Gang of Four reissue landmark album amidst recent comeback

Mike Morrone

Fact: Gang of four made a great record in 1979 entitled “Entertainment!” Fact: The record is still great 26 years later. Rhino reissued the album packaged with their long out of print “Yellow” EP, as well as alternate takes and live songs. “Excuse this indulgence,” said frontman Jon King before beginning a much grittier version of “Sweet Jane” live, originally done by the Velvet Underground, “while I try not to do this record an injustice.”

Gang of Four (Dave Allen, Hugo Burnham, Andy Gill and King) named themselves after the group of Chinese Communist Party members who attempted to rule the country after chairman Mao’s death. They mostly studied at the University of Leeds, learning among other things Marxism and feminism. They put the question to society as to how and in what ways humans related with each other and their relationship with commodification. Gang of Four “questioned the herd mentality” in the sagacious words of Dave Allen, the bassist.

“Entertainment!” has a distinct sound years later. This is important today, especially since a slew of bands are compared to GoF daily that have little more in common with them than a competent bassist. In the words of Andy Gill, guitarist, “the sound was sharp, and modern.” Certainly he contributed to the sound – his parts are aptly described as Morse code through guitar, one or two notes repeated and resonant as well as augmented by different effects pedals. It would be remiss to not mention the work of Dave Allen, driving the rhythm and emphasizing King’s chants and accusations with sheer force.

These elements one can expect from Gang of Four, but it still does not present the songs in any specific light. “Ether” frantically scratches and claws at the walls, adding to the bleak proclamations of “the happy ever after/it’s at the end of the rainbow” along with oil (prescient!) It’s an exhilarating song and arguably the finest opener of an album ever, comparable to “Waiting Room” by Fugazi for its sheer intensity. “Natural’s not in it” finds an irresistible groove, commanding dancing from anyone who listens. The staccato attack of Gill’s guitar clashes against the too-good-for-its-own-good rhythm section in “Not Great Men.” On top of it all, King sings of the oppression found in the history books (see title). “Damaged Goods” proclaims that “the change will do you good,” as the bass pulsates all around the brutal realization of lust instead of love.

“Entertainment!” has no filler; the closing trio of “At Home He’s a Tourist,” “5-45” and “Anthrax” are as strong as the gut punch of an opener. The first of the three (and the first Gang of Four song I ever heard,) is a fast song building slowly as the guitar twitches neurotically. By the end of the song, and not before a rousing chant of “Two steps forward/six steps back,” the guitar recklessly clatters against anything in its path: the voice, the drums, the bass, itself. “5-45” prowls and seeks its prey on the news on the television, boldly stating that “guerilla war struggle is the new entertainment” (perceptive!).

“Anthrax” lives on the type of feedback that makes “Daydream Nation” by Sonic Youth proud. And with it, King’s most striking lyrics “And I feel like a beetle on it’s back/And there’s no way for me to get up/Love’ll get you like a case of Anthrax/And that’s something I don’t want to catch.”

Two of the four tracks from the “Yellow” EP can be found on GoF’s second album, “Solid Gold.” Allen’s bass has an intriguing thudding quality not exhibited as much on the album work itself. The band receives two points for including saxophone in “It’s Her Factory.” “Armalite Rifle” is another highlight.

“Entertainment!” is packaged exquisitely in the reissue, resembling a vinyl album sleeve. (Would GoF scoff at the packaging of their material in such a way to sell maximum units? Just a thought.) Peppered throughout the cover and the booklet are ironic phobic sayings such as “People are given what they want.” (This approach was adopted by Radiohead roughly twenty years later.)

Overall, an intensely edifying listen, a touchstone album for music of the last 30 years. Imitated often, Gang of Four’s “Entertainment!” is the real thing.