Gang of Four
1979 / 2005
command of Marxian dialectics is an impressive talent when writing a term paper, but it means shit in a club. That’s what Gang of Four realized when they set their quasi-hit “I Love A Man in Uniform” to a Talking Heads drum sound, slapped their bass, and paid for backup vocalists to wail the unwieldy chorus. Their disgust with marketplace exigencies still in place, their last album Hard was everything the title wasn’t. Replacing Walter Benjamin with Chic’s Risque is a welcome development for most bands less principled than Go4, but Hard showed that Go4 were prisoners of the forces they sought to destroy. Like John Rotten-Lydon, they were too honest, too reluctant to justify their bad faith; thus, they subverted their only chance for a hit. It was a most curious form of self-immolation: recording the most inept dance-punk album in history.
Entertainment!, the evergreen album Gang of Four released in 1980 and newly reissued by Rhino, is so loved these days (“loved”! Can these guys love you back?) that it’s easy to overlook the restricted scope of the band’s power. I use “restricted” instead of “limited,” implying that Go4 crimped the salubrious effect of their undeniable grooviness. These smartypants thought they were better than Earth, Wind, & Fire; the notion that there’s one nation under a groove was for Gang of Four a chimera, as ignoble as capitalism. The short-term effect was, of course, magnificent. Bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham were as on-the-one as Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson; Andy Gill choked inhuman sounds from his guitar, like he was strangling Adam Smith with his bare hands. Jon King barked like a poli-sci grad student scaring students with his lateness policy.
Combustible and tight—an unconscious, more perfect distillation of dialectics than any of the tortured constructions in Gang of Four’s lyrics—this lineup produced some scary shit, with rhythmic finesse; imagine hop-skipping to the gallows. “Not Great Men” and “I Feel That Essence Rare” sound more dangerous than “Complete Control” or “White Riot,” yet—here’s the problem—a “Janie Jones” or “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” seemed beyond them. A song requiring a soupçon of ambiguity, a song fleshing out the abstract thesis statement, “The problem of leisure / What to do for pleasure”—this foursome came close just once, on 1982’s “We Live As We Dream, Alone,” which undercut its devastating truths with a misanthropic title and enervated singing. The Gang stated the problem without analyzing it, and they knew nothing about pleasure (on the cover of “Sweet Jane” included on this reissue, Jon King sings the most empathetic lyrics in rock like he’s reading a directive from the Supreme Soviet).
Like any essay, Entertainment! succeeds when the band supports its arguments with examples. Gill reproduces the numbness of the wage-slave in “At Home He Feels Like A Tourist” with a series of six-string stutters and explosions that sounds like a short-circuiting transformer box. The diseased crawl of “Anthrax” is as much fun as a case of anthrax. The addition of the Yellow EP provides interesting, if unnecessary, context: these B-side wannabes are even more sour and crabby than their cousins on Entertainment! (when Burnham takes the mic on “It’s Her Factory,” he makes King sound like Dusty Springfield).
So, yeah, Entertainment! is a classic and all that, but what fascinates now is the ease with which putative disciples like Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, and, egad, the Killers borrowed its essential components and disregarded the politics. Less striking music perhaps, but there’s gold in them thar hills. Franz Ferdinand especially have made dressing for the H-bomb fun again, without acting like the mindless hedonists that Gang of Four satirized. They learned one thing the Gang never did: study your father’s mistakes. At their worst Franz Ferdinand retreat into Gang of Four-isms, with Simon Le Bon on vocals; when Go4 sucked, they sounded like Frederick Engels teaching the Frankfurt School how to plug in their amps. Entertainment! proves conclusively that a corpse may be “a new personality,” but it’s still a corpse, and it’ll start to stink after a while.