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Tome On The Range

Gang Of Four's Small 'P' Politics: 33 1/3's 'Entertainment!' Reviewed
Houman Barekat , July 27th, 2014 13:44

Houman Barekat considers Kevin J. H. Dettmar's contribution to 33 1/3's series of books dedicated to single albums, a study of Gang of Four's Entertainment!

When he was through boasting about how he ‘Wupped Batman’s Ass’ or inciting his listeners to fellate or sodomise various animals, the Chicago singer-songwriter Wesley Willis (1963 - 2001) would sign off his songs - eccentric tone-deaf bleatings over primitive electronic keyboard backing tracks - with a fleetingly mechanical rendition of some or other well-known corporate slogan (‘Rock over London, rock on Chicago / Blockbuster Video - Wow! What a difference!’). His asinine ditties didn’t have a great deal to recommend them, but those closing lines were a thing of beauty - recalling, in their satirically glib delivery, the caustic vocals of post-punk outfit Gang of Four, whose cut-and-paste lyricism took the consumerist clichés of everyday life and turned them inside-out.

Words are at the very heart of Kevin Dettmar’s affectionate retrospective of the Leeds quartet’s first and best-known album, 1979’s Entertainment! - not only because Dettmar is a professor of English but because Gang of Four’s debut is a veritable treasure trove of punning, word play and semantic dissonance. Dettmar’s exploration of the band’s lyrical virtuosity begins with a scenic jaunt through his mondegreen-infested early 20s when, as ‘a suburban American kid with a hard-on for all things British’, he had quite a struggle deciphering Gang of Four’s English diction and unfamiliar cultural references. Mis-heard lyrics aside, Jon King and Andy Gill’s clipped, staccato vocals are riddled with pregnant ambiguities, mirroring the lived experience of the hapless, confused everyman who is the protagonist in most of their songs.

Entertainment!’s currency is the small-P politics of late capitalist banality, referencing commercials for Essence Rare perfume and timeshare holidays, and interrogating ‘the problem of leisure / what to do for pleasure’ (‘Natural’s Not In It’). Gang of Four were well versed in critical theory - they had cut their teeth on the Frankfurt School and the Situationists, they knew their Louis Althusser from their Raymond Williams - but, crucially and unlike so many other ‘political’ rock bands, they had the flair and the sense of fun to go with it. There’s a clue in the title: the cabaret exuberance of that punctuation mark anticipates the ironic fizz that makes Entertainment! so compelling. It is here that Dettmar’s literary grounding comes into its own, as he identifies the key ingredient that sets this album apart: it is, he writes, a question of ‘the difference between literature and propaganda …. valuing suggestive and provocative ambiguity over efficient certainty.’ Gang of Four raised a mirror to the insidious ideology of consumer society - its contamination of supposedly sacred spaces like the bedroom (‘Contract’, ‘Anthrax’) and every Englishman’s castle, home (‘At Home He’s a Tourist’). But they rarely preached. Their medium was ‘theatrical rather than confessional; narrative rather than lyric; ironic rather than sincere.’ They were, in short, storytellers.

None of which would have counted for anything were it not for the music. That Entertainment! sounds as fresh today as it did in 1979 - the same could hardly be said of many of Gang of Four’s contemporaries - is a testament to the band’s technical brilliance. As Dettmar points out, it’s the little touches that make it: the uncomfortably protracted intro to ‘I’ve Found that Essence Rare’, the chiming, circular four-note figure on Andy Gill’s guitar played 16 times rather than the usual 8; the instrumental dropouts borrowed from dub reggae - anti-solos where one instrument or another disappears from the mix for maybe 10 seconds or even 30 seconds at a time; the variations in the duration of the ‘gutters’, the silences between the songs. Call it Brechtian defamiliarisation or just messing with pop convention, Gang of Four’s unique sound was the perfect sonic complement to the ironic distance in their lyrics.

Whereas angrily ripping into the reigning monarch has a very finite shelf-life, the cultural moment so acerbically itemised by Entertainment! is very much ongoing. Long before the 24-hour stereo of today’s immersive digital fuckfest, Gang of Four were singing (on the album’s penultimate track, ‘5.45’) that ‘guerrilla war struggles are the new entertainment’. As I write this I’m watching a report on the fall of Kirkuk on the BBC website. The clip is three-and-a-half-minutes long, about the length of your average pop song; I daresay the warning that it contains some disturbing images only sharpens my attention. The report tells of Islamist militants seizing control of the city, going in all guns blazing. The story is of imminent humanitarian catastrophe, but all I can muster by way of response is to marvel, idiot-like, that it’s quite possibly the first time I’ve ever heard the expression ‘going in all guns blazing’ used non-figuratively. That’s entertainment.

Entertainment! is out now, published by 33 1/3

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