Chapter 7 MILITANT ENTERTAINMENT
Gang of Four/ Mekons/Delta 5
(Chapter Four in US edition)
>one long crisis
I must have been eight or nine when I first became really aware of the world beyond my family and school. That would have been around 1972. I recall doing homework by candlelight during the nightly power cuts caused by the miner’s strike, or the TV just going off mid-broadcast when the electricity failed. I recall the omnipresent anxieties about runaway inflation, which must have peaked at around 20 percent per annum at one point, and which you really felt as a kid by noticing that a packet of crisps or a Mars bar seemed to cost twice what it did a few years ago. I remember newspaper stories about food shortages and hoarding housewives making a run on the supermarkets. The TV news was all strikes and threats of industrial action. Economic pundits talked about the UK as the “sick man of Europe”, crippled by its low productivity and poor labour/management relations, and predicted its irreversible decline into a third world nation. The OPEC oil crisis; the Arabs buying up London; a science fiction novel set in some future Britain where mosques are everywhere. Terrorism: the Birmingham pub bombings, the PLO hi-jacking planes and shooting Israeli athletes at the Olympics, the Basques, the Baadher-Meinhof in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy, the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapping Patty Hearst and keeping her in a dark box. Articles about devolution and separatism as an unstoppable trend across Europe; a map in a colour supplement of the continent showing all the breakaway regional movements, from the Bretons to the Cornish, from Provencal to Catalonia to the Walloons in Belgium wanting to be part of some giant Francophone state also including the French-speaking parts of Switzerland! And, always, war after war: the tail-end of Vietnam, Angola, Cambodia, Iran, Afghanistan…
>pushed for revolution
In this era of centrist, post-Socialist, “third way” politics, when the only real radical talk seems to come from the Right, it’s hard to recall just how much currency hard Left ideas once enjoyed in the mainstream of British politics. In 1976, when Labour was in power, the party’s annual conference saw a rank-and-file motion calling for public ownership of the banks, proposing “a state monopoly of credit and finance with a state bank and state credit corporation under the control and management of the democratic organisations of the working class.” Although the motion was defeated, both the party’s National Executive Committee and elements within Harold Wilson’s Cabinet itself were staunch believers in nationalisation. Industry Secretary Tony Benn had a whole vision of uber-Keynesian investment and intervention, with the government imposing, through a body called the National Enterprises Board, planning agreements on the top 100 biggest businesses in the country, coordinating and steering the entire economy, and fostering industrial democracy in the form of worker participation schemes and cooperatives that would take over failed companies. In the first general election of 1974, Labour’s manifesto included vows to nationalize ship building, ship-repairing, marine engineering, manufacture of airframes and aero-engines, and sections of the pharmaceuticals industries, road haulage, and construction. Labour won a very narrow victory, and when Wilson opted to call another general election that same year to increase the parliamentary margin, the role for the NEB in the new manifesto was drastically toned down to a much milder form of interventionism. Although Benn felt betrayed and his ideas were thenceforth marginalized, his standing soared with the Labour party rank-and-file, precisely because he was suppressed by first Wilson and then the latter’s replacement, Jim Callaghan. Nonetheless, during Callagahan’s premiership, Labour continued to nationalise ailing and strife-torn industries, such as the car factories of Leyland (which went into majority share-holding by the NEB in 1975), and privatization of industry was conversely a central plank of the Conservative counter-vision for a more enterprise-friendly Britain.
> Trade Union Congress Between 1970 and 1979 British mainstream politics were deadlocked, largely because neither the Conservatives nor Labour could work out a lasting modus vivendi with the trade union movement. Various attempts at wage freezes and pay rise limits, so-called “social contracts” and voluntary self-restraint on collective bargaining were attempted, with Callaghan coming closest to stabilising the situation for a few years in the mid-Seventies. Then this precarious equilibrium collapsed in the strike-torn winter of 1978/79, a/k/a the Winter of Discontent (more on this later)
>Jim Callaghan Harold Wilson had led the party to election victory--two victories in swift succession actually-- in 1974. 1975-79, the years of punk and post-punk, coincided with Jim Callaghan taking over as Wilson's replacement as Prime Minister. His undistinguished muddling-through (which some revisionists defend as deft survival-through-difficult-balancing-act) mirrors the single-term Democratic Presidency of another unlucky Jim (Carter, of course). The Labour government of this period was shot by both sides. To stay electable, it had to piss off most of its rank and file by reneging on the nationalisation of industries project written into the Party’s very charter; at the same time, it was forced to cut public spending by the International Monetary Fund (in return for a loan to stop the UK going bankrupt). These caps on welfare spending, etc, were regarded as betrayal of the working class bedrock of Labour support. In part due to external constraints--the IMF’s imposed cuts --Callaghan’s government was effectively centrist. And centrism, of course, is just shorthand for “pleasing none of the people almost all of the time.” The Labour government of the mid-Seventies certainly managed to leave almost everybody equally disgruntled. British politics became drastically polarized. On one side, a left-veering and betrayed-feeling rank-and-file of the Labour Party, and a swarm of increasingly militant revolutionary socialist organisations. On the other, the resurgent Conservative Party helmed by their new leader Margaret Thatcher, who cannily co-opted the make-Britain-great-again jingoism and anti-immigration rhetoric of the Far Right fringe--in particular the National Front, for a while a serious contender in electoral politics.
>Effectively co-regents of Britain
Union leaders like Joe Gormley, Len Murray, Hugh Scanlon, Jack Jones, et al were such well-known public figures--always appearing on TV news outside Downing Street after negotiations inside with the Prime Minister, being interviewed at strike-closed workplaces talking about demarcation disputes, the need to maintain differentials, and so forth--that the TV impersonator Mike Yarwood would “do” them on his show, imitating their facial mannerisms and regional accents. It's hard to imagine his modern equivalent doing impersonating a trade union leader--how many of the general public even know their names, let alone recognise their faces or voices?
>sympathy strikes, secondary picketing The infamous “flying pickets” despatched to the docks, say, to stop coal being brought into the country during a Miner’s strike.
Sympathy strikes were based on the idea of workers’ solidarity and commonality of interest as something that transcended divisions between specific industries; there was a tension between this proto-revolutionary notion and the desire of specific trades unions to maintain their pay differentials, distinctions between skilled and unskilled, and so forth. The ultimate development of “sympathy” would be the General Strike, as happened in 1926 (see
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/timelines/england/ear20_general_strike.shtml and http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/TUgeneral.htm)
>coups being plotted… private armies
For more on these plots, which were real (many right-wingers feared that Harold Wilson would turn the UK into a Soviet satellite state), check this piece by Martin Bright on Lord Lucan’s dreams of a fascist coup:
“Lucan believed Britain had been brought to its knees by the unions and was in need of a strong leader. By the early Seventies he and his friends in the gentlemen's clubs and gambling dens of Mayfair brayed about overthrowing Harold Wilson's Labour government… He and his associates, who included casino owner and party host John Aspinall, and the tycoon Sir James Goldsmith, were increasingly convinced Britain had fallen victim to a socialist conspiracy. … Across the country pockets of the traditional ruling class were preparing for military action. General Sir Walter Walker, former commander of allied forces in northern Europe, formed the Concerned Citizens' Vigilante Association to stamp out Communism in Wiltshire, and Colonel David Stirling, founder of the SAS, invited volunteers to join his 'strike-breaking army' to crush the unions. According to former MI5 officer Peter Wright, a group of his colleagues, including Margaret Thatcher's mentor Airey Neave, began discussing a political coup. According to Wright, they believed that the Labour government had been infiltrated by the KGB and should be overthrown.”
>Taming the unions
For some reason, certain readers have assumed these are actually my own opinions; the first few paragraphs of this chapter are of course an attempt to present the spectrum of opinion that existed at that time in Britain, which was incredibly polarized.
One flashpoint for anti-union sentiment was the closed shop, the move by unions to make it impossible for employers to hire workers who weren’t members of the relevant trade union.
A literary curio that captures the paranoia of those on the right is the science fiction novel 1985 by Anthony Burgess; published in 1978, the thirtieth anniversary of Orwell’s 1984, and an “update” that depicts a Britain totally dominated by trade unions, who bring the country to a standstill several times a week as all the unions come out in sympathy with any union involved in even the tiniest dispute. In the schools, teachers have swapped the old British history of kings, general, battles and empires for glorious tales of the Labour movement--the Chartists, the Tolpuddle martyrs, the Friendly Societies and Cooperatives. There is also an element of spoofing A Clockwork Orange: the protagonist encounters culture-starved hooligans who alternate between ultraviolence and reading the Ancient classics (one of the characters, a fired teacher if memory serves, gets paid by them in stolen money to teach them Latin and Greek!). Martin Amis gives the book a right nasty duffing-up here http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/11/30/home/burgess-1985.html
Like all science fiction, 1985 is really about the present (Amis speculates it was written in the summer of 1976) but in the industrial action beset months following its publication in November 1978 it must have seemed prophetic and in its own little way contributed to the climate of opinion that elected Thatcher.
Gang of Four’s “Outside the Trains Don’t Run On Time” is a clumsy satire of this sort of discontent, diagnosing as protofascist the longings of people upset at deteriorating public services and falling standards of behavior. (As it happens, railway services in the UK have been much much worse since the privatization of British Rail--cancellations, delays, crashes).
>Sociology was the hip course
Post-Thatcher, it would become Business Studies or Economics.
I asked Simon Frith if this idea of sociology as implicitly on the side of social justice was widespread. Frith: “This was fondly believed by sociologists then but I'm not sure about the evidence. What was clear was that the Thatcher government (and Sir Keith Jospeh, her education minister) regarded sociology as a pseudo science, a hot bed of Marxism, and a kind pro-state anti-market ideology. The Social Science Research Council had its name changed to the Economic and Social Research Council, and economists became the lead academics in policy advice terms. Sociology was dismissed in the Tory press as a university/school subject much as media studies is dismissed today. This was the setting in which the increasing demand for sociology (particular in schools) was striking and, in particular, in became a significant subject in Further Education colleges as bright graduates who couldn't now get univ jobs taught A level students a subject that was seen to have some radical relevance to their lives. I don't think this was particularly to dowith social work as a vocation (which required a different training) but that sociology was a generally interesting degree with which one could do many things. I think students became more vocationally minded in the 1990s and business studies certainly became more popular, and law and medicine and vet schools remain the hardest to get into, but the key change was the Tory transformation of Polytechnics (which had been under local authority control and therefore loathed by Thatcher) into new universities primarily surviving by marketing courses many of which little to do with uinversity education”
>Beginner’s guides The Fontana Modern Masters series was particularly attractively designed and the books were quite short, an added inducement. Not sure if I ever read any though!
here's a Momus post on the Fontana series mostly from a design point of view
>Garnished with Situationism Plus a side order, if you were really cutting-edge, of French post-structuralism (by the mid-to-late Seventies only just coming into translation). And let’s not forget all the currents of feminist and Green thought.
>Leaving the 20th Century
My well-thumbed and well-worn copy. Subtitle: the Incomplete Work of the Situationist International. Compiled by King Mob member Christopher Gray,published 1974, and for a longest while the only way to get hold of the Situationists texts and graphics. Has its dour critics but I much prefer it to the fat, hefty, doubtless far more complete and balanced compendium that came out in the late Eighties but if I recall rightly has no pictorial content whatsoever--a real negative given the fantastic array of cartoons, posters, photographs of SI graffitied slogans on Parisian streets, etc that fill the Gray anthology. His commentaries are also good.
> Leeds University’s Fine Art Department There is an argument for saying “The Leeds Scene” should really be known as the Sevenoaks scene, because that’s where Jon King and Andy Gill of Go4 and Mark White, Kevin Lycett and Tom Greenhalgh of the Mekons all came from--they attended the same school, were a bunch of friends already interested in Situationism et al, and then moved as a group to Leeds.
The Fine Art department of Leeds University was renowned for its emphasis on theory at a time when the latter was generally not well liked in British art schools.
> TJ Clark Essay co-written by TJ Clark while in the UK chapter of Situationiste Internationale:
Retrospective essay on Situationism and its relationship to art, co-written by Clark,
>Art and Language… Greenhalgh
Greenhalgh: “I somehow stumbled upon Art & Language when I was sixteen, in this mainstream art magazine. I liked their tone, the sarcasm--they ripped Ways of Seeing by John Berger to shreds. That was their style, critiquing other supposedly left wing critics”.
>Leeds Polytechnic Whose alumni include Soft Cell, Scritti Politti, and Frank Tovey aka Fad Gadget
>Unemployment more than doubled
From 2.8 percent in 1973
>the Far Right prospered
Greenhalgh: “In South Leeds, there’s a lot of really deprived white working class areas. The football fans had a bit of a reputation for racism”. Drawing here on my extremely sketchy knowledge of football, I vaguely recall reading that Leeds United has a bad reputation for its white-only team selections.
On Woodhouse Lane, just on the edge of the city centre
For a photo of how it looks now (and how King and Gill look now. too), go here
>Gill… “he would bait you” Burnham: “Andrew was a… I was about to say, ‘master baiter’!”
>Wilko Johnson… Dr. Feelgood
Who was himself influenced by the stuttery, spiky guitar style of Mick Green of
Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, UK rock’n’roll trailblazers of “Shaking All Over” fame. Who actually reformed as The Pirates in 1976 and were active on the UK gig circuit and got quite a lot of attention from the press.
Unless I’ve misremembered this, an irony of Johnson being at the helm of a celebrated pub-rock band was that he was a tee-totaller (unlike singer Lee Brilleaux, a man of legendary thirst).
Dr. Feelgood were a big, big band just before, and overlapping with, punk, getting a live album, Stupidity, to #1 in 1976. A major back-to-basics statement was their recording of 1975’s Down By The Jetty in mono--ie. a reversion to circa 1965/66, before stereo became widespread, and suiting their pre-psychedelia/art rock sound.
Gang of Four’s alchemy of amped-up R&B pub-rock (anathema to moi) into punk-funk (whatever the opposite of anathema is--athema?--to me) is a truly remarkable thing.
from an article on Kevin Ayers’ guitarist Ollie Halsall (who also used them apparently, but was unusual in that respect: “Transistors were, and still are, an anathema to most guitarists since they lack the warmth and natural harmonics of hot valves”
More on valve versus transistors http://www.affordablevalvecompany.com/buy1valv.htm
and here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valve_amplifier
>Mechanistic drum loop of “Guns Before Butter” According to Burnham, this was a bastardized version of Buzzcocks’s “Moving Away From the Pulsebeat”
The song lyric itself was inspired by Goering's infamous remark about how “iron always make a country strong, butter and lard only make people fat” as detourned in a famous John Heartfield collage.
>all the instruments room to breathe Charles Shaar Murray has a nice line on this in his interview NME june 21st 1980
“Their music is naked: like an anatomical diagram or a watch in a transparent casing, you can see and hear every part of the machine going about its business.”
Gang of Four were big fans of reggae and that whole aesthetic of subtraction, leaving gaps in the sound, was obviously crucial to how they developed their sound.
“It’s democratic… star thing”
--King. Sounds 11/ 11 1978.
“Gang of Four doesn't… small 'p'”
--Allen. NME 6/21/80.
>Mekons The name Mekons has a faint tang of Viet Cong about it (Mekong Delta), but it comes from the comic book hero Dan Dare, who battled an alien adversary called the Mekon, and who was the evil overlord of Mekonta, a floating city on Venus. But since Dan Dare works for the United Nations World Government, this makes the Mekon a resistance leader, an insurgent. And he is never defeated by Dan Dare.
“That anybody could… nobody special."
--Lycett a.k.a. Kevin Mekon. NME 3/3/79.
He was moonlighting as the Rezillos’ tour manager; Rezillo Jo Callis later joined one of Last’s groups, the Human League
>“is the only form… by people who can”
--Harron. MM 2/3/79.
>Rough Trade literally didn’t buy it Last: “It was my unfortunate girlfriend Hilary who had the task of taking a box of singles from Edinburgh down to Rough Trade. I think it was Geoff Travis himself who gave the verdict--highly amusing, given the kind of things that were going on musically at that time.”
>“No photographs …. as INDIVIDUAL PERSONALITIES” --unattributed Mekons quote. NME 8/5/78.
>In keeping with their ideals
And perhaps influenced by the Art & Language habit of signing some works collectively
>split-screen vocals Multitracking of a single singer’s voice is of course a commonplace from psychedelia onwards, but is the running in parallel (through the bulk of a track) two singers (but not harmonizing with each other obviously) unprecedented in rock? The only possible precursor I can think of is “The Murder Mystery” on The Velvet Underground’s third album, which features Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed in separate stereo channels reading different recitations. Reed has said that the idea was to have the two poems interweave like two guitar parts.
>“I’m still as much… film it”
--Godard. Quoted in Susan Sontag’s “Godard” (see bibliography). P. 151.
Compare and contrast:
“Generally there is felt to be a very sharp distinction between learning and amusing oneself…. So we have to defend [radical theatre] against the suspicion that is it a highly disagreeable, humourless, indeed strenuous affair.”---Bertolt Brecht, from “Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre For Instruction?”, circa 1936
“It’s not a group’s function just to be entertaining. A group should entertain and try and change things. You can’t change the actual status quo, the power structures, but you can change the way people think”
--Andy Gill, Gang of Four, Melody Maker May 1979
c.f. the concept of “edutainment” as proposed by conscious rappers like KRS1 and Poor Righteous Teachers, who sometimes appeared in videos on lecterns or in front of blackboards!
Brecht’s idea of epic theatre, I guess, refers to the idea of impersonal forces which buffet the characters about. It reminds me a bit of the didactic/morally edifying nature of Medieval theater--morality plays, mystery plays, etc. But instead of the cosmic law or divine morality, it’s political-social forces that are the motors of the allegory.
>“the sufferings… unnecessary…. what is ‘natural’… startling”
--Brecht. From ‘Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre For Instruction’, reprinted in John Willett ed. Brecht on Theatre (see bibliography). p. 71
Whereas, according to Brecht, the viewer of normal dramatic theatre or tragedy thinks: “It’s only natural--It’ll never change--The Sufferings of this man appal me, because they are inescapable-- That’s great art; it all seems the most obvious thing in the world”
>Brecht, alienation effects, natural responses In tragedy or drama, you go through the same emotions as the protagonist (“ I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh”) but in epic theater, Brecht wrote “I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh.”.
Brecht interview from 1926 in Die Literarische Welt: “I don’t let my feelings intrude in my dramatic work. It would give a false view of the world. I aim at an extremely classical, cold, highly intellectual style of performance. I’m not writing for the scum who want to have the cockles of their hearts warmed…. The production has got to bring out the material incidents in a perfectly sober and matter-of-fact way. Nowadays the play’s meaning is usually blurred by the fact that the actor plays to the audience’s hearts. The figures portrayed are foisted on the audience and falsified in the process. Contrary to present custom they ought to be presented quite coldly, classically and objectivity. For they are not a matter for empathy; they are there to be understood.”
In other words, the mechanisms of identification and involvement are precisely what have to be interfered with to achieve a structural apprehension of what’s going on, and thereby political enlightenment.
>Antonio Gramsci “Hegemony” involves the dominant class in society “naturalizing” its worldview and convincing the subordinated that the world is as it only can be. It’s done through religion, mainstream political discourse, the mass media, the education system, and also in all kinds of everyday discourse-- platitudes, maxims, sayings, proverbs, etc--and mundane practice (how families are reared, businesses are run). For the neo-Marxists, hegemony--the ability to rule with consent rather than through force--helped explain why the Western European nations failed to have the proletarian revolutions that Marx had predicted. But it’s not all bleak: hegemony, because it takes place in or extends itself as a field of discourse, can be contested; there are spaces in public life for counter-hegemonic currents.
Gramsci’s ideas (hegemony, the historic bloc, “the organic intellectual” etc)
have been an immeasurable influence on the Cultural Studies and resistance through rituals/subcultural theory milieu coming out of UK academia in the mid-to-late Seventies (Stuart Hall, Paul Willis, Dick Hebdige, Paul Gilroy, etc), and more recently have been very influential on postcolonial studies (the concept of the “subaltern”, although I read somewhere that Gramsci only came up with the term in order to bypass the prison censor when writing the Prison Notebooks, and would otherwise have happily used “proletariat”!).
Foucault’s ideas about how power works seem to me quite similar to Gramsci’s: his notions of truth effects and power/knowledge, of the sciences as not value-free, but --especially human sciences and social sciences--as disciplines in both senses of the word: bodies of theory inseparable from their often punitive and/or normative practice (psychiatry and lunatic asylums, crime and penology, medecine and hospitals, health care systems, epidemology, sexuality and sexology). Foucault also talked about “forbidden popular knowledges”--folkore, mysticisms, superstititions, conspiracy theories, paranoid micro-discourses, oral traditions--as loci of resistance, and these are perhaps equivalent to Gramsci’s counter-hegemonic discourses.
The influence of Gramsci can be seen most prominently in Gang of Four’s “Why Theory?”, one of the sharper tunes on the second album Solid Gold. “We’ve all got opinions/Where do they come from?”, “each day seems like a natural fact/and what we think/changes how we act”. The answer to the question “Why Theory?” is never precisely given, but is implicit: it’s our only weaponry in the war of liberation against the self-evident and immutable (“the natural order of things”), the only way of stepping free of the chains of “that’s obvious”.
>A Brecht fan Brecht, Gramsci, and another “hot” neo-Marxist, Althusser, were all faves of Bob Last’s.
>alienation effects…. Damaged Goods In the sleevenotes to the 1993 Fast Product compilation Rigour, Discipline and Disgust, Last talked of the label and its groups being “part of a puritan streak”. Today he says “it’s difficult to define what this puritanism was exactly, but there was a real sense of ‘you will live and die by the consequences of your actions,' as opposed to some sort of laissez-faire do-what-you-like approach.” Wooly thinking was not tolerated; every idea and procedure was worth arguing over. Of Gang of Four, Last says, “we were kind of at war with each other from day one, but both sides saw that as entirely appropriate. For instance, there was a huge battle during the recording of ‘Damaged Goods’: I insisted on using more reverb on Gill’s guitar solo. Which they didn’t like, because it was too much of a trad rock production thing, but I thought that would actually create more internal tension in the song. And this sort of dispute was routine back then--it didn’t seem the least bit weird to spend two hours in the studio discussing the implications of this particular sonic dilemma.”
Some people seem to rate the ‘Damaged Goods’ EP as much superior to Entertainment! but--perhaps because I heard the album first and the EP only much later, Damaged Goods always sounded disappointingly conventional c.f. the stark anti-naturalism of Entertainment!. ‘Armalite Rifles’ especially seems a really ordinary rocky effort, and lyrically quite clumsy. But, you know, context is all!
>Tom Robinson-style preachy protest Gang of Four had some sympathy for Tom Robinson. King declared in early 1979 "there may be criticisms of his sloganeering, [but] he's working in an area closer to us than 99 per cent of rock bands. I would never want to criticise the guy because he's struggling. He's not coming out with the sexist crap that most bands do." But by this point, with the release of TRB 2 in March 1979, Robinson’s approach of telling-it-like-it-is had come to signify a discredited path as far as most informed opinion was concerned. As Jon Savage put in a review of the album in Melody Maker, the album constituted “an object lession in how NOT to mix pop’n’”politics…. TRB turn revolt into platitude… a sheep in wolf’s clothing, TRB Two promises opposition, provides palliatives”. Robinson himself would quickly abandon hard-rocking protest songs for an approach influenced by Gang of Four, Scritti, et al, with his new band Sector 27. As Jon King would comment (NME 21 june 80) "Tom Robinson explored that area [radical content, conservative form] quite well, actually. He had what might be called a radical consciousness within a very orthodox framework, and he got bored with it because I don't think it did what he wanted it to do."
More info here http://www.tomrobinson.com/records/discog.htm
>Encouraged by Last Last: “We actively wanted the gestures we’d made to get further into the mainstream.”
>EMI emerged as a favourite
EMI lacked any trappings of alt-culture “cool” or hip/hippie capitalism that still hung around Virgin, another major label suitor in pursuit of Go4. Speaking to The Face several years later, the Gang of Four’s manager Rob Warr--a business associate of Bob Last’s--enthused about “the blandness of EMI” and the fact that “it’s genuinely world-wide: their machine grinds into motion and it can explode a record all over the world”. (Warr by this point had gone on to work at EMI, a big cog in that huge machine).Virgin actually offered Gang of Four three times as much money, says Hugo Burnham, but EMI clinched the deal by ceding “considerably more creative control”. EMI also gave them a better royalty rate. “We gambled on the idea that we would sell a lot of records,” says Burnham wryly.
As for the indie sector, King summed up the group’s attitudet: “Rough Trade are the Virgin of tomorrow…. I don't think there’s any difference between the small business man and the big business man."
>Gig of the Century
reviewed here by Charles Shaar Murray, one of the old guard of NME rock critics but with some astute things to say:
>Denied they’d ever made a virtue of ineptitude
Yet the Mekons still seemed faintly proud of being “the least competent band” with a record deal
>“we were always desperately… what actually are we?”
--Greenhalgh, MM, 12/12/1979.
“People value themselves in terms of their labour yet leisure time brings an uncomfortable void” was how the group paraphrased the topic in a brief statement on the B-side label of “At Home He Feels Like A Tourist”. The flipside itself “It’s Her Factory” was straightforward feminist critique of housewives’ and home-makers’ unpaid labour, inspired by an newspaper article about housewives as ‘the Unsung Heroines of Britain’.
I guess that makes it a “concept single” then--two different takes on the domestic environment, one dealing with leisure and alienation, the other with the home as an unacknowledged site for (alienated) labour.
In a Melody Maker interview (May 26 1979) with Mary Harron, King further explained “At Home” : “They see themselves as workers, so they are alienated from their home environment. People lead strictly compartmentalized lives--they use discos as a release and they think that in their relaxation time they express themselves. But… they express themselves in the way they’ve been taught to express themselves.”
--King. NME 1/20/79.
>Gang of Four refused
They’d become increasingly suspicious that Top of the Pops had chickened out of their early “edgy” decision to have the group on the show and were now trying to maneuver them into an impossible position.
Rob Warr, their manager, NME June 30th 1979: “What was interesting was that TOTP can't cope with anything different. We wanted to put the drums at the front but the director took exception to that." Re. the censoring of reference to condoms, he noted, “it seems that it's fine to have the Village People and all that Donna Summer heavy breathing and titillation stuff, but they won't have anything remotely resembling a heavy lyric."
>Continued its rise anyway
Going up to #58 the following week,
>the famous cover image
Austrian culture critic Christian Hoeller emailed me with a thought:
“The cover imagery of Entertainment! seems to contain a double detournement: the pics that are used appear are taken from the film version of a very famous German "indian novel" (by author Karl May) which famously depicted a very friendly relationship between the white trapper (Old Shatterhand) and the Indian (Winnetou). By inserting a completely different narrative into these images - the one on exploitation and deceit - Go4 knock this idyllic take on cross-cultural relations over again and apply their critique to pop-cultural versions of this notoriously difficult relationship.”
>sound stood out: sober, flat… Redolent in fact of the “new matter-of-factness” (Neue Sachlichkeit), the hard-prose, starkly socialistic flavour that characterized German 1920s modernism from Bauhaus to Brecht. The term was coined by G.F. Hartlaub in 1924 to describe ‘a new realism bearing a socialistic flavour’
Which also sounds like Sontag’s description of Godard’s frequent use of the “bare, hard-starting, neo-realist aesthetic of television”
>No gesture at simulating music…. in a real acoustic space
Burnham; “I kind of wish there’d been more ‘room’ around the drums.” Gang of Four made “good” these deficits/defects with the big drum sound and live-r sound of the curious remake-remodel exercise Return The Gift (see my piece in Slate, http://www.slate.com/id/2127526/)
Further Return the Gift pensees and out-takes:
The original “Return the Gift” song, King explained in one interview, was inspired by “'a magazine advert where you sent off for a complete works of shakespeare and they sent you a bronze-style medal of him -- 'yours to keep in any case' sort of thing. They give you that which inflicts on you an emotional obligation to buy. So the song is, ‘we'll send you all these things that maybe you don't even want but you're persuaded that you do cos you're told they'll make you happy.’" Whether this adds some extra element of irony--something you thought you wanted but didn’t need--to the Return project I couldn’t say.
>Greil Marcus… brink of seeing through
As he put it in his review of Entertainment! (New West, 3 December, 1979; collected in Ranters and Crowdpleasers), “without a hint of condescension, they act out received ideas at just that point where they begin to come apart”. He argues that the songs aren’t don’t tell stories but are “situational renderings of the paradoxes of leisure as oppression, identity as product, sex as politics.” Tasty!
Or in another piece (California, Oct 1981; also in Ranters), “Jon King may sing in the voice of false consciousness holding off a recognition of the truth”
A precursor to what Gang of Four did in terms of demystification and false consciousness would be Poly Styrene’s lyrics in X Ray Spex, ranging from anti-consumer society songs like “Art-I-Ficial,” “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” and “Germ-free Adolescents,” to songs like “Obsessed With You”, “Warrior in Woolworths,” and “Identity” about the mass media’s co-optation of subcultures like punk itself, to “I Live Off You”, a bleak ditty about society as a network of relationships of parasitism and exploitation---all embedded in a punk-boogie blast of raunch and noise so powerful and glorious that sometimes all can you do is laugh out loud. See this mini-extract from The Sex Revolts:
Brutal demystification was always at the heart of punk. Love and sexuality didn't go unscathed; songs like the Buzzcocks' masturbation anthem 'Orgasm Addict' or ATV's ode to impotence, 'Love Lies Limp', tried to deal withdesire in a way that shunned the romantic roleplay of the trad love song in the belief that the truth, however unsightly and bathetic, was at least authentic. Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex was obsessed with the fragility of authentic identity in the face of media conditioning. On Germfree Adolescents (1978),Styrene's X-Ray vision reveals the tissue of lies, the cat's cradle of puppet-strings that lurks behind the facades of consumer capitalism. 'Identity' is a desperate protest against media manipulation of desire; Poly Styrene unleashes a foghorn bellow that's simultaneously a Munch-like howl of inner emptiness and a roar of refusal. In 'I Am A Cliche' and 'I Am A Poseur' she assumes the brainwashed zombie persona with a vengeance a la Sex Pistols''Pretty Vacant', reflecting back at society its own nightmare of 'what's gone wrong with our children?' But when punk's embrace and flaunting of inauthenticity became a cliche itself, the tangle of contradictions brought Styrene to the verge of a breakdown. On tour, Styrene hallucinated a mysterious energy force pulsing outside her hotel window. Interpreting this as a bad omen, she quit music and began a quest for some kind of stable and authentic 'ground of being', eventually finding it in Hare Krishna.
>“No escape from society” a Gramscian aside in a song that otherwise offers a fractured-vision panorama of a consumerist paradise, a “heaven” that “gives me migraine”, as King’s protagonist sings it. Key line: “coercion of the senses”, referring to the bullying bombardment of libidinally charged imagery from media and advertising, what Marcuse called “repressive desublimation” with sex and desire put in service of capital.
The full lyric
The problem of leisure
What to do for pleasure
Ideal of a new purchase
A market of the senses
Dream of the perfect life
The body is good business
Sell out, maintain the interest
Remember Lot's wife
Renounce all sin and vice
Dream of the perfect life
This heaven gives me migraine
The problem of leisure
What to do for pleasure
Coercion of the senses
We are not so gullible
Our great expectations
A future for the good
Fornication makes you happy
No escape from society
Natural is not in it
Your relations are of power
We all have good intentions
But all with strings attached
Repackaged sex keeps your interest
Repackaged sex keeps your interest
Repackaged sex keeps your interest
Repackaged sex keeps your interest
Repackaged sex keeps your interest
Repackaged sex keeps your interest
As well as personal-is-political songs, Gang of Four also had political-is-personal ones, exploring the ways that that the world of current affairs, economics, big P politics impinges on and invasively permeates our everyday lives, rather than simply existing in some sort of compartmentalized zone of elections and parliamentary bills. So on Entertainment!’s “5-45” the protagonist wonders glumly how he can manage to eat his supper every night while corpses from warzones across the globe appear on his TV screen at 6pm. And in the jubilantly bitter “I Found That Essence Rare” (the title derived from the name of a perfume) King runs through a bunch of grotesque ironies, such as the girl dressed in a bikini on TV who’s most likely unaware that her garment is a echo of the 1954 H-Bomb tests at Bikini Atoll.
They also had some purely personal songs about love (what Jon King called “it’s ten past one and you’re gone and I’m all alone”) and existensial unease, e.g. Entertainment!’s “Glass”, about looking through a window, feeling restless and empty. The last verses:
“Always thought life should be so easyIt seems that I have misunderstoodNothing I do can seem to please meWhat I say don't sound so goodI always thoughtI always thoughtI always thoughtIt seems that I have misunderstood”
>”A Worker Reads History”
Brecht’s poem in full:
Who built Thebes of the 7 gates?
In the books you will read the names of
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of
China was finished, did the masons go?
Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them?
Over whom did the Caesars triumph?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only
palaces for its inhabitants?
Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the
ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada went
Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill?
>seemingly inevitable downfall
After the humiliation of the IMF imposed cuts, Callaghan managed to stabilize things, albeit via the shaky ploy of the Lib-Lab pact (an parliamentary alliance between Labour and the Liberals to keep a non-Conservative majority in the House of Commons). In 1977 and ’78, the country’s situation seemed to be improving slightly, while still being in a overall state of malaise, drift and discord. But in the 1978/79 “Winter of Discontent”, the unions finally broke with the voluntary wage restraint/”no pay claims above a certain percentage” accommodation with the Labour government. Frustrated by the failure of pay rises to keep pace with inflation and disillusioned with Labour’s proto-Thatcherian policies of government spending cuts, workers embarked upon a spate of strikes, including such plays-badly-with-the-general-public strikes as the dustmen (interrupted garbage collection led to huge piles of bin-liners full of stinking refuse piled up in city centres, rats, etc), the nurses, and gravediggers (newspaper shock-horror stories about unburied bodies)*. Although everybody knew deep down this would bring the Tories to power, the spasm of frustration with Callaghan and his compromised Labour government was uncontrollable. With the election of Thatcher in May 1979, sixteen years of non-Labour and anti-labour rule ensued: mass unemployment, pay freezes, adjusted-for-inflation real-term income declines for public workers, welfare cuts, strike-busting and aggressively anti-union strategies pursued by businesses, etc, etc.
*Punk histories often elide elements of this period together in a mish-mash of memories of social discord and impending collapse. For instance, punk, which ignited in the summer of 1976, is juxtaposed in the Pistols movie The Filth and the Fury with footage (images of garbage bags piled up in Leicester Square etc) from the Winter of Discontent, nearly three years later.
>Thatcher… RAR “the Queen of Babylon”, as RAR’s magazine Temporary Hoarding described her!
>January 1978 TV interview
Thatcher alludes to the fact that the non-white population of the UK was predicted to be four million by the end of the century. “Now that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture. And, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law, and done so much throughout the world, that if there is any fear that it might be swamped, people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.” Here the leader of the Opposition (and future PM) clearly indicated her preference for a monocultural rather than multicultural Britain and cannily co-opted the issues that National Front had spotlighted (indeed tacitly legitimized them as within the acceptable limits of mainstream political discourse) and moved in to exploit the same fears the neo-fascists were exploiting.
>“She thinks we’re… swamp her”
-- Widgery. NME 3/24/79. Rock Against Racism feature
John Keenan: “I started a club at the Leeds Polytechni–a punk club– then the Poly didn’t want to do it anymore. So it was was like F the Poly [fuck the Poly] and that was where the name F Club came from. A Marxist mag called the Leveller did a story about the Leeds NF and it said the F-Club stood for Fascist. So I thought bollocks to this and I changed its name to the Fan Club.”
Keenan, although a socialist, feels that most NF skinheads were confused more than evil. “Teenagers want to join tribes, and the National Front skins were really little more than a gang, the hardest gang around. They were just kids, most of them. The SWP put pressure on me to take The Dentists off one line-up, and when I told the group they couldn’t play, one of them burst into tears. At another gig, Andy from the Mekons said there’s a few NF in here, chuck ‘em out. I said, ‘are they Sieg Heiling? Are they distributing pamphlets? No? Well, I can’t throw ‘em out. The F-Club in those days was based in the Roots Club in Chapel Town, the area in Leeds where most of the black and Asian people live. I was like, “the kids are in a black club, buying drinks off a black barman, there’s no problem here’.” Keenan’s view--that hard left and hard right were more or less the same, confused kids with short hair looking for a leader and choosing one political extreme or the other almost arbitrarily--was a widely-held liberal viewpoint at the time, and one which many postpunkers actually subscribed to (John Lydon for instance said extreme left militants and extreme right militants were basically the same). Oi!-expert Stewart Home told me he knew of Oi! bands who changed from Trotskyite to neo-Nazi, or vice versa, over night. By and large, though, the violence was coming from one direction: right-wing thugs attacking left wingers.
Not to be confused with another The Dentists active from the late Eighties on, who were sort of indiepop/Sixties-influenced. Their publicist or manager (I forget which) called me on the phone at Melody Maker and--believe it or not -- said “this is the next Beatles”.
>Fenton… like a Wild West saloon
This attack by the NF inspired the later Mekons song “Frustration” as heard on The Mekons Story (in other words, as Greil Marcus, it’s about a riot they were actually in). The record also features the first track they ever recorded, “Letter’s In the Post”, which was actually recorded in an upstairs room at the Fenton in 1978.
>Higher education as hotbed The education system was a particular concern for the Far Right, which was paranoid about Trots peddling politics in the classroom or lecture theatre, teachers in secondary school “promoting” same-sex love and interracial relationships. See the Clash film Rude Boy for scenes of a National Front picket outside a school in a Labour controlled borough of London.
>The History Man Also later made into a TV series (first aired 1981) and featuring such heavy-handed satires as a pro-choice march with placards like “Children For Abortion”. Bradbury’s unflattering portrait of Howard Kirk, the conniving, ressentiment-fueled Leftwing sociologist who persecutes students who don’t share his political opinins and rewards those who parrot them, writes books about how the notion of privacy is a bourgeois invention, and is constantly fomenting trouble-for-the-sake-of-it at his soul-lessly modern "glass and steel” university, is amusing enough. But can I be the only reader who A/ found Kirk as lead character way more charismatic and magnetic than any of the other figures in the book and B/ found myself more-or-less agreeing with his radical opinions?
More on Bradbury and The History Man
Piece on the real academic who supposedly was the inspiration for Howard Kirk
>There’s nothing sexist in them Mark White would also have been influenced by the powerful feminist culture on UK campuses all through the Seventies and into the Eighties. "There was a strong women's group in Leeds,” King told NME in 1979, talking about how the film society he’d help run had put on benefits for the group and organized weekends of feminist films. The depredations of the Yorkshire Ripper in skuzzy areas of Leeds where many students lived also intensified awareness of feminist issues. In the late summer of 1979 Gang of Four, Mekons and Delta 5 participated in a benefit at London’s Electric Ballroom organized by Rock Against Sexism, a shortlived offshoot of RAR; a portion of the proceeds went to the National Abortion Campaign, then mobilizing resistance to the anti-abortion bill proposed by Conservative MP John Corrie.
Ian Penman: "Socialist feminist or rad fem... it's its easy to forget just how militantly pre-Loaded this culture was. You went out with girls who wore little scissors insignia earrings"--signifying castration---"and they meant it!".
>“When I…. wimpy on purpose”
--White. Sounds 5/27/79.
>Deliberately wimpy In the sexual politics of rock, the Leeds bands engaged in role reversal. The women were tough and assertive, whereas Mekons songs were often written from a position of male fragility, dependency, lack of confidence. “Where Were You?”, says Greenhalgh, was a song about “being pathetic”!
>The vocals were doubled Or even tripled, maybe, because all three women sang. Either way, it creating this weird unison/unisex effect.
“Personal relationships…things in general”
--Peters. NME 3/15/80.
In the NME, November 10th 1979, Martin Culverell, the band's manager, said,
"in the early 70s you had a recognition of female sexuality which you hadn't had before--that women had orgasms, especially--and 'Come Again' is about the way in which that's been re-taken, redefined, in male terms, so that giving a woman an orgasm has become a new standard for male performance in sex. And then it's no longer female sexuality, and the pressure is on the woman to please the man by faking it."
An interesting strategy: not exactly critique or deconstuction, but a sort of derisive-abrasive attrition-through-reiteration. The title suggested that Au Pairs had either read firsthand some Gramsci and Althusser (the latter wrote: “ideology imposes obviousnesses as obviousnesses, which we cannot fail to recognize and before which we have the inevitable and natural reaction of crying out… ‘That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true!’”), or had just soaked it up from the prevailing postpunk discourse.
Unlike Delta 5, with their glee and verve, Au Pairs definitely seemed like a post-Gang of Four group, making a militant sub-funk dance-rock that was grimly arse-clenched and unswinging, and expounding the party line maxims of the day, e.g. all music is political, it’s just that most of it is covertly supporting the status quo, is sexist, materialist, etc etc. (C.f. Brecht: “… for art to be ‘unpolitical’ means only to ally itself with the ‘ruling’ group’”). It’s not just that Playing With a Different Sex hasn’t aged well; it didn’t sound too hot within a few months of its release, to be honest. Apart from “Come Again” and “It’s Obvious”, probably the most enduring Au Pairs tune is their haunting cover of Bowie’s “Repetition” from Lodger, a bleak, dispassionate sketch of domestic abuse.
>Trademark rasp Writing at the time (California, Oct 1981; collected in Ranters), Greil Marcus pinpointed the sour quality of Woods' voice: “it’s acrid--it may be the most acrid voice ever to stake a claim on pop music, and it’s precisely the sound pop music has not prepared us to hear from a woman”
>“Everything is political… is political”
--Woods. East Village Eye March 1981.
>hedonoistic attitude with drink
Burnham: “Certain promoters in Germany wouldn’t give us our rider until after we’d finished the gig.”
>Glimpses of fragility This came out most plangently in the wordless form of the melodica played by Jon King on some Solid Gold tracks, a plaintive, child-like sound mostly likely borrowed from the reggae great Augustus Pablo.
>”Paralysed”… blues Well, the lyric seems pretty obviously to be a guy who’s lost his job, to me, for all Gill’s talk about wanting to write a general song about “the human condition”. Although I suppose the line----“History is the reason/I’m washed up”--might very well be a bummed-out Marxist professor’s equivalent to “woke up this morning, felt so bad wished I was dead”
>sing about love constantly
“Love crops up quite a lot as something to sing about; most groups make most of their songs about falling in love or how happy they are to be in love. You occasionally wonder why these groups do sing about it all the time. It’s because these groups think there’s something very special about it--either that, or else it’s because everybody else sings about it and always has. You know: to burst into song you have to be inspired and nothing inspires quite like love. These groups and singers think they appeal to everyone because apparently everyone has or can love, or so they would have you believe, anyway --but these groups go along with the belief that love is deep in everyone’s personality. I don’t think we’re saying there’s anything wrong with love; we just don’t think that what goes on between two people should be shrouded in mystery.”
> gruff neutrality
Gill’s downwardly-mobile accent flattening all inflection and vivacity
into stern droning neutrality
Me on Gang of Four and their claim to be the sternest band in rock history:
>the trouble with demystification What seemed like liberation-through-lifting-the-veil-of-illusion was beginning to seem oppressive, a new set of mental chains (which in some ways seemed to be the bleak, unintended message of “Come Again”: liberated attitudes of frankness and mutuality hadn’t made either partner any happier). Was there really to be “no escape from society”, as “Natural’s Not In it” claimed? Were there no outside spaces or inner sanctums where the socioeconomic or historical materialist view of things did not penetrate and determine? Was the entire plane of human existence governed by class-struggle, relations of exploitation and domination, etc?
Greil Marcus identified the quality shared by Delta 5, Gang of Four and the Au Pairs as an "overwhelming sobriety: a sobriety that excludes not laughter but romanticism." It was love-as-the-drug, the possibility of intoxication and addiction, that was treated with wary vigilance: the swoon as jeopardizing one’s self-possession and in-dependence.
>Unisex feminism… tough, assertive and dry
Or as we put it in the Un-Typical Girls chapter in The Sex Revolts:
“The contradiction over which the agit-pop project ultimately foundered is that, even though the goal was to liberate the affairs of the body'n'soul from the distorting effects of conditioning and ideology, the resulting erotic politics often didn't feel very liberating or sexy*. In their determination to expose the political nature of what goes on in the bedroom (love-as-contract), the demystification bands only showed half the story: they suppressed the psychoanalytical, irrational dimensions of sexuality and gender. Consciousness-raising too often meant suppressing the unconscious, shackling it even more tightly under the regime of the conscience. Ultimately, attempts to avoid being controlled (by others' coercion, by one's own compulsive urges or trained traits) spilled over into an oppressive self-control.
Although the demystification bands made what Greil Marcus calls a 'dance of affirmation that things are not as they seem', there was little left after this process of stringent deconstruction to affirm. Attacking sugary notions of femininity kind of took the spice out of life, since they didn't really replace them with anything except a kind of unisex earnestness. Historically, the movement was poised on the cusp of the shift from radical feminism (which had aimed to abolish gender differences) to the cultural feminism that prevails to this day (which accepts the existence of gender difference but tries to valorise female attributes).”
* prime example of this being the Au Pairs second album Sense and Sensuality
>“That sort of resort… get anywhere”--King. MM, 11/3/79.
In the interview, King expressed suspicion of so-called “natural feelings”, arguing that even things like a mother’s love for her child was socially constructed and varied from culture to culture. Gill chips in citing the practice of rich women in the past (and still for the super-wealthy in the present) giving their children to nannies or wet nurses. King argued,
“I don’t think there is such a thing as love--again there’s always the proposition that there’s this pure emotion which is outside our culture. But love is different in any age, any culture.”
>feared music itself Gang of Four are the prime exhibit in the argument that postpunk is inherently anti-Dionysian, a subconscious fear-of-music driving its makers to shackle its within a seamless discursive grid (conceptualization, politics, meta-music rhetoric, statements/messages/critique). The project of demystification entails desacralizing music, purging rock’s ritualistic aspects, disallowing experiences like “trance” or “abandon” . "Rock" emphatically not "my religion", but something we should put to service in a scheme of utility, as opposed to a Bataille-an/Attali-esque concept of music as sacred noise and sacrificial violence, a glorious waste of energy, a zone of un-sanity and breaking loose. Except that Gang of Four’s music is violent, but the alibi for that violence--that rocking and shaking--is the long-term agenda of political struggle.
Burnham: “[Our early sound] was really literally Dr Feelgood meets Free via George Clinton. Free was a band we all adored, so when we got turned down by Island, it was very disapointing cos we all wanted to be on Island. ‘Armalite Rifle’ is Free, it’s Simon Kirke drumming all the way through.”
As heard on the archetypal Free stomper “All Right Now”, guitarist Paul Kossoff was all about the use of space to make his riffs more jagged and imposingly deliberate-sounding. Joe Carducci describes Free’s sound as “so bare boned that had they anything less than an intimate command of form and inflection the music would hardly exist at all. As it is it’s quite present, and so starkly that it dominates the listener in a way different from that of most rock. Paul Kossoff… was quite an eloquent primitivist on the guitar and not many have used silence so well.” That “so starkly” being the point of connection with Gang of Four, as well as the sheer funk of Free tunes like “All Right Now”. Elsewhere in Rock and the Pop Narcotic, Carducci speculates that British bands, through having a distanced, at-one-remove, non-organic relation to rock and its American roots, have consistently been able to develop a more diagrammatic, conceptual approach to form--as can be seen by contrasting, say, the jaggedly defined riffs of Black Sabbath and King Crimson with the blues-mush soupy sound of your Grand Funk Railroads or Allman Brothers.
Gill had actually worn a black armband at school the day Jimi died!
Citing Hendrix as a precedent, King talked about the grail being “if you can create a music that’s strong and sexual but doesn’t put anybody down in the process then I’d be really proud”
Solid Gold was coproduced with black American musician Jimmy Douglass of the hard-funk outfit Slave. Astounding fact: he later went on to be the engineer and right-hand man for Timbaland!!!!
>a note of sadness King told one music paper, “I think there’s a lot more sadness on ‘Solid Gold’. “There is something terrible about the days we live in which are very like the Thirties in many ways”—meaning mass unemployment and escapist pop-culture--“and we all know how the ‘30s ended.”
>disappeared from the British scene They released a mediocre and poorly-received single,”Outside the Trains Don’t Run on Time”, and played just one gig. They were busy touring America, where Entertainment! had belatedly been released on Warner Bros. In the USA, the timing was spot on, capturing the New Wave-stoked appetite for a band that was modern yet still rocked hard enough to satisfy American appetites. Solid Gold was well-received in America, as were the Another Day Another Dollar EP and Songs Of The Free album.
A very thorough and detailed Mekons discography
in-depth and very interesting interview with Dave Allen by Rick Moody about Allen's time in Gang of Four, the songwriting process then, his subsequent activities in Shriekback, the reunion of G04 in the mid-Noughties and his leaving the band, and the future of the music industry in a digital age
Review of the Delta 5 compilation Singles & Sessions 1979-81 I did for Emusic
Singles & Sessions 1979-81
Kill Rock Stars
Delta 5 emerged from the same Leeds, England postpunk scene as Gang of Four and the Mekons. All three bands clustered around the university’s Fine Art department, which goes some way to explaining the almost conceptual starkness of Delta 5’s sound and their unusual format (two basses, three female voices, one guitar, one drum kit). Stern and clenched, Delta 5’s minimalist punk-funk has obvious debts to Gang of Four. “Mind Your Own Business”, their debut single, is a sister-song to “At Home He Feels Like A Tourist.” Both tunes resemble diagrams of disco, bearing the same relationship to Chic and Earth Wind & Fire that an architect’s blueprint bears to the finished building, or a skeleton has vis-à-vis a fully-fleshed body. The person-is-political lyric explores the tension between intimacy and autonomy, oscillating from bleakness (“listen to the distance between us”) to the simultaneously absurd and disturbing chorus “can I have a taste of your icecream?/can I lick the crumbs from your table?/can I interfere in your crisis?/NO, MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS!”. The sense of alienation is intensified by the way the unison vocals of Julz Sale, Bethan Peters, and Ros Allen alternately mesh and slip out of alignment. If “Mind” is one of UK postpunk’s all-time most thrilling singles, the follow-up, “Anticipation” b/w “You,” is close on its heels. “Anticipation” evokes the nervous excitement of sexual longing prior to consummation; “You” flashes forward to the getting-stale-and-slightly-sour stage of the settled, long-term relationship. Sales hurls out hilariously mundane accusations like “who left me behind at the bakers?/who likes sex only on Sunday?”. “Try”, their third single, also depicts a relationships in terms of friction and miscommunication, but is more poignant than recriminatory. After these three brilliant singles for the legendary independent label Rough Trade, Delta 5 signed to a major label and cluttered up their sound with embellishments in a misguided bid for pop color. This compilation shrewdly bypasses that phase of failed crossover in favour of more spartan-sounding BBC Radio sessions and live performances from a 1980 Berkeley, California gig, thereby capturing the group’s paradoxical vibe of dour exuberance and grim glee in its absolute prime.
Me on an unnecessarily comprehensive Au Pairs anthology
THE AU PAIRS
Stepping Out of Line: The Anthology
by Simon Reynolds
Coming out of the same politicized postpunk scene as Gang of Four, the Au Pairs
purveyed a similar style of stern and slightly clenched-ass funk. On tracks like “It’s Obvious” and “Love Song”, tough bass-riffs and scritchy rhythm guitar mesh with singer Lesley Woods’ rasping scorn to create a coldly thrilling friction. The Au Pairs were committed feminists (hence the band’s name--exploited female workers, get it?) and their strongest songs mined the tense terrain of love-as-a-battlefield. Highlights include a glassily hypnotic version of "Repetition", Bowie’s wife-abuse vignette from Lodger, and “Come Again”--a duet between Woods and guitarist Paul Foad which depicts a “progressive” couple grimly struggling to achieve orgasmic equality in the boudoir. But the power of dour soon wears thin on this excessively all-inclusive anthology, whose two discs scoop up every last note--B-sides, EP tracks, radio sessions, plus two studio albums--the group recorded.
Slate piece on Gang of Four’s Return the Gift album--remakes of their classic songs
all non-pictorial contents copyright Simon Reynolds unless otherwise indicated