Gang of Four – Hard
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“I don't think we’re saying there’s anything wrong with love / We just don't think that what goes on between two people should be shrouded in mystery.”
The above couplet closes Gang of Four’s “Anthrax.” Unfortunately for the band’s legacy, those were not their last words on love. By the early 80s, Andrew Gill and Jon King had seen their mates Dave Allen and Hugo Burnham replaced by Sara Lee and a drum machine, respectively. After years of struggle as a leftist post-punk band propelled by genuine intelligence in a market structure designed to amuse and distract, they were weary. Their fourth album, Hard, would ostensibly be their last. Upon its release, it was widely panned as their least.
With its midnight-city dirges, string and horn touches, female backup singers, and—the greatest trespass of all—a shift in lyrical focus from the politics of power to the politics of relationships, Hard was savaged from birth. It was as if the band had surrendered to the contradiction, as if they had internalized Adorno’s concern that mass-market art could not truly be revolutionary.
Yet by 1983, Gang of Four’s sound was in danger of ossification. Gill’s staccato, talc-dry approach to the guitar was a deliberate evasion of arena-rock’s deifying signifiers. Time has revealed, however, that GoF’s brittle mix of funk and abrasion became a signifier unto itself for a host of stylish bands. And as we are all being made aware of these days, the first wave of British punks crashed many wags onto the beach of pop subversion. Hard had precedents and companions in records from Scritti Politti, Orange Juice et al, but the strident people’s music of Entertainment! stood too tall in the fans’ eyes.
Hard knows this. “I know that you think that you know what I said / (Poor Tom, monkey on his back) / But do you realize that what I said’s not what I meant,” King wails on “A Man With a Good Car.” Elsewhere in the song, a reference to being “deep in the mystery” may or may not be a confession with “Anthrax” in mind. The closer, “Independence,” lays out a particularly bleak picture of a man in a freezing flat, behind on the rent. “I don’t want to remain on the edge,” King growls, “we must embrace the new conditions”—very tempting indeed to read this as a signed confession. It’s also a buoyant number with some conventional string work and airy vocals, although “independence ain’t dependence” is a slogan so dopey it begs to be parsed for winks.
Nearly every other track on the album—co-produced, I must note, by Ron and Howard Albert, who worked with Aretha, the Allmans, and CSNY—is a keeper. Hard’s critics are to be pitied; they’ve missed a great little pop record. They’ve also missed the idea that songs that mention love needn’t be slagged as “love songs.” But again, in the critical eye, one band’s subversion is often another’s submission. Take “Is it Love.” Yes, love riddles the refrain. But all ‘round the chorus, King holds up the mystery of love to scrutiny: “The men who own the city make more sense than we do,” he croons bitterly, “their actions are clear, their lives are their own / But you went behind glass.” Disco string stabs and a female voice singing “It’s all right” at the end add up to a pop stunner (as well as a top ten club hit that year). The tapping “Woman Town” personalizes 1979’s righteous “Natural’s Not in It,” with a Lothario’s prowl shut down by his target. “I don’t need you,” Gill icily ripostes, “I’m a woman, not some naming game… I don’t need for you to talk about me / You have the picture, don’t you see.” All the while, a melodica honks like a car horn, suggesting salacious (and sexist) expectations.
For those missing the raucous Gang of old, “A Man With a Good Car” and “A Piece of My Heart” will have to suffice. As on the rest of the album, the stuttering guitars tend to suggest rather than declaim. The burden is on Lee’s excellent bass lines, brass fanfare, and vocals that mock rather than embody decadence. With words that wouldn’t have been out of place on Entertainment!, let alone Solid Gold, the former track finds King in full-on irony, grinning that “a man with a good car needs no justification / Fate is in my hands and in the transmission.” “A Piece of My Heart” is at once more propulsive and ambiguous, and gleefully gets to the phrase “the heat is on” two full years before Glenn Frey.
I understand that Gang of Four’s early releases set a standard for complex political dialogue in music, and in comparison, Hard practically begs the phrase “for what it is…” But really, most groups during Gang of Four’s first phase would’ve loved to’ve released a meaty set of danceable, moody, catchy songs as strong as Hard’s. Sometimes the Sex Pistols become Public Image Ltd., and sometimes Joy Division becomes New Order. Embrace the contradiction.