Gang of Four 77-81
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.