Gang of Four

Double Door, October 15

When I was in college I did a radio show on the campus 300-watt station. Our signal was weak, but I knew we had at least one listener–a guy who would call every week to request “We Live As We Dream, Alone” by the Gang of Four. After a few months he stopped calling, but I kept playing the song anyway. I liked it so much I looked up the Gang of Four’s other records. The best was their first, Entertainment!, which I played endlessly over the tinny speakers of my 1974 Torino. The band’s searing guitar and sparse, bass-driven funky songs were irresistible.

I sensed that bands like Gang of Four represented the next step beyond the literal hard-core punk I was into at the time. It was like reading Forced Exposure when you were starting to grow out of Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll. You knew it was the next thing you’d be into, yet you weren’t sophisticated or experienced enough to grasp its content. Gang of Four’s lyrics gave me that feeling, especially “At Home He’s a Tourist” (“At home she’s looking for interest / She said she was ambitious / So she accepts the process”). I would picture an unhappy Englishwoman mopping her kitchen. But the image was outside of me–I didn’t feel it myself.

Until that first year out of college. Gang of Four’s scathing commentary on wage slavery, marketing, alienation, and middle-class morality finally began to make sense. All it took was one big, unfruitful search for a job–and the realization that I’d have to grow out my Mohawk to get one–and a few months in the big, scary city to make those songs relevant.

By then, Gang of Four weren’t producing much of anything; their last album was 1984’s At the Palace, a live recording of their final tour. In many ways they had become a different band, filling out their harsh attacks with backing vocals and dance rhythms. But there was still Entertainment!, with its militant Marxist commentaries set to no-nonsense rock ‘n’ roll. And they had other excellent tunes, like the hypnotic, driving “What We All Want” from 1981’s Solid Gold. The band’s satirical liner notes and album art are still pointedly funny; the back of Solid Gold bears the caption “I hope they keep down the price of gas” beneath a drawing of a public beheading–it seemed just as relevant during the gulf war ten years later.

The song “Natural’s Not in It” from Entertainment! almost perfectly described my postcollegiate dilemma. As I attempted to find meaningful work and resist the nesting instinct, Jon King sang from the stereo speakers: “The problem of leisure / What to do for pleasure / Ideal love a new purchase / A market for the senses / Dream of a perfect life / Economic circumstances.”

Gang of Four’s recent show at the Double Door transported me back to those days of discovery and despair. I wasn’t expecting much; the two original frontmen–King and guitarist Andy Gill–had a new rhythm section, and the tour smacked of yet another has-been punk band cashing in on the popularity of alternative music. King and Gill reunited four years ago for the lackluster Mall, and their most recent record, Shrinkwrapped, missed the biting social commentary that made them strangely endearing. I was prepared to be disappointed, but I was wrong.

The Gang played their first song, “World Falls Apart” (from Mall) with no lights, and King, Gill, and their formidable rhythm section assaulted the audience with one of the loudest performances I’ve ever heard at that venue–the bass was so loud it made internal organs vibrate. The lights came up during the second song, “F.M.U.S.A.,” but a confrontational mood was already set. It seemed urgent; this show was going to be something different.

Neither King nor Gill smiled. The rangy King made angular, jerky mid-80s dance moves like David Byrne, only they were more spasmodic, more inspired–less affected. At the same time, Gill moved back and forth across the stage, playing his Gibson hollow body with his head thrown back and lips pursed into an arrogant smirk, staring down the audience. Soon everything came together. The Gang of Four (or Two, if you will) was unlike any other band I’ve seen this year. The loudness of the bass and their dour expressions combined with the minimal light show and the timelessness of the songs to weave a spell–the music (even the newer material) seemed larger and more sinister than on the records. The audience shouted song titles, sang along with the band, and danced so hard that the floor moved up and down.

One of the best moments was during “Anthrax,” when Gill and King moved forward in lockstep toward two microphones and spoke the song’s lyrics (“My head’s not empty it’s full with my brain / The thoughts I’m thinking / Like piss down a drain / And I feel like a beetle on its back / And there’s no way for me to get up”). They were lit from below, which gave their faces a ghoulish quality. Then they moved back to the speakers at the rear of the stage, a picture of control, and Gill threw his guitar to the floor to create the wailing, industrial-strength feedback that is the song’s hallmark. Then the two returned wearily to the front of the stage and completed the song. “Anthrax” illustrated that Gill and King have always been the band’s principals and are the essence of Gang of Four (even if this tour’s clownish bass player spent a good amount of time making faces at the crowd and mouthing “thank you”).

After the show several people said it had been one of the best concerts they’d ever seen–despite the fact that the band didn’t play “Damaged Goods.” Even if it was a watered-down version of the old Gang of Four, I was glad to have had the chance to see them. I couldn’t wait to hear Entertainment! again on the tinny speakers of my 1977 Delta 88.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul Natkin–Photo Reserve.