So far, during these reviews, I’ve touched on stuff that I knew a lot about already (mainstream rock,) stuff that I knew a bit about already (blues, hip hop,) stuff that I knew about at a novice level (jazz,) and stuff I knew very little about (hardcore punk.) Doing this review of Gang Of Four brings me to something that is new to me: neo-Marxist post-punk.
The band was formed in Leeds, England in 1977 when all four were students at Leeds University. Jon King and Andy Gill had known each other since they were part of the art program in high school, both attending the famed Sevenoaks School.
King was originally from London and was getting a degree in art at the University. It was decided he would be the lead singer.
His friend, Andy Gill, was also continuing to study art at the University. He could play guitar, so he would be the band’s guitarist.
While hanging around campus, those two met English literature major Hugo Burnham. Burnham was an actor and, more importantly to them, a skilled drummer.
The trio bonded over their far left-wing politics. They had all been inspired politically by reading about the 1968 Paris student uprising. They would regularly meet up at the local Fenton Pub to drink and discuss ways of helping to bring an end to capitalism.
The pub was a major hangout for many others with Marxist beliefs and regularly the band would be part of brawls that involved people coming into the place espousing counter political thoughts. They considered themselves to be neo-Marxists since they believed in a more critical theory mixed with Marxism, known as the Frankfurt School of thought.
Their idea of spreading their neo-Marxist message was as a band. They had a singer, a guitarist, and a drummer, all they needed was a bassist. Burnham put up an ad around campus saying “‘Fast rivvum & blues band requires a fast rivvum & blues bass player.” The spelling was a code for someone who plays in a punk style.
Dave Allen, a graphic design student, answered the ad. The guys liked his playing and added him to the band.
Another punk band had formed on campus at the same time, The Mekons. Mekons member Mark White had gone to high school with King and Gill, and they all hung out together around campus. King and Gill’s band were looking for a name, when one of the Mekons held up a newspaper article about the leaders of the Chinese Communist Cultural Revolution, known as “The Gang of Four,” they knew that name was perfect for their band since it was both accurate in number and had a tie to a political revolution.
The band began to play guitar-driven punk, but they mixed it with reggae and dance beats. King began writing lyrics that included his neo-Marxist ideals mixed with regular song subject matter like life and love. They developed a band manifesto: “”No corny lyrics, no obvious melodies and no change of key.” They performed around the campus area, and hired a friend, Rob Warr, to be their manager.
Warr got them to record a tape of one of their performances to send to Scotland-based independent record label, Fast Product, who had already signed their friends, The Mekons. Fast Product’s execs liked them and gave them a deal to record a 3 song EP for the label.
The EP titled Damaged Goods found its way into the hands of several club DJs, and it began being played as dance club music.
They had a club hit, which brought them to the attention of the magazine, New Music Express. They became the first unsigned band to appear on that publication’s cover.
This made them a hot property. An exec at EMI got in touch with the band to try to sign them. The band issued a list of demands before signing, including creative control of all recordings and, the then unusual, claim of ownership of their songs. EMI agreed and signed the band in early 1979.
The band liked the irony that they would be on this worldwide conglomerate music label while putting out albums with lyrics that fought against that very thing. They were able to secure the same type of deal in America, with Warner Brothers records agreeing to distribute their albums in the states.
They toured extensively, building up a large fan base, before going into the Workhouse Studio in London to record their debut album. King and Gill would mainly produce the album with help from their manager Rob Warr.
The Album Cover:
The cover was designed by King and Gill (putting their art degrees to good use.) The front cover is bright red, which gets your attention. The only pictures are three odd stills incrementally zoomed in. It’s a picture from a western with a frontiersman shaking hands with a Native American.
The band discovered the picture in a copy of French TV Guide and thought they could add a political message to it. They painted the Native’s face red and the cowboy’s face white to drive their point across. The text around the pics pushes forward their anti-capitalist beliefs saying, “The Indian smiles, he thinks the cowboy is his friend. The cowboy smiles, he is glad the Indian is fooled. Now he can exploit him.”
The title Entertainment! is meant to be both ironic and a real feeling of theirs. There is a line in the song “5.45” off the album that says “Guerrilla war struggle is a new entertainment.” So partially it is a tongue in cheek reference to the fact that their music is not going to be considered mainstream entertainment, but also the idea that so much of the upper class looks at their struggle to fight against them, with protests and riots, as entertainment on the nightly news.
The back is covered in very colorful rectangles splashed all over the back. The track listing is in the bottom right corner the rest of the back cover is used to tell another political story.
There is a picture of a fat person with his face colored blue with the text “I spend most of our money on myself so that I can stay fat.” Then the bottom left corner has a picture of a woman and some kids with a smiling yellow mask over the woman’s face and the text above it reads “Look how happy they are!” That picture shows up again on the right hand side of the cover with the text “We’re grateful for his leftovers.” In the middle of the cover it reads “Those who decide what everyone will do will grow rich because their decisions are made in their interest. They are pleased at how well they rule the others. The others smile too, thinking that their rulers know best.”
The innersleeve has lyrics on one side and on the other side there a black and white screenshots from TVs. Each shot has text sarcastically referencing what the media wants you to think. For example, a shot of police fighting back against rioters with the phrase “The police act impartially to defend the rights of a minority group.”
I am reviewing the US vinyl LP release of Entertainment! released on Warner Brothers Records in 1980. The original UK release came out in 1979 on EMI.
(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the songs. As always, I most recommend buying the vinyl version for best listening experience.)
“Ether” has a cool opening bass part and crisscrossing vocals, which are interesting. It has odd little drop-outs that make me think my turntable is skipping, but I know it is supposed to be like that because Rolling Stone mentioned in their review in 1980 that it has “jarring stops and starts.” Great opening track. The awesome opening track streak continues!
“Natural’s Not In It” is the most famous track off the album. It’s an awesome rock song with a great guitar riff. I’d go so far to say it is one of the best songs of punk or post-punk, really great stuff. It includes the lyric, “sell out, maintain the interest.” Which is funny considering the interesting life that this song will have in the 2010’s that I’ll discuss in the Aftermath section.
“Not Great Men” is a cool track with a definite dance bassline. The whole song is very danceable, Of course that would mean that you would be dancing to a song about how it is the proletariat that makes the great moments in history happen and not the ruling class.
“Damaged Goods” is a remake of the song off their EP. It’s kinda a love song, or maybe a an anti-love song. Actually its more about introspection and how he thinks he loves this girl, but knows it’s really that he is just lusting after her. Another good track.
“Return the Gift” is good, too. I don’t like the opening so much, but as it goes on, it gets much better. Quite poppy, it reminds me of some other song that I can’t place, which is annoying me.
Side one ends with “Guns Before Butter” is a little more of what I was expecting before hearing the album. It is more traditional punk with the instruments not playing together for a lot of it. Also it might be the most political song yet on the album. I guess the matching of my expectations means I like this song a lot. I may not agree with their politics, but I do find it interesting to hear how they put their politics in song. The title is referring to the economic theory of guns vs. butter, which asks whether a government wants to spend more money on defense or consumer goods.
Side two opens with. “I Found That Essence Rare.” It’s another guitar-driven track that is a little funky. I think it is an anti-nuclear song, but some say it is an anti-mainstream media song. Either way, it is a good track.
“Glass” sounds like Devo doing a cover of the Byrds’ “So You Wanna Be A Rock N’ Roll Star” to me. I like Devo and the Byrds, but that makes this sound a little unoriginal to me. Although it wasn’t until I heard this track that I noticed that King actually has a pretty good voice in places. The lyrics are quite unsubstantial. It’s just okay.
“Contract” has a cool, funkafied, opening beat. I like this one, it’s groovy. Although I’m not sure if it is supposed to be about bad sex or about the government.
“At Home He’s A Tourist” might be the best song yet. I like the guitar starting and stopping. This was the single off of the album, and it made it to #58 on the UK charts before the release of the album. It has great beat and actually has the word “disco” in it. But of course, it is about anti-consumerism, which I’m sure was lost on a majority of the people buying the track.
“5.45” is the song that contains the lyric from where the title comes from, “Guerilla war struggle is a new entertainment.” Pretty good, but not terribly interesting as it’s mostly just a straightforward political, punk track, with the exception that it has one of those keyboard-kazoo things, a melodica, at the beginning of the song, which I doubt appeared in many punk songs before this one.
“Anthrax” was another re-record of a track on their original EP. It opens with a huge amount of feedback. It is some really cool noise-rock. It’s kind of a dark, moody all minor note track. There is one person reading other lyrics while the singing is going on, causing a chaotic sound. It’s also the second song that is an anti-love song, comparing falling in love to catching a case of anthrax. I really like the sound of this one, a good way to end the album.
I wasn’t expecting this music to be as musical as it was. I guess I’m starting to understand the difference in punk and post-punk. I like it when bands use music for a political message, even when it is one I disagree with, because I find other people’s opinions interesting. This might be the first album I’ve reviewed where I found it more interesting than enjoyable, and yet I still enjoyed it.
Entertainment! helped the band gain popularity to the point that they performed to sold out houses in Europe and the US. The band was invited to perform on the BBC’s highly rated music show, Top Of The Pops. The censors told them that they had to change some lyrics for TV, the band was against changing lyrics so they decided to not move when performing on the show and just stand there in protest. When the producers heard that that was what they were planning to do, they cancelled the band’s performance on the show.
Their second album, Solid Gold, was released 2 years later.
Dave Allen left after the sophomore album, as he was interested in working on other projects. He was replaced by Sara Lee, who had played bass in the band The League of Gentlemen.
The addition of Lee added a new dynamic to the band, as she shared some vocals on the album, giving a different sound with a female voice in there. Also it has been said that her bass playing added a more commercial sound to the band on their third album, Songs Of The Free.
Hugo Burnham left after Songs Of The Free, forming the band Illustrated Man in 1983. That left King and Gill as the only remaining original members, instead of adding a new drummer, they decided to end the band.
Seven years later King and Gill got back together as a duo to perform as Gang Of Four again, releasing a poorly received album titled Mall. Their political stance of anti-consumerism had fallen out of favor by the early 90’s, and they now sounded dated.
The original Gang Of Four lineup reformed for a world tour in 2004, and released an album of re-recordings of many of the songs off their first 3 albums. They stayed together until 2006 when Hugo Burnham decided to retire from the music business. Dave Allen left again in 2008, leaving King and Gill to continue on again as Gang Of Four.
They drew some heat from many long time fans for licensing “Natural’s Not In It” to Microsoft for their advertisements for the new Kinect for XBox 360. Some thought that allowing a major corporation to use their music went against the band’s original neo-marxist, anti-consumerist beliefs. Their response was that they “were always less interested in smashing storefronts than in exploring the anxiety of consumerism.”
They released their most recent album, Content, in 2011.
It got high praise from music critics, landing on some year-end top 10 lists. After a tour of North America and Europe, King and Gill decided to go their separate ways, ending the band once again.
King currently works as a managing director of an advertising agency. Gill has continued to work in the music business, producing several albums for Chinese rock bands. I think that it’s interesting that he is producing for Chinese bands considering the origin of the band’s name.
My take on Rolling Stone’s Take:
RS: “Formed in 1977, Gang of Four combined Marxist politics with punk rock. They played staccato guitar-driven funk, and the stiff, jerky aggression of songs such as “Damaged Goods” and “I Found That Essence Rare” invented a new style that influenced bands from the Minutemen to LCD Soundsystem.”
The book version says basically the same thing with the exception of the last sentence which says “…style that’s still influencing young bands such as The Rapture.” I guess The Rapture aren’t considered important enough to be mentioned in the blurb by Rolling Stone in 2012. It’s interesting that they took out the “young bands” part and included Minutemen as someone who were influenced by Gang Of Four, when Minutemen were exact contemporaries of Gang of Four. That’s not to say they didn’t influence them, because they probably did, but I think it is interesting that Rolling Stone changed their take to include two bands that have albums on the revised 500 list and removed the name of a band that does not.
What I am enjoying about doing these reviews is how I am learning about genres of music that I was not an expert in. I now understand really what post-punk is, when I only had a rudimentary knowledge of it before, and I like it. Well, at least I like this album. As I said earlier, I find the political lyrics interesting and the music is funky and rocking. I have no problems giving this album a high recommendation.
4.5 out of 5 Stars, highly recommended.
My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:
I now have 3 albums that I’ve given a rating of 4.5 to. As much as I like this album, I feel that Give It Up and Aquemini are much more accessible and I would prefer to put one of those two on the turntable, just to give a listen, before I would this one. This album takes a little more effort to get in the mood for listening to it, thus I’ll rated a little lower than those two.
1. The Stone Roses- The Stone Roses
2. Wilco- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
3. Mott The Hoople- All The Young Dudes
4. KISS- Destroyer
5. Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters
6. ZZ Top- Tres Hombres
7. Bonnie Raitt- Give It Up
8. Outkast- Aquemini
9. Gang Of Four- Entertainment!
10. Earth, Wind & Fire– That’s The Way Of The World
11. Hüsker Dü- New Day Rising
12. Albert King- Born Under A Bad Sign
13. Pearl Jam- Vitalogy
14. Boz Scaggs- Boz Scaggs
15. Public Enemy- Yo! Bum Rush The Show
16. Cyndi Lauper- She’s So Unusual
17. Ian Dury- New Boots and Panties!!
18. B.B. King- Live in Cook County Jail
19. Eurythmics- Touch