Gang Of Four - Entertainment! - Review
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critics' view

Gang of Four were a pop band. Their funk was no less stark or forbidding than, say, the more astringent Timbaland productions. They certainly weren't as twitchy, speedy, or noisy as James Brown at his most energized. Their great innovation— Andy Gill's morse code guitar, as if playing a riff for more than a few bars caused him physical pain— is post-punk's most ripped-off idea after badly played disco drums. They had attitude, energy, the big beat, skilled players funneling their virtuosity into the necessary notes, a handy way with a catch phrase, and sweaty live performances. Sounds like pop to me.

They formed in 1977 as part of a scene surrounding Leeds University's fine arts department that also included the Mekons and the Au Pairs. They were art students who named themselves after the Maoists that ran China until the leader's death in 1976. But they bonded over pub rockers Dr. Feelgood and 70s British blues band Free, exactly the sort of dinosaur hard rock post-punk was supposed to have purged in its own Cultural Revolution. The seeming contradiction, at least in terms of the Good Music Society the music press was constructing at the time, might have explained their sound, which critic Simon Reynolds described as a "checked and inhibited hard rock: cock rock [with] the cock lopped off."

Andy Gill kept his guitar chilly, without the blanket of fuzz provided by effects pedals and the agreeable tone of valve amps. Blues riffs do crop up, but it's almost as if Gill is playing against his technique, scattering them like fishes in a pond with a scrabble of notes. He rarely engages in anything like a solo, the ejaculation part of cock rock. Gill's playing approaches rock drama through dynamics. On "Return the Gift" he's a shrill S-O-S pattern underneath the weight of Dave Allen's bass on the choruses, a flinty, almost Derek Bailey-like anti-solo. On "(Love Like) Anthrax", he sounds like he's trying to split concrete with a garden spade on a congested street. The guitars on "Natural's Not In It" are actually kind of sexy, in an uncomfortable frottage sort of way.

The band says they were trying to get Allen to play a "quarter of the notes he was actually capable of playing," which must be a pretty alarming number given his busyness on tracks like "Damaged Goods". The bass is the only fluid part of Go4's sound, and even that's more croaky than bubbling. On "Ether" there's no bassline to speak of, just big bullfrog gulps as the guitar clangs, bell-like, and a sinister high-noon melodica whistles in the distance. Drummer Hugo Burnham played funk beats and disco snare crashes but with all the reverb stripped off so that they splashed like alcohol. He's the band's secret weapon, and stuff like the hard snare crack that sounds like a handclap on "Not Great Men" is often what makes a song. When they all locked in, as on "I Found That Essence Rare", the effect is like stuffing 10 pounds of funk into a five-pound bag.

Emotionally, however, Entertainment! is a brick. Like a black hole, no romanticism escapes it. Hints of black humor (especially in the artwork) creep into their aesthetic without overwhelming it. Relationships are reduced to "contract[s] in our mutual interest." Jon King often sings in the first person, implicating himself before anyone else: "I can't work/ I can't achieve"; "how can I sit and eat my tea with all that blood flowing from the television?" Out of one speaker, Gill drones the production details of the love song like a bored copywriter on "Anthrax", concluding "we just don't think what goes on between two people should be shrouded in mystery." Out of the other speaker, King moans that he "feel[s] like a beetle on its back/ And there's no way for me to get up."

Hardly head over heels, Go4 continually recast "I Want To Hold Your Hand" as a death grip dragging you under. Go4 interrogated everything, including the band itself, with the kind of rigor only middle-class white art students can afford. But then they were a very English band, very much of a moment where being politically active precluded any sort of irony. (And besides, Bush/Blair may be as scary as Reagan/Thatcher, but Bloc Party aren't scrapping with Nazis at every other show.) Not for nothing was the band that really took their sound into the mainstream the Red Hot Chili Peppers, hardly models of good Marxist propriety. Even the recent, more stylistically faithful post-punk revival bands wouldn't poo-poo a love song.

It would have been interesting to imagine Gang of Four as not just a pop band but as proper pop stars, because they would have been the driest pop stars ever. But instead, they refused to change a lyric the BBC found offensive for a planned "Top of the Pops" appearance, which effectively sunk their chart hopes. By the time they were ready to insert tongue-in-ass, no one wanted to hear their too slick take on what constituted "pop." Sometimes the people really do want it raw. Though they once might have looked askance at becoming an institution (of sorts), at least you can once again easily buy one of the great rock albums, now expanded with eight additional tracks. Anyone who says it's played out is a douchebag who deserves his Medium Medium records and willful obscurity. And that's one thing that I don't want to catch.

Jess Harvell
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