[TypicalGirls] SF Bay Guardian Go4 preview
joly at dti.net
Wed Apr 27 16:37:39 EDT 2005
War, bad faith, gender trouble, and rock in crisis: Gang of Four are
back at just the right moment.
By Jeff Chang
JON KING IS dressed like he just walked in from a panini-bread lunch at
some Market Street shop after a market- plunging morning on the Pacific
Stock Exchange - blue button-down, smart white slacks. He's reciting a
British supermarket ad campaign: "The change will do you good. I always
knew it would." Clearly, he is agitated. The stage light comes up,
revealing Dave Allen and Hugo Burnham pounding out a throbbing beat.
Andy Gill rips at his guitar, spinning out a run of agitated chords as
if he were Wire's Bruce Gilbert interpreting the J.B.'s Jimmy Nolen.
"Sometimes I'm thinking that I love you," King snarls. "But I know it's
only lust." Then he twists like a stockbroker stumbling drunkenly out
of a Broadway peepshow. This is a 25-year-old video, and there can be
no doubt that an aspiring guitar hero or heroine is studying this clip
It's been 24 years since the original lineup of Gang of Four played
together on the same stage, and the timing could not be better for them
to return. Rock - having weathered an identity crisis during the past
decade, bucked down by an inferiority complex inspired by hip-hop and
dance music, drawn into the fashionable but dead-end revivalism of the
Strokes and White Stripes, and tucked away into insular post-rock, nu-
metal, and emo scenes - has got its groove back by hugging up on its
post-punk past. It's a great way to nod sideways to black music, to
acknowledge three intervening decades of race, gender, and identity
critique, and, most important, to just rock the fuck out.
With John Lydon disappeared, Ari Up still high in the Rasta hills, and
Joe Strummer left to be repped only by a growing shelf of books, where
better to start the neo-new wave revival than with Go4? Their DNA runs
wild through two of the best bands of the moment, Bloc Party and Franz
Ferdinand, as well as pretenders like the Rapture, the Futureheads, and
Radio 4. Working with a big bottom borrowed from Burnham and Allen,
using moves stolen from King and Gill, these groups are only the most
literal-minded of Go4 enthusiasts.
"Gang of Four was absolutely essential to pioneering independent-label
bands of the '80s like Mission of Burma, the Minutemen, Big Black, and
Fugazi," says Michael Azerrad, who wrote the liner notes for the new
Rhino reissue of Go4's 1979 debut, Entertainment! "For people who not
only wanted to make a new kind of music but also think and feel in ways
not imagined or permitted by rock's old guard, Gang of Four was a
godsend. Also, it allowed people who couldn't dance to appreciate James
McLuhan, Marx, and Mao Meeting on the campus of Leeds University in
1977, punk's year zero, King and Gill were soon running the school's
film society while studying fine arts and Situationism. They could be
comfortable in all-night bull sessions about "complicity" and
"overdetermination." Their lyrics were like a critical theory seminar,
which only then was beginning to become the rage on university
campuses. They packed songs with aphorisms that triangulated McLuhan,
Marx, and Mao.
Simon Reynolds, whose book Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-84
(Faber) was recently released in the U.K. and will arrive here in 2006,
notes that post-punk emerged from a polarized political and
intellectual climate not unlike the current North American blue-red
divide. Margaret Thatcher's Tories and the racist, ultraright National
Front and British Movement were gaining ground. At the same time,
cultural studies pioneers like Dick Hebdige were discovering new forms
of praxis, while their students joined anarchist, feminist, and Marxist
organizations. Reynolds says, "In some ways I see the whole post-punk
era as a gigantic riposte to the Rolling Stones' "It's Only Rock 'n'
Roll" - the resignation and underachievement represented by the cop-out
sentiment of that song, which basically kissed the '60s good-bye.
Basically insisting, no, it's not just good-times music; it can be a
vessel for all this weightier stuff. Gang of Four would have been in
the vanguard of that move to see how much substance rock could carry
and still be rock."
Certainly Go4's lyrics read well as text. "Paralysed," on 1981's Solid
Gold (Warner Bros.), is still stunning, interlocking haikus on late
capitalism's desperately emasculating effects. One of Go4's best songs
is called "Why Theory?" Songs like "Damaged Goods" carried on dramatic
internal dialogues. Figuratively and literally, they read like theater.
But the music can't be separated from the text. Most rock crits focused
on Gill's guitar, and for good reason. Like some pomo Robert Johnson at
the crossroads, he brought together two kinds of rock futurism: Jimi
Hendrix's explosive caterwaul and Pete Shelley's and Steve Diggle's
stinging attack. Zipping from horizontal buzz-drones to vertical wails
almost like a turntablist, Gill's is the sound every post-postpunker
will sell his or her soul for at the intersection.
Yet too little has been written about the herky-jerky beat-throb
precision of Allen and Burnham. Allen came to the group by responding
to an ad that read, "fast rivvum & blues band requires fast rivvum &
blues bass player." Burnham, a college friend who had marched with King
and Gill in rallies against the National Front, became the best Brit
drummer of his generation, next to the Clash's Topper Headon and 23
Skidoo's Alex Turnbull.
'Perverted disco' The band proceeded from the pub-rock antiwar sing-
along of "Armalite Rifle" to building-block reggae not far from the
Clash's distillation of Lee "Scratch" Perry's "Police and Thieves" to
what they came to call "perverted disco" and "angular, metallic, white
sexless funk." "I've always loved music which has space in it and has
room," Gill told Perfect Sound Forever's Jason Gross. By Entertainment!
they had attained an astounding range. "Not Great Men" offered dub
logic - sounds attaching then dropping out, the sum and the difference
both bringing the tension to a boiling point. On Solid Gold, they
brought in American funk producer Jimmy Douglass, who helped sharpen
the band's increasingly nuanced rhythmic attack, the fragile
"Paralyzed" on one end and the blasting "If I Could Keep It for Myself"
on the other. Hedrush's Tahir later pitched up "A Hole in the Wallet"
and flipped it for the Roots' Phrenology magnum opus, "Water" (MCA,
The Another Day/Another Dollar EP (Warner Bros., 1982) tossed up as
unlikely an anthem as anything ever released by a major label, the rude
and proud "To Hell with Poverty." But by the end of Songs of the Free
(Warner Bros., 1982), by which time Allen had left, there was a sense
the band that had once summed up "What We All Want" was now like Chic
after Risqué, no longer knowing what it wanted. The album opened with
three songs exploring more melodic territory - "Call Me Up," the Dance
Fever crossover hit "I Love a Man in Uniform," and "We Live As We
Dream, Alone" - while pointing toward Depeche Mode- ification.
The 1983 album, Hard (Warner Bros.), and the 1991 full-length, Mall
(Polydor), were disappointments, and 1995's Shrinkwrapped (Castle)
marked only a partial return to form. With Burnham's departure after
Songs of the Free (Allen had left after Solid Gold), the worst of the
flaccid, derivative sound was epitomized by Mall's cover of Bob Marley
and the Wailers' "Soul Rebel." This was music that might be piped into
the elevators rising up to luxury hotel suites, far from what the Delta
5's Ros Allen once called the "spontaneous amateurism" of the original
Leeds street scene.
Yet Songs of the Free's "The History of the World" and "Of the Instant"
also revealed that King's and Gill's worldviews had cohered. Along with
their feminist-influenced dissection of masculinity, they had developed
a biting, even prophetic critique of corporate globalization and
neoliberalism. This made Go4's failure more than musical: just play
Mall's "F.M.U.S.A.," a sharp critique of race, gender, and imperialism
set among Vietnam's brothels that tells a story more coherent and
haunting than the Clash's "Straight to Hell" but has the sonic impact
of a wet towel, next to 2 Live Crew's 1989 cut "Me So Horny." In some
ways, the fate of Go4 paralleled the destiny of the radical
intellectuals of the late '70s struggling to adapt to the 21st century,
confined to a small audience by their inability to continue to master
the medium for their message.
Imagining more So Go4's return - and judging by their set lists, they
seem to be focusing largely on their pre-'83 music - occasions a kind
of nostalgia for leftist certainty. They had emerged in the context of
a street-level feminism and the Rock Against Racism movement, an
"identity politics" that was vibrant, funny, dangerous,
confrontational, never scurred. The evidence was in the indie music of
Delta 5, Essential Logic, the Au Pairs, Kleenex/Lilliput, the Beakers,
and the Slits. As late as 1982, Go4's "I Love a Man in Uniform" - with
its easy dismissal of big-dick imperialism, "You must be joking, oh
man, you must be joking!" - was banned from the BBC when Great Britain
launched its adventure in the Falklands. Over a stuttering guitar, King
finally spit out the stakes on "Of the Instant": "Who owns what you do?
Who owns what you use?" The answer seemed despairing: "We, it seems,
can own ourselves in imagination." Perhaps on a hopeful note, they did
not take care to add the word "only."
Go4 imagine they might still have something to say in 2005. Two years
ago Gill produced those other post-punkers waiting to be rediscovered,
Killing Joke, on a new version of their 1980 classic, "Wardance." If
"Damaged Goods" was once a song about bad love, it now seems to have
Bush-Blair's bad faith beating in its crooked, racing heart, a
neoliberal sneer at Iraq and Afghanistan. Here the British supermarket
ad pitch - "You know the change will do you good!" - becomes a truism
of preemptive neo-imperialism, King's lyric bridging Vietnam and
Greil Marcus once wrote that Entertainment! was an album that
illustrated the young first-world collegiate rebel's process of coming
to a very uncomfortable realization. As this figure, personified by
King, deconstructs his world, he realizes he is indeed complicit with
the forces that oppress him and the people he loves. Through his very
consuming pleasures, he feeds the capitalist machine that slowly
alienates and kills him. Certainly war and globalization - especially
as seen in the restless daily spectacle of monopoly media - have made
Go4's insights more relevant than ever.
But it also feels like there is more of a sense of hopelessness than
there was in 1980, that the change that could do real good is so far
away. By now we also know that the responses to that bitter knowledge
can often be less than liberating: hipster irony as protection or
shield, Napoleon Dynamite-like retreats toward a lost innocence. Jon
Savage asked in his liner notes to the 1998 Go4 anthology 100 Flowers
Bloom (Rhino), "Could you imagine a contemporary major-label rock group
recording a song as critical and vulnerable as 'Paralysed'?" Franz
Ferdinand, Bloc Party, all you aspiring guitar heroes, the question is
yours: could you?
Gang of Four play with Radio 4 and Menomena Mon/2-Tues/3, 8 p.m.,
Fillmore, 1805 Geary, S.F. $25 (May 2 show sold out). (415) 346-6000.
Jeff Chang is the author of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the
Hip-Hop Generation (St. Martin's).
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