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.

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