Postpunk Masterpiece Reissued

One of the premier punk/postpunk albums of the 1970s is being reissued by Rhino Records in an expanded edition. Gang of Four’s Entertainment may not be quite as legendary as the Sex Pistols one and only true album or as influential as Joy Division’s two albums, but read any serious criticism of late ’70s music and you will find this album at or near the top of the list. It’s definitely at the top of mine.

Gang of Four ironically titled their first album Entertainment! and then served up a collection of songs that critique the very idea of entertainment being used to propagate an ideology with which the band disagrees. Generally characterized as a Marxist funk band, the words draw the listener in as subject/object of the lyrical ideas, forcing him to re-examine the consciousness that he has come to accept as natural, presenting him with the idea that he is complicit in the power structure and must come to accept that responsibility.

The lyrical content is remarkably consistent with Marx and Engels’ exhortation that “consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.” Contradictions and disorienting juxtapositions are a staple of Gang of Four’s songs: at home one feels like a tourist; falling in love is like contracting anthrax; bloody war coverage on TV is presented as entertainment; a housewife’s home is a factory. The lyrics can be cryptic, often epigrammatic, and usually require multiple listenings to understand their point. Entertainment! may very well be the only rock album where you can have a eureka! moment listening to twenty years later.

Although many of the songs rail against specific targets, the bulk of their message centers on the conceit of becoming aware of the political implications that inform the reception of ideas and opinions about those targets. Gang of Four’s music is concerned primarily with the classic Marxist concern about capitalistic consciousness, but the lyrics don’t treat that consciousness as being false in the classic Marxist tradition.

What the band sees as false is the idea that there is a separation between the personal and the political and so they inform their lyrics minus any dividing line between the two, encouraging the listener to question his motivation in accepting an ideology that would cultivate such a deception.

There is nothing explicitly Marxist in the closing lines from the song “Glass.” “Always thought life should be so easy / It seems that I have misunderstood / Nothing I do can seem to please me / What I say don’t sound so good.” In the context of the songs that surround those lines, however, the implicit meaning does become explicit: Having been complicit in the capitalist ideology that has formed his consciousness, the singer is beginning to realize that the ideology he has bought into isn’t making him happy.

The predominant song ever produced by Gang of Four that serves to critique the influence of consumerism is probably “Natural’s Not In It” from their first album. Sung from the point of view of someone who has been completely interpellated as a consumer, the song begins as a complaint about having too much leisure time and wondering what to do for pleasure.

The singer confronts the fact that items produced for pleasure are in actuality a means of coercing his senses. He allows himself to hold fast to great expectations of a future for the good but this dream of social revolution is diverted by sexual advertising: “Repackaged sex keeps your interest.” He realizes that the products he’s been buying are not natural outgrowths of his desires, but precisely manufactured bourgeois temptations designed to, in the words of Marx and Engels, “create a world after its own image.”

The song “Contract” posits the frightening idea that couples can no longer respond to each other except through expectations foisted upon them through media images creating a simulacrum of passion. “You dreamed of scenes / Like you read of in magazines.” The fear of not being able to live up to media manufactured images of beauty and sexual perfection is what’s really creating the tension in bedrooms across the country and, not coincidentally, what’s spiking the stock prices for makeup, beauty aids, the Atkins diet and Viagra.

Gang of Four on Entertainment! struck out against a variety of targets. In “Not Great Men” they challenge the assumption that the history books tell us everything. (And in the light of Ronald Reagan recently being chosen the Greatest American ever, this song should be mandatory listening for every schoolchild!)

On “Ether” they tackle the capitalist assumption that progress is always good. Progress brings with it environmental devastation as well as emotional. Next time you read about how wonderful it’s going to be when that new company builds a factory in your town, look into things a little bit more deeply and see if you can find the “dirt behind the daydream.”

There isn’t a weak song on this album and the music is just as creative and groundbreaking as the lyrics. Andy Gill’s guitar slices and dices through dance rhythms where the bass or drum or guitar may suddenly pull out all together. The result is arresting and surprising and just a little disorienting.

The ultimate result of all this juxtaposition is the final track on the original issue, “Anthrax,” which starts out with mind-blowing psychedelic feedback before settling in on a hypnotic bass section as singer Jon King sings about going through life like a “beetle on its back” on one track while Andy Gill almost nervously recites an essay that questions why love is the subject of so many songs. Breathtaking.

The new reissue includes the by-now mandatory bonus tracks and the ones included here are good additions. One bonus track is an inside-joke: One of the early reviews of the band complained that didn’t have the spirit of rock and roll and that one couldn’t imagine them playing the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.” Well, now you don’t have to imagine. Their version of “Sweet Jane” is now permanently available. And it’s pretty great, too!

Rhino Records has made a name for themselves by repackaging out of print music and releasing fascinating compilations and boxed sets. With this repackaging of one of the truly great rock records of all time, they are to be commended.

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