The Corner Hotel, Richmond, Melbourne. 6 March 2004
Live at the Roxy 1977, one of punk’s indispensable artefacts, begins much as you expect, with three tracks of phlegm-flecked mindlessness from Slaughter & The Dogs and The Unwanted – bands as boneheaded as their names. Then there’s a drawling voice, gentle but insistent: “Pay attention…we’re Wire.” The tone is advice rather than insistent, and rather fails to register. The band lurch into the low-fi drone of Lowdown, restarting every time they seem about to stop: Another cigarette/Another day/From A to B/Again avoiding C, D and E. Finally, they grind to a halt, almost arbitrarily, and amid uncomprehending silence. No applause. No cheers. Somewhere, a bottle can be heard smashing.
Nearly thirty years later I saw Wire on a flying visit to Melbourne’s Corner Hotel. The night remains one of the most cherished memories of my music-going life.
After a self-consciously apathetic support band, Wire took the stage, rather inauspiciously, the four members in their fifties and looking it. Vocalist Colin Newman could have been an academic from a Malcolm Bradbury novel; guitarist Bruce Gilbert so resembled the English tourist of imagination that he should have been wearing one of those zip-up money bags around his waist. To be sure, you’d have avoided burly bass player Graham Lewis if you’d glimpsed him on the Tube, imagining him on the way to manning a door at a night club; but drummer Robert Gotobed would have looked more at home pottering round his vegetable garden. So, there they were: Wire. If they’d turned up for karaoke, you’d have been embarrassed for them.
The band burst into tracks from their latest release, Send (2003), whose power-packed rhythms took the band’s sound to the brink of techno, and absolutely nailed them. Newman commanded the stage with a kind of owlish charisma; the sonic wallop of Gilbert’s guitar reverberated off the walls. After three songs, my friend and I exchanged excited glances. They were good. They were so good.
In the second half of the set, Wire started picking at random from their first three albums, Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154. Nor were these easy-listening singalongs for the fans, but big, beaty, exuberant versions, as though the songs had been written the week before not during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.
It was only as the band members sloped off that they looked a little senior for all this excitement, ready for bed and a Horlicks. The mood in the audience was not just ecstatic but validated. I bought a T-shirt, which when it quickly disintegrated was converted by an artful girlfriend into a toiletries bag. Not everyone can say they think about Wire every time they shave.
Pink Flag remains Wire’s masterpiece and manifesto. Here the thirty-five minutes were jammed with twenty-one songs, some as short as jingles, all pared back to the essentials. Wire were grouped with punk because of their minimalism, but it was a minimalism of deliberate austerity rather than self-conscious crudity. Arts students in Watford, the band members tackled their songs as art projects: the title track is an attempt to rewrite Johnnny B. Goode using one chord; 106 Beats That is an effort to write a 100-syllable lyric. At the time, in the way of these things, Pink Flag achieved neither commercial success nor critical acclaim. But if you bought it, you played it incessantly, and no album from 1977 today sounds so starkly, uncompromisingly modern.
Stereo Story #560
This is an edited extract of a 1200-word piece that was first published in The Monthly in 2008 and is now part of Gideon Haigh’s new book, Shelf Life.
Gideon Haigh is an independent journalist, in the trade more than thirty years. Born in London, went to school in Geelong, and now lives in Melbourne. A noted cricket writer, he also writes about many topics that take his fancy. Shelf Life looks at airline food, the cult of the CEO, lithium and psychiatry, superannuation and tobacco investment, war reportage, and much more.