If the Clash were the urban guerrillas of rock’n’roll, Leeds’ Gang of Four were its revolutionary theoreticians. The band’s bracing and style-setting funk-rock gained its edge from lyrics that dissect capitalist society with the cool precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. The Gang saw interpersonal relationships — “romance,” if you must — as politics in microcosm, a view that gives Entertainment! its distinctive tartness. Jon King declaims brittle sentiments with the self-righteous air of someone who couldn’t get to first base with his girlfriend the previous evening. The basic backing trio of bassist Dave Allen, drummer Hugo Burnham and guitarist Andy Gill churns up a brutal, nearly unembellished accompaniment on this challenging album debut.
Solid Gold delves further into a quicksand of discontent. More choppy rhythms, breathtaking bursts of staccato noise and pared-down arrangements drive home cries of despair like “Paralysed,” “Cheeseburger” and “What We All Want.” Not the sort of thing to pack discos, but as compelling as a steamroller.
Songs of the Free is a more upbeat dance of death. With Allen off to form Shriekback, new bassist Sara Lee (fresh out of Fripp’s League of Gentlemen) and Joy Yates’ backing vocals relieve the gloom of “We Live as We Dream, Alone” and (with typical irony) contribute to the dancefloor success of the anti-militaristic “I Love a Man in a Uniform.” King’s impassioned delivery, the songs’ on-target attacks on society’s ills and the band’s musical wallop make Songs of the Free one of the most stirring, innovative “rock” albums you can find.
Unfortunately, the Gang’s next outing exposed an aesthetic about-face of Stalinesque proportions. Inappropriately co-produced by Ron and Howard Albert (Crosby Stills and Nash, Firefall), Hard shifts from a political to a personal frame of reference; King drones lyrics against dirge-like music. It might be symbolic of disillusionment. It’s certainly a sorry end to the group’s career. Burnham left months prior to Hard‘s release (there is no drummer credited on the LP); the Gang pressed on for a bit before disbanding in 1984.
At the Palace (Hollywood’s, that is) is a souvenir of the Gang’s final tour. With Steve Goulding replacing Burnham (who briefly sat in with ABC before joining Illustrated Man, later becoming Shriekback’s manager and then an A&R executive in America), the album listlessly rehashes better days. (The cassette has two bonus salvos.)
To relieve between-album tension, the band’s US label twice released 12-inch EPs consolidating British singles. Gang of Four contains “Armalite Rifle” from the band’s 1978 Damaged Goods three-song debut, a non-LP flipside and both sides of the then-current “Outside the Trains Don’t Run on Time” 45 (both later re-recorded for Solid Gold). Another Day/Another Dollar contains both sides of the “To Hell With Poverty” single and another non-LP flip (“History’s Bunk!”) — all required listening for fans — plus two live-in-London versions of Solid Gold songs that show the Gang’s prime-time concert intensity.
Rendering the one-session Peel EP (from January ’79) redundant, the eleven-song album (available in the US on CD and cassette as The Peel Sessions) offers that artifact as well as return visits to the BBC radio studios from July ’79 and March ’81. Not quite an alternate greatest hits, the full-length collection nonetheless offers such Gang classics as “To Hell with Poverty,” “At Home’s He’s a Tourist” and “I Found That Essence Rare,” all rendered with stiff-backed ferocity.
In 1988, guitarist Andy Gill released a solo single and produced the music for a Derek Jarman film.
With such bands as Fugazi, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine all boasting a clear Gang of Four influence, and the Henry Rollins/Rick Rubin label reissuing the Britons’ absolutely essential masterpiece of a debut, Gang of Four’s legacy lasted well into the ’90s. The anthology, A Brief History of the Twentieth Century, offers ample (77 minutes’ worth, to be exact) evidence of why. Besides the ability to build astonishing levels of tension and then release them in tidal waves of exhilarating noise and fury, the original Gang of Four had an uncanny grasp of the relationship between form and content — by subverting James Brown riffs, dub reggae and the skeletal rockitecture of Free, the band produced music that conveyed the subversive, neo-Marxist ideas in the lyrics. Besides selected EP tracks, A Brief History wisely leans heavily on the incendiary Entertainment! for such classics as “At Home He’s a Tourist,” “Anthrax” and “Damaged Goods.” Solid Gold provides the hair-raising “Paralysed,” while the same album’s “What We All Want” appears in a pounding ’81 live version. The underrated Songs of the Free yields “I Love a Man in Uniform,” “Call Me Up” and “We Live as We Dream, Alone.” Amazingly, the music has lost none of its sting over time, and the lyrics — mainly concerned with the way capitalism has infiltrated every aspect of our lives — are more relevant than ever. (As an extra, the illuminating and insightful liner notes are by number-one Gang of Four fan, Greil Marcus.) Only the back end of the loosely chronological collection is slickly unsatisfying, as A Brief History‘s four-year span culminates in a couple of meager tokens from Hard, the band’s abysmal farewell album. (The reissues on Infinite Zero all add tracks. The Entertainment! CD contains the untitled four-song EP of collected single sides from 1980. Solid Gold is augmented by Another Day/Another Dollar: three tracks from 45s plus two live cuts.) 100 Flowers Bloom is a comprehensive two-disc retrospective.
But King and Gill didn’t know when to call it quits. Undaunted by the prospect of matching the ferocity captured on the Entertainment!-era segments of the eleven-track Peel Sessions compilation released in 1990, the two regrouped the following year for Mall. Even though the album displays glimmers of the old magic, the enterprise wants desperately for the nonpareil rhythm team of Allen and Burnham. Interestingly, the quieter tracks are the best: the eerie “Everybody Wants to Come,” the pretty “Satellite” and a touching take on Bob Marley’s “Soul Rebel.” Elsewhere, Gill and King clearly have some serious things left to say about the intrusion of arbitrary economic systems into the most private nooks and crannies of personal life, but the chemistry is simply not there. The slick, synth-heavy/radio-ready production and lockstep drum tracks have the distinct whiff of sell-out.
Undeterred, Gill and King tried again on Shrinkwrapped, which never overcomes the disappointment of hearing such former iconoclasts flaunt fairly conventional music, lyrics and (courtesy of Gill) production values. The songs are a catalogue of bleak character sketches, sometimes with a creepy sexuality (“Unburden” and its related commentary, “Unburden Unbound”), that make the band’s usual points about the tyranny of capitalism with a subtler line than usual. In “The Dark Ride,” the mentally ill narrator curses the very elements of consumer culture that were damned in Entertainment!; it’s one of several spooky, cryptic cuts, like “I Absolve You” and “Something 99,” which set the album’s tone. Bolstered by an improved rhythm section, Gill lets fly with frustratingly brief bursts of the old noisy glory on “I Parade Myself,” “Better Him Than Me” and “Unburden,” then finally stretches out on the otherwise weak “Showtime, Valentine.” While it’s a distinct improvement over Mall, Shrinkwrapped still doesn’t make a compelling case for the continued existence of the Gang of Four.