Wire holds a peculiar spot in music fandom. Throughout its career, the band has played a post somewhere between right-up-the-alley shortstop and deep right field. The group has kept abreast of its musical environment (from punk’n slash guitars to drum sequencing) while challenging those conventions. (Their debut, Pink Flag, had double the songs of most punk LPs, yet each averaged about half the length of standard rock singles). Subsequently, they earned a place in the hearts of fans and cognoscenti.
Over the years, critical adulation and frequent inclusion in top 10 lists has given latter day music heads carte blanche to revere the group with the ‘influential’ and ‘innovative’ rosaries. Yet in spite of these accolades, few actually place the group at the top, such as all-time, hands down favorite fill-in-the-blank: Pink Flag, which is off the heel, but That’s Entertainment! is b-a-na-na-s; Chairs Missing is sick, but Double Nickels is my shit; The Ideal Copy was a big return, but Happy?, well, I just remember it better… But such is the path of a group that has deliberately avoided blind absolutes, preferring to be both here and there, neither completely this nor that.
When Wire regrouped for a third time in 1999, the group played its cards well by running into the open arms of its fans and critics, but also shocked them with a handful of performances and new albums that were so… Wire. Reinventing itself again, the band synthesized their technologic fixations and technocratic spiels into a lean and pummeling performance. It was blunt yet intelligent, familiar yet rare. It was a fresh reminder for even the most ardent Wire nut: this band is bloody brilliant.
In early 2004, Wire documented this latest development for a DVD/CD combo The Scottish Play: 2004. Although the title conjures the lament over drama-less sound and fury, Wire bans the bitching and kills the emptiness with a furious sound assault. The bulk of the DVD consists of the band’s performance at the Tryptich Festival in Scotland. Visual artist Tom Gidley filmed the entire set in great detail and literal close-up, focusing mostly on individual band members and their actions, rarely paying attention to the audience or the setting. Flashes of Colin Newman, the 22nd Century minister pogoing for his invisible parishioners, flicker past. Robert Gotobed/Gray sits poised with perfect posture, pummeling with proficiency. Graham Lewis is all screwface, thick strings, and sweat. Bruce Gilbert drapes himself in blue shadows, a Filipina red kiss stain marking his grey abdomen.
Like a wide-eyed and bewildered fan hugging the stage, the camera cuts between these images from a series of photojournalistic perspectives, enforcing a strict adherence of the viewer’s attention on the band. The effect is admittedly overwhelming as the band squeals, skronks and shatters its way through new selections (Pink Flag is revisited solely during the encore), while the viewer receives little respite (little downtime has been left between songs). Especially on DVD, where skipping and fast-forward democratizes editing, the temptation to break the gaze is great. However, the big payback for staying the course is the sense of totality the viewer has over how and why Wire rocks so fucking hard. The Triptych footage is a literal and subsequently visceral representation of the band.
However, Scottish Play is not entirely the Wire show. In addition to the Triptych footage are excerpts from Wire’s Flag:Burning performance in London, which took place the previous year. Working with the set design of Es Devlin, each band member is compartmentalized in heavily backlit ‘boxes’ spread lengthwise across a stage. From one camera’s long shot perspective, each section is covered with a screen that alternately appears translucent or projects an extreme close-up of the compartment’s resident main body part in action (Newman’s mouth sings to “1st Fast”; Lewis’ unflinching glare locks the rhythm of “Comet”). In short, the band is viewed through a filter of several filters; even when a member’s silhouette can be seen moving, it is subservient to the complete image of the stage. Nevertheless, the emphasis on static imagery is consistent with the straight lines that Wire carves consistently through its sets. Rock solid fury, one chord and the truth.
Scottish Play thus seems apt for Wire-specific fans, albeit those not aforementioned. The DVD contains both testaments to the band’s strengths, as well as their ability to outsource to the likeminded. However, Scottish Play is mostly exceptional as a general document on how to rock. With mechanized precision, Wire tears pages from the text and waves it menacingly in our faces. Is this what I paid for? No. But the surprise, the shock, makes it substantial and memorable for any rock enthusiast.