With Johnny Rotten’s legitimacy constantly coming into question, the Clash long gone, and Mark E. Smith remaining as unreliable as ever, it would seem that Wire could afford the status as the deans of the first-wave British punks. They’re certainly the most graceful, and their vitality has not waned in the slightest: July’s Object 47 may be the band’s best album since their famous late-’70s trilogy of Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154.
It’s hard to say if the band members would want to qualify as first wavers anymore. Their sound has adjusted to whatever time and movement fits their fancy. What’s kept Wire vital is the same thing that made Wire the first band to discover the true spirit of punk. They combined that original fuck-you attitude with the unlimited intelligence and creativity that punk opened up for the next 30 years of rock ‘n’ roll.
Despite the funkier, more psychedelic leanings of Wire’s more recent material, the band’s free concert Thursday night at Irving Plaza in honor of WFMU’s fiftieth anniversary rocked just as hard and loud (maybe even harder and louder) than many who have graced the stage over its history, from the Buzzcocks two years ago to GWAR the previous night.
At other concerts this intense, you’d expect a mosh pit to break out, but Wire’s generational-spanning catalog is too intelligent, musical and all over the place to maintain a consistent mosh. Yes, there were fans constantly calling out for “12XU,” but there were also fans calling out for “23 Years Too Late” and “One of Us.” Other bands could only dream of their most popular hits spanning four decades. As bassist Graham Lewis pointed out when one fan suggested they play whatever they want, “It only took us 30 fucking years.”
Colin Newman took the stage in a black blazer and black T-shirt, looking like he could just as easily be a cultural studies professor at NYU (he probably could be, too). Staying low to the ground whenever he played his guitar, Newman doesn’t really look or act like a natural rock star, which may be one of the reasons why Wire has never taken off in the mainstream. Their lack of widespread popularity is certainly not a product of the music itself. Be it contemporary reworkings of Pink Flag material, songs from the ’80s about the economy that are equally relevant now, or more recent material that sounds even better live, Wire’s music is simply stunning and instantly relatable. Margaret Fiedler McGinnis, who on tours replaces the now-departed Bruce Gilbert, provides an excellent present in addition to her considerable chops: Wire is too smart a band to be the standard punk-rock sausage fest.
Those who have encountered Wire’s live sound through the Live at the Roxy recordings know that the band has strong roots as aggressive performers. What’s more impressively, however, is that Wire still be intense, lively, enthusiastic, and awe-inspiring long after the first wave (I believe we’re on the eighth wave now). Openers Times New Viking match Wire in sound, and match Pink Flag (roughly) in attitude, but they probably lack the wit that has kept Wire around this long.
When Wire performed at South Street Seaport earlier this year, it was thought that they could have only obtained that large a venue through reputation alone. Their widely praised performance, however, announced that they were still a force to be reckoned with. Nearly 5 months later, it seems that Wire is in a resurgent year that may see them finally getting at least a taste widespread recognition they deserve. Every old punk/indie dog is now having its year. 2004 was the Pixies’ year, and 2006 was Mission of Burma’s. Wire has been the dominant revived punk dinosaur of 2008, and their success may be the most pronounced of any similarly revived band.
In Rip it Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds made the argument that with a more courageous marketing team, Wire could have been the British Talking Heads in terms of art-schoolers turned massively popular rock stars. Wire will probably never reach the level of fame they deserve; with even a single top-10 record, the band may have been deemed significant enough for a Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame birth, and there should probably be a veterans committee to put them there anyway.
But the most important thing I got out of Wire’s Fillmore concert was that the band has proved that the key to continued vitality in rock ‘n’ roll is not attitude, skill, or pathos: It’s intellect. As the smartest original punk band, Wire has endured the longest in public consciousness, and that intelligence will probably keep the band going until they die or grow senile.