sat 25/05/2024

Reissue CDs Weekly: Wire | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Wire

Reissue CDs Weekly: Wire

A still-challenging artefact from art-punk provocateurs

Wire: “completely mad”

Wire Document and EyewitnessWire: Document and Eyewitness

Even when taking account of the elasticity brought by punk splintering into the myriads of left turns, new directions and dead ends of what became post-punk, the trajectory of Wire was eccentric. Document and Eyewitness was the final and fourth album they issued before their reformation in 1985, having first split up in 1980. 

Ostensibly a live album, Document and Eyewitness captures Wire’s final show, on 29 February 1980, at Camden’s Electric Ballroom. It was an evening which continued what they had begun during a residency at The Jeannetta Cochrane Theatre in November 1979: performing unrecorded songs, incorporating performance art, improvising and generally making mischief – including whacking a gas stove with a hammer. Wire themselves clearly have a fondness for the resultant album, as its compositions were revisited to become much of the 2013's Change Becomes Us, which was effectively the studio album they might have recorded in 1980.

After leaving EMI's Harvest label, at that point Wire were working with independent label Rough Trade. Label boss Geoff Travis is quoted in this release's booklet as having said they were “completely mad” to contemplate releasing Document and Eyewitness. Although a bit rich considering Rough Trade were releasing almost unlistenable records by the likes of Essential Logic and Swell Maps around the same time, he had a point.

The album is not-quite the non-sequiteur it seemed at the time

Problems with the recording equipment meant the show wasn't captured satisfactorily, so for issue what was caught on tape was interspersed with spoken commentary and tracks from two more traditional song-based shows from 1979. Document and Eyewitness wasn’t quite a Brion Gysin-style cut-up album, but it was challenging. Although a snatch of their 1977, punk-era calling card “12XU” is heard, the Electric Ballroom show was mostly rhythm-based workouts over which singer-guitarist Colin Newman and singer-bassist Graham Lewis barked and spluttered gnomically. On track 9, the sound of bottles being thrown at the stage is heard.

Yet the album is not-quite the non-sequiteur it seemed at the time. Some of the pieces resurfaced in member’s post-split releases (“5/10”, “Inventory,” and “We Meet Under Tables” were recorded by a solo Newman and “Ritual View” was recorded by Bruce Gilbert and Lewis’ Dome). In this form, “Underwater Experiences” is a template for “Drill”, the mainstay of the 1985 Wire’s live set. Document and Eyewitness may represent unfinished business and now makes more sense than it did in 1980, but it remains the tough listen it was meant to be.

Its reissue is supplemented by copious bonus material – more on the double-CD edition than on the double-vinyl version. The “Our Swimmer”/"Midnight Bahnhof Café” single is complemented by  the then-unissued “Second Length (Our Swimmer)”, a frantic reading of what did become the single which also sounds like the 1985–86 Wire. “Catapult 30” verges on the concrête notions exhibited at The Electric Ballroom. Equally interesting are a 1979 demo of “Ally in Exile” (very similar in feel to the Chairs Missing band) and rehearsal tapes from 1979 and 1980 which show what was heard on Document and Eyewitness was clearly pre-planned. Also available are downloads of the full shows from Montreux (9 March 1979) and London’s Notre Dame Hall (19 July 1979) which bulked out the original album, as well as the raw version of the Electric Ballroom tape.

Although obviously no entry point into Wire, this reconfiguration of an overlooked album does bring a context which was previously missing. Albeit unknowingly at the time, this was part of a continuum. If feeling brave, dig in.

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