Irving Plaza, New York City, USA (May 15, 2000)
All right, here it is... again... the return of Wire nearly quarter of a century after its inception and 12 years after the last US gig. While Finnish electro-noodlers Pansonic did their best to hold the audience's attention, they offered only a minor distraction from the more pressing concern on most people's minds: namely, could Wire still be the fly in the ointment or would Wire 2000 be a load of kidney bingos?
It's a worrying question given the many circa '76-'77 acts who've become the very dinosaurs against which they once railed, wheeling out aged, zimmer-frame punk and playing gigs that often consist of 40-something blokes with beer bellies playing to 30-something blokes with beer bellies, stage-diving and pogoing. In other words, one of the deeper circles of rock hell—an evening of sad pantomime nostalgia in pursuit of a past authenticity delivered by has-beens and never-weres, long deprived of the context in which they might have been relevant for a fleeting moment.
But last night, as the first layers of sound coalesced gloriously into 1977's Pink Flag, we were reminded of what we already knew. To ask if Wire is still relevant misses the point. Wire's relevance has never had anything to do with a context exterior to them as they've always constructed their own and have routinely reinvented it. Wire has constantly rewritten the rules of the game—live and on record—often defying comparison. Even to measure Wire in terms of how authentic they sound compared to one of their previous incarnations is a red herring. They were never authentic and have never kept it real, opting instead to be the ideal copy and to emphasise a performed identity and an ironic distance.
Although never fully part of the punk scene, Wire was the consummate punk band. By mid 1977, punk's fleeting creativity and spontaneity had stagnated into homogeneity and caricature, yet Wire's '40 Versions' of itself would offer a post-modern antidote to the fixed identity that punk quickly assumed. With 1977's Pink Flag, Wire was already offering a metacommentary on the scene, pushing song writing and performance in new directions with a degree of humour, experimentation and unpredictability that, while allegedly central to the punk ethos, was sorely lacking from most of their peers in anything but posture and pose.
Wire prefers the path of most resistance, especially live. Infamous for choosing to play unrecorded, new tracks in place of 'the hits'—sometimes in an almost confrontational fashion, as evidenced on the Document and Eyewitness CD—they often managed to out-punk audiences who wanted to hear familiar material. In view of their modus operandi, it might seem unthinkable then, not only that the original four members of Wire have come together once more but also that they're touring and playing old material in a 'proper' concert format. But of course, in the Wire scheme of things it makes perfect sense, given that it's so unexpected. As drummer Robert Gotobed explained recently, "For Wire, this is radical".
In an hour-long set featuring tracks from the '77-'79 albums Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154, '80s material from The Ideal Copy and A Bell is A Cup... and a new song (He Knows), Wire didn't falter for an instant. Just four blokes grafting away on a bare stage, with basic lighting, no-frills instrumentation and no special effects, they managed to generate and maintain a compelling level of intensity and energy.
With his trademark sneering delivery fixed somewhere between irony and sarcasm, Colin Newman took care of lead vocal duties as well as one half of the guitar onslaught. The other half was provided by Bruce Gilbert, who stood characteristically motionless for the duration, focused on the job at hand and proving that while he might look like your high school geography teacher he's undoubtedly the hippest 55-year-old punk around. Although Graham Lewis took a back seat vocally, occasionally joining with Newman on choruses, his bass sounded fuller than ever.
But the star of the evening was drummer Gotobed. Eyes closed and hammering away on the sparsest of kits with the insistence and consistency of a human metronome, he didn't miss a beat. From the older material through mid-period fare like Advantage in Height, Silk Skin Paws and Boiling Boy and even on the new track, his performance proved that he has always brought a crucial dimension to Wire. It's ironic that the man who made himself redundant in 1990 on the verge of the band's fuller exploration of computer technology should now return as the pivotal member.
Despite their metamorphoses over the years, last night's gig foregrounded the common denominators of Wire's sound that have remained recognisable: namely, an inimitable ability to craft unique, textured songs out of the juxtaposition and layering of minimal, individual elements and a lyrical repertoire that comes and goes between the twin—often overlapping—poles of snapshot observation and surreal abstraction.
Among the highlights were a chunkier rendering—thanks to Lewis' bass—of their paean to post-modern identity, 40 Versions, and Mercy, a track that somehow brings together the shipping forecast and cross-dressing. Mercy was particularly impressive as Wire edged it through its menacing build up, put it through its varying paces and rhythms and finally pushed it onto its crashing climax. Punk's two initial challenges with regard to duration and speed: 'how short?' and 'how fast?' were revisited with blistering renderings of Another the Letter and the inevitable 12XU, which provided the respective answers, 'still under a minute' and 'faster than fear'.
The taut, pared-down funk of Lowdown witnessed the hitherto unthinkable prospect of a Wire sing-a-long (of sorts) as a smiling Newman briefly yielded to the audience. During the performance of 12XU, Wire's ludic side openly declared itself in full-on comedy as Newman engaged in a deliberately camp rendition of what appeared to be a snake dance.
With Robert Poss of the Band of Susans adding to the guitar arsenal, Wire came back for an encore, a ten-minute version of Drill. Last night's rendition was rough and raucous, shot through with feedback and shorn of almost all its lyrics. It was the ideal coda. Drill is a track whose myriad incarnations have stood as the perfect embodiment of Wire's own trajectory of continuities and discontinuities. Ultimately, last night's mutation of Drill underscored the point made by the gig as a whole—that Wire continues to reinvent itself in ways that demand our attention.
(Originally published in Consumable.)