Gang of Four
n First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.
It's exceedingly weird to finally sit down with the music of a band that has apparently influenced so much music I enjoy. A band whose primary work, the comes-with-impossibly-high-expectations Entertainment!, has been sitting in my dad's vinyl collection since before I was born, but one who I unconsciously avoided even as he was playing us the Clash and I was trying to figure out why he had so many records by the band who did “Burning Down the House” (wasn't that a novelty hit?). I bought the newly remastered, bonus-tracked and freshly essayed (by Michael Azerrad in fulsomely canonizing mode) edition of Entertainment! out of an obscure sense of duty, which is a stupid way to spend twenty-three bucks, but at least I'll finally know what critics mean when they call a guitar “angular,” right?
There is the very real possibility, sitting down with the freshly unwrapped cardboard package, that I will not enjoy Gang of Four as much as the admittedly derivative acts that have co-opted bits of their sound. I'm not convinced this is a bad thing, or a somehow illegitimate reaction; although the original is sometimes best, there's not really any grounds on which to argue that a must be better than b just because a influenced b. As much as I love comic books, the sheer range of “high culture” somehow impacted by, say, Jack Kirby's work is pretty disproportionate. If the authenticity brigade wants to make the argument that a record like Silent Alarm is somehow lesser than Entertainment! because of mere chronology (as opposed to, say, the varying political/personal stances of the albums or the quality of the respective choruses), it's not really worth your time to argue.
But above and beyond all that, we really should be talking about a band that comes before, not after, Gang of Four. To their credit the band has been gracious about latter-day acolytes in all the interviews I've seen, and so the fact they have influences doesn't exactly make them out to be hypocrites, but coming after Chairs Missing it seems painfully obvious to me that Entertainment! owes a huge debt to Wire. Much of it, yes, is down to Jon King's at times uncanny vocal Newman-isms, but if Wire hadn't made such a quantum leap into art/pop/weirdness after Pink Flag you can easily imagine Gang of Four's debut being the more conventionally “mature” follow-up.
Especially if Wire had started going to the disco; a preponderance of GoF's influence and charm lies in their rhythm section, especially Dave Allen's bass, and the appeal of something like “Not Great Men” isn't so much in Andy Gill's “Atrocity Exhibition” guitar (kudos to him for making it work as a consistent style, though) or King's hectoring chant as it is Allen's chunky burbling and Hugo Burnham's consistently, stiffly funky work on the drums. Although the two bands would have sounded quite different at the time (decades of history have a way of smoothing this sort of thing out; someday in the future my equivalent will be equating the Walkmen to Spoon or something similar), the main thing that separates them now is a matter of focus. While it would be silly to suggest that Wire didn't care about Politics or Gang of Four were heedless of Art, the two groups definitely paid more attention to different areas. Wire's political content has always been latent or implicit at best (as in “Blessed State”), whereas for Gang of Four, as with everyone from Phil Ochs to Le Tigre, how they were saying it was less important than what they were saying, resulting in an album of almost stifling monomania.
And that, I think, is why I admire Entertainment! more than I actually like it. From the tenor of the hosannas pitched the band's way clearly the angry, political angle is one of the reasons people love Gang of Four so much, and I don't begrudge them that for a second, but it's not my cup of tea. Their anti-love songs have aged exceedingly badly and sound like nothing more revolutionary than self-loathing, although the sheer misanthropy of something like “Anthrax” is still mildly bracing. The political content of course remains painfully on target today, but that says more about the depressing state of the world than any great prescience on the part of the writers. It's not all, or even mostly, dire; “I Found That Essence Rare,” “At Home He's A Tourist,” and “Return the Gift” in particular manage to marry the more conventional side of the band's sound with a fairly compelling rejection of modern liberal capitalism (they didn't exactly take on small targets). Ultimately though I prefer the appended Yellow EP, which seems to integrate the dancier aspects of the rhythm section more fully into the strident songwriting and guitar (so perhaps second album Sold Gold would be more my speed). The melodica-aided “It's Her Factory,” for instance, takes the latent stiffness of the album and makes it a virtue. I find it a lot easier to nod my head in agreement with the sage wisdom of the revolutionaries when it is already nodding.
That EP marks the first real break from the almost Puritan sternness and self-abnegation of Entertainment! itself, from the mocking title on down. Of course, that sternness was always a bit misleading, as the closing live cover of “Sweet Jane” (referred to by the band as “an indulgence”) essayed on this version of the album shows. They certainly sound like they're having fun, but it's about a tenth as compelling as their original material. Gang of Four spent so much effort twisting their playing into what at the time was a carefully idiosyncratic blend that relaxing and playing someone else's notes makes them sound like any decent bar band. Their willful drive towards uniqueness and a kind of purity ensured their sound remains interesting and influential, but also trapped by its own design.
Oh. And like everyone else who uses the word, I still don't know what it means when a guitar is “angular.”