Oh No! I Left It in My Other Suit!
Capitalismos, favorite boy child, we must apologise / Up in the rafters a rope is danglin' / Spots before the eyes of rock n' roll. -- The Mekons, "Memphis, Egypt," 1989
Love'll get you like a case of anthrax / And that's one thing I don't wanna catch. -- Gang of Four, "Anthrax," 1979
Round about 1983 or '84, all the major punk and post-punk bands started to break up and/or dissipate. As an idealistic, Jewfroed, music-obsessed teenager, still too young to gain entry into most of the places my favorite bands played, I could do little but sit crestfallen as I read Trouser Press reports of Buzzcocks, Pere Ubu, the Clash, the Jam, the English Beat, Gang of Four and Wire all calling it quits.
At the time, though, the Leeds, England-based Gang of Four's demise was by far the easiest to take. Hard (1983), with its limp drum machinations, flaccid string augmentations and Duran Duran-mimicking chart-grab "Is It Love?" had been not so much a departure as a betrayal. The follow-up live album was even worse, transparently disposable product shat onto the market by a band that had made its name mouthing severe criticism of consumer culture via quasi-communistic sloganeering. "Capital, it fails us now," indeed. Good riddance, bastards.
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Of course, it wasn't always thus. In order to betray, there must first exist something to be betrayed, and in the case of Gang of Four, that something was a musical legacy in the form of three measly LPs and two even measlier EPs that rewrote the rules of rock permanently. Gang of Four's early music sounds as shocking and galvanizing now as when my friends and I first got called "new-wave geeks" for buying it. The sound on those early records is musical ground zero, so clear and bare that the instruments all seem to be staking out their own territory, interacting like sovereign sonic states negotiating détente. You could hear Hugo Burnham's muscular but minimal drumming form an uneasy alliance with Dave Allen's stolid bass thumps to create the whitest, most airless funk beat imaginable. Meanwhile, Andy Gill's guitar behaved like a rogue nation, darting in and out of the established rhythms at will, disregarding meter and conventional chording, spraying chaos over the landscape. Singer Jon King's anxious, nasal vocals hewed close to the drums, exhorting and lamenting the state of our lives and the state of the state with such choice sentiments as "he fills his head with culture / he gives himself an ulcer," "the moment I was born I opened my eyes / I reached out for my credit card / oh no! I left it in my other suit!" and "to hell with poverty / we'll get drunk on cheap wine."
Gang of Four was captured in its prime in the 1980 film Urgh! A Music War. Although the band performs only one song, it is three of the most hypnotic and menacing minutes of music likely to be found anywhere. King's eyes roll back into his head as he beats something offscreen with a wrench while Burnham keeps time as if he were in another room altogether. The song, "He'd Send in the Army," is a maelstrom of unpredictable rhythmic fits and starts with King, Allen and Gill switching off singing lyrics that describe the plight of a housewife under the sway of an overbearing but equally miserable spouse. "She pays him back in the bedroom," King chants mournfully, "One step down from her leader / Obeys all his urges / Like he obeys his bosses." Throughout the song Gill spazzes, shoots and struts across the stage, alternating grimaces and blank stares while torturing unthinkable sounds from his guitar. Scary, compelling stuff.
Of course, that was 25 years ago. And in between, as mentioned above, these guys did their best to morph into Duran Duran, then effectively disappeared, with Gill and King reuniting every few years to release not-terribly-interesting discs under the Go4 name. The big recent development here, though, and one that's gotten the original guerrilla lineup of Gang of Four back together and on the road, is that suddenly, retroactively, these guys have become totally hip. Nowadays, every hot young band from the Rapture to Franz Ferdinand is name-dropping Gang of Four like it's some kind of secret password to cool. No matter that none of these new groups really sounds like Gang of Four did at its peak, the word is out. And now yesteryear's revolutionaries are taking back the stage to show the youngsters how it's done.
So is the Gang of Four reunion just another cash grab? And if so, is that even worse coming from a band that Pitchforkmedia.com has labeled "the most anti-capitalist band ever?" Well, to be fair, Gang of Four's stance on materialism was always more than a bit tongue-in-cheek. Not only were their album titles grossly ironic (Solid Gold, Entertainment!, Another Day, Another Dollar) but they all came out on fucking Warner Bros. Also, from all accounts, these guys have been tearing it up live, concentrating exclusively and without mercy on their most vintage, potent material, much of which they've even rerecorded for a new, revisionist CD due next month and titled Return the Gift. So even though my former shiny-faced, hormone-crippled self would wince at the notion of these beloved yet reviled former heroes "doing a Doobie Brothers" and hitting the reunion trail, another, bigger part of me is more than willing to stand back and watch the old fogies hand out some serious beat-downs to unsuspecting trendies. As the boys themselves used to sing, "I found that essence rare, it's what I looked for / I knew I'd get what I asked for."
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