Name yourself after the infamous quartet that held on to Chinese power only to be brought down after Mao’s death and you might get labelled. Create a new sound full of jagged guitars and disco squawking, you might get labelled. Be totally awesome and you will get my vote as one of the most vital bands of the last thirty years.
I love Gang Of Four.
I am sure that by now my preferences for all things British, my affection for the 1980s, my devotion to all things post-punk, and my politics have become clear. But since I’ve always been a bit of a left-wing nutter with a passion for music, being a fan of this band should not come as a surprise to you. The fact that they were political was of course secondary to the fact that they were a fantastic band who produced a magnificent album.
There is a particular genius in a song like “At Home He’s A Tourist”, the band’s defining and most recognizable song. Over a galloping bass line that is wholly memorable , with sparse, effective drumming, the guitar of Andy Gill shrilly screams in short spurts over top, and they intone in their special speak singing about how people are literally making themselves ill to match up to the ideal that politicians and media have deemed to be the new normal.
Politics and history occasionally meet. “Guns Before Butter” is anti-war, playing on Hermann Goering’s famous quote about pre-war German economic policy “Guns will make us powerful; butter will only make us fat.” Carlyle’s theory of Great Men is challenged on “Not Great Men”, a rare philosophical song that actually is about real philosophy and not pop junk. “I Found That Essence Rare” talks about searching for the politician that speaks to you, only to be disappointed that a politician is of course a politician regardless of talking points, but you “get what you ask for”. If you vote against your own interests for an aspirational position, don’t be shocked if you suddenly see your life get harder and those in power have their lives get easier.
“Ether” talks eloquently about the Troubles and the British government policy in dealing with Irish prisoners, particularly the SCS (Special Category Status) phase out that would culminate with the infamous 1981 Hunger Strike that saw the death of ten Northern Irish Republican prisoners. The connection between work and sex is discussed in “Natural’s Not In It”, and sex is also the topic of “Damaged Goods”. Of course, while love and sex may be discussed, a song like “Anthrax” makes you realize that this band will never write a conventional love song.
I remember hearing Entertainment! for the first time and having an first rush of joy followed by a warm calm. The music is exciting, a steady back beat with some exquisite guitar noise, profound ideas populate the lyrics and require you to think and discover. Influenced as much by funk and reggae as the punk rock that was its immediate predecessor, the post-punk sounds of Gang of Four was both politically vibrant and danceable. I dare people not to dance to this album. It’s the most fun one can have while learning.