Wire – Document and Eyewitness
“Pure audience confrontation.” When I spoke with him a few years ago, that’s how Wire frontman Colin Newman laughingly described the Electric Ballroom performance that comprises the band’s Document and Eyewitness LP. A message group acquaintance once called it the aural equivalent of Monty Python’s “Confuse a Cat” sketch. Both are wholly accurate.
Document and Eyewitness captures the post-punk legends in a state of post-154 restlessness, having already cut the cord with EMI (the UK home of their three epochal albums), on the cusp of a six-year hiatus, and sitting on a trove of unreleased and mostly obtuse material. Wire had already demonstrated its disinterest in merely “touring the album”; The quartet chose a German TV appearance “promoting” 1978’s Chairs Missing to premiere two unreleased tracks, to spectacular result. And the concerts supporting 1979’s 154 included a multi-night UK residency with numerous theatric elements – and ultimately just three selections from the featured release.
By February 1980 Wire were looking to push the envelope further. More gallery performance piece than rock show, the Electric Ballroom gig featured just one familiar track – the early, cathartic “12XU” – introduced by a comically smarmy MC and intentionally undermined on the live recording by flash-cutting with backstage interviews. It’s not quite the thumb in the eye of Metal Machine Music, but Document and Eyewitness can be filed in close proximity. This reissue is timely, since Wire’s 2013 outing Change Becomes Us revisited much of this same material. Wire aficionados will also recognize several of these fragments from somewhat polished versions that eventually turned up – often under different titles – on Gilbert/Lewis and Newman solo albums, or band studio bootlegs. In these renditions, however, they’re either raw (“Underwater Experiences,” “Eels Sang Lino”) or hypnotic/plodding, depending on your perspective (“5/10,” “And Then….”)
It’d be hard to recommend the Electric Ballroom set for more than a single jaw-dropping listen, were it not for the material appended to it. Seven tracks from a mid-1979 “straightforward band performance” at Notre Dame Hall (packaged as a separate 12” in the original Document) are the truly electric ones. Still emphasizing unreleased material, the only overlapping title (“Underwater Experiences”) is far more captivating in its Notre Dame version – suggesting that myth demolition had been part of Wire’s Electric Ballroom agenda. And “Ally in Exile,” reclaimed as the lead track for Change Becomes Us, sounds remarkably fully formed in this 34-year earlier take, with the added benefit of a live jolt and a dollop of Send-era aggression. The CD and digital editions are rounded out with a handful of solid but for-diehards-only demos.
Wire is also extending its Legal Bootleg series with digital-only full performances from the Electric Ballroom, Notre Dame Hall and Montreux (which contributed a single title to the D&E 12”) shows. I’ll be first in line for the complete 17-track Notre Dame edition.
Document and Eyewitness