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19 October 2015

Gang of Four - 'Entertainment!' (EMI)

Entertainment! was so iconic when I was 19 years old that I can hear it note for note in my head without actually needing to listen to it. In recent years, the disco-Marxism doesn't sound so fresh, but I have enough nostalgia for being young and inspired that I can listen to this still with some sense of joy. Another good justification for dragging these heavy vinyl versions around with me, even though I could hear any of these songs on YouTube any time I wanted too - the fidelity, on a nice clean copy as I somehow procured, is just stunning. That gravy-sounding bass thud which opens 'Ether' is so clear and resonant when the record starts, and Hugo Burnham's drums actually sound like drums here, which presages the Steve Albini era of punk/rock production techniques. Does it all feel a bit silly now, like these guys really thought they'd change the world from their major label deal? Maybe, as a decade of unearthed gems from the true "DIY" scene reveal Gang of Four to be little more than pop-oriented hitmakers. But the edgy shards of guitar which came from Andy Gill's guitar meant something to me in the late 90s, just like it meant so much to those in the north in 1979. I recently watched that Mekons documentary which goes through their early years and particularly the friendship (or at least mutual scene-sharing) they had with Gang of Four, and it's clear that even then, people knew who was going to ascend to the charts and who would toil in decades of obscurity. I'm not sure why it matters; the slash and burn of 'Natural's Not In It' still brings a smile to my face, especially when coupled with Jon King's snarl. What more needs to be said about this record? Every song is a classic, and if it can turn one more teenager towards socialist politics, then it's continuing to work after 35 years. 'Anthrax' remains one of the more sophsticated deconstructions of romance put forth in the punk era, 'Damaged Goods' is the real hit, still played nightly in British discos (at least in the late 00s), and 'I Found That Essence Rare' coined a phrase I still use. I actually saw about six minutes of a reunion show (though I can't remember if it was the original lineup or the Songs of the Free one), at the legendary Thurston Moore-curated All Tomorrow's Parties in December 2006. I was pretty burned out having been on tour myself the last five weeks, and only stuck my head in briefly when Gang of Four was playing, precisely in the middle of 'Damaged Goods'. It felt rote, lifeless and formulaic, and though I realised that less than a decade earlier I would have been over the moon about it, at that point in my life, it just felt like another reunion cash-in. This isn't fair to messrs. King, Gill, Burnham and Allen, and certainly more a reflection of my own frame of mind than anything they may have intended originally or reunion-era, but something just hit me -- the real revolution would be aesthetic, and this danceaholic armchair leftism was just another opiate. I've mellowed since, and pleased to say how great this sounds again, in 2015.

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