Tuesday, April 26th, 2005

Where To Be + What We All Want

OK, for a change…here’s some stuff to enjoy!

+ MINNEAPOLIS: The B-Girl Be Festival at Intermedia Arts. When the women control the cipher, how can it not be dope? For updates, visit MJ’s blog on the daily. Wish I was there! Going on NOW through JUNE 11.

+ SAN FRANCISCO: Pop And Politics throws their first Mash-Up with–what?–Laurence Lessig and DJ Spooky in conversation. Then Spooky will speak with his hands. Plus it’s a benefit for one of the best sites on the web. MAY 3.

+ MIDDLETOWN, CT: Brett Cook-Dizney’s amazing Meditations exhibition is up at Wesleyan University’s Zilkha Gallery. NOW through MAY 22.

+ YOUR LOCAL RECORD STORE: Cause Lyrics Born is on the shelves. Music and info at Quannum.

+ SANTA BARBARA: Next week, your boy! MAY 3.

+ LONDON: Simon Reynolds meets Jon King, while promoting his new book Rip It Up And Start Again. Sparks fly! TONIGHT. Speaking of which…

BONUS WORDZ: Your boy takes on the return of Gang of Four! Kim had to cut for length, so here’s the directors’ edit, with gratuitous link action…

War, bad faith, gender trouble, rock in crisis: The 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 was Wire’s B.C. Gilbert interpreting the JB’s Jimmy Nolen. “Sometimes I’m thinking that I love you”, King snarls. “But I know it’s only lust.” Now he twists like a stockbroker stumbling drunken 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 somewhere.

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 to the same stage. Rock, having weathered an identity crisis over the past decade—bucked down into an inferiority complex by hip-hop and dance music, drawn into the fashionable but dead-end revivalism of the Strokes and White Stripes, tucked away into insular post-rock, nu-metal, and emo scenes—has got its groove back by hugging up on its postpunk 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 importantly, to remember how to 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, author of Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 and the liner notes for the new Rhino reissue of 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 Brown.”

Meeting on the campus of the University of Leeds in 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”, “overdetermination”, and “totalities”. 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 new book Rip It Up And Start Again was recently released in the UK and will arrive here in February 2006, notes that postpunk emerged from a polarized political and intellectual climate not unlike the current North American blue-red divide. Thatcher’s Tories and the racist, ultrarightist National Front and British Movement were gaining ground. At the same time, cultural studies pioneers like Dick Hebdige and Paul Willis were discovering new forms of praxis, while their students joined Trotskyist, anarchist, feminist and Marxist organizations. Reynolds says, “Thinking, talking, singing songs about these kinds of things would have been considered a very consequential activity, a form of resistance. Performing at Rock Against Racism benefit gigs or Anti-Nazi League festivals and tours was de rigeur for postpunk bands.

“In some ways I see the whole postpunk 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 Sixties good-bye. Basically insisting, no, it’s not just good times music, it can be a vessel for all this weightier stuff,” he adds. “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. *Solid Gold’s* “Paralysed” is still stunning, interlocking haikus on late capitalism’s desperately emasculating effects. One of their best songs was called “Why Theory?” Songs like “Damaged Goods”, “Ether”, or “Anthrax” carried on dramatic internal dialogues; figuratively and literally, they read like theater.

But the music can’t be separated from the text. Most rockcrits focused on Andy 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 with Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle’s stinging attack. Zipping from horizontal buzzdrones to vertical wails almost like a turntablist, Gill’s is the sound every post-postpunker will sell his soul for at the intersection.

Yet all too little has been written about the herky-jerky beat-throb precision of Allen and Burnham. The working-class Allen came to the group by responding to ad that read: “fast rivvum & blues band requires fast rivvum & blues bass player”. Burnham, a close college friend who had marched with King and Gill in rallies against the National Front, became the funkiest postpunk drummer next to the Clash’s Topper Headon and 23 Skidoo’s Alex Turnbull.

The band proceeded from the pub-rock anti-war singalong 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 1979’s classic *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 (Slave, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Black Heat), 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, 2002).

The *Another Day/Another Dollar* EP tossed up as unlikely an anthem ever released by a major label, the rude and proud “To Hell With Poverty”. But by the end of *Songs Of The Free*, by which time Allen had left, there was a sense that the band that had once summed up “What We All Want” was now like Chic after *Risque*, 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 an increasing Depeche Mode-ification.

1983’s *Hard* and 1991’s *Mall* were tremendous disappointments. 1995’s *Shrinkwrapped* marked only a partial return to form. With Burnham’s departure after *Songs Of The Free* (Allen had left after *Sold Gold*), the worst of the flaccid, derivative sound was epitomized by *Mall*’s bloodless 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 orginal Leeds street scene.

Yet *Songs of The Free’s* “The History of the World” and “Of The Instant” also revealed that King and Gill’s worldview had cohered. To 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 told a story more coherent and haunting than the Clash’s “Straight To Hell” but had 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 in the 21st Century, confined to a small audience by their inability to continue to master the medium for their message.

So Go4’s return—and judging by their setlists, they seem to 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 scurrred. 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 Grenada-of-my-own adventure in the Falklands. Over a low 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 imagines they might still have something to say in 2005. Two years ago, Gill produced those other postpunkers 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 pre-emptive neo-imperialism, King’s lyric bridging Vietnam and Vietnow. Gill’s words are the bitter reprisal—”Open the till, give me the change you said would do me good.” Then there’s the brutal ending that ought to give any good pacifist pause: “I’m kissing you goodbye.”

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 he 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 the 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 Go4 anthology, *100 Flowers Bloom*: “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?

posted by @ 7:18 am | 5 Comments

5 Responses to “Where To Be + What We All Want”

  1. Anonymous says:

    nice piece, jeff. heard you a couple times on kpfk, have your book, will let you know how it was when i get around to reading it. i think part of the issue is that the emo crowd is not very political, not in the sense that, say, the crowd at a dead kennedys show in the late 70s would have been; maybe they might say, “bush sucks” but that’s about as far as it goes; the guys are all sobbing over their lost loves and girls are in love with the moody singer types. even the “screamo” acts (taking back sunday, the defunct at the drive in, etc.) who arguably might have the requisite anger to write something political, as a rule, don’t. but i’m with you, can anyone out there step up and start writing good rock songs about stuff that matters? thanks again jeff, props and much love.

  2. Oklahoma Sooner says:

    Awesome blog, checkout my
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  3. Anonymous says:

    Great review. You did them justice. I’ve been waiting over 20 years for this show.


  4. EAT MY SHORTS says:

    great article jeff.

  5. concertlive says:

    For all die hard Gang of Four fans – we’ve got some great news!

    Gang of Four are doing a one-off reunion gig in London on 24th October 2005 where they will be playing tracks from the seminal Entertainment! album. If you can’t be there in the flesh – don’t fret – you can be there in spirit. Concert Live are producing a limited edition live CD and download of the gig. There will only be 1,000 CDs available!!!

    Concert Live produce instant live CDs and will be selling 500 discs to the fans at the gig before they leave. The other 500 discs will be available to anyone else around the world and can be bought from the Concert Live website – http://www.concertlive.co.uk

    You cannot pre-order this recording and it’s very hush hush…. and no details are on the website until after the gig…but if you send an email to info@concertlive.co.uk we’ll let you know as soon as they become available and ensure that you can get there first.

    These CDs are gonna sell QUICKLY so make sure you get in there and don’t miss out.

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