Gang of Four
100 Flowers Bloom
By J.R. Jones
Karl Marx believed that history, in its gradual unscrolling, would reveal man’s social and political destiny: as feudalism was overrun by capitalism, so capitalism would be overrun by communism. True to that notion Gang of Four, the brilliant neo-Marxist rockers who put Leeds, England, on the postpunk map, have always been preoccupied with gauging the wisdom of history. “History’s bunk!” they declared on an early single. “History is the reason I’m washed-up,” vocalist-guitarist Andy Gill concluded on the workingman’s lament “Paralysed.” And on “The History of the World,” from their 1982 U.S. commercial breakthrough, Songs of the Free, Gill and songwriting partner Jon King suggest that the whole grand story of civilization is nothing but a sop for the children of corporate capitalism. So it’s only appropriate that the new two-CD Gang of Four retrospective, 100 Flowers Bloom, abandons chronology for a mix-and-match track list that spreads the band’s earliest and best-loved work over both discs, peppered with songs from its much-ignored reunion efforts in the 90s.
Personally, I’ve always hated compilations like this. A career-spanning box set should do more than collect the favorites, round up the B sides, and toss in a few live tracks. It should be, above all, a story, tracing the act’s creative arc, mapping the musical ideas that made it great, illuminating where it originated, how it took shape, how it found its perfect expression, and why it couldn’t last. But sets like 100 Flowers Bloom are more like an evening of channel surfing than a story: entertaining perhaps, amusing in their strange juxtapositions, but nothing much to think about later.
It’s a shame, too, because Gang of Four’s creative history is a real drama, fraught with deep aesthetic and philosophical conflicts. The band emerged from Leeds University just as the first wave of British punk was receding in a dank mist of spent ideals, drug casualties, and sellouts. Postpunk was more diverse in its sounds and ideas, and many of the bands–burnt out on the participatory theater of slamming, gobbing, and pogoing–were trying to reconnect with the dance floor. In this spirit Gang of Four forged a twisted, guitar-based, dub-influenced socialist funk, seizing the disco in the name of Marx and Engels. In 1978–a year after the flag-waving Clash signed a hefty deal with CBS–they put out a three-song EP, Damaged Goods, on the Edinburgh indie Fast Product. But when it came time to make an album, Gang of Four chose to embrace the friction between politics and commerce, inking a deal with the multinational EMI to record a brand of militant, almost didactic agitpop with few if any precedents in commercial music.
When the synthesis of punk ideals and fractured funk was firing on all cylinders, Gang of Four were unbeatable, and the glory years are amply documented on 100 Flowers Bloom. The set contains no less than nine of the dozen songs that appeared on the band’s masterful first album, Entertainment! (1979), including solid live performances of “Anthrax” and “Contract” from a 1980 show at the North American Indian Center in San Francisco. That album, the 1981 follow-up Solid Gold, and two excellent EPs released in ’80 and early ’82 make up half the compilation; the individual jewel boxes even appropriate the first album’s creepy graphics, which caption found art with deadpan statements like “The Indian smiles, he thinks that the cowboy is his friend. The cowboy smiles, he is glad the Indian is fooled. Now he can exploit him.”
Few fans would fault the abundance of material from these releases, especially since all four are out of print in the U.S. But the 1990 Warner Brothers compilation A Brief History of the Twentieth Century, which is half the length of the new set, contains ten of the same songs from Entertainment! and Solid Gold, and for the most part it keeps things in chronological order, letting the listener follow the band’s development without flipping back and forth through a booklet. On 100 Flowers Bloom, both CDs open with tracks from Entertainment!, and “Armalite Rifle,” the only song off Damaged Goods that didn’t make it onto a proper album, turns up near the end of the second.
By 1981 the fissures that characterized the band had already grown into fault lines. Bassist Dave Allen quit, exhausted by relentless touring, and drummer Hugo Burnham, whose supremely inventive rhythms had spurred the band to great heights on Solid Gold, began deferring to Gill and King, who wanted in on the new-romantic scene then sweeping England. Their writing for Songs of the Free locked him into more predictable beats, especially on disco showcases like “Call Me Up” and “I Love a Man in Uniform.” Both songs got some airplay in America, especially the latter, which became a dance club favorite with campy double entendres like “The girls they love to see him shoot.” Gill and King replaced Burnham with a drum machine in 1983; he entered the workforce as an A and R man. The band’s fourth album, Hard, groped for the sound of mid-70s Philly soul, its female backup singers and icy string arrangements clashing horribly with Gill’s jagged guitar. By then I was old enough to get into their shows, and watching Gill stride around in a puffy space-age tunic, I knew I’d missed the boat. Within a year Gang of Four was…history.
Both Songs of the Free and Hard were reasonable directions to take after the group’s original idea had played out, but exploring more established forms of dance music exposed Gang of Four’s fatal flaw: between the discourse and the disco lay an emotional gap that couldn’t be filled even with a thousand funky backup singers. On “Anthrax,” the concluding song from Entertainment!, King sings of feeling “like a beetle on its back” in one speaker while from the other Gill delivers a monotone speech about the prevalence of love in pop songs, questioning “the belief that love is deep in everyone’s personality” and disputing that “what goes on between two people should be shrouded in mystery.” Set against the bent rhythms and angular guitar of the early albums, this reptilian social analysis provided a bracing alternative to the phoniness of most commercial pop. But transplanted to the emotional landscape of urban soul, it seemed cold, pinched, and cowardly. Perhaps that explains why, of all the punk and postpunk bands I still hold dear, Gang of Four is the only one I’m completely disinterested in as individuals.
The same scholarly coldness informed the larger dilemma surrounding the band: Gill and King wanted to produce a musical critique of consumer capitalism, but they also wanted the worldwide distribution available only through a major recording company. In the case of the Clash this paradox caused a considerable amount of soul-searching, self-doubt, and recrimination between the band and its fans. But for Gang of Four, being a socialist band on a major label was simply another irony of the 20th century, to be regarded with detached amusement from the podium. “From the beginning, we picked EMI as being a perfect label for us to be on,” Gill comments in the liner notes to 100 Flowers Bloom. “One of the biggest industrial conglomerates in the U.K.–a huge multinational, trading in everything from arms to entertainment. If we’d been on Rough Trade, it would have been a far less potent juxtaposition.”
The liner notes are by Jon Savage, whose book England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond is one of the greatest rock histories ever written, a monumental work of scholarship, storytelling, and sociopolitical analysis. Savage minimizes the band’s emotional distancing, arguing that “their sense of complicity is what gave Gang of Four their depth.” He even allows Gill to compare the band to the Velvet Underground and claim that, as the old saw goes, everyone who bought a Gang of Four record went out and started his own band. But in reality punk obliterated the existing musical order not by its “sense of complicity” but by the force of its passion. And the Velvet Underground, for all their art-rock pretense, explored the delicacy of love with a compassion and complexity that make Gang of Four seem positively tiny. A linear retrospective of the band’s career might have shown how even the grandest of ideas can wither over time. History is the reason they’re washed-up.