Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Seize the Time: Gang of Four and the eternal returns of retro rock (2005)

Seize the Time: Gang of Four and the eternal returns of retro rock
director's cut, Slate, October 5 2005

By Simon Reynolds

In an early Ian McEwan story, a novelist struggles with the follow-up to an acclaimed best-seller. There’s a psychologically grotesque twist to the tale, when her lover discovers that the manuscript she’s been toiling over is actually a painstakingly typed-out, word-for-word repeat of the debut. This isn’t precisely what postpunk legend Gang of Four have done on Return The Gift, the first release by the group’s original line-up since 1981, but it’s not far off. Instead of recording an album of new material like most reformed bands do, they’ve  rerecorded fourteen Gang of Four classics cherry-picked from albums such as Entertainment!, Solid Gold, and Songs of the Free.

It’s hard to think of a precedent in rock history for Return-- essentially, a band recording its own tribute album. The decision has bemused many Gang of Four fans, who wonder why they didn’t just put out a compilation of the definitive versions. Some see Return as proof that the group’s reformation was purely opportunistic, an attempt to reap the rewards of postpunk’s ultra-hip status these past couple of years, which has involved a swarm of new bands-- from the Rapture and Radio Four to Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand--drawing heavily from the Gang’s innovatively jagged and minimalist punk-funk. Surely, the argument goes, if the group really felt it had a relevant contribution to make beyond being a nostalgia act (their upcoming tour of America, their second this year, is sponsored by VH1), it would write an album of new material.

But there’s other ways of looking at Return the Gift. When I saw Gang of Four perform earlier this year in New York, I was struck by how contemporary the lyrics felt, with their dissections of consumerism, militarism, the psychology of right-wing backlash, and so forth, and how depressing that was as an indice of our society’s advance since the late Seventies.  Take “Natural’s Not In It,” a critique of the leisure and entertainment industry’s “coercion of the senses,” a mass-media and advertising barrage of hedonic imagery that causes singer Jon King to protest “this heaven gives me migraine.”  The song is even more blisteringly applicable to today’s porno-fied popular culture than it was when the Gang first recorded it in 1979.

The title Return the Gift itself--derived from one of the Entertainment! songs Gang of Four didn’t remake-also hints that the whole project might be an oblique commentary on retro culture’s “eternal returns”. That kind of meta-rock gesture was always Gang of Four’s signature.  When the band formed in 1977, King and guitarist Andy Gill were enrolled at Leeds’ University’s Fine Art department, then a hotbed of conceptualism and Leftist critiques of institutionalized art.  Absorbing this sensibility and bolstering it with extracurricular immersion in Marxist theorists like Gramsci, Gang of Four approached every aspect of their “intervention” in pop culture--songwriting, album packaging, interviews, internal band relations--in a spirit of demystification.  “Damaged Goods” and “Contract,” for instance, cold-bloodedly analyzed sex and marriage using the language of the market. Most famously, “Love Like Anthrax” was built around an expose-the-device structure redolent of Brecht and Godard (Gill and King helped run Leeds University’s film society). On one side of the stereo mix, King wails the blues of a heartbroken lover; from the other speaker issues Gill’s speaking voice, critiquing the privileging of the love song in popular culture and even questioning the supposed universality of the emotion.

Return The Gift “exposes the device” by placing in plain, unavoidable sight the redundancy and reconsumption involved in rock’s nostalgia market. When fans buy new albums by reformed favorites of their youth, at heart they’re hoping for a magical erasure of time itself. They’re not really interested in what the band might have to say now, or where the band members’ separate musical journeys have taken them in subsequent decades; they want the band to create “new” songs in their vintage style.  Such consumer bad faith is precisely the kind of phenomenon that the old Gang of Four enjoyed skewering. Could it be that Return is saying: you want a Gang of Four resurrection? Here you are, then, exactly what you secretly deep-down crave: the old songs, again.  Militant agit-funk becomes showbiz.

Yet the motivation for Gang of Four rerecording their songs also has a mundanely pragmatic aspect that’s equally consistent with their demystificatory approach.  Covering" their own songs is a canny way of honoring and reactivating the legacy while ensuring that any benefits accrue to the creators of said legacy.  A straightforward repackaging of the old recordings, a compilation or box set, would only serve to enrich EMI, their original record company in the UK. And that’s something Gang of Four didn’t want to happen.  “We have never made any money at all from record sales with EMI and still have unrecouped advances,” declares King in an email interview. “So we didn’t want them to benefit as they did nothing to support us.” As for their original American record company, Warners, King claims that they deleted Entertainment!--easily one of the fifty most powerful and influential rock albums of all time--in 1993 and only re-released it in 2005 in response to Gang of Four’s having become such a monstrously fashionable reference point for new bands. Rerecording the songs--something which contracts typically allow artists to do after 20 years--put Gang of Four in a strong bargaining position in terms of negotiating a new deal with superior royalty rates. “It will mean that whatever we make will go to us,” says King of their arrangement with V2, a one-off licensing of the recording masters rather than a long term recording contract. “It is our way of reasserting ownership of our own material. “

This hard-headed approach seem “un-rock’n’roll”, but it’s perfectly in accord with Gang of Four’s commitment to stripping away the mystique from everything. The famous cover of Entertainment! depicts a Native American shaking hands with a cowboy. “The Indian smiles, he thinks that the cowboy is his friend,” runs the caption. “The cowboy smiles, he is glad the Indian is fooled. Now he can exploit him”.  If demystification involves the refusal to be fooled, such a sober, unsentimental mindset lends itself to business, where seeing all the angles is paramount.  Despite their Maoism-referencing moniker Gang of Four were never card-carrying Communists (although early on they did operate as a collective, paying their roadies the same wage as the musicians). But it’s precisely their Marxian worldview, with its structural understanding of exploitation and the power play of economic interests, that’s made the Gang vigilant and astute in their dealings with the record industry.

As it happens, like those Soviet commissars reborn as industrial  barons in the Nineties, most of Gang of Four “crossed over into enterprise” (as their postpunk fellow-traveler John Lydon once sang it) after the group disintegrated and have thrived in the business world.  Bassist Dave Allen’s long resume includes stints at Emusic.com, Intel’s Consumer Digital Audio Services Operation, and the Overland Entertainment Division, and currently he’s involved in a web-design/music consultancy company called Pampelmoose (whose clients include… Gang of Four).  Drummer Hugo Burnham plunged into the corporate heart of the music industry, working for EMI Music Publishing, Warner Bros, and Island, before starting his own management company, Huge & Jolly. Until recently King was the CEO of World Television, a webcasting/corporate TV/news production/event management company. On the face of it, it’s disconcerting that King, who once sang savagely mordant songs like “Capital (It Fails Us Now)”, should have become a sharp operator in the realm of shareholders meetings and venture financing (at one point the first part of his email address was “investorrelations”!). Then again, what were they supposed to do, during the Nineties, this bunch of smart, university-educated guys? Likewise, with Return, why shouldn’t Gang of Four exploit their own legend and literally capitalize on their moment in the retro sun?

The cycle of pop history has turned, putting Gang of Four in a position to get payback not just for the trademark infringements of today’s Go4-recyclers but earlier bands with heavy debts (the most successful being Red Hot Chili Peppers, who were such fans they hired Gill to produce their 1984 debut album). “Comrades, let us seize the time” is the tongue-in-cheek chorus of “Capital,” and Gang of Four have done exactly that. But what does it feel like to listen to the new version of “Capital”, and the rest of Return? The re-renditions are oddly faithful, with only subtle deviations from the blueprints. The fundamental structures of songs like “At Home He Feels Like A Tourist” and “Why Theory?” have been left intact (drastic remaking/remodeling is restricted to the bonus CD of remixes by other groups, some of which buck the played-out nature of the “remix tribute album” by being  surprisingly good). The main difference between Return and its sources relates to recording ambience, reflecting both advances in studio engineering techniques and the accumulated know-how of the band over the decades (Gill, a successful record producer, handled the production duties). The rerecordings of the Entertainment! songs especially sound glossier and have a modern “big drum sound”. Then again, the stark, emaciated production of Entertainment!, a result of its being recorded “dry” (engineer lingo for no reverb), was part of the record’s aesthetic statement. Reverb creates the illusion of a band playing together in the same acoustic space.  More live-sounding, the Return versions are stronger in a certain sense but are more conventional and naturalistic. And they lack, of course, the aura of historicity itself.

For this diehard fan, Return is a curious listening experience, with something of the eerieness of that Ian McEwan story about the blocked writer. You can’t help wondering what it must have felt like for the band members, laboring away at remaking songs they’d laid down definitively long ago. On the new version of “Anthrax”, Gill adds some self-reflexive lines about Return, describing it as an “an exercise in archaeology.” an attempt to find out where their heads were at in those heady postpunk days. Quizzed about the project both King and Allen refer to the original recordings as “Dead Sea Scrolls” they could refer to when memory failed. Aged seven I wanted to be an archaeologist because I thought it was all about stumbling on Mayan temples in the jungle, then lost interest when I went to a dig and saw how tedious sifting for pottery shards actually was. Return isn’t dreary (it could hardly be, given that the songs are among the most dynamic and structurally inventive rock songs of the last 30 years) but it never quite ignites because of the contradictions that brought the record into existence. These new versions seem to exist neither in 1979 nor 2005 but a peculiar limbo of non-time, the anachronic space of “retro” itself.

Return ends with “We Live As We Dream, Alone.” When Gang of Four first recorded it for 1982’s Songs of the Free, the track was a bleak evocation of the privatization of public life in the era of Reagan and Thatcher (who once famously declared “there is no such thing as society”). The ideal of the collective is at the heart of socialism, but it’s is also a big part of being in a rock band: all-for-one and one-for-all camaraderie, unity allied to a sense of purpose and destiny, the shared dream of making it and making history. The original “We Live As We Dream, Alone” can be heard now as a glimpse ahead to the break-up of the gang and the dispersal of its members into solo careerism. Resurrected as the final track of their comeback, the song seems pointedly to pose the question of whether the reunited Gang will stick around to see if they do have anything new to say, musically or lyrically, or whether they’ll simply go their own ways again.

Friday, January 31, 2020


a piece written for the Wire in late 2001 about the potential cultural / musical implications of the World Trade Center attacks

In the aftermath of  9/11/2001, commentators in every field of art and entertainment joined the culture-wide consensus-chorus that "nothing will ever be the same again". Many argued that a new spirit of civic commitment and self-sacrifice would inevitably spill over to culture, with artists becoming more engaged and tackling more profound themes, and the public craving deeper, more demanding work. There were hasty announcements of  "the end of  irony", predictions that a new seriousness would wipe away the vapid, trivial pop culture of the last decade or so. 

The precedent that everyone seems to be reaching back for is WW2 and the reconstruction that followed: the moral (and morale) uplift created by a stark Good Versus Evil struggle, and the sheer energy and can-do spirit generated by the mobilisation of entire populations and economies, led to hopes of rebuilding a better world. But the "WTC-as-Pearl-Harbor/Bush & Blair as Roosevelt & Churchill" parallel doesn't really hold; at best, this is a choice between lesser evils. For most of us non-combatants, the "war against terror" will be passive and ultimately enervating, as we watch the professionals rain death (and food parcels) down on remote populations, while the home front will entail the emergence of an Israel-style security state, with constant and debilitating sense of being both under siege and under surveillance.  It's hard to imagine either a massive project of social renewal like the Welfare State, or a great era of artistic creativity, coming out of this.

It's not at all clear how the repercussions of 9/11/2001 will play out in pop culture, let alone its semi-popular and marginal adjuncts. With a few exceptions (hip hop, most notably), music had seemed like it was ever more compartmentalized and sealed-off from "the real world", developing according to its own self-reflexive trajectory.  But maybe History will impact pop music and  recreate the conditions that prevailed in the postpunk era. When I was a youth, bands rarely mentioned music in interviews, political issues were so much more urgent; it was a context in which a song like UB40's "The Earth Dies Screaming" getting on Top of the Pops seemed like a crucial intervention. The recent spate of rock bands like Radiohead and U2 speaking out against globalisation, Third World debt, etc. already suggested a return to activism, altruism, and earnestness. Actually, having chafed against the irony culture for a long while, I already feel a slight pang for that cosy, harmless decadence. Indeed, it seems likely that a certain sort of acerbic, bitter irony is going to be an essential weapon in these days of bizarre reversals--like the way Bush, the President dedicated to narrowing the gap between church and state, has suddenly been recast as global defender of  secular liberalism against theocratic absolutism.

Where the WTC horror might  have at least a temporary dampening effect is on musics based on  the aesthetics of devastation: extreme noise terror, aural bombardments, apocalyptic soundscapes, traumaturgy, ambient fear. From DJ Scud's "Total Destruction" and Techno Animal's Brotherhood of the Bomb to the death metal covered by Terrorizer magazine, it all starts to seem, if not questionable then at least.... superfluous, surpassed by reality. Why was it supposed to be a good thing to do in the first place?

The alibi, I guess, is that it's not about vicarious delight in wanton destruction (as with small boys who love blowing stuff up,  Hollywood disaster movies), but  about waking people from cultural slumber, confronting them with the worst that can happen.  In times of numbness, ersatz emergency gets those atrophied adrenal glands pumping. But when everyday life is sufficiently raw-nerved, thank you very much -  who wants to experience simulated armageddon as entertainment? Stuff that soothes,  or helps the tears flow, seems more suitable -- Harold Budd, Sandy Denny. 

Of course, terrible things have been going on for, like, ever -- massacres, massive bombings,
cumulative collateral death tolls that are way bigger. But as they say, it makes a difference when it's close-to-home.  That's literal in my case: I live about one and a half miles from the site, and even now,  a month later, the air is sometimes fouled by the wind-born vapors from what is essentially a gigantic slow-burning crematorium. 9/11 has fatally interfered with  my appetite for "destruction" (meaning cultural/sonic images thereof).  Even something like Tricky's "Aftermath," one of my favorite pieces of music ever,  might be a tough listen in the future, the  lines about going "looking for people" having a new resonance -   just as sharing my 2 year old's delight as he points at a glistening airplane in the wonderfully blue skies over Manhattan will now always be accompanied by a shudder. 

Some of the more daring commentators have broached the whole question of  the carnographic sublime, writing honestly about the appalling splendor of  blazing fusilages piercing the sundazzled glass, the sheer spectacle of the  towers crumbling. Even dotty old Stockhausen, who got in such trouble for his dumb remark about the WTC attack as "the greatest work of art in history," was clumsily reaching towards something worth addressing: the extent to which apocalypse, carnage and cataclysm are embedded in the "libidinal economy" of the avant-garde. From Hendrix's aural pyromania to Einsturzende Neubauten's end times scenarios, from underground hip hop producer El-P titling his solo album Fantastic Damage to kid606 ally Electric Company using a picture of a collapsing building on the front of his latest release for Tigerbeat 6, imagery of waste and warfare seem to offer figures for absolute desire, excess, too-muchness; it's the 20th Century sublime, man-made (where the 18th Century's sublime was rampaging Nature)  but inhumane and anti-humanist.  Underground dance  music of all kinds is full of this kind of imagery, from drum'n'bass to gabber. For some years now dancehall reggae has been dominated by fire imagery, whether it's gangsta gunfire or the Rasta vision of Babylon being destroyed by the cleansing flames of Jah's righteous wrath (the fantasy is essentially the smiting of infidels, something that appeals in postcolonial vassal state Jamaica for precisely the same anti-globalisation, anti-Amerika reasons it does to Islamic jihadists).

The events of the last few weeks have made me question my own pleasure in this kind of imagery. I've also had pause to consider the way a rhetoric of crusades and a messianic, rallying mode of address has tripped off my critical tongue at various points over the years-- something that is paralleled by the way underground musics like drum'n'bass envisions themselves in paramilitary terms, as guerrillas, renegades, armies of underground resistance,  even terrorists. Then again, as silly as it seems when the real thing flares up all around, maybe "culture" is the safest, most harmless place for this kind of soldier talk. Music and the discourse around it can sublimate desires for mission, insurgency, single-minded purpose, our will to believe and our craving for the absolute.

Monday, January 27, 2020

a reasonable economy

pop culture and the economy
FACT magazine, 2009
by Simon Reynolds

Because I've written a book on postpunk--actually two books now, with Totally Wired, the new collection of interviews--every so often someone will ask me "Simon, now that the economy's up the shitter like it was in the late Seventies and early Eighties, d'ya reckon there'll be a massive upsurge of radical music on a par with postpunk then?"  And you know,  it would be gorgeous to think this was on the cards--some compensation and consolation for the utter fuckitude of all things economic for the foreseeable.  But I think there' s a problem or several with this by now rather clich├ęd equation of hard times with vibrant music.

For a start, the complete opposite argument can just as easily be made-- and often has been, in fact.  

For instance,  there's that slightly glib but nonetheless grounded in truth connection that people make between the Thirties (wracked by the Depression, shadowed by the rise of fascism, with  world war on the horizon) and escapist entertainment (showbiz glitz, the big band swing era, Hollywood musicals with baroquely elaborate dance sequences--sometimes in swimming pools). I remember commentators in the early Eighties using this Depression/showbiz analogy as an explanation for the rise of New Romanticism and the video-pop of Adam Ant/Duran/Boy George.  Disenchanted veterans of 1977 all, they lambasted the nouveau glam as a retreat from punk's political commitment and confrontation into vapid fantasy and fancy dress.

Another problem with the bad economy =  good music theory is related to its logical corollary, the notion that a booming economy creates complacency and thus a glut of lame, tame music. Actually, the complete opposite is generally accepted to have happened in  the 1960s. When prosperity (Macmillan's "you've never had it so good") and the American-style consumer society (supermarkets,  TV with commercials on, etc) arrived in late Fifties Britain, the post-War culture of austerity and deferral of gratification was thrown off.  Teenagers and young adults had money in their pockets to burn on clothes, music and other forms of self-expression through consumption. The resulting epidemic of pleasure-principled living-for-now was the foundation of the Swinging Sixties boom in pop, fashion and countercultural malarkey of every kind. Plentiful employment --in those days you could walk out of one job and into another the same day-- bred a spirit of insouciance and insubordination in the young.  

Similarly, student grants were considered a basic right then, and because the prospect of life after graduation wasn't so fraught with anxiety about getting on a career track, students treated their three years at college as a period for self-exploration and creative experiments with lifestyle--also known as "pissing about."  Some versions of this theory are almost Marxist in their base-governs-superstructure pinpointing  of the end of "The Sixties" as the autumn of 1973, when the oil crisis began: OPEC flexed its muscles, Western economies tightened, everything started getting more expensive  (including records, which had been so cheap that punters could afford to be experimental with their music taste).

There is a sort of historical-echo version of the Sixties-as-fueled-by-good-times thesis, in which acid house mania and the Second Summer Of Love were sponsored by  the late Eighties boom; the plucky promoters of the big orbital raves of 1989 are further seen as go-getting entrepreneurs, "the children of Thatcher".  I've also seen a theory touted that the USA's late 90s "electronica" explosion was synched to the investor-fever for info-tech start-ups and the resulting economic climate of "irrational exuberance". But while irrational exuberance is the absolutely perfect phrase to describe the Big Beat rocktronica of Chemicals/Fatboy/Prodigy/Underworld etc, I think this thesis is fatally America-centric--as if the very meaning and existence of this music was somehow determined by the Dow Jones Index, when of course it really goes back to the early Nineties, which happened to be a period of economic down-turn.

Fact is, you can generally bend the socioeconomic evidence to suit whatever argument you seek to make.  There is nearly always a sense of malaise and crisis going on in the world, on some level or other.  Even in the Sixties, for all the affluence and all the self-confidence of youth, there was no shortage of dread and paranoia, from the Cold War to Vietnam. Especially in the second half of the Sixties, you saw the early stirrings of the same things-- labour unrest , racial tensions,  war in Northern Ireland--that cast such somber shadows across most of the British Seventies.  Rave, for all its euphoria and hippy-dippy dress sense, and its fortuitous coinciding with positivity-conducive  events in geopolitics (the fall of Communism circa 1989), can also be interpreted as an escape from reality, which by the early Nineties was taking a more somber hue thanks to a recession, the Gulf War, and interminable Tory rule.  In this reading, rave is a flight from the dead-ends and blocked opportunities of the UK's stagnant social system, into a drug-enabled dreamworld of classless, multiracial unity.   Similarly, Britpop a few years later can be taken (depending on your musical sympathies) as either the UK getting its groove on again, feeling cocky and invincible, preparing the ground for New Labour, or as a self-deluding spasm reliant on recycling ideas from earlier phases of England's pop glory and on the artificial ebullience of cocaine, and as such merely mirroring Blair & Co's style-over- substance and empty rhetoric of renewal.

The truth is that it's hard to see that there are clear-cut connections anymore between the state of the economy and the waxing-and-waning of popular music-as-force-for-change.   I say "anymore" because it  feels like there once were such connections, and moreover that it would make sense that there were. How could music and pop culture be sealed off from everything else that is going on in the world and in the lives of we who make it and listen to it? Yet in a sense that is exactly what I think has come to pass:   at some point along the way music and the social/economic became uncoupled. I felt it more strongly than ever last year, in fact, when as far as I could see pop music totally failed to reflect the momentousness  of what was going on in America, the most world-historical election I've lived through as a conscious adult. 

The one real-world force that I think we can say for sure is affecting music --in terms of its base conditions of possibility--is technology.  The landscape of music production and music consumption as we approach the end of this decade is vastly different from 1999. It's been transformed by filesharing, YouTube, MySpace, music siphoned into your mobile phone, and numerous other innovations in the way music is distributed, accessed, and created.  We're at a point where musicians increasingly cannot even give away their music (because the sound-saturated consumer is constrained by one commodity that remains finite and precious--listening-time).  Where the "event" horizon of an album occurs and is finished with long before the record even officially released, because of the leaks that musicians and labels are incapable of preventing.  

We live in a new music reality that is post-geographical (people feel like they are plugged into sounds and scenes they're never had an unmediated experience with) and where music for more and more fans is something you'd never dream of paying for.  The recession has pushed some record shops and labels out of business, but they were shaky and doddering on the brink anyway because of the technological earthquake that's already happened.  The way people surf its shockwaves, or react violently against it, might well lead to the next convulsion in music. Indeed, in the same way that punk rock was prefigured in various forms (the Stooges, pub rock) for a good six years before it happened, we've probably already seen some of the anti-reactions taking early shape: the revived, ever-growing importance of live music and the festival, a resurgence of interest in analogue forms like vinyl, cassette and fanzines.  All suggest a craving for unmediated experience (or equally for tangible media, cultural objects you can hold and keep), for presence, for the Event. It seems unimaginable, but it's possible that the next underground will exist entirely off-line. Equally, the next big thing could be that there's no next big thing…. just further entropy (the "not with a bang…" scenario).  But I doubt very much that any of these outcomes will be affected much by the credit crunch, collapsing property market, rising unemployment, etc. A new musical idea--a really new one, whether within music itself, or in the ways we use music-- will surely catch on regardless of whether the economy is fallow or fertile.