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March 14, 2008

Weekend Music: Gang of Four

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Sadly for me, one of the punk bands that's least-well represented on YouTube is one of my favorites, the snarly English dance band Gang of Four. The videos that are available do a crappy job of conveying how fiery and exciting their music and shows were. Still, why should that stand in the way of a blogposting?

A quick word about the group. One of the first of the "post-punk" bands, the Leeds-based Gang of Four blew onto the scene with a distinctive sound, a slashing and confident attack, and two really fabulous records, "Entertainment!" and "Solid Gold."

They caught a downer of a mood. Big cities were falling apart, debt was everywhere, the '70s were grinding to an end, New York City had declared bankruptcy, squatters were taking over abandoned buildings ... It could feel some days like Western Civ was flailing, perhaps even on the verge of an apocalyptic turning point. Well, it could if you were a highly-reactive, imaginative, urban kid, anyway.

Punk rock generally was implicitly a response to all this -- a black-hearted, dancing-on-the-cinders moment of reveling in the absurdity of it all, a reaction against both the bloat of what had become of Boomer rock and the sappiness of disco. What Gang of Four did was take the righteous-apocalyptic element that was implicit in much punk rock and foreground it.

But enough with the blah-blah, let's cut to the music:

It's party music -- only it's ghoulish, cackling, and strident party music. Too bad that video trails off at the end.

In fact, Gang of Four (who are said to have taken their name not from the Chinese Communist politicians but from the Big Four of French structuralism) were political as hell, if in a snot-nosed-kid kind of way. They were Situationists, basically. (Read up here on Situationism, one of the kookier yet more influential radical movements of the last 50 years. I sort of like Situationism myself.)

Can you hear and see the Situationism? Funnily enough, I can. I could at the time too. Here are two of the giveaways:

  • The dancing. It's a bit of Devo, a little David Byrne, and distinctively hideous in its own right. Think: theory, confrontation, and attack. Think "pop culture is turning us into spastic robots -- yet even that has its own addictive high. We're electro-zombies who have been gutted of our humanity. Yet we're lovin' it." Those are some of the arguments that Situationism makes about how pop culture works. And that tactic -- taking the strategies of popular culture and turning them back on themselves -- is known as "detournement." It's a classic Situationist art-agitation strategy.

  • The way the music mixes aggression and dissonance with funky danceability. Noise and feedback were big at the time. There were bands that were actual "noise bands," and there were composers around (such as Glenn Branca) who made ambitious entertainments out of chunks of electronic noise, arranging big masses of deafeningness like elements in an abstract composition. Electronic noise was thought by some to equal the raw nature of commercial society. Even the funkiness -- which ain't half-bad as straightforward funkiness -- is stiff-jointed, white-boy stuff. It's sardonic yet deferential. There's solidarity with black people being expressed; respect for them too (we like funkiness, but we're stiff white people); and a theory-driven assumption that dancing equals liberation, if of a burning-to-a-crisp kind.

What the band wants us to take it to be doing is stripping the essence of Western Civ to its ugly nature, and throwing it back at us in the form of mass dance music. They want to transport us while keeping us aware of the mechanisms by which it's all happening. If we're able to go along with the game, we can find ourselves dancing on the remains of our society.

It's punk rock as a no-budget Brechtian version of "Blade Runner," in other words.

OK, so Gang of Four were basically art school pricks. Still: funky! Danceable! You're getting slapped around, yes -- but if you're in the right mood it can feel sooooooo good. To be honest, cocaine was not in short supply at Gang of Four concerts.

Let's cut to another of the group's best songs. This one is called "Anthrax." Since there's no worthwhile footage on YouTube of the band performing the song, I'm supplying a mood-video that someone put together to accompany the music. The imagery is effective and evocative in its own right, but you may need to take a deep breath when you realize that what you're watching is actual footage from 9/11 at the WTC. That's offensive; such footage should probably never be used for its "aesthetic qualities." Still, bear with the video if you can -- it's a pretty fab song.

A couple of points: Did you notice that the opening feedback-driven, buzz-bomb guitar solo took up a full quarter of the song's play-length? And that the vocals didn't kick in until the song was already half over? As far as pop music goes, that's some pretty radical stuff.

In any case, "Anthrax" isn't peddling the near-bombastic, exultant sound of the Clash, or the jeering and contempt of the Sex Pistols, or the comicbook prankishness of the Ramones. It's peddling something very different. For me "Anthraox" is a complete and evocative theater work in its own right -- a program-music symphony in intense miniature. It's like having a funk beat play behind you as you thumb through 'zines at a radical bookstore. (Hey, I used to do a lot of that.) Another image that works for me: It's as though the kids in Godard's "La Chinoise" turned out to have musical talent and the ability to throw a rockin' party.

In fact, "Anthrax" is so anti-romantic a work that it's downright caustic. It's meant to burn like an acid through pop music's economic and ideological structure. It's pop music that means to bring pop music down. At least that's how it felt to listeners. That's what it was taken to mean at the time.

Because a lot of what Gang of Four brought onto the scene has been absorbed into the standard pop vocabulary, it's hard to suggest now how harsh and arousing their shows and albums first seemed. These Gang of Four lyrics, though, still seem to me to retain some of their sting:

Sometimes I'm thinking that I love you, but I know it's only lust ...

Love will get you like a case of anthrax, and that's something I don't want to catch ...

I love a man in a uniform ...

Your kiss so sweet, your sweat so sour ...

The problem of a-leisure / What to do for a-pleasure?

A bonus video. The sound is lousy but the video may suggest a bit of what it was like to attend a Gang of Four show:

And a video that doesn't show the band but whose sound is good.

Gang of Four was basically Andy Gill and Jon King. Gill was the group's producer and guitarist -- his guitar work is widely acknowledged to be some of the most influential in pop music. I take him to be largely responsible for the group's sound. Here's Andy Gill's website. Fun to see that he still works as a music producer -- so the world didn't end after all. Jon King was the group's singer, frontman, and lyricist. I believe he was the guy who was most in love with Situationism. I wasn't able to find a website for King.

"Entertainment!" can be bought here; "Solid Gold" can be bought here. They were two of the very best discs of the punk rock years, IMHO. I never got much out of the group's other records, though. Wikipedia's entry on the group is a good one.

Semi-related: Speaking of radical entertainments ... I wrote about a recent Jean-Luc Godard movie. I linked to some Ramones footage here and here, and raved about a documentary about Shane McGowan of The Pogues here. Here's a fab clip of The Pogues at their peak.

The Rawness links to some ka-razee animation set to Lou Reed music. "[It] showed me what charisma and swagger were long before I ever knew what those words actually meant," writes His Rawness.



posted by Michael at March 14, 2008


Not to be a total spoil sport, but the GOF were technically post punk, not punk. That means they brought art school ideas into music that was, by design, un-artsy.

Methinks the reason there is little Gang of Four on YouTube is because their music has not held up well. It's didactic, devoid of melody, humorless and a pale (no pun intended) imitation of R&B. They also had a negative influence on music, causing Paul Weller of the Jam to pen some of his worst songs and being responsible for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

The Gang of Four, like the Mekons, was a band largely loved by rock critics and ignored by everyone else. That's because rock critics are first and foremost writers and usually take to bands with great lyrics and simple music, because most critics do not have a background in music. Even as someone who loved post punk (like Joy Division) I have a hard time taking Gang of Four -- especially at this late a date. Their music sounds like you need a graduate degree to "get" it.

It's also noteworthy that the first time I ever saw the phrase "politically correct" in its modern usage was in an article about this band. They canned their drummer in about 1981, saying he was "politically incorrect." Totally indicative of their lack of humor.

Sorry for the tirade. Just to be a total a-hole, though, I'll add that I never met an attractive female Gang of Four fan. Even female Ramones fans were cuter, and that's saying something. I also think the Ramones made more trenchant political statements by simply observing everyday life, not writing high-handed dissertations.

Greil Marcus can go to hell.

Posted by: Days of Broken Arrows on March 14, 2008 8:42 PM

Days -- Fun rant. (I'll point out, though, that I did call GOF "post-punk," right at the top of the posting.) And Greil Marcus can indeed go to hell.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 14, 2008 9:18 PM

One enduring influence of Gang of Four that doesn't show up well on these videos is that their lead singer pretty much invented the Voice of Big Brother vocal style that remains popular today -- for example, the singer of the young band Arctic Monkeys sings about picking up girls at discos in a voice that sounds a lot like Gang of Four's -- like a 40 year old colonel in the secret police ordering his assembled henchmen to infiltrate and annihilate the opposition.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on March 14, 2008 9:46 PM

I had the pleasure of seeing Go4 twice. Once in 1984 when they were supporting "Hard" in the dining room of a country club in suburban Syracuse, NY. It was also the first time I ever got drunk (whisky sours) so I don't remember much beyond a great racket. The second time I saw them was in 2004 at the 930 Club in DC. Great show. So great it displaced the 1991 Pixies concert as the Best Show I've Ever Seen.

When discussing the line up you cannot forget Dave Allen on bass. Dave Allen who went on to play in Shriekback, one of the better alternative bands from the 80s. Some may claim they didn't have much staying power you can hear their influences in a lot of today's music. Thanks for writing about a band I loved as a high schooler and still enjoy as a 40-something dad.

Posted by: Matt S on March 14, 2008 10:15 PM

"Starchitecture is implicitly a response to all this -- a black-hearted reveling in the absurdity of it all, a reaction against both the bloat of popular culture and the sappiness of what the people seem to love. What the Gang of Four (Liebeskind, Koolhas, Eisenman and Payne) do is take the righteous-apocalyptic element that was implicit in much modernist architecture and foreground it.
"The Gang of Four have taken their name from the Big Four of French structuralism, and are political as hell, if in an snot-nosed aging leftie kind of way. They are of the most influential radical movements in the last 50 years.
The buildings. Distinctively hideous. Think: theory, confrontation, and attack. Think 'pop culture is turning us into spastic robots -- gutted us of our humanity.' Those are some of the arguments post-modernism makes about popular culture -- taking the strategies of popular culture and turning them back on themselves -- "detournement." It's classic art-agitation strategy. 

Mix aggression and dissonance. Visual noise, actual 'noise', ambitious entertainments out of chunks of visual noise, big masses of optical deafeningness like elements in an abstract composition. Visual noise is thought by some to equal the raw nature of commercial society. Even the funkiness is stiff-jointed, white-boy stuff. There's a theory-driven assumption that post-modern building equals liberation, if of a burning-to-a-crisp kind.

"What the Four want be doing is stripping the essence of Western Civ to its ugly nature, and throwing it back at us in the form of massive ugly buildings. They want to keep us aware of how it's all happening. If we're able to go along with the game, we can find ourselves living and working inside the remains of our society. It's modern living as no-budget Brechtian.
"OK, so the Gang of Four are art school pricks. Still: funky! Ugly! You're getting slapped around, yes! But if you're in the right mood, it can feel sooooooo anti-romantic it's downright caustic. It's meant to burn like acid through popular culture's economic and ideological structure. It's culture that means to bring culture down. At least that's how it feels to those who have to live and work in their buildings.
"Because a lot of what the Gang of Four brought onto the scene has been absorbed into standard architectural "criticism", it's hard to suggest now how harsh their buildings can be. This Gang of Four manifesto, though, still seem to reveal some of their sting:
I love a man in a uniform ...
The problem of a-leisure / What to do for a-pleasure?

Funny what a difference a simple beat can make in how we feel about things, isn't it?

BTW, I'm not joking. The Gang of Four (the band) would be as unbearable as the worst of Thom Payne if it wasn't for that funk. I wonder if starchitecture could redeem itself by somehow incorporating a kind of beat into its buildings.

Posted by: PatrickH on March 14, 2008 10:25 PM

Matt S. Get a grip. Nothing displaces the Pixies. Tell me where you live and I'll come by and stick a fork in your eye.

NOW we're getting to issues of substance.

Posted by: babooba von boobenhauser on March 15, 2008 2:06 AM

Steve -- "Voice of Big Brother" is nice. 1984 indeed.

Matt S. -- That's great that you saw them "in the dining room of a country club in suburban Syracuse, NY." Gotta love showbiz. You've got me thinking I've been unfair to their later music. Which of the later CDs do you suggest I revisit?

PatrickH -- That's very ingenious. In fact there have been some younger architects (Mayne's a Boomer, very '60s, and Gehry's older than that) who have deliberately tried to put a lot of punk-ishness into their work. FWIW, to me it wouldn't matter one way or the other, even if they did figure out how to get a funky beat going, because the main point is that where music is an optional pleasure, architecture is almost always an act that's imposed on the public. It's more akin to passing a law than to telling a joke -- you're stuck with it, it affects tons of pershaps unwilling people, it's hard to get rid of, etc. A GoF concert -- well, nobody has to bother. A building -- thousands of people will work in it, pass by it, etc, and a neighborhood will be affected by it. If some teen living in a suburban cul-de-sac likes listening to post-punk on his headphones, who cares? But if some punk architect (and patron) puts up a kooky punk house in that cul-de-sac, everyone living there is going to be affected in one way or another.

Babooba -- What with you and Days of Broken Arrows, you've got me feeling like I'm back at at Danceteria in '78.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 15, 2008 11:29 AM

Mayne, not Payne, of course. But the energy and drive of the Go4 comes precisely from the funk, not the feedback. The funk lifts their music out of art-house preciosity and into the world of fun. It doesn't enervate. It doesn't oppress. But that's not because it's avoidable. It's because it actually has drive and energy and punch behind it.

Your disdain for lit-crit is as intense as your dislike of starchitecture, but it can't be based on its unavoidability. My loathing of lit-crit is a response to its neurasthenic, etiolated, egg-white-for-spunk lack of even the tiniest whiff of urban, testoneronic drive. Starchitecture (IMO) has the same wrist-slashing, I-hate-my-body effect. Where the Go4 is different (and therefore bearable) is what's filling out the bottom of the shrieks and the feedback--those fat, funky, rolling driving riffs. And funk is about nothing if it ain't about sex. It's the lack of of anything primal, anything non-cerebral, non-theoretic, anything physical daggnabit!--that makes all the theory, the deconstruction, the noise so worthless in starchitecture. It's like Kafka's spike through the forehead, except you have to pay for it in taxes.

A spoonful of funk makes the situationism go down, is all I'm saying.

Posted by: PatrickH on March 15, 2008 1:36 PM

PatrickH -- That's for darn tootin'! Nicely put, too.

Posted by: MIchael Blowhard on March 15, 2008 3:27 PM

Did you know people from Leeds are called "Loiners"?

This didn't make Paul Dickson's otherwise fine Labels for Locals. (Leeds gets no respect.) But on occasion you can learn something from a crossword puzzle.

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on March 16, 2008 3:57 AM

i think "shrinkwrapped" is underrated but it's all about "entertainment!".

Posted by: t. j. on March 16, 2008 12:44 PM

Babooba - Outside DC. You're entitled to your opinion and I to mine. I love the Pixies (and in fact had the pleasure of meeting and hanging out with Joey Santiago at a good friend's wedding in 2000) but Go4's 2004 show was better than the Pixies "Trompe le Monde" tour.

Michael B - Yeah, the show was at Drumlins. My pal, Danny was a busboy there and managed to convince the bartender to slip some 17-year olds some adult beverages. Also saw the Cult there when they were touring to support "Love" in 1986. Crazy place for a show as aside from a 2' riser there was really NO distance between the band and the audience (no "pit" and no security cordon). I have to say, in terms of the Go4 catalogue, the best stuff is the earlier stuff - "Entertainment" and "Solid Gold." I bought "Hard" when it came out and it is fairly light stuff but was an adaptation of the times - more synth and drum machine. "Shrinkwrapped" was OK but again, not great. If you really want a good sampling of their music - from start to finish - get the 2-CD set "100 Flowers Bloom" and you'll get the hits as well as some unreleased studio and demo stuff.

Posted by: Matt S on March 16, 2008 3:28 PM

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