Wire: Wire on the Box

Wire on the Box
Pink Flag Audio Research

Wire were a band armed with ideas so worthy and simple--economy, atmosphere, tension and release--that there wasn't any way they weren't going to be mangled into a fuzzy legacy of too-short songs and shouty choruses. And so you'd think a certain brawny cover of "12XU" would be a disservice to the best British art-school band that wasn't the Buzzcocks, but it turns out all those hardcore bands knew exactly what they were ripping off: this Valentine's Day 1979 German television appearance, officially released on CD/DVD for the first time. Viciously quick and intense, this episode of Germany's Rockpalast has Colin Newman and a questionably coiffed Graham Lewis grimly exercising the kind of powerful straight-armed windmill strumming that supposedly only the Ramones had developed the biceps to survive.

Since, at the time, Wire were just six months away from releasing 154--the twilight of what history has unkindly judged as the "good" Wire--several notable early songs slip out of the set list in favor of then-unrecorded material. (Judging from the drubbing "Pink Flag" takes here, "Reuters" would have been a monster on this disc.) Still, even snooty purists will be impressed at how dreadfully tough a song like "Two People in a Room" turns out to be. There's an appreciable amount of bootleggy roughness here (Newman's sneer thrives under TV tube glare; Lewis's beer-belly baritone flops) but somehow that's the best part of the set, especially against the calculated frigidity of the recorded Wire catalogue. A concluding post-show interview offers little extra insight, however, serving best as a how-not-to primer on Things All Bands Will Say. (Freedom of the recording studio: GOOD! Traditional rock 'n' roll paradigms: BAD!) Though if you were wondering, Newman is the cute one, Lewis is the funny one, Bruce Gilbert is the nice one, and Robert Gotobed doesn't say a word until specifically forced to do so.

Still, the way the performance itself--a dense, tense, manic one-hour set, concluding with a rare performance of "Heartbeat"--refracts against Wire's considerably measured and deliberate dynamic is fascinating. It shines a new light on the decisions that one of the most influential bands of the '70s didn't make when they took to the studio, and underlines the fact that the things Wire weren't doing--not changing on the fours, not plugging all the holes, not hanging off the 1-4-5s, not taking the pomade away from Graham Lewis--have always been just as important as the things they were.

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