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Gang of Four 77-81

Alex Abramovich

Some songs are like sculptures; almost physical objects taking up space in a room. Gang of Four’s songs are like that: weighty things. They flaunt the materials (wood, wire, vocal chords) used in their making. They are caustic and smart and concerned with the questions a sculptor might ask: how many elements can be stripped away before the object (in this case, a rock song) stops being itself? The early work, by the original line-up of Dave Allen (bass), Hugo Burnham (drums), Andy Gill (guitar) and Jon King (vocals), has been rereleased in a Matador Records box set, Gang of Four 77-81.

I liked ‘smart’ songs a lot more in the 1990s, when I was in my twenties. Back then, my friends and I drank at the Irish Rover in Astoria, Queens. The owner, Barry, had worked for the Pogues before settling in New York City. The house band was uncommonly good. Once in a long while, Shane MacGowan dropped by. On quieter nights my friends and I took over the jukebox and argued about other bands: ‘fox’ bands, like Wire, which know many things, v. ‘hedgehogs’, which know one big thing. Gang of Four had been hedgehogs. The Pogues, too, we supposed.

Full of the things we were reading and seeing – Debord and Adorno; Godard, Fassbinder and Sirk – we were well-positioned to like Gang of Four, who seemed to have absorbed and distilled the same texts. In fact, we loved them, ranking them more or less on the same plane as the Fall (a fox band fronted by an ornery hedgehog). For me, they’ll always be tied to that time, to that bar, and the work we were all doing.

I was an editor at an online magazine in Manhattan – a place where the word ‘semiotics’ got thrown around freely. We felt we had lots to say. It wasn’t until long after the magazine had collapsed that I came to realise I actually had very little to say. As a rule, I don’t like to revisit that smarter but dumber younger me. And Gang of Four – I thought when the box set arrived – they’re bound to look smarter but dumber as well, aren’t they? Who wants to look into that kind of mirror?

One of the first things written about the band was by Mary Harron in Melody Maker in 1979, ‘Gang of Four: Dialectics Meets Disco’. Midway through, she quotes a few lines of ‘At Home He Feels Like a Tourist’. ‘These are fine as rock lyrics go,’ she says,

but they don’t necessarily – as Jon thinks they do – express the idea that ‘people are taught to relate to their employment. They see themselves as workers, so they are alienated from their home environment. People lead strictly compartmentalised lives – they use discos as a release and they think that in their relaxation time they express themselves. But this idea of unique expression is a fallacy, because they express themselves in the way they’ve been taught to express themselves.’ … This implies that consumers are total robots, which I would question. Not all relaxation time is spent in discos, anyway; how does gardening fit into this? Is growing tulips a sign of passive obedience to social conditioning?

But as Harron also admits, there’s more going on here than meets the eye – because onstage, and in the cuts on their first couple of albums, where theory turns into practice, the whole thing comes into focus. The music is simply ferocious, and some of that probably has to do with how hard it is to mess up a monster groove. But a lot seems to be deliberate.

Take the way the songs sound like the things they’re ‘about’. ‘Damaged Goods’, their first single, is concerned with the ways capitalism informs and intrudes on the most intimate parts of our lives. Put that way, it’s not such a promising subject (though there are brilliant songs on the theme, starting with the Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’). But ‘Damaged Goods’ is excellent, because it’s fully mimetic. The way Andy Gill’s guitar push-pulls against Dave Allen’s bass is sexual in the way sex is described in the lyrics: a markedly cold form of call-and-response. It sounds like robots fucking. It’s also deadly serious but weirdly funny, as if the band knows that casting the power dynamics of interpersonal relationships in pseudo-Hegelian terms might not be the best way to break up with someone – but, you know, fuck it. That’s true to life. It’s true to youth. So the song’s smart about being stupid, as well.

The other songs on that first album are as good, or better. The box set – which includes lots of demos and a tremendous live show, along with the first two albums – is a revelation. It’s hard to imagine St Vincent, Sleater-Kinney or LCD Soundsystem without this music, and the more I listen to Gill, who died last year, the more I’m coming round to the idea that he was the most inventive, exhilarating guitarist since Hendrix. (It’s a confounding notion, given Gill’s acknowledged debt to Wilko Johnson, but there it is.) If I was afraid you had to be in your twenties and/or recently acquainted with the Situationist International to appreciate all this, I was wrong. But now I think about it, I wonder if it wasn’t something else making me hesitate. All those nights spent at the Rover. The thought of my friends, gathered all in one place. The difficulty of remembering my past self not as an idiot but as someone full of life and enthusiasm, in the midst of this denuded, lonely pandemic.


Comments

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  • 8 April 2021 at 8:27pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    Maybe ‘smart’ songs were fashionable in the ‘90s; maybe some songs were indeed ‘sculptures’.
    But if you were around in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s then everyone knew that the two groups you talk about were pretentious pricks who, since they probably wouldn’t recognise a decent tune if it were piped directly into their brain, resorted to incoherent noise.
    I imagine we all sometimes mythologise the rubbish we heard (and felt) when the world was young.
    But at that time there was so much good stuff going on and all those guys had going for them was disaffection and solipsism.
    It’s a start but, stone me, some talent would be welcomed.

  • 9 April 2021 at 8:53am
    Donald Raeson says:
    Go on then, what was the 'the good stuff' you were listening to instead of 'the incoherent noise' of the Gang Of Four & The Fall?

    • 13 April 2021 at 1:24am
      prwhalley says: @ Donald Raeson
      Yes. We’re all dying to hear. I saw many, many bands between 1978 and, say, 1984. Many exceptional experiences, but non more so than the Gang of Four and Fall shows I attended.
      I’m always open to suggestions though, so let’s hear some please!

  • 9 April 2021 at 12:21pm
    Nicholas Carter says:
    It’s hard to imagine a fox-ier person than Mark E Smith.

    • 9 April 2021 at 5:21pm
      Alex Abramovich says: @ Nicholas Carter
      Ok, it's been a while but I'll play: David Bowie

  • 10 April 2021 at 7:54pm
    S L says:
    @MarmadukeJinks gives me migraine. There’s no need to discount GOF or the Fall just because you can’t rationalize the ferocity of the music with the meaningful ferocity of the lyrics. Sometimes they eat Cheeseburgers, sometimes they eat overconsumption. Doesn’t matter. You could ignore the lyrics and dance or mosh, dance and appreciate the lyrics, or sit and sway whilst thinking about how GillKing knew that Thatcher was out to fuck all but her poncey pals. Government is bad, sure, especially when it provides healthcare, housing, unemployment, etc. to those in need. GOF simply channeled the anger into many grooves and many worthy songs. QED.

  • 13 April 2021 at 5:27pm
    Quebec Scot says:
    Historical trivia: I think the GOF may have got their initial cue from LRB contributor and then teacher (and ex Situationist Internationale) T.J.Clark while at Art School. Anybody know for sure?

    • 13 April 2021 at 8:39pm
      Alex Abramovich says: @ Quebec Scot
      Yes, absolutely - Clark had just taken over the Fine Art Department at Leeds, and his hires (Griselda Pollock, for instance) had a big influence, too.

  • 14 April 2021 at 10:48pm
    Nicholas Shaddick says:
    British youth culture between 78-84 abounded in pretentions and creative dead ends of every variety in its forlorn attempts to perpetuate the creative moment of punk. Much of this production sounds far more coherent now than it did at the time, probably because the ears of listeners are less constrained by the reassuring pleasures of laddish three chord rock against which attempts to innovate had to push, and which continued to be peddled for years after its time had passed.

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