Gang of Four's Entertainment!
This week saw the release of the much anticipated second album from indie darlings Bloc Party, A Weekend in the City. Bloc Party has always been difficult to peg for myself. I remember hearing their first album and thinking it was pretty awesome. I had 'This Modern Love' stuck in my head for days on end. However, I also found it to be lacking something rather significant. Much of todays 'post-punk' has done an excellent job of copying the sounds the movements original masters (Talking Heads, Joy Division, PiL, the Fall, and Gang of Four in particular). Lyrically though, bands like Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, and to a lesser extent LCD Soundsytem (whose upcoming album Sounds of Silver is quite good) and Arctic Monkeys, could do better.
Part of what made earlier post-punk so vibrant and entertaining was the militant manner in which they were able to unsettle what was going on around them at the time. Whether it was, to use Simon Reynolds phrases, the industrial grotespuerie of Pere Ubu and Devo, the industrial devolution of Throbbing Gristle and Death Factory, the art attack of Talking Heads, Wire and Mission of Burma or the messethics of the London Vanguard, there was a revolutionary zeal to many of these bands that appears to be lacking in todays post-punk (instead this is being reflected better by current movements in dubstep, noise, metal, and the bad bands revolution in Toronto). With the Regan and Thatcher governments as the background, these groups made it their goal to uncouple themselves from mainstream society refusing to be complicit or ignorant of the horrors going on around them. Inspite of a similar context with the current Bush administration todays post-punk is, by in large, sadly lacking this.
This is why Gang of Four's album Entertainment! is so important. Released in 1980 Entertainment! is a post-punk masterpiece, capturing much of the movements key elements all in one song cycle. Everything about this album, the lyrics, the music, the artwork (the cover picture of an Aboriginal shaking hands with a Cowboy waiting in anticipation to use his new 'friend' in exploitive ways) is extremely well thought out. As such, Entertainment! is what todays post-punk needs desparately to go back to.
The first aspect of this album that is noticed is the sense of isolation that the entire work is struggling with. Influenced heavily by the poet Brecht, Gang of Four wrote their music for the album trying as hard as possible to capture an effect of alientation. This is a very cold sounding record as the band attempted to record the album solely as a studio work. Unlike many rock records, there was no attempt to capture the sound of the band live, no attempt to make the music sound as if it were being played in an acoustic space. As a result, Entertainment! carries with it a sense of paranoia that Thom Yorke could only dream of recreating.
What's most stunning about the record, though are the lyrics. Gang of Four are often seen as a political activists first, and artists second (this why they were such a perfect fit for Rock Against Racism). However, looking at Entertainment! it is clear that the band refused to see the two as mutually exclusive. It was part of their art project that they spoke out against the injustices of their society, just as much as it was because of their politics that they started creating art.
Entertainment!'s lyrics are obviously drenched in marxist-inspired lyrics. However, whereas most so-called political groups ultimately fall into the us-them trap claiming the problem to somehow be just over there, Gang of Four refuse to do so. These are lyrics that implicate the listen and the band just as much as anyone else. Take 'Contract' for example. The song is constantly shifting between the depravity of business contracts, to the malfuctioning of a marital relationship. "These social dreams/Put in practice in the bedroom/Is this so private?/ Our struggle in the bedroom?" Gang of Four refuse to fall victim to the us/them dichotomy, and instead want to make us all part of the problem.
As I said before, none of this is to say that todays music in general is laking social significance, and that we need to go back to an earlier, more ideal era with the original post-punk movement. There is lots going on now to be excited about. However, I do believe that if todays so-called post-punkers really want to call themselves that, it is of the utmost importance that they realise that post-punk was more than just a sound. It was a social movement in the best of ways, calling into question many of their societies assumptions. Something that we can always use more of.