With a combination of
adenoidal fury and moody neo-psychedelia, British punk survivors Wire wow a
sold-out crowd at Slim’s in San
Francisco on April 17.
By Jud Cost
Wire, one of the great original British bands to arise from
the punk firestorm of the late-’70s, slipped into San Francisco for a brilliant Sunday night
show at Slim’s. And the joint was jumping, with barely enough room to swing a
dead cat at Johnny Rotten, if he’d been there. Which he wasn’t. Needless to say,
no household pets were harmed during this peaceful gathering that featured
three original members of Wire: Colin Newman on lead vocals and rhythm guitar,
Graham Lewis on bass and vocals and
Robert Grey (formerly calling himself Robert Gotobed) on drums, abetted
by excellent hired gun Matt Simms on lead guitar.
Wire was always a different breed of cat from your average U.K. crash ‘n’
burn outfit, anyway, most of whom had the good sense to pick the right moment
to drive their band vehicle off a cliff and end it all in a spectacular ball of
flames on the rocks below. I passed on the recent reunion of the Sex Pistols,
poster boys for the “die young and live a pretty ugly corpse”
philosophy. I was there in 1978 for their final show at San Francisco’s Winterland
where a scarred and bandaged Sid Vicious kicked at the punters while pretending
to play his bass, and Johnny Rotten rhetorically asked the crowd as the final
guitar chord was decaying, “Ever have the feeling you’ve been
cheated?”. Believe me, that was the perfect way to end it.
Unlike the same 15 songs regurgitated during the short,
effective lifespan of the Pistols, you could tell from Wire’s first two albums-Pink Flag and Chairs Missing-that this London-based outfit had real staying
power. Newman’s choked, adenoidal vocals, something like those of original
Buzzcocks singer, Howard DeVoto, had that built-in sneer, ideal for a punk rock
frontman. Like the Ramones, Wire also understood the beauty of brevity.
“Field Day For The Sundays” from Pink
Flag, took it to extremes, lasting only 28 seconds. “Lowdown” had
this repetitious, almost monotonous, James Brown-like beauty to it. Then there
were the first three Wire singles, a superb troika that covered a lot of ground
in almost no time at all.
“1.2.X.U” (“Saw you in a mag/Kissin’ a
man/Saw you in a mag/Smokin’ a fag/Saw you in a mag/Kissin’ a fag!”) was a
go-for-the-jugular, acetylene-torch rocker that could have melted the welds on London Bridge.
“I Am The Fly” with its peanut-brittle guitar and brain-shattering
refrain (“I am the fly, I am the fly, fly in the, fly in the ointment/I
take you down to say please/As you accept the next social disease”) was
irresistible. And “Dot Dash” with its cryptic lyrics and Morse Code
secret handshake may have been the best of the lot. These guys always straddled
the thin line between genius and madness.
And they still do. But they’ve learned to get so much more
out of the basic four-man rock-band format. To prove how versatile Wire has
become over the past 30 years, they didn’t play anything that I recognized
during their 60-minute set. Newman employed his notorious punk sneer to
perfection on a few numbers. But the more abrasive material was interlaced with
softer, simmering soundtrack-worthy stuff, presumably from their new album, Red Barked Tree. Simms’ chiming
neo-psychedelic guitar was put to good use on the slower, moodier songs, while
Lewis alternated vocals with Newman in a dreamy, almost Bryan Ferry-like croon.
Tonight’s show wasn’t just a testimonial to one of the few
bands to survive the punk rock era in (almost) one piece. This was no
ceremonial victory lap, no oldies jukebox. Instead, it was a living, breathing
organism that offered anyone within earshot solid evidence that Wire is still
around for a very good reason.