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Gang of Four & post-punk praxis

By Juliet Jacques.

Margaret Thatcher came to power in May 1979, but her ascension had seemed inevitable for some time. Tapping into resentment about its relationship with the trade unions after a series of strikes, and having drafted her manifesto, Thatcher called for a vote of confidence in Jim Callaghan’s minority Labour government in 1977 – which finally collapsed after a string of increasingly desperate coalition deals with Britain’s thirteen Liberal MPs, and Thatcher won the resultant General Election.

Replacing Edward Heath as Conservative Party leader after his government fell apart in 1974, Thatcher committed herself to a monetarist economic policy of public sector cuts and privatisation which received the backing of the International Monetary Fund in 1976, and which deviated sharply from the post-war consensus that had maintained the welfare state and nationalised services, and strove for full employment. After the IRA bombings, race riots, football hooliganism and street violence of the Seventies, Thatcher also aimed to reintroduce Victorian moral values apparently forgotten during the ‘permissive’ Sixties.

As Thatcher rose, so had punk, but its mass appeal made it difficult for bands to move beyond the simple three-chord rock that had made the movement so popular, and its confused use of Fascist symbols, along with the violent atmosphere at many gigs, often attracted the National Front, an audience that many bands inspired by punk’s Year Zero attitude wanted to lose.

The new post-punk bands were often confrontational, but engaged more with literature and art, and more politically aware. Punk had developed in London, but inspired many groups to form in other cities: The Fall and Joy Division in Manchester referenced Camus and Ballard, the latter initially flirting with Nazi imagery; The Pop Group in Bristol highlighted the influence of Rimbaud and Nietzsche, moving from poetic lyricism to searing critiques of capitalism; and Gang of Four, from Leeds, named themselves after the leaders of China’s vehemently anti-bourgeois Cultural Revolution of 1965-68.

Guitarist Andy Gill and singer Jon King met at Leeds University, in a Fine Arts Department headed by art critic and former Situationist International member T. J. Clark. King’s lyrics didn’t address specific political issues so much as cultural and ideological practices, taking in a diverse range of theoretical influences: Althusser’s attempts to reclaim Marx from doctrinaire regimes; Brecht’s estrangement technique which encouraged audiences to think more critically about the plays they saw; and the Situationists’ use of slogans, détournement of existing artworks and critique of the media as ideological apparatus.

Gill and King, who ran Leeds University’s Film Society, were joined by drummer Hugo Burnham, who had been part of the experimental Impact Theatre Collective. With the angular, angry but not macho style of Dr Feelgood as their main influence, they reacted against punk’s conformity, like many post-punk acts, by incorporating elements from different genres. The arrival of bassist Dave Allen, who wanted to be “like Stevie Wonder, but heavier” changed their sound: even after they told Allen to play a quarter of the notes he was capable of, their style became a hard-edged punk-funk. They were against “warmth” and banned jamming, creating sparse, stark songs from pre-written basslines, drumlines and lyrics, with Gill’s rhythm guitar as lead and blank spaces where solos and fills would usually be.

Students, particularly arts students, were nationally unpopular, and Thatcher immediately cut funding for schools and adult education, with subjects such as current affairs, women’s studies or sociology often dropped first. With unemployment reaching 6% in industrial Yorkshire, and the National Front using the city as its northern base, students were especially disliked in Leeds, and Gang of Four infuriated its far-Right punk scene. There was plenty of aggression to their music, though, and the band could handle themselves: Gill smacked a skinhead in the face with his guitar at their first gig.

Their first single, ‘Damaged Goods’, came out via Bob Last’s independent label, Fast Product, who also released their friends The Mekons, and The Human League, then a fiercely Futurist electronic act based in Sheffield. The sound was immediately distinctive: the bass and guitar alternate at the start, before the drums come in, simultaneously unifying the sound and driving each instrument further apart. King’s vocals are filled with sexual disgust, reducing love to lust and relationships to financial exchange, until there is no choice but to say goodbye.

Like the Sex Pistols, Gang of Four signed to EMI, believing that going with an independent wouldn’t absolve them of implication in the capitalist creative industry, and that a major label could give them more reach. This assault on the mainstream didn’t blow up like the Pistols, though: Radio 1 gave some play to their first EMI single, ‘At Home He’s a Tourist’ and it entered the Top 75, but when Gang of Four were invited onto Top of the Pops, King refused to change the reference to “rubbers” in its chorus to “rubbish”. King offered “packets” but the BBC didn’t want viewers to realise there had been censorship, and EMI were livid when the band maintained their position.

Hugo Burnham later told Simon Reynolds that walking off Top of the Pops “essentially killed” the band’s career. In commercial terms, this was perhaps true, but Entertainment ranks alongside Public Image Limited’s Metal Box, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures and Remain in Light by Talking Heads in the best post-punk albums. As Reynolds put it: ‘Every aspect of the record – the lyrics, the music, the artwork … is perfectly aligned’, with its sound ‘sober, flat, at once in your face and remote’.

Throughout Entertainment, King’s lyrics made listeners complicit in the processes critiqued: passive consumption of reactionary media, or historical narratives that reinforced the symbolic order. The alienation in the words and music was best captured in the closing track, Anthrax, with Burnham’s insistent drums jarring with Allen’s bass loop below a wave of guitar feedback, cleaner and colder than when Jimi Hendrix or The Velvet Underground used it a decade earlier. Inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s split-screen film Numéro Deux, two overlapping vocal lines complemented and clashed with each other, instinctual revulsion about love laid over a spoken-word part about how “what happens between two people” shouldn’t be “shrouded in mystery”.

And then Gang of Four lost their touch. Demystification was a dead end, as Gang of Four and their contemporaries Scritti Politti, then a Marxist musical collective based in a squat, found out. Whereas Scritti discovered Jacques Derrida and worked towards deconstructing pop music from within the industry, Gang of Four struggled to find a new direction, and their second album, Solid Gold, released in 1981, returned to more traditional rock arrangements, King’s lyrics attacking proto-Fascist clichés or descending into lazy anti-Americanism.

By 1982, when their third album, Songs of the Free, came out, Sara Lee had replaced Allen on bass, and Gang of Four moved towards dance-funk and disco. King’s lyrics became bitter: ‘I Love a Man in Uniform’ was a sarcastic look at fetishisation of the military, banned by BBC Radio during the Falklands War – a previous single, the equally caustic ‘To Hell With Poverty’, had also disappeared from BBC playlists.

Its highlight, however, was ‘We Live as We Dream Alone’, which took the fragmentation and isolation implied by Thatcher’s “no such thing as society” and turned it into a despondent look at how individuals respond at lack of community, the hard-edged dance tune saving the song from pure despair. Ultimately, Gang of Four’s dream of articulating a Situationist critique of consumer capitalism in mainstream media had failed, or not been allowed to succeed, but what remained were some of the best records of a creatively fertile era, which continue to inspire listeners and musicians today.

[This is a transcript of a speech given at The Rest is Noise, 2-3 November 2013]

Juliet Jacques is a freelance writer for The Guardian, The New Statesman and others, who writes about literature, film, art, gender and football. Her Transgender Journey blog for The Guardian – the first to serialise the gender reassignment process for a major British publication – was longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2011.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 6th, 2013.