Wire’s start-stop lifespan ground to its first halt in 1980, just months after the release of the iconic post-punk band’s third full-length. That album, the icy, insular, Eno-esque 154, became their swansong—at least, until they resurfaced with an updated, less punk-indebted sound via 1987’s The Ideal Copy. But there’s an often overlooked album that ushered out that first creatively abundant era of Wire: Document and Eyewitness.
Some reissues come with a certain notoriety. Then there are those – such as this live recording, from the Electric Ballroom in February 1980, supplemented with some 1979 cuts – that we’d justifiably assign infamy. Geoff Travis, releasing the original version via Rough Trade, in 1981, declaimed the band as being “completely mad”. We’d describe the music as under-rehearsed or shambolic – it is – but “making it up as they go along” gets right to the heart of its desperate implosion.
The word “unlistenable” can damn an album forever. Lou Reed took a good three years to recover from the 66 minutes of industrial noise he chose to commit to vinyl on Metal Machine Music in 1975. Despite Reed’s considerable triumphs in the ‘80s, ‘90s and noughties, he could never quite shake off the shadow of that album, even if it was lauded in some quarters as the greatest “fuck you” of all time.
Wire — Document and Eyewitness 1979-1980 (Pinkflag)Marx famously said that history repeats itself first as tragedy and second as farce, and for the type of history he was concerned with, that’s true. If Marx was more interested in art, or had been around for our age of the deluxe reissue and the obscure repackaging, he might have added: except when it repeats first as provocation and the second time as a shibboleth. It is nearly impossible to imagine that anyone in 2014 is going to stumble onto the recent two-hour, 34-track re-release of Wire’s infamous 1981 live album Document and Eyewitness 1979-1980 without being aware that it is, in fact, infamous, and duly being prepared to either reject it as a pretentious misfire or embrace it as weird genius from the start; as opposed to putting it on expecting more from the band that did Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154, hearing some of the odder renditions here, and muttering “what the fuck?” under their breath (which is, you suspect, the reaction the band were going for).
Approaching Wire’s catalogue retrospectively can be a strange experience. I came to them, as many, via Elastica and Britpop, hoovered up the arch punk of Pink Flag, the cryptic art-pop fragments of Chairs Missing and the whooshing Eno moves of 154, and then stumbled out of the canon, enjoying the stout industrial-punk clangour of their new material and snapping up their less lauded late 80s fare whenever I saw it languishing in a second hand rack. So I’m a fan pretty much; but it says a lot about the reputation of Document And Eyewitness: 1979-80 that I’m not even sure that I knew that it existed.