It feels like the reissue of Wire‘s Document & Eyewitness 1979-1980 should have happened sooner. The 1981 live recording has been out of print for more than 20 years now, and many of the songs on it were used as the basis for their last studio effort, 2013′s Change Becomes Us. And yet listening to the recording, reissued on the band’s own label Pinkflag, it’s easy to hear why the quartet may have been reticent to revisit Document. There is tension throughout these recordings, both on stage and off.
The first batch of material, recorded in 1980 at an infamous show at London’s Electric Ballroom, featured mostly new songs, some of which weren’t even completely fleshed out at the time. And it was accompanied by onstage performance art, including a woman dragging two bound men behind her and another man beating on a stove with a hammer. You can hear the audience respond with audible and, at one point, physical hostility (“Who’s a clever boy, then?” guitarist/vocalist Colin Newman asks after a bottle was hurled at him). As well, in the version of “Heartbeat” included here, taken from a Montreaux date opening for Roxy Music, the crowd audibly starts chanting for the headliners during the quieter moments, which causes Wire to play with even more lashing intensity.
Within the band, things were becoming even more fragmented. On their two previous studio efforts, 1978′s Chairs Missing and 1979′s 154, Wire managed to connect guitarist Bruce Gilbert and bassist/vocalist Graham Lewis’s experimental aims with Newman and drummer Robert Gotobed’s more straightforward attack. Here, particularly on the rehearsal recordings, heard for the first time on this reissue, the connections are fraying even more, but creating some thrilling and bright sparks as a result.
Gilbert’s synthesizer bleats and laser blasts impishly cut through the off-kilter chug of “Go Ahead” and “Remove for Improvement,” but he wrenches out vicious rhythm work on the short, punky “Relationship” and “Safe.” When the music starts becoming more formless, as with the 14-minute ambient swirl of “Part of Our History Emerges,” it forces Newman to flex untested muscles, and he sounds looser and more playful as a result.
That the center didn’t hold and Wire split up for six years to pursue solo endeavors almost seems inevitable upon hearing this again. Even after 30 years, Document feels like walking in the room after a vicious shouting match between husband and wife. The tension is palpable and unnervingly exciting.