Since pretty much every young indie-rock band owes more than they probably want to admit to Wire, the daddies deserve their due, right? And if we continue to ride their awesomeness out as far as possible, we should probably concentrate on the years 1977-1980, during which they released their first three indisputably great albums — Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154. Wire on the Box: 1979, a CD/DVD of a 1979 live performance for the German TV program RockPalast — including a lively interview with RockPalast’s host, Alan Bangs — does just that. But most importantly, Wire on the Box sets a standard for what could be a revolutionary way to release live albums.
If you have a DVD player, the CD portion of this two-disc set will be relatively useless. The bored, seated audience of German longhairs is completely hilarious; they look like they just witnessed a car accident after Wire rips through “Another the Letter” so fast that their polite applause actually lasts longer than the song. The first three songs — “Another the Letter,” “The 15th” and “Practice Makes Perfect” — sum up the three predominant moods of the band’s emotional trajectory: furious, strangely lush and just plain strange.
They pull off all three beautifully, and it’s refreshing to watch a rock band that isn’t bent on preening and posturing. Wire doesn’t force a performative element that isn’t there. The band just tears through the songs, which almost all sound exactly like they do on the albums, except for a few of the eight 154 songs — this footage was taken between Chairs Missing and that album. Not that these are particularly difficult songs to execute, but this package should debunk the impression of Wire as jokey tricksters who never played the same songs twice and honed their songs in the studio.
In the interview, Wire claims this one is the set they’re about to go on tour with, and during the performance they display a hard-headedness about that predetermination. Bruce Gilbert deadpans to a few pleading fans, “We don’t play requests.” The band understands what their best songs are. The nervous dissonance of “Two People in a Room” causes goose bumps, “Blessed State” is pre-My Bloody Valentine gorgeousness, and the weirder songs (most from Chairs Missing) are pulled off with conviction instead of hackneyed silliness. By the end of this fifty-eight-minute performance, most of the frazzled German hippies look like they’ve had one Hefeweizen too many, but a wiry blonde herre in a trench coat leads the obligatory encore hooting, and Wire re-emerges for a sloppy and anarchic version of “Pink Flag.”
Not only is it doubly entertaining to hear and watch Wire play, but it’s also good for history books. I want to know which argyle sweater Mark E. Smith was wearing during the recordings of Totale’s Turns (and I want to see how much he was drinking). Why shouldn’t we get to see the performance too, now that DVD players are a relatively standard part of most people’s home entertainment systems? Let’s hope that Wire on the Box becomes the example for the future of live recordings.