‘People Are Given What They Want’: Gang Of Four’s Timeless Slice Of Entertainment!

Rock & Roll Globe pays homage to the late Andy Gill with a look at his band’s debut masterpiece

Gang of Four 1979. (Art: Ron Hart)

If there’s any band deserving of the overused descriptor ‘timeless’, it’s Gang Of Four, the wiry UK-based post-punk mainstay captained under the guidance of co-songwriter and lead guitarist Andy Gill, who sadly passed away over the weekend at age 64.

It’s there in their wide-reaching influence on scores of ambitious admirers, from Les Savy Fav to Liars to Bloc Party to R.E.M. to Nirvana. The simple and ingenious formula of their jittery, caffeinated dance-punk has reaped generations of rewards for listeners, like the rings of a bisected oak tree attesting to its lifespan. But beyond just the sound of Gill and singer Jon King’s aggressive and durable jams, it’s there in the socio-political focus of the group as well, woven as deeply into their songs as the chords and changes themselves. While contemporaries such as Wire were deconstructing art and society through a refractive and kaleidoscopic lens, Gang Of Four gazed outward, finding inspiration not only in the turbulent political environment of Thatcher-era Britain, but also in America’s consumerist decadence and decay and in China’s throes of revolutionary upheaval and crackdown conformity. Name a band Gang Of Four in the late seventies, and you’re stating loudly that your intention is to indict and eviscerate, to enumerate abuses and criticize old polemics. 

Gang Of Four came together, very appropriately, in Leeds, that great and diverse workshop town of the UK. They quickly became a favorite of radio titan John Peel, and their then-unique cauldron of influences (from Jamaican dub to American funk to the riotous punk of bands closer to home) began to gain them significant notice in England and beyond. Along the way, they were routinely hampered by small-minded censorship and furious reaction to their lyrical and artistic conceits, suffering numerous indignities and outright bans at the hands of bland mainstream content pushers like Top Of The Pops and the BBC, eventually seriously hurting their commercial prospects at their label, EMI. Their stubborn refusal to moderate their lyrics and image remains a testament to building a long-term legacy versus making short-term concessions for quick fame and profit. Across their first two classic albums, Gang Of Four became not just an incredible band, but a deeply admirable one.

Their first and still best album, Entertainment!, is one of the most remarkably full-formed and exciting debuts in pop music’s storied history of stellar first efforts. The artwork’s aggressive outlining of American means of exploitation and abuse carries over into the first iconic bass jabs of ‘Ether’, stating musically a sound of witty but caustic activism before the first overlapping lyrics begin to tumble and wrestle. “Ether” investigates and skewers public and media reaction to hunger-striking Northern Irish political prisoners, while terrorism and Maoism practically burst from the tight seams of “5.45”’s eerie rumble.

Other verbose thematic acrobatics probe questions of materialism, feminism, and individuality, an alienated look at comfortable middle-class life that would make the American author Don DeLillo beam with pride, all delivered in a nervous and perfectly suitable yelp by King, and propped up by Gill’s trademark skittering guitar lines. The backbone of the band and thus the album, however, was the ace rhythm section of Dave Allen and Hugo Burnham. Allen’s bass work alone here remains rightly celebrated, driving the melody of the songs in a similar manner to Peter Hook of Joy Division and New Order, but accompanying more diverse and funk-driven elements over Burnham’s slippery time-shifting rhythms. “Damaged Goods”, the best-known song here, is a classic Gang Of Four burner, and it’s here that the trademark juxtaposed vocal lines and melodiously-skipping bass riffs really reach their apex. The song is angry without being maudlin, insistent without being preachy or pedantic, a perfect gem of danceable post-punk in a fleeting three-and-a-half minutes. 

Gang of Four Entertainment!, EMI 1979

‘Entertainment!’ remains a testament to powerful belief in album form. It’s the sound of outrage, the rush of youthful rebellion against a broken system, when any and all manner of utopian goals and proletariat fantasies seem attainable. ‘Entertainment!’ is not an album for the cynical or jaded. It believes fervent in a better world at the hands of the informed and the compassionate. We could use such perspective in the crumbling Western empires of 2019. This is passion in unbridled musical form, pure expression as rage in the face of a world that almost never deals straight or plays fair.

While Solid Gold turned out to be a logical and rightfully-praised successor to ‘Entertainment!’’s opening salvo two years later, personnel shiftings and diminishing returns have robbed the Gang of much of what made them so vital and vitriolic. Meanwhile, that initial warning shot continues to resound as the political situation of both the UK and the United States approaches entropy and collapse.

‘Entertainment!’ strangely feels, in 2019, more of this dark age of time and history than many contemporary releases, whether post-punk imitators or bubblegum pop trifles. Thirty years later, we still need ‘Entertainment!’ and the questions it raises, if we’ve any hope for what may be the album’s most provocative suggestion of all: salvation for humanity, a future unfolding through the choking fog. 

 

AUDIO: Gang of Four Entertainment! (full album)

 

Zachary Corsa

Zachary Corsa is a musician, poet, and music writer living in Memphis, Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter at nonconnahdrone.

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