerobics, it'll be because their retrospective chairs have gone missing again?