Wire and the Live Album as Career Suicide

Garry Mullholland

By Garry Mullholland

on 09.09.14 in Features

Document & Eyewitness 1979-1980


In February 1980, Wire played a show at the Electric Ballroom in London. In years to come, the group would become revered as pioneering figureheads, but at the time, they were broke and misunderstood art-rockers who had just been dropped by their label, EMI. The show in question involved an illuminated goose, a gas cooker, the ancient English folk tradition of morris-dancing and only one song that the audience had ever heard. It was the worst show the band ever played, so they released it as a live album the following year, and then split up.

‘The Electric Ballroom show was a controversial show, not just for the fans but amongst the band…It was an act of driving the bus off a cliff. — Colin Newman’

Many things have changed in the world of Wire in the 33 years since this bizarre live double album, titled Document & Eyewitness, was released on Rough Trade. But their raw honesty and aversion to the media-trained interview technique is not one of them. When I ask Wire’s 59-year-old singer, songwriter, guitarist and de facto frontman Colin Newman what he thinks of the remastered and expanded Document & Eyewitness, reissued earlier this month on Wire’s own Pink Flag label, he doesn’t flinch from the truth: “Mixed, to be quite honest. I don’t think it’s a secret that I didn’t particularly love the original. The Electric Ballroom show was a controversial show, not just for the fans but amongst the band. From my point of view it was an act of driving the bus off a cliff.”

Document & Eyewitness belongs firmly in a small, select group of live albums that double as an act of self-sabotage: documents of disastrous, antagonistic or just plain bad concerts that showcase an artist’s relationship with their audience at its absolute nadir. Perhaps the phenomenon begins with Iggy and the Stooges 1976 release Metallic K.O., a chaotic live record partly comprised of The Stooges’ last show before splitting in 1974. “The only rock album I know,” wrote the late critic Lester Bangs, “where you can actually hear hurled beer bottles breaking against guitar strings.” Iggy Pop’s fearless confrontation of hostile audiences would be a direct inspiration on Alan Vega to form the minimalist electronic duo Suicide. He and Suicide partner Martin Rev supported The Clash and Elvis Costello in Belgium in July 1978, and the resultant riot was documented as 23 Minutes Over Brussels. Snuck out as a promo later that year, the album’s legend gradually grew until it was received an official release in 1998, as a bonus disc in a reissue of Suicide’s debut album.

If Document & Eyewitness is a sort of black box, the sound of a band going down in flames, what it contains is nonetheless a fascinating glimpse of the times. The music captures a moment where British punk’s initial optimism and drive to embrace difference and eccentricity had curdled into a new set of rigid rules, established by media and fans rather than the bands themselves. Wire, in the eyes of press and fans, were a punk band. Their job, by 1980, was to wear punkish clothes and haircuts, play short, fast and familiar songs that you could pogo and shout along to in an aggressive, laddish manner. Problem was that, according to Newman, “we weren’t a punk band…We were doing the next thing.” That, in 1980, involved playing an entire set of under-rehearsed and unreleased material while pulling performance arts japes like Colin Newman singing through a beekeeper’s veil and a woman dragging bound men across the stage.

But, as Newman recalls, it wasn’t the art pranks that really turned the audience against them: it was the rendition of the only song they knew. Dispatched second, “12XU” — a snotty punk’s favorite from Wire’s debut album Pink Flag — was presented in a most unorthodox manner. “I performed it in this leather coat which I treated as if it was a straitjacket,” recalls Newman. “I wriggled around quite a lot. I’d done it in rehearsal and everyone pissed themselves laughing and said, ‘You’ve gotta do that.’ But there was a big contingent of Sham 69, Oi!-type punk fans up front. We excited them by playing “12XU,” and then didn’t play a single other song that they knew. That was the source of the hostility that night. Someone did throw a bottle. There was a lot of shouting, and ‘fuck you!’ But the main thing was that the humor of it that we’d planned all fell completely flat.”

Wire were not the only post-punk group of the era to mount an explicit challenge to their fanbase. John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd managed to release two wildly differing, equally uncomfortable live albums in their early days. The first, 1980’s Paris Au Printemps (Paris in the Spring) captures the band’s Metal Box lineup playing live at two shows in January 1980. Stripped entirely of crowd reaction, the album’s stunning music is occasionally interrupted by Lydon screaming, “Stop spitting! DOG!” at an audience trained by the media to believe Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols loved getting drenched with the phlegm of strangers. Compare and contrast with 1983’s Live In Tokyo, by which time Lydon had sacked core members Keith Levene and Jah Wobble and replaced them with faceless American session men playing emaciated “new wave” versions of PiL’s influential dub-punk classics in what appeared to be a both a two-finger salute to his old fans, and a shabby forewarning of a future appearing in reality shows and making commercials for butter.

Just as contrary is The Fall’s 1980 album Totale’s Turns. Mark E Smith’s group had accrued an adoring cult audience, but instead decided to compile a live album from recorded sets in leisure centers and working men’s clubs in the north of England, playing to largely middle-aged couples expecting a nice Tom Jones cover band, rather than a man verbally deconstructing clattering avant-garage in the middle of a song called “No Xmas For John Quays”. The crowd’s reaction is much as you’d expect.

‘I remember at the end feeling just awful. I hated it. Bruce claimed to enjoy it but that’s just him being perverse! It ended up being an unintentional Swan song, because we seemed to be going nowhere fast at that point. — Colin Newman’

What albums like Totales Turns, Paris Au Printemps and Document & Eyewitness have in common is an enthusiasm on the part of the artist for airing their dirty linen in public. It’s surely no coincidence that all came out during the punk era, when, for roughly seven glorious years, a handful of prominent bands wanted to question what, exactly, rock music was for. Was it, as the general public and the music industry insisted, merely entertainment? If so, why had the Sex Pistols had such an explosive effect on British society, and why did kids from all over the world feel it was so much more? Punk ripped open a kind of portal through which a few brave idealists decided to travel; it promised a complete rethink of what politics, pop music, art and show business might mean.

Questioning an audience inured to these things, then, became fundamental. Playing the hits in a professional manner to an audience ready to pogo and spit on cue only provided another, less hygienic kind of safe, predictable entertainment. For the likes of Iggy and The Fall, playing a confrontational show or two wasn’t enough. You had to release it to the world: expose yourself to potential ridicule in order to reach a wider audience of potential troublemakers. Thirty-four years and countless line-up reshuffles on from Totales Turn, The Fall solider on. Public Image Ltd remain John Lydon’s primary artistic mouthpiece. What we can confidently note is that these albums were released when the artist had buzz — a decent-sized fanbase of zealous admirers, a music press hyping them as The Next Big Thing — and seemed designed to quash such expectation, as if success on such terms was unwelcome. The result? Suicide and PiL never sold records. It took another decade before The Fall got signed to a major label. It took two for Iggy to finally be awarded Grand Old Man of Rock status.

And what of Wire? They split up, almost as soon as Document & Eyewitness was released, only to reform in 1985. Subsequently, they have reappeared in various line-ups until the present day, with only guitarist Bruce Gilbert absent from the band’s current incarnation.

“This show and this album didn’t split Wire up,” Newman insists, citing money problems and a lack of communication between the band members. “They were more a symptom than a cause. And no one in the band saw the show as being confrontational. But there were definitely some Dadaist elements to it. For Bruce [Gilbert, Wire’s ex-guitarist] it was just a natural step to do something a bit more in the direction of performance art. But somehow, that night, that venue, those circumstances, under-rehearsed band…You had to be there. I remember at the end feeling just awful. I hated it. Bruce claimed to enjoy it but that’s just him being perverse! It ended up being an unintentional Swan song, because we seemed to be going nowhere fast at that point.”

‘How did we manage to go from a review that said we were the best band of our generation to not existing within about four months? — Colin Newman’

The symbolism of Newman singing “12XU,” trying to wriggle out of a self-imposed straitjacket perfectly illustrates the tense pleasure of listening to Document & Eyewitness today. Wire were trying to wriggle out of punk, out of rock, and, finally, out of Wire itself. Although Newman is wary of the current vogue for retromania, he sees the rerelease in the spirit of “full transparency”. The new version of Document & Eyewitness comes complete with a recording of a more conventional show at London’s Notre Dame Hall, the great lost Rough Trade single Our Swimmer and a set of rehearsal recordings from 1979-80. The digital-only version goes further, presenting all the live material from the period in its entirety as part of Wire’s ongoing Legal Bootleg series. “If you listen to the rehearsal tapes,” Newman continues, “what has always been remarkable about Wire is that, even when we’re falling apart socially we still retain this cohesion as a musical unit.

“The whole package,” he concludes, “attempts to answer the question: how did we manage to go from a review of [Wire’s 1979 album ] 154 that said we were the best band of our generation, to not existing within about four months? There’s an element of slaying ghosts in this whole rerelease thing. You can’t polish a turd, but…it has moments. And it is indubitably Wire. It’s a part of our history.”