at Metro, May 10

By Brian Nemtusak

I hate reunion shows, and not just for the profit-motive aftertaste. They confirm what a greatest-hits album suggests: that a once-vital thing is now officially a sterile artifact. What’s a “good” reunion show? A set of memory-lane classics, a digitally retouched snapshot of the band before their inevitable decline? Or the kind of spontaneous real-time reinvention the context would seem to disallow? I guess I want the impossible: the former material and the latter experience. Recognizing this I still go sometimes, for the same reason you go to a wake: to honor a once-dear friend. That’s why I went to see Wire.

I can’t say I wasn’t a little hopeful: Wire’s historically been a pretty lively corpse. The Mancunian quartet was prematurely pronounced dead in 1980, presumed exhausted by its legendary (and still astonishing) three-year evolution from acid-tongued antipunk (Pink Flag) through taut perverse pop (Chairs Missing) to decentered textural experimentation (154). In fact they’d only stopped–more of a narcoleptic episode than an early demise–and when they started again, in 1986, they picked up in the middle of the sentence they’d begun with 154.

Naysayers compared the second coming of Wire, often unfavorably, with New Order and their ilk, forgetting that Wire’s initial compressed history prefigured Joy Division’s transformation into New Order and took half as long to accomplish. Between ’86 and ’90, with albums like The Ideal Copy and A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck, Wire extended 154’s economical experiments into a fuller and more processed sound–polished and metallic, fashionably danceable, and still way too smart for its own good. This second act ran out of steam about a year or two before it ended, in 1991.

In both incarnations, Wire occupied a special place in my heart. I came of age in punk’s receding shadow, in the chilly dawn of the Reagan-AIDS era, in the deep, deep suburbs. I was 13 in 1983, and my friends and I were certain we’d just missed the most insanely cool seven or eight years ever. The transatlantic punk era, with its ferocious, comprehensive disdain, seemed impossible to top. And its heroes were has-beens before we’d even heard of them.

In a way our nascent aesthetic agonizing echoed the artistic dilemma of the postpunk bands: how do you follow an act whose real-world equivalent is dousing yourself with gasoline and lighting a match? Some responded with a cold, headless, almost unmusical machine music, which we immediately recognized as the signature sound of our time: New Order, Einstürzende Neubauten, Psychic TV and Coil, early PIL, the Fall, Gang of Four. The legitimacy of these acts was tied, in our minds at least, to their connection to the previous era. From what little I’d heard of Wire then, they seemed the perfect undead creature, having fit their formally postpunk evolution into the waning years of the event itself.

But then as now, Wire were better respected than loved. Their records were impossible to get, and by the time they re-formed, my attention had turned to Bowie, Eno, and Ferry. It wasn’t until 1989, when Restless reissued those first three Wire albums, that I really got drawn in–just as their second bloom was fading. And by then, on their rare tours, they refused to play the older, more famous material.

At Metro, however, they started with it–or rather, with a long intro that emerged as the title cut from Pink Flag. They sounded tighter and looked thinner than I’d expected, and appeared unimpressed by their own reputation. Their set was short, a grinding, shimmering, gorgeous hour, pulled off with a noteworthy lack of synthesized or prerecorded help. They sliced through old and newer songs with equal urgency, shifting gears so fluidly it seemed like they’d never stopped playing, or playing together. Lean but saturated arrangements of the later material, using a handful of old low-tech tricks–playing against delays, synchronized feedback–proved that the sometimes elaborate production of those years really was consistent with Wire’s basic minimalist/formalist method. As on their first three albums, Colin Newman played something like rhythm guitar, and Bruce Gilbert something like lead, though their interaction didn’t really justify either category. Both played repetitive, rhythmic parts (Newman’s were a little strummier) that changed constantly but subtly in terms of attack and harmonics, moving in and out of phase with one another while Graham Lewis’s bass–stapled to Robert Gotobed’s sharp, insistent drumming–carried the melody.

Wire’s “sound” can be viewed as the result of endlessly fucking with one protean “song.” The notion is probably implicit in the whole idea of a sound–but Wire consciously developed with an eye toward isolating and heightening this sameness. At Metro they blurred songs together, paring some down to single motifs sounded only once or twice, their frenetic, cycling lines swelling into discrete statements and then reuniting in a jagged hum, like an engine idling at a stoplight. Highlights included solid, unadorned versions of 154’s “40 Versions” and Chairs Missing’s “Another the Letter” and a fiercely slashing “Advantage in Height,” from The Ideal Copy. But the centerpiece was definitely the soaring, hypnotic “Silk Skin Paws,” from A Bell Is a Cup, which I’m now inclined to regard as the finest permutation of their “song.”

Interestingly, Newman’s lyrics were often severely pruned on tunes where they weren’t already sparse. While I personally love his acerbic wordplay–especially some of his later occult- and metaphysics-laced abstractions–the editing served to heighten the instrumental subtleties. Plus, he certainly knew what to cut and what not to: his judgment was best observed in the encore, two songs from opposite sides of Wire’s bifurcated career. “12XU,” the punk anthem from Pink Flag, wasn’t missing a word, but the furious, buzzing “Drill,” an outstanding, oft-revamped later number originally marred by uninspired anagramming and pseudoscatting, had been hacked down to a single question, shouted once at the end: “Could-this-be-a–DRILL?” The answer, I’m happy to say, was no.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.