Gang Of Four

Solid Gold
Songs For The Free
Return The Gift

Entertainment! (Warner Bros. ’79, Infinity Zero/American '95) Rating: A
With their fast, ferociously funky rhythm section (Dave Allen, bass; Hugo Burnham, drums), memorably cynical lyrics both personal ("sometimes I'm thinking that I love you but I know it's only lust") and political (“History . . . is not made by great men,” "the poor still weak, the rich always rule"), and one of the eras most unsung guitar heroes in Andy Gill, Gang Of Four were one of the most impressive bands of the immediate post-punk era. Gill’s explosively jagged guitar thrusts and the band's powerfully off-kilter stop and start rhythms created an aggressive, edgy musical mix that still managed to be catchy. This debut album, which is almost universally regarded as the band's best (a common occurrence among punk/post-punk bands), features an ambitious melding of Gill's razor sharp riffs along with improbably danceable rhythms, with great grooves propelling songs such as "Natural's Not In It," "Damaged Goods," and "I Found That Essence Rare." In addition, quotable lines like “the problem of leisure, what to do for pleasure” and “watch new blood on the 18 inch screen, the corpse is a new personality” force you to think as well as move, making their jumpy, highly charged "punk-funk" music food for your brain as well as your feet (and your air guitar). Consistently exploited ("the last thing they'll ever do is act in your interest"), anxiety-filled ("he fills his head with culture, he gives himself an ulcer"), and depressed ("nothing I do can seems to please me") characters populate these dance songs for the apocalypse, which influenced important artists such as R.E.M., the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Minutemen, Fugazi, and early U2, to name just a few. Jon King's strangely detached, merely serviceable vocals, and a dry overall sound that I find a little too cold and mechanical, are detriments (though the latter contributes to the album's uniqueness), but not enough to prevent Entertainment! from attaining classic status. The band's militant, leftist politics are also a bit harsh; in the band's world, even love is viewed as a mere business transaction, and media manipulation and society's rampant consumerism are other topics that the band reserves a few pointed words for. Fortunately, the band's views are articulated in an intelligent and incisive manner, and their music is consistently imaginative and exciting, if not exactly easy listening. The 1995 reissue appends the 4-song Yellow EP to the original album, whose stature has only grown in recent years as a whole new generation of bands, among them Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, Bloc Party, The Futureheads, and The Rapture, gained popularity with an angular, stripped down sound that was influenced by the Gang Of Four, who in 2004 regrouped as a result of the belated recognition.

Solid Gold (Warner Bros. ’81, Infinity Zero/American '95) Rating: A-
Gang Of Four are one of those bands whose most acclaimed album overshadows everything else they've done, to the point where you really don't hear too much about the rest of their catalogue. And while I won't pretend that Solid Gold is as great as Entertainment!, if you liked (or loved, as many do) the latter than you should certainly seek out the former as well, because the majority of this album showcases the band at or at least near their very best. Sure, unlike the last album some of these songs tend to blur together for me (repeat listens are mandatory), and they're less catchy and memorable on the whole, but boy are Allen and Burnham a fantastic rhythm section. Unfortunately, though he still registers an impressive performance, Gill is reined in a bit this time, and the tempos are slowed down as the band puts the emphasis more on "funk" than "punk." I miss the manic, reckless energy of the harder rocking debut, and again I'm not a huge fan of King's vocals (I like his melodica playing, however), though the continued social commentary and leftist sloganeering are of a piece with the first album, if less imaginatively stated on the whole. Still, Solid Gold is far from a sophomore slump and is certainly an exceedingly worthwhile album in its own right. P.S. Be sure to get the version of this album that's bundled together with the excellent Another Day, Another Dollar EP.

Songs Of The Free (Warner Bros. ’82, Infinity Zero/American '95) Rating: B+
Unfortunately, the band's excellent bass player Dave Allen left after Solid Gold (he would go on to co-found Shriekback, King Swamp, Low Pop Suicide, and The Elastic Purejoy), to be replaced by Sara Lee, who isn't as distinctive or as funky but who is a solid player in her own right and who adds an important new ingredient in the form of her backing vocals (Joy Yates and Stevie Lange help out on that front as well). On this album the band smoothes over their jagged edges a bit for a more polished and accessible (some of you more snobbish old time fans might snicker "middle of the road") sound. Increasingly danceable (think new wave and disco rather than punk), pop friendly tracks such as "Call Me Up," "I Love A Man In A Uniform" (arguably the band's most popular song), and "We Live As We Dream, Alone" are among their catchiest creations. However, far from being a light, catchy pop album, much of side two is comprised of slower, more spacious, at times almost ambient soundscapes that are heavy on atmosphere but are less memorable on the whole, though they're still interesting and well-done for the most part. Still, side one - including the three aforementioned catchy tracks and "It Is Not Enough," with its staccato riffs, intense vocals (one of King's best performances), and good groove - is much better, though "Muscle For Brains" is another livelier funk pop effort on side two. All in all, this album does lack some of the edgy adventurousness of the band's previous work, and its synthetic production dates it to the early '80s. Still, the album contains some first-rate songs and consistently fine performances, making it only a slightly less necessary purchase than Solid Gold. Note: The 1995 reissue adds two inessential bonus tracks (including a dub mix of "I Love A Man In A Uniform") and strangely swaps the order of "We Live As We Dream, Alone" (great song title, by the way) and "Muscle For Brains" for no apparent reason.

Return Of The Gift (V2 ’05) Rating: B+
After Songs Of The Free Burnham followed Allen out the door, and the band never really recovered. They soldiered on for one ill-received, ironically titled (as per usual) album, 1983's Hard (which wasn't), before breaking up. Some worthwhile archive releases followed, including The Peel Sessions and the A Brief History of the Twentieth Century compilation, before the Gang Of Two (Gill and King) reunited with a new rhythm section for Mall (1991) and Shrinkwrapped (1995), neither of which I've heard but neither of which is supposed to have done their legacy any favors. Nine years later (during which time another compilation, this one a double cd, 100 Flowers Bloom, appeared), likely inspired by the success of all the young bands they had inspired, the original band regrouped to tour. After all, much like the Pixies and other seminal alternative bands who never got their due back in the day, they had earned the right to take a belated bow and bask in the glow of some long overdue recognition. Next came this album, which I wouldn't call "new" since it contains re-recordings of their early material. Gotta show the youngsters of today how it's done, right? Besides, the band had always wanted to "correct" the so-called "cardboard box" drum sound on their early albums (which I never had a problem with), and, coupled with the possibility of making some coin (what are they, capitalists or something?), the creation of this album made perfect sense to them. Granted, it might seem redundant to you, and I certainly don't consider it essential, but this album is still highly enjoyable, for several reasons. For one, there's the set list, which is very strong and weighted as it should be, with six songs from Entertainment! ("I Found That Essence Rare" is the album's most head scratching omission), four from Solid Gold, two from Another Day, Another Dollar, and two from Songs Of The Free. Also, the album's bigger, more modernized sound is a closer approximation of their live sound, and the band's chemistry returns intact, even after all these years (funny how that's often the case with great bands). So, if you can overlook the unnecessary nature of this album and just appreciate its considerable merits, I think you'll find much to like here (many of the post-Entertainment! songs are actually improvements), as the album basically works as a sort of improved, updated Peel Sessions.

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