With Joe Strummer, Joey Ramone, and Dee Dee Ramone all in a better place, and Johnny Rotten (the name) gone with them, there are few good opportunities these days for ’77 punks to come out of retirement. They were out in force, though, to see Wire at the Double Door, joined this time by the next generation of punks and a standard assortment of glowering indie kids. Such a mixed crowd was less than responsive to Wire’s opening act, The Standard, who played with admirable effort to a room that was still only half-full. The Standard are on Chicago’s Touch and Go Records, made up of some of the former members of the Portland, Oregon’s emo-but-more-than-emo Pinehurst Kids. Their gloomy act entertained and annoyed to varying degrees, but most of the crowd seemed to just want it to be over. At one point during their set, a member of the crowd heckled the band with “Yeah, I like Joy Division, too!” While he was right about The Standard’s debt, he didn’t give them quite enough credit. Live, the band walked the fine line between raw emotional power and whininess, resulting in an equal number of ecstatic crescendos and horrified cringes. They are both more musically adventurous and less consistent than a group like Interpol, their most obvious contemporary. When placed on a bill against a band with both the smarts and rabidity of Wire, however, a more patient, contemplative band like The Standard just seemed lackluster. Wire took the stage with “99.9” from Read and Burn 02, one of two EPs released last year, and the closing track on the newly released half-album/half-compilation Send. “99.9” found frontman Colin Newman on stage by himself, guitarless, and hopping around while spitting his characteristically apocalyptic lyrics (“The road ahead looks quite uncertain . . .”). The rest of the band joined him as he finished, and proceeded to launch into a short, furious set that found them more straightforwardly “punk” than they were even in ’77. During their late ’70s heyday when they released three classic albums in a row (Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154), Wire was known for discarded songs as soon as they had recorded them, constantly unveiling new material live, and often refusing to play any songs their concertgoers had heard before. Wire held up their never-look-back attitude as best they could during a reunion tour, ripping through most of their output from the last two years, and rewarding their fans with a few choice cuts from Pink Flag as an encore. Their new material moves forward by moving backward: gone is the experimentation of 154, and even most of the so-called “ironic distance” of Pink Flag. Wire is all punk now. They wore simple black T-shirts, and Newman, despite his grandfatherly, bespectacled appearance, looked genuinely angry and menacing. Graham Lewis (bass) has added a little muscle and shaved his head, and, on stage, he basically seems like he has come to eat your children. Where songs on Pink Flag would unexpectedly stop, the Read and Burn material often ended with punkish, one-word shout: “Spent” and “I Don’t Understand” both saw Newman and Lewis spitting the title out of clenched teeth, and “1st Fast” had them yelling, “Who’s the bastard? / Where’s the payoff? / Amplification / Indecision” in what seemed like the space of about a half second. After seeing the ticket price of $18 (which is relatively high unless you’re a U2 fan), I was surprised to see Wire leave after a scant forty-five minutes, less time than The Standard spent on stage. They returned to give fans a look at a few songs from Pink Flag. Even then, Wire stuck to its most straight-ahead punk anthems, choosing to play a more raucous version of “106 Beats That” instead of songs like the quirkier “Three Girl Rhumba” or the Clash-ish “Ex-Lion Tamer”. They closed with the monumental title track to Pink Flag, a song with a surprisingly epic sweep that, despite Wire’s well-earned reputation for playful punk wit, conveys a sense of political injustice with more outrage and less prankishness than even the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”. With the end of the concert, however, the band’s sneers dissolved back in smiles, with Newman thanking the crowd “for its enthusiasm” and an almost sheepish Lewis shaking some hands in the front row. This was the only reminder of the evening that it’s been more than 25 years since Wire recorded Pink Flag. With their new recordings, and, a bit more astonishingly, with their live shows, Wire prove that, in 2003, they still know punk better than anyone out there.
Wire + The Standard