Saturday, February 22, 2020

Alice Cooper

When Alice Cooper Predicted Donald Trump, September 16, 2016

by Simon Reynolds

Forty-four years ago, Alice Cooper ran for President.

Okay, not really – but the singer and his group did release the single “Elected” in September 1972, timed for the final stretch of the Nixon versus McGovern race for the White House.  A bombastic blast of proto-punk fury, “Elected” proposed Cooper as the leader of “a new party, a third party, a WILD party” that would “take the country by storm”. The single was accompanied with an uproarious promo video, in which Cooper drives around in a Rolls-Royce glad-handing the voters and revels in the barrow full of donor cash wheeled in by his campaign manager,  a roller-skating chimpanzee.

The idea for “Elected” actually dated back to the previous Presidential contest in 1968, which inspired Alice Cooper to write a song titled “You Shall Be Elected”. That lyrical concept fell by the wayside but the tune survived as “Reflected”, a track on the group’s 1969 debut album Pretties For You. Flash forward to ’72 and Alice Cooper were now the most infamous band in America, thanks to their shock-rock concerts involving the dismemberment of baby-dolls and faked but hair-raisingly realistic executions of the singer by gallows and guillotine. Following the chart success of “School’s Out,” the group were on the brink of the superstardom they’d been chasing for four grueling years.  So they decided to jump on the election-year bandwagon and drastically remodeled “Reflected” with the original lyric restored and intensified. Instead of “You Shall Be Elected”, the hook line became “I wanna be elected”: a messianic power trip for a singer who justifiably saw himself as a leader of youth.  

Bob Ezrin, the group’s producer, came up with a shrewd ruse to generate the declamatory demagogue vocal that “Elected” needed. “To get the performance I had a full-length mirror placed in front of Alice on an angle,” Ezrin told an interviewer. “That way he could see his entire body in reflection.” Gesticulating like an orator, Cooper rasped out lines about how the “kids want a savior, don’t want a fake” and vowed that very soon “we’re all gonna rock to the rules that I make.” Ezrin added horns suggestive of statesman-like pomp and distorted bursts of TV newscaster voice-over in the style of Walter Winchell. After $10,000 of studio time and eighty hours of obsessive mixing, the result was one of the hard rock classics of the first half of the Seventies.

From its whiplash opening riff through Cooper’s abyss-plunging scream to the portentous descending bassline in the outro, “Elected” can also stake a claim to be punk rock four years ahead of historical schedule. The tone of apocalyptic glee mingled with megalomania anticipates “Anarchy in the U.K.” (Johnny Rotten was a huge Alice fan and his audition for the Sex Pistols involved miming to “I’m Eighteen” on a jukebox). There’s a lyrical preview of punk too: during the fade, Cooper reels off a list of U.S. cities that have “problems,” then whispers “and personally... I don’t care” – a glimpse ahead to the taunting nihilism of “and we don’t care” in “Pretty Vacant.”

Listening to “Elected” recently while working on my new glam rock history Shock and Awe, I heard another element of prophecy:  Cooper’s drunk-with-the-promise-of-power performance reminded me of nobody so much as Donald Trump. Like Cooper, Trump is an entertainer moving into politics, using showbiz techniques that bypass reasoned analysis and policy proposals and instead conjure a baseless aura of authority. When Cooper rants about how “you and me together / young and strong,” it sounds like Trump’s blasts of hot-air about America being great again, how “we’ll win so much”. There’s Trump Tower-like bling too when Cooper brags about being “a dandy in a gold Rolls-Royce”.

Long before Trump ever featured in its pages, Alice Cooper made the front cover of Forbes. In the financial magazine’s April 15th 1973 issue, the band were held up as exemplars of “a new breed of tycoon” that had emerged thanks to the Seventies rock business’s bonanza of platinum albums and mega-grossing tours.  Beneath the headline “the rockers are rolling in it”, an interview with Cooper saw the singer describe himself as a true patriot: “I’m the most American rock act. I have American ideals. I love money!”  In another interview - with Bob Greene, a political journalist who followed his Nixon/McGovern campaign chronicle Running with a book documenting an Alice Cooper tour– the singer talked about his success in Trump-like terms as the result of a pure will to dominance: “It was nothing but positive thinking. I’m very competitive....  That’s my main life drive – being better than everyone else.”

 “Elected” was the taster for Billion Dollar Babies, the 1973 album that propelled Alice Cooper to mainstream megafame.  A brazen celebration of money-making, the album stomped on the last vestiges of hippie idealism still lingering on from the Sixties: instead of sticking it to the Man, why not become the Man?  Billion Dollar Babies’s packaging was styled as a snakeskin wallet bulging with cash; inside, fans found a facsimile of a billion dollar bill. The accompanying tour was the most spectacular and lucrative (raking in a then astronomical $4,000,000 for 64 concerts) that rock had yet seen. The group travelled between cities in a private jet with a dollar symbol on the plane’s tail.
In interviews Cooper described the album and the show as a celebration of decadence – then an in-vogue concept  because of the movie Cabaret. “It’s happening in the States now, all that German thing of the Thirties,” Cooper told Circus magazine’s Steve Demorest. “There is so much money in the U.S., and everyone has as much sex as they want. All we’re doing is reflecting it. I like the idea of the American Seventies producing a cabaret of over-opulence.... I’m a nationalist. I know the States is the best place in the world to live in.” Indeed Billion Dollar Babies concerts ended with the band unfurling the Stars and Stripes to the sound of “God Bless America”.

Dismayed pundits at the time took the commercial success of Alice Cooper’s sick-humor and cynical worldview as proof that the assumed link between rock and progressive politics had proved illusory. All those benefit concerts for McGovern played by rock bands had done nothing to forestall a landslide reelection for Nixon, self-proclaimed champion of the silent majority. Some critics outright identified Alice Cooper as Nixonian rock.  In truth, the singer had not even voted in ’72 – something he professed to feel ashamed about. But Cooper did say that “I wouldn’t have voted for McGovern”, mainly because the candidate was too wishy-washy and changed his mind so often. 
Generally, Cooper professed to find politics “so boring”, quipping that “if elected, I would impeach myself”. But while the finale to the Billion Dollar Babies concerts involved a Nixon lookalike bounding onstage only to be roughed up and bundled off by the band, in interviews Cooper expressed sympathy for the President,   embroiled in the Watergate scandal shortly after his reelection triumph. 

“I think Nixon’s got a rough job,” Cooper told Greene. “And if he’s guilty of anything, I don’t think it’s anything new. He’s just the first one to get caught. I think Nixon’s a star... He’ll go down as one of the biggest personalities ever to come out of the United States, just by being so notorious.... I would love to spend some time with him. I’d probably sit down and talk about golf.” That never happened but Cooper did get to play golf alongside Nixon’s VP and successor Gerald Ford in a celebrity tournament. In further bizarreness, one of the singer’s four homes was right next door to the Phoenix, Arizona residence of Barry Goldwater, hero of the conservative wing of the Republican Party and a failed Presidential candidate in his own right.   

Like the acting profession, rock has continued to lean left and liberal for the most part.  But the existence of right-wing rockers – Ted Nugent, Johnny Ramone, Kid Rock, Gene Simmons, Avenged Sevenfold, and Alice Cooper himself, who’s been described as a “quiet” supporter of George W. Bush but whose intentions in 2016 are undeclared– shows that there is no innate and irrevocable link between rock  and progressive politics. Indeed rock’s combination of populism and individualism arguably inclines more logically with a libertarian agenda than with socialism. 

When you look at the “rock star” version of rock - the model for misbehavior and excess that’s recently been so influential in rap – it becomes obvious that it has far more in common with Trump’s worldview than, say, Portlandia values.  “Rock star” rock runs on ideological-emotional fuel like vanity, wasteful splendor, and alpha-male display. There’s a reason why Trump soundtracks his stadium-concert-like rallies with songs like “We Are the Champions” and “I Won’t Back Down”, and why he could plausibly  add “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” to the playlist too.  Magical thinking, vacuous self-aggrandizement, an appeal to gut feeling and irrational uplift, us-versus-them postures: if not the rock candidate, Trump is at least the hair metal candidate.

Although a Top 5 smash in the U.K., “Elected” did not repeat the success of “School’s Out” in America, stalling at Number 26. Let’s hope this is an augury for November.

postscript: but I didn't know that Alice had "run for office" on another occasion:

(via Rebekah Gonzalez column at I Heart 80s Radio)

"I represent the Wild Party and I even have a campaign slogan: Alice Cooper - A troubled man for troubled times."

That's how Alice Cooper made headlines on February 24th, 1988. Announcing that he would be running for governor in his home state of Arizona as a write-in candidate. But anyone who had been around in the early '70s knew that this wasn't Cooper's first time in the political ring. Well, at least a WWE-like, shock-rock version of the political ring.

When Richard Nixon and George McGovern went head to head back in September of 1972, Alice Cooper ran for president with maybe one of the most powerful, low maintenance campaigns of all time. Everything he had to say was in the band's song "Elected" ....

.... Cooper performed "Elected" again in April of 2016, announcing another gag-run for presidency. There was no need to change the words of a song written in the '70s for a presidential election happening in 2016...."

Alice Cooper
The Guardian, June 12th 2014
by Simon Reynolds

Alice Cooper is reminiscing about the days when he killed himself for a living. “Any time you have moving parts onstage, you are asking for Spinal Tap,” he says of the gallows and the guillotine that were climactic fixtures  of his tours of the early 1970s.  “And when it doesn’t work, you have to play it for comedy. “  But that time the gallows broke in England was no laughing matter. “There was a wire connected to my back, it stopped the noose from hitting my neck, and we’d done the trick one hundred times, never thinking ‘maybe that wire is getting brittle’. And then it snapped and the noose grabbed me for real.” Cooper was quick-witted enough to tilt his chin up and slip through the noose.  He was lucky to escape with a nasty rope burn down his throat.

41 years after this close shave, Cooper sits placidly in a downtown LA hotel suite directly opposite the Grammy Museum, where the previous night Super Duper Alice Cooper, a rockdoc about his life and exploits, made its West Coast debut.  Amongst the invitation-only audience were legendary groupie Pamela Des Barres (a friend of the Alice Cooper band during their phase of living in LA as Frank Zappa protégés) and sundry Cooper-influenced metal performers such as Twisted Sister singer Dee Snider.

Wearing white jeans with an excess of zips, a plain black T-Shirt, and a vaguely sepulchral medallion nestled in a thicket of chest hair, Alice looks much the same as he did in his Seventies heyday, give or take a few  wrinkles  and some paunch. But then when you watch the old footage spliced into Super Duper, it’s striking that he never really seemed like a young man.  From his swarthy, crow-like countenance to his scrawny body, Cooper was never going to become a rock star through sexual magnetism, nor from the strength and beauty of his voice. 

Instead he became one of the best “bad” singers rock’n’roll has ever known, his haggard rasp equally suited to the proto-grunge snarl of “I’m Eighteen” (his break-through US hit) and the megalomaniacal bombast  of “Elected”. Abandoning “erotic politics” as a faded relic of the idealistic 1960s, Cooper based his act around death, with LPs like Killer and Love It to Death, and the necrophilia anthem “I Love the Dead”.  The band’s hard-riffing tunes and grand guignol theatrics drew a vast following of “sick things”: young kids looking for something definitively Seventies, a nihilistic new sensibility as repellent to older rock fans as to their parent’s generation. 

For a while Cooper was even huger in Britain than in America.  His infamy was boosted by a campaign to ban his concerts launched by the Labour MP Leo Abse, and by Mary Whitehouse’s efforts to stop the BBC showing the group’s #1’s single “School’s Out”.   

“Boy, we could not have bought that publicity,” laughs Cooper. “They couldn’t  figure  out why we were sending him cigars and her flowers.  But every time they spent an extra hour trying to ban us in England, they helped us so much. “ Abse and Whitehouse formed an unlikely alliance, given that the Pontypool MP had been an architect of the permissive society, by pushing for legalization of homosexuality. But at a time of anxiety about rising levels of youth crime, Cooper’s disturbing image and gory theatrics were easily connected in the popular imagination with A Clockwork Orange and the copycat ultra-violence that Kubrick’s movie had allegedly inspired. “When I saw the film, I thought, there’s an awful lot of Alice in Alex,” Cooper says of Malcolm McDowell’s delinquent anti-hero. “Like me, he’s got a snake, he’s wearing eye make-up.  And later McDowell actually told me, ‘there’s a few Alice references in there’.  So I totally related to A Clockwork Orange – not the mindless violence, but the fact that violence has its place in theatrics.”

British rock always was more theatrical than its American precursor, and often this involved destruction or apocalyptic gimmickry:  The Move smashing TV sets, Arthur Brown and his flaming helmet, Screamin’ Lord Sutch making a grand entrance from inside a coffin.  “That’s why most people thought we were British at first,” says Cooper.  Another affinity with U.K. rock was the art school genesis of the band. “Me and Dennis Dunaway, our bassist, were both art majors and probably the two strongest forces as far as the image and the staging. We were Salvador Dali fans.”

As Super Duper Alice Cooper relates via its well-executed interweaving of photographs and voice-overs, the group started out in Phoenix, Arizona as a high school Beatles parody act the Earwigs, before evolving into the more serious punkadelic garage band The Spiders. By 1969, they had moved to LA and hooked up with manager Shep Gordon, a young man with no music industry experience but an instinctive grasp of the Andrew Loog Oldham Principle: not only is there no such thing as bad publicity, but the manager’s job is to engineer outrage, propagate rumours, incite hysteria.

It was Gordon who blagged the band a prime spot at 1969’s Toronto  Rock and Roll Revival festival, playing just before the headlining John Lennon, and who most likely arranged for a chicken to find its way onstage mid-set.  Thrown by Alice into the audience, the poor fowl was torn to shreds.  “It seemed to upset the whole world,” recalls Alice. “That’s when I realised rock was looking for a villain, somebody that would have done that on purpose.  That spurred me to create the Alice character to be darker.”  It was Gordon also who conceived a stunt that ratcheted up Alice Cooper’s notoriety in Britain.  A flatbed truck carried a giant billboard of Alice, nude except for his pet snake, through London, only to mysteriously break down in Piccadilly Circus, where a bevy of reporters and photographers just happened to be waiting to document the ensuing traffic jam and police fracas.

Billion Dollar Babies, the 1973 album that spawned two of Alice’s biggest UK hits (“Elected” and “Hello Hooray”) was the band’s peak. The massive tour of America raked in so much money Alice made the cover of Forbes as emblem of a new breed of rock tycoon. But in reality, the band were funneling most of the proceeds back into their increasingly spectacular stage production. Frustration with this situation, says Cooper, is one reason the group split up. 

Alice Cooper went solo with Welcome To My Nightmare. The 1975 album/tour/TV special was his most extravagant production yet,  the consummation of his driving intuition that ultimately rock was just another branch of showbiz.  A fan of Hollywood and Broadway who was influenced as much by West Side Story and Hellzapoppin’ as by The Who and The Doors, Cooper thought of himself as “the Busby Berkeley of rock”.

In the second half of the Seventies, he became an increasingly mainstream figure: palling around with the likes of George Burns and Groucho Marx, appearing on TV shows such as Hollywood Squares and The Muppets, even playing golf with President Gerald Ford.  Privately, he battled alcoholism. Alice drank Budweiser from breakfast to bedtime, sustaining what he calls “a golden buzz. I was the most functional alcoholic there ever was. “ But when he graduated from beer to whiskey and “started throwing up blood in the morning”, Cooper realised, “I’m really killing myself.” 

Drained and distracted, Cooper was poorly placed to maintain his relevance in a changing rock scene.  As so often happens, the very people who idolized and emulated Cooper now eclipsed  him.  Punk made his exploits seem tame by comparison, even though Johnny Rotten was a huge fan, auditioning for the Sex Pistols by miming to “I’m Eighteen” and decades later penning gushing sleevenotes for an Alice Cooper box set. In the Eighties, Goth, industrial and extreme metal took death-tripping even further.  Cooper also influenced hair metal outfits like Mötley Crüe and Twisted Sister. In Super Duper, Dee Snider pays tribute: “We came from this man’s loins. He ejaculated - and glam metal was born”

After overcoming his addictions and renewing his Christian faith (both his father and grandfather were Protestant pastors), Cooper returned in the late Eighties as a revered elder of metal in much the same way as Ozzy Osbourne. But in the process, he says, he underwent a persona shift.  The original, alcohol-era Alice was a victim as much as a violator. “He was always in a straitjacket, getting his head cut off.  He represented kids that were bullied, the artistic kind of outcasts.” The post-comeback, sober Alice, who’s sold millions of records and continues to play large concerts worldwide, is more like a cartoon bad guy. “Alice had to be reborn as an arrogant villain. Now he wasn’t the one who was beaten, he was the one who was going to beat.  He was the dominatrix, he wasn’t the trick”.

Monday, February 17, 2020

postpunk compilation

sleevenotes to the V2 compilation Rip It Up and Start Again (Postpunk 1978-1984), 2006

by Simon Reynolds

We’re deep into the post-punk resurgence now, but there’s no sign yet of a slow down: the endless procession of new bands that have drawn inspiration from that era keeps on colliding with veteran bands that have reformed, a flood of reissues jostles with compilations and anthologies. The net effect of this sustained explosion of curiosity and fascination with the period, though, is a tendency to take postpunk as a known quantity, a defined and circumscribed bundle of attributes: "angular", "stark", "jagged", "angsty," and so forth.

One of my main goals when writing Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 was to show the real sprawling diversity of postpunk--less a genre than a space of possibility that opened up in the late Seventies. The same ambition applies to this compilation. As you'll hear, not everything released back then was dread-soaked or twitchy with nervous tension, skeletally minimal or herky-jerky in feel. Postpunk's open-ended ideals and imperatives (avoid the obvious, jettison anything that smacked of traditional rock 'n' roll, cultivate idiosyncrasy) generated ethereal dreaminess, eccentric whimsy, and senseless acts of exquisitely odd beauty, just as much as they encouraged fractured punk-funk or structureless noise.

This compilation has its fair share of high-energy freneticism: Devo's "Praying Hands" filters the rampant rowdiness of Sixties shindigs and frat-parties through the group's characteristic grotesque humor (it's an attempt to imagine a born-again Christian dance craze, a la the Twist or the Mashed Potato), while the crisp, kinetic rockabilly of The Fall's "Fiery Jack" hits your membranes like the sharp sting of cheap sulphate. But you'll also hear more of a different kind of postpunk that tends to get overlooked: insidiously atmospheric, teeming with jeweled subtleties, a music of ghosts and glints.

Young Marble Giants' "Choci Loni" is a prime example of this stealthy and secretive side of postpunk, a spidery near-silence of crisply flecked guitar and warm Horlicks bass wrapping itself like a shawl around Alison Statton's self-contained vocal. Like their Rough Trade labelmates The Raincoats on their exquisitely intricate chime-box ”Only Loved At Night", "Choci Loni"
draws you into its hush and casts a shivery spell that lingers long after the song ends. Likewise, Fatal Microbes' "Violence Grows" avoids the apocalyptic bombast its title suggests in favour of slow-drone gorgeousness, thereby achieving a far more disquieting effect. Singer Honey Bane’s blankly amoral lyric about muggings in shadowy pedestrian subways is so vivid you can practically see the orange sodium light, smell the piss in the underpass. Violence of a different sort is the subject of "Grass", a darkly witty allegory about authoritarianism originally written by the late, great Ivor Cutler but covered here by Robert Wyatt, a pre-punk innovator who thrived in a postpunk world of anything-goes. Backed by the shimmering tablas and shehnai of East London Bangladeshi outfit Dishari Shilpee Gosth, Wyatt plays the role of guru imparting wisdom to an acolyte, the power relation underlined by lines like “while we talk I'll hit your head with a nail to make you understand me / I have something important to say."

Another early 70s figure who came into his own after punk was John Cooper Clarke, a Dylan-obsessed Mancunian bard who incanted his poetry over backing by the Invisible Girls, a group headed by Joy Division producer Martin Hannett. "Beasley Street" is something like a "Desolation Row" for Thatcher’s Britain, The Invisible Girls' dream-drifty tufts of texture making an incongruously idyllic backdrop for Clarke's lyrical phantasmagoria of deprivation, delapidation, and moral dry rot. An equally grim vision of  proletarian life 'n' leisure is painted on The Specials "Friday Night Saturday Morning"  (a hard-to-find track that lurked on the flipside of  the group's 1981 number one single "Ghost Town"), the bleakness deliciously offset by the jaunty-sad Wurlitzer rocksteady of Jerry Dammers' arrangement and the sardonic fatalism of Terry Hall's words and delivery.

Another song about staying up all night: Thomas Leer's "Tight as a Drum," from his classic EP 4 Movements. Having started out making DIY electronic lo-fi in1978 with the self-released "Private Plane" and then recording an album of ominous ambient noise for Industrial Records, Leer had shifted by 1981 to a jazz 'n' soul inflected synthpop of uncommon warmth and swing. (This stemmed partly from the fact that Leer played the beats live on an electronic drum pad kit, rather than programming them on a drum machine). A tingling, tremulous mist of synthetic sighs and shivers, "Tight as a Drum" captures the frayed euphoria of a young man who's made it through 'til
dawn's early light.

The Human League's "Dancevision" also evokes a peculiarly indeterminate alloy of joy and sorrow. Recorded in 1977, just before Phil Oakey joined the band, its haiku-succinct minimalism shimmers like the future-ghost of Detroit techno. The track's creators, Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware reappear with the great "lost" Heaven 17 single "I'm Your Money" (the follow-up to “We Don’t Need This Fascist Groove Thang”, it never appeared on the classic Penthouse and Pavement album). “Money”’s hard-headed economic worldview contrasts with the defiant mysticism of The Blue Orchids’ "Dumb Magician," a song that rejects worldly ambition (climbing “the money mountain,” scheming to get your “foot in the door”) in favor of otherworldly transcendence and a glory beyond words. “The only way out is UP!" cries singer Martin Bramah, his previous life as guitarist in the original incarnation of The Fall looping us back to the opening track, "Fiery Jack.”

From spiky to spacey, from jagged frenzy to ambient calm, postpunk encompassed a vast spectrum of sound and mood, texture and tempo. I hope this compilation gives you a glimpse of this music’s amazing reach and richness, and a taste for exploring further.


1 –The Fall Fiery Jack 4:44
2 –Devo Praying Hands 2:48
3 –Pulsallama The Devil Lives In My Husband's Body 3:25
4 –Cabaret Voltaire Sluggin' For Jesus Part 1 4:55
5 –Josef K Sense Of Guilt 3:03
6 –Scritti Politti P.A.s 5:57
7 –The Slits Spend, Spend, Spend 3:14
8 –Fatal Microbes Violence Grows 3:10
9 –Robert Wyatt Grass 2:36
10 –Siouxsie & The Banshees Slowdive 4:18
11 –The Raincoats Only Loved At Night 3:30
12 –Young Marble Giants Choci Loni 2:34
13 –The Human League Dancevision 2:19
14 –Thomas Leer Tight As A Drum 4:36
15 –Associates* White Car In Germany 4:53
16 –The B52s* Give Me Back My Man 3:58
17 –John Cooper Clarke Beasley Street 6:49
18 –The Specials Friday Night, Saturday Morning 3:33
19 –Heaven 17 I'm Your Money 5:06
20 –The Blue Orchids* Dumb Magician 2:53

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, 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.