Gang of Four haven’t ever really gotten their due. Even as success has come to countless groups walking in their footsteps—from Bloc Party to Red Hot Chili Peppers—the pioneers of post-punk have somehow managed to stay just below the surface of pop culture. It certainly didn’t help that no new material had come from them in over 15 years.
That changed on January 25th, when the Gang released Content. Their first since 1995, it finally promised to show how relevant their scathing, jagged critiques of alienation and post-modern capitalism could be.
Something else happened on January 25th, though. On that day, ordinary Egyptians took to the streets in a “Day of Rage” against an entrenched tyrant, following closely on the heels of their Tunisian counterparts. Two weeks later, as the strongman fell, the long-sleeping giant of American workers awoke. Everything changed--and in fact, still is changing. Listening to Content is undoubtedly a treat, but after all this, one has to painfully wonder whether Gang of Four still have a place.
Not to say that there isn’t plenty of familiar thrill and subversion here; guitarist Andy Gill's distinctive rusty-razor guitars are rewarding as ever. The lyrics of “You’ll Never Pay For the Farm,” released as Content’s lead single, certainly have relevance in the age of foreclosures and never-ending war.
Likewise for the stutter-step opener “She Said You Made a Thing Of Me,” which stands in rare contrast to countless male chauvinist artists who don’t think twice about the logic of sexism:
“She is an accident
Her shape’s coincidence
He said she’s beautiful
An invention that is usable…”
Gang of Four have always loved reading between the lines, illustrating the horror of normality, the panic of convention and the inescapable exploitation that lay under the surface of prosperity. While shallow pranksters like Malcolm McLaren loved to call themselves Situationists, GoF actually understood what that meant.
This was the late ‘70s, when Thatcher and Reagan did their best to eliminate any notion of “social responsibility” and replace it with a near-omniscient sense of Cold War consumerism. While conservative rule used survival of the fittest as its starting point, Gang of Four’s sound and lyrics revealed that there was nothing natural about how things are run. GoF maintained that to the system we were little more than damaged goods, and that if the rulers had their way, even our love lives would become as toxic as anthrax.
Insofar as there remained a left during their height, the Gang were unmistakably a part of it, playing gigs for Rock Against Racism and speaking on their American tours in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. And while there were so many complex ideas running through each song, their cerebral subject matter didn’t prevent them from rocking hard!
Now they’re picking up where they left off: Content comes not in a traditional CD case but in a shiny metal box. It’s a tongue-in-cheek nod to their own commodification (throwing back to Public Image Ltd’s Metal Box).
Maybe they did too good of a job on that front. Songs like the hard-banging “Who Am I?” and the melancholy “A Fruitfly In a Beehive” both have excellent hooks and provocative lyrics that delve into the heart of that same alienation:
“Where did it all begin?
Where's the proof of life?
Who is on our side?
Is there a blind man guide?
Can I hitch a ride
When the life boat slides?
Don't know if what I know is true
What is the golden rule?
Where am I going to?
All the workers do what they do
They are floating too
And the sky is blue…”
Any office drone will identify with this deft portrayal of their own atomization. The problem is that in the past couple months this only seems to tell half the story. Singer Jon King of course had no way of knowing even a year ago that the same “blind,” seemingly intransigent workers would now be toppling dictators.
It doesn't just stop at the crystal ball, though. The activism that once complimented their music is missing. No mention of Love Music Hate Racism (inheritor of RAR) is to be found on their website. Nor do they have much of anything to say about the student rebellions that recently rocked their native Britain, which for the first time in a while presented an alternative to the alienation that the group has always railed against. Taking all this into account, the once sharp of acumen of their previous songs seems somewhat blunted.
Perhaps it’s a reflection of the fact that we’re actually listening to only one half of GoF. Drummer Hugo Burnham and bassist Dave Allen formerly played a crucial role in shaping the group’s sound and message. It’s possible that the balance they once brought to the table left with them. Or maybe it’s simply that Andy Gill and Jon King have been too profoundly shaped by the apparent stasis of the past 30 years—and all of the defeats and pessimism that came with it.
The tragedy is that a more engaged Gang of Four is more needed than ever—and would be practically guaranteed to find a new audience. Of the endless artists who were influenced by their sound, only a scant few also inherited their intelligent-yet-instinctive radicalism.
Back in the late ‘70s, when young workers were staring into the abyss, shaking folks awake was indeed a radical act. Now that we’re figuring out a way to crawl back out, it’s simply insufficient. Here’s to hoping these brilliant artists catch up.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com), and is a columnist for SOCIARTS. He is also a regular contributor to SocialistWorker.org and Green Left Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.