Reissued best-of follows renewed interest in scabrous post-punk politicos
Few groups were more conscious, more vigilant, more keenly aware than Gang Of Four, not just politically but in examining the workings of their own music and the ‘entertainment’ industry in which they were supposed to play their part, as well as the existential lot of the consumer. “The problem of leisure/What to do for pleasure” (“Natural’s Not In It”) exercised nervously sardonic vocalist Jon King constantly. Gang Of Four took punk’s back-to-basics principle extremely seriously. For them, it meant a process of deconstruction, a return to first principles, at a time when Thatcherism was coincidentally in its own process of ‘deconstructing’ the British welfare state, “rolling back the frontiers” with an ironically similar punkish fervour.
This was no time for druggy stupor or ambient reverie. Everything was up for grabs, open to question, at stake. Hence the skinny urgency of Gang Of Four: they were the musical equivalent of Franz Kafka’s definition of art?a “cold bucket of water at midnight”.
With 1979’s brilliant Entertainment!, Gang Of Four nagged away like a conscience in an era when many of punk’s pop entryists were making the deliberate transition onto the “disco floor” solemnly invoked by King on “At Home He’s A Tourist”, their first single. “Tourist”‘s martial dance rhythms?”two steps forward (six steps back)”?intimated that the dancefloor wasn’t a place where you “broke free” or “let go of your inhibitions” but a zone in which you acted under the diktats of consumerism, right down to the “rubbers you hide in your top left pocket”.
Their critiques of written history (“Not Great Men”) and “love” as glibly represented in pop songs (“Anthrax”) were stern, mocking reproaches to the baubly world of TOTP from which they were specifically exiled (see Andy Gill Q&A, left). However, like PiL, their closest musical relations, their music was, although scabrous, hardly austere. It was to their credit that, unlike many politico-polemicists then and subsequently, they were able to convert the frantic, pop-eyed anxiety of their lyrical concerns into music that was viscerally exciting, throbbing like a vein in the temple. They turned funk rhythms inside out, counterpointing them with Andy Gill’s volatile, pebbledash guitars, sputtering and exploding like hot oil on troubled waters, spilling incontinently across the rhythmical bed, or strafing and serrating the songs, as on “Anthrax”. For a group so often and so earnestly associated with the clipped spirit of post-punk, guitar-wise at least they were a throwback to the guitar ‘excesses’ of Hendrix, as well as a harbinger for the late-’80s rediscovery of fretboard frenzy (Big Black, the Buttholes, etc)
Solid Gold (1981) arrived at a time when Gang Of Four’s punk/funk formula was paying chart dividends for the crop of bright young things who followed in their wake, when slogans like “Dance Don’t Riot” were being invoked in the eye of those troubled times, times also of ironically delirious hedonism (though the irony, in many cases, was optional). As for Gang Of Four, they stuck to their political guns. “Paralysed” is a dank, faintly dub-wise sonic impression of the de-industrialisation of early-’80s Britain, with King mirthlessly mimicking the catchphrases of an emergent, selfish, Jack-the-laddish entrepreneurial class (“Wealth is for the one that wants it?paradise?if you can earn it”), before revealing himself as the voice of the “washed-up”, reflecting confusedly (“I can’t make out what’s gone wrong/I was good at what I did.”). A live version of “What We All Want”, lyrically reflecting, as ever, Gang Of Four’s grasp of the politics of desire, hints at the static energy the band gave off on stage, Gill’s guitars chuntering like a sick engine over a thick boogie bass line. Shame they haven’t included “History’s Bunk”, the B-side of the “What We All Want” single, a riotous maelstrom of guitar extremism.
With 1982’s Songs Of The Free, the band’s agitpop held firm, “I Love A Man In A Uniform” nailing the appalling relapse into jingoism that came with the Falklands war, the outbreak of which would see the single dropped from playlists. Perhaps, however, 1982 was as much a watershed year for Gang Of Four as it was British politics. On the likes of “Call Me Up”, King elects to adopt more of a singing style, perhaps feeling a need to eschew the bleak, bullhorn vocal tactics of the band’s early days. Unfortunately, while the songs still burn instrumentally and thematically, King sounds like he’s engaged in a Heaven 17-soundalike competition.
As the decade wore on, Thatcherism took its toll and post-punk-pop entryists (ABC, Associates, PiL) were supplanted by spiky-haired but de-ironicised popportunists like Howard Jones. Gang Of Four found themselves in a different game, a different country. Hard, from 1983, was an attempt to move on with the more opulent musical times, still further onward from their ragged-trousered beginnings. However, the results were unsatisfying?the album is suffocated by the slick R&B they’d honourably attempted to use as a Trojan horse into the charts. Still, songs like “Womantown”, with its chunky, treated guitars, falsetto chorus and feminist sentiments, had enough about them to affirm that if Gang Of Four had been defeated by the times, unlike many of their contemporaries, they never capitulated to them.
Thereafter, the pendulum swung completely away from Gang Of Four, pop heading off back into a hideous (white) soulful orgy of passion, rock into the dreamy, comatose realms of post-rave, grunge, shoegazing. In those ’90s, times of relative economic fair weather, coupled with a cynical, helpless feeling in the collective gut that ‘resistance’ was naive or futile, no one could be less fashionable than Gang Of Four. Now, their music couldn’t be more timely, thanks to the likes of the newly radicalised Radio 4 and The Rapture taking up post-punk’s unfinished musical business, thanks also, perhaps, to a reawakening of political rage in the Blair/Bush era. Whatever, it’s bracing to experience this cold, acid shower once more.