Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Gang of Four

  • Entertainment! [Warner Bros., 1980] A
  • Gang of Four [Warner Bros. EP, 1980] A-
  • Solid Gold [Warner Bros., 1981] A
  • Another Day/Another Dollar [Warner Bros. EP, 1981] A
  • Songs of the Free [Warner Bros., 1982] A-
  • Hard [Warner Bros., 1983] B
  • A Brief History of the 20th Century [Warner Bros., 1990] A-
  • Mall [Polydor, 1991] *
  • Shrinkwrapped [Castle, 1995] Neither
  • 100 Flowers Bloom [Rhino, 1998] A
  • Content [Yep Roc, 2011] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Entertainment! [Warner Bros., 1980]
Though the stressful zigzag rhythms sound thinner on record than from the stage where their chanted lyrics/nonmelodies become visible, the progressive atavism of these university Marxists is a formal accomplishment worth attending. By propelling punk's amateur ethos into uncharted musical territory, they pull the kind of trick that's eluded avant-garde primitives since the dawn of romanticism. And if you want to complain that their leftism is received, so's your common sense. No matter how merely liberal their merely critical verbal content, the tension/release dynamics are praxis at its most dialectical. Don't let's boogie--let's flop like fish escaping a line. A

Gang of Four [Warner Bros. EP, 1980]
Whatever your reservations about quickie twelve-inches, the wide grooves here power a bassy hi-fi that does justice to an ace club band. Two forward-looking new songs, two forward-looking old ones, all eminently consumable. A-

Solid Gold [Warner Bros., 1981]
Only when a jazz critic uttered the word "harmolodic" in conjunction with this music did I realize why I admired it so. Not for its politics, which unlike some of my more ideological comrades I find suspiciously lacking in charity. And not for its funk, which like some of my more funky comrades I find suspiciously lacking in on-the-one. And certainly not for its melodies. I admire it, and dig it to the nth, for its tensile contradictions, which are mostly a function of sprung harmony, a perfect model for the asynchronous union at the heart of their political (and rhythmic) message. Here Jimmy Douglass's production strategy is to cram everything together. Compare the more spacious versions of the two recorded songs on their 1980 EP, and dig those to the nth as well. A

Another Day/Another Dollar [Warner Bros. EP, 1981]
Caveats about live-version/album-available EP ripoffs don't apply to this product, which adds the militantly dialectical "History's Bunk!" and the U.K.-only outside-agitating "Capital (It Fails Us Now)" to the endlessly repeatable "To Hell With Poverty" on the all-studio A and debuts concert versions of the undeniable "What We All Want" and the ineffable "Cheeseburger" on the B. Hungry Americans who find Solid Gold dry should taste-test these juicy, nutritious remakes. A

Songs of the Free [Warner Bros., 1982]
What I love about their records is the very thing that keeps me from playing them much--the guitars are so harsh, the rhythms so skewed, the voices so hectoring, the lyrics so programmatic that they function as a critique of casual hedonism. Their pleasure is like Barthes or forward bends--good for you, in a limited way. So while it's all right in theory for "I Love a Man in a Uniform" to make me think I've been underrating the Human League every time its intro makes me want to get up and dance, I don't find such amenities formally appropriate. And never fear--there are almost as few here as they think they can get away with. A-

Hard [Warner Bros., 1983]
This record is damn near dead on its feet, but I don't think the missing ingredient is Hugo Burnham's human chops so much as his humane spirit. The sick-soul-of-success lyrics are part of it--even their most received new-left truisms always had a sloganeering hookiness about them. What really makes the difference, though, is the detachment of Jon King's delivery. If I didn't know better, I'd wonder whether now he really wants to turn into Phil Oakey. And actually, I don't know better. B

A Brief History of the 20th Century [Warner Bros., 1990]
A gorgeous artifact, history by a band that doesn't even control its own--all their product good (Entertainment, Solid Gold, Another Day/Another Dollar, Songs of the Free) and bad (Hard) has been deleted ("is history," one might say), replaced by one otherwise uncompromising nonvinyl retrospective. Explication aplenty is provided by the Greil Marcus essay that supports the package, though he underplays their crabwise rhythmic progress and sporadic militance. Docked a notch so you scour the remainder bins first. A-

Mall [Polydor, 1991]
and in the mall, there's a disco ("Motel," "F.M.U.S.A.") *

Shrinkwrapped [Castle, 1995] Neither

100 Flowers Bloom [Rhino, 1998]
In a year of exploitations and misconceptions--Newman box (his albums sell cheap), Bacharach box (when will Dionne get her miniset?), Mayfield overkill-then-downsize (MCA's two-CD 1992 Anthology nails him)--the synchronic programming, live tracks, and five songs from 1995's disappearing Shrinkwrapped make this double look like another rogue Rhino. Far from it. Gof4's Warner albums always worked as albums, as they will again when they're finally rereleased, and Warner's Brief History of the 20th Century posits a proper beginning, middle, and end. What this jumble does is establish new interconnections--the concert versions and studio remixes hold songs you know up to the light, and mixed in among the old electrofunk adventures their recent techno moves sound principled and in character. Gof4's radical critique/embrace of commodification remains a truth, not the whole truth, so help me God. But it sure hasn't lost relevance. And when their albums do come back whole, as commodification makes inevitable, this version of their vision will still get in your face. A

Content [Yep Roc, 2011]
As they add the quaver of age to Andy Gill's slashes and modernize Jon King's animadversions with cellphone photos, comparison with the 20-year-old Mall quickly reveals how blessed the mainstays are in drummer Mark Heaney, who in the great tradition of Marky Ramone has both the musical sense to respect Hugo Burnham's simplicity and the historical savvy not to attempt an anachronistic replication. Since their consumerist analysis was never that deep and their self-doubt always had a self-aggrandizement to it, all these adjustments are welcome. In fact, my favorite song here is "A Fruitfly in the Beehive," which begins a quiet patch the original band would never have sat still for. It's not the only time they speak of repentance, for what I don't know--not some endorsement, I hope. Inspirational Verse: "Where are we headed for? For a distant shore? Or some brand new war/Don't know why i can't ask for more, don't walk out the door, what am I left here for?" A-