How I went gaga for Gang of Four

Posted: November 10, 2011 in music, Record reviews
Tags: , , , , , , ,

“Barracuda”
Heart
1977

“At Home He’s a Tourist”
Gang of Four
1979

“Here Come Cowboys”
The Psychedelic Furs
1984

(With thanks to Loyal Reader Barb for suggesting this post.)

I’m lucky. I’ve usually had someone in my life who could explain music to me. In the early 1980s, that someone was my friend David Clements.

David hosted elaborate theme parties. The one I remember was based on junk food, which is probably why I remember it. He ran name-that-tune competitions featuring hundreds of songs he had culled from the backwaters of pop. At one of them I got off one of my best-timed lines: “Yes fans never know the names of the songs,” I said, immediately before the Yeshead playing the game blanked on the opening snippet of “Roundabout.”

David managed the Northgate movie theater in Seattle and was a dj on the University of Washington’s student-run station, KCMU. His handle was “The King of Pop,” and the poppier the better. Listening to his show one night, I became so outraged by the parade of Stings, Boy Georges, and Bangles that I called and requested something from Saturday Night Fever. David recognized my voice and promised he would play it if I would drive over to the station in my leisure suit. You couldn’t top that guy.

When I first heard Gang of Four, probably at somebody’s party, they intimidated me. The guitars are angular. They’re like getting elbowed under the basket or stick-checked behind the net. The singer isn’t singing so much as opening a vein. On “Love Like Anthrax,” which begins with what sounds like a guitar expiring inside bagpipes, the singer competes with someone who simply speaks. Occasionally they sing/speak the same line. When they do, it’s so harmonious it’s startling.

Gang of Four’s lyrics take apart our politics, our consumer culture, even our love lives. They don’t put anything back together again, either. Even on their friendliest cut, “I Love a Man in a Uniform,” they’re not all that friendly:

The good life was so elusive
Handouts, they got me down
I had to regain my self respect
So I got into camouflage

They’re The Clash without the heroin and with a darker worldview. And The Clash weren’t exactly cheery. It was exhausting just looking at the album covers. I didn’t want anything to do with them.

But the King of Pop saw further than I did, and he suggested I try them. I did and over time I became hooked. In fact I even have a Gang of Four listening ritual.

Run-DMSteve’s Gang of Four Listening Ritual
1) Realize that I haven’t played anything by Gang of Four in a long while.
2) Wave away sudden upwelling of dread.
3) Hear first notes of first song. Wince. Consider switching to Madonna’s “Vogue.”
4) Hooked again.
5) Pound face into desk.

I’ve listed the three songs at the top of this post for a reason. They’re superficially similar in their structure and in the way they gallop along. “Barracuda” was a hit for Heart, who had fantastic hair and who made hard rock for people who were cautiously venturing beyond Hall & Oates. “Here Come Cowboys” was a late-period example of New Wave by The Psychedelic Furs. It would’ve made a passable B-side to one of their better songs.

“At Home He’s a Tourist,” however, is fucking unbelievable. When it starts I always think, Oh no, it’s Heart, no wait, Psychedelic Furs, oh right, Gang of Four. The guitar sounds like it wants to throw up. But by the song’s end I can’t wait to click Replay.

I have David to thank for some great musical memories, but David was killed in 1985, at the age of 28, while making a night deposit after closing the theater. Two lives were lost that night – David’s, and that of the 19-year-old boy who shot him and who will wake every day of his life with that knowledge. I think of you often, David, and of that B-52s concert we went to at the Coliseum. I wish we had taken Gang of Four’s suggestion and gotten drunk on cheap wine.

Comments
  1. Barb says:

    Compare “Is It Love” to “What We All Want” and you may understand why I thought Gang of Four vanished like a flock of seagulls into the thirtysomething ether of the 1990s. (Maybe because I did.) I’ve doubled my age and my income since the last time I saw GOF, in Seattle. So I was thrilled to discover their website and discover that Andy Gill and Jon King can still deliver political poetry better than any rain-drenched Occupy Portland cardboard placard. Thanks for writing this blog, Steve, and reminding me of my essential self. I can still leap and dance and startle the neighbors with the exuberant howl of “To Hell with Poverty.”

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