Wire – “Document and Eyewitness”

I not that familiar with Wire. I’ve listened to and enjoyed (and written about) their seminal 1977 debut LP Pink Flag, though that’s about it as far as their music goes. I also read Wilson Neate’s 2013 book about the band, Read & Burn: A Book About Wire, which I found to be a fascinating look at the inner workings of a band. I know just enough to be intrigued, which led to me picking up a used copy of the band’s 1981 live double album (technically one LP and one 12″ mini album… but still…) Document and Eyewitness from Seattle’s Georgetown Records the other day.

Now, I think it’s only fair to tell you something about my state of mind as I listened to this for the first time yesterday. I was in Kansas City this week for work, and getting from KC to Seattle is no easy task as there is only maybe on direct flight a day. Which I was not on. Instead I was flying from KC to Dallas, and there connecting to Seattle on Friday afternoon/evening. Except I was actually spending a lot of time waiting, because Dallas was experiencing Old Testament calibre thunderstorms and tornado warnings. There may have also been locust and rivers of blood, but the Weather Channel wasn’t reporting on those. Regardless, after a four hour delay and a turkey sandwich in KC, I made it to Dallas with 15 minutes to get across the airport to make the last flight out of Dodge, staring straight down the barrel of an entire day in airport limbo hell if I didn’t make it. I maneuvered through the airport like OJ Simpson on those Hertz commercials (not like white Bronco OJ) and made it to the gate just in time… and as a result stumbled into my house at 2AM. And, of course, was inexplicably awake at around 7AM. Which was fine for a while, but by time I put Document and Eyewitness on the stereo I had that sort of jet lag/sleep deprivation drunken feeling.

I’m not sure if that hurt, or actually helped.

So anyway, the first record on Document and Eyewitness consists of some live material from a show the band played on February 29, 1980 at the Electric Ballroom in Camden (UK). Maybe the fact the show was on Leap Day contributed to its overall weirdness. Neate covers this show and the resultant album extensively in Chapter 5 of his book, and notes that the crowd was not, for the most part, pleased by the type of performance Wire chose to give. “The atmosphere was ugly from the start, worsening as it became clear that this wouldn’t be a conventional gig. The crowd didn’t share the band’s artistic adventurousness and, for them, the dearth of familiar, recognisable songs, as well as the disjointed, chaotic nature of the evening, was a sources of irritation and frustration” (Neate, p. 155). Band members felt there was an undercurrent of pent up, potential violence waiting under the surface, and by all accounts that was the general vibe. Why? Because they gave more of an artistic exhibition, only playing a portion of one of their well known songs (“12XU,” which only appears for a few seconds on the record) and instead treated the audience to a sort of musical stream of consciousness. The fans wanted “Ex Lion Tamer;” instead they got a bunch of stuff they’d never heard before, stuff that didn’t sound like anything on the first three Wire studio albums, or even at times like music at all.

This whole concept of going out of your way to antagonize an audience is something I just don’t get. Look, I can understand that you get tired of playing the same songs over and over again every night. But guess what? I get tired of doing the same spreadsheets over and over again every day, and the people who do the front-line work in the office I work at get tired of making the same phone calls and having the same conversations over and over again day after day. I mean, it’s your right – you’re the artist, and I paid to watch you perform. But a little courtesy, please. After all, I’m giving you my hard earned money. Help a brother out.

The first two sides of Document and Eyewitness is live material from the Electric Ballroom gig. I’ll probably never listen to it again. The recording quality is lackluster (though not as terrible as some reviews indicate), and frankly the music isn’t that interesting. The second record, however, is comprised of seven live songs performed at Notre Dame Hall and one more from Montreux. Here we have a more recognizable version of Wire, including previously recorded songs like “2 People In a Room” and “Heartbeat,” as well as some new material. The recording quality is also better, making the second record a much more enjoyable experience overall. This one I’ll come back to at some point in the future. Overall, though, I think Document and Eyewitness will primarily appeal to the hard core Wire fan, and not so much to someone interested in post-punk in general, who would probably get more enjoyment out of the bands studio records.

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