[5 September 2014]
The word “unlistenable” can damn an album forever. Lou Reed took a good three years to recover from the 66 minutes of industrial noise he chose to commit to vinyl on Metal Machine Music in 1975. Despite Reed’s considerable triumphs in the ‘80s, ‘90s and noughties, he could never quite shake off the shadow of that album, even if it was lauded in some quarters as the greatest “fuck you” of all time.
Wire are a British band who first came to prominence with 1977’s minimalist punk noise LP Pink Flag. They followed it up with the considerably more sophisticated albums Chairs Missing and 154 (1978 and 1979 respectively). These records displayed influences from outta-here Eno-era Roxy to Philio Glass / Steve Reich freeform minimalism. Wire weren’t limited thrash merchants—these guys could play and they could think.
But the band was an uneasy coalition between pop school and experimentation. Never that popular at the time, tending to the contrary, they decided to trash their burgeoning reputation for innovative, angular but melodic post-punk pop and in 1981 released Document and Eyewitness. This album was centered on a live 1980 performance at London’s Electric Ballroom, where they played only new material (bar an extract from one of their most popular tracks, “12XU”) and introduced such commonplace musical instruments as a hammer beating a gas cooker (which crops up more than once on the album). It also included a more straightforward 1979 set, again in London (Notre Dame Hall) and a contemporary performance of Chairs Missing‘s “Heartbeat” when Wire, bizarrely, supported the more mainstream Roxy Music 2.0 (natch).
“Unlistenable” was one of the more complimentary epithets applied to Document and Eyewitness when it came out. Undaunted, the band—following the re-release in recent years of those first three studio albums, now acknowledged as classics of the era—have decided to release this live album again, adding a couple of singles and a few demo/rehearsal performances.
In all honesty, the album’s listenability has not improved with age. There are 34 songs on this new version of Document and Eyewitness and, even if a number of the live tracks clock in at less than two minutes, the sheer relentlessness of the freeform, out-of-tune, semi-suicide mission wears you down by the time you are only halfway through. Three versions of “Underwater Experiences” is two and half times too many. The album is littered with some pretty joyless musical experiences: the tuneless mush of “Eels Sang Lino” (the rehearsal version sounds like a bad Peter Sellers comedy record); “We Meet Under Tables”—Warhol’s Plastic Exploding Inevitable on the implode; and the final track, “Part of Our History”, whose 14 minutes of amateur trumpet and flute might want to make you seek counseling.
And yet, and yet… the seeds of the glorious (mostly British) post-punk flowering of 1979-1981, one of the most creative periods in popular musical history, can all be heard in snatches here. Dip into Document and Eyewitness and at various times you will hear Joy Division’s rumbling, foreboding melancholia; the psychedelic swirl of Siouxie and the Banshees and the Cure; the dry, political aesthetic of Gang of Four and the Pop Group. R.E.M. didn’t cover a Wire song (“Strange” on Document) for charitable reasons. Wire could make discordant noise genuinely evocative.
The definitive history of post-punk—a chronicle to match Jon Savage’s classic England’s Dreaming on punk rock—has still be written. When it is, Wire, along with the equally underrated and influential Magazine, should sit in the front row. Those first three albums should be purchased again and again. And Chairs Missing‘s “Outdoor Miner”, the bastard immaculate nephew of the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset”, should run the airwaves across the globe. Start there, and not with Document and Eyewitness, one for historians, completists and masochists only.