Formed in the outer metropolitan backwater of Watford in 1977, Wire are one of those bands of which you've maybe never heard of but have helped shape much of what's been defined as "British" music over the last 40 years. With punk as an art form rapidly outgrowing its narrow musical horizons, a number of groups emerged who embraced the movement's more nihilist tendencies but rejected its cartoon personal politics, a cadre of which the likes of Wire, Gang of Four and The Pop Group were at the vanguard. Without little in common other than a willingness to confront drab conformity, their shared template would go on to (lamentably) spawn the "New Wave" and be owed a debt by parochial scions from Blur to the Arctic Monkeys
The quartet - Graham Lewis, Robert Bruce and Colin Newman, along with the splendidly named drummer Robert Gotobed - would go on to record three albums, of which their début 'Pink Flag' would become a corner stone of what became understood as post-punk. Both Newman and Bruce were former art school students who intuitively shaped both the band's attitude to performance and composition, revelling in the aesthetic confusion of the era. 'Pink Flag' was to be followed in rapid order by 1978's 'Chairs Missing' and the following year's '154', both critically acclaimed but neither ridding them of a reputation for challenging the record buying public and label bosses alike.
As you may have guessed by now, the record-tour-record cycle was not one that Newman and co. were particularly comfortable with, and tensions both of the internal and external kind would eventually force them into a messy breakup in 1980. 'Document And Eyewitness' was originally released as a post-script to that dissolution (Wire would reform in 1987), a collection of live recordings, demos and rehearsals, the sort of which it is standard practice to issue today.
The problem was that, as revealed in Simon Reynolds seminal book on the period 'Rip It Up And Start Again', once they'd recorded a song, Wire rapidly lost interest in performing it again, a phobia compounded by increasingly bizarre attempts to confound their public whilst on stage. Some of 'Document and Eyewitness'' material is culled from a gig at London's Electric Ballroom, during which the doubtlessly bemused punters were cast as extras in a show that was more expressionist scream than entertainment.
Remastered and expanded, the results are just as existential now; the thirty-four songs range in form from snippets (the splendid thrash of '12 X U' is deliberately rendered into little more than just an excerpt) through to the fourteen minute closer 'Part Of Our History', a free form jam that defies any attempts at categorisation, or indeed enjoyment. Much of the rest feels like an uncompromising manifesto being delivered: the proto-electronics of 'Go Ahead', 'Eastern Standard''s barmy prose-lyrics and the lurching distortion of 'Underwater Experiences' are at their worst all akin to hectoring, Puritan essays.
The mildly curious may wander where they can locate '3 Girl Rumba' or 'Outdoor Miner', each suitably acerbic and norm-bashing, but without resorting to deconstruction - they're out of luck here though. Given that talent was never an issue, there are still moments that speak to Wire's collective incisiveness, especially the gilded clarity of 'Our Swimmer' and 'Midnight Banhof Café', but for every one of those there seems to be something as weird and strangely unpalatable as 'ZEGK_HOQP'.
In an era where "Popular" music is littered with individuals who seem prepared to de-humanise themselves for success, it seems anathema to be listening to a band who did the same to their music as a way of exploring the elasticity of their audience. More interesting conceptually than creatively, 'Document And Eyewitness' is the archetypal challenging listen and, without question, it's a fans only experience. Put another way - it would make a really great Christmas present - but only for somebody you don't particularly like.
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