We Condemn the Gang of Four (Just Kidding)
Walking away from Pier 84, where the Gang of Four had just finished last Wednesday's three-encore set under the stars, the smog, and the battleship Intrepid, my friend Roger Trilling observed (and I paraphrase): "The Gang's tension/release dynamics are great and also very suitable to a political band, but those guys feel differently about words than music. The problem isn't that their attitudes are merely critical, but that they aren't dialectical. Marx, after all, didn't offer solutions, but his criticisms were dynamic, thrusting, propulsive. Theirs are static, flat--in effect, liberal." I agreed, realizing, as we bore inland, that even their irony lacks dimension. It's almost always at the expense of others--of entire value systems and those who believe in them: capitalism, TV, U.S., love, lust, liberals, money, men in uniform, the rat race, even cheeseburgers.
It had been, as usual with the Gang of Four, a wonderful concert, and as usual this had been not only a tribute to their unshakable pace, seismic builds, and constant scooting around, but also to the spontaneous sustained physical cohesion of their typically heterogeneous crowd, who in this case spent the entire show standing on their seats. As usual at outdoor concerts, the sound was not great, with feedback problems skewing the music throughout and frogs wobbling in Jon King's throat, but it didn't matter. Andy Gill, providing texture with his crushed-up face and off-rhythms with his noise guitar, skittered in with extra support, and drummer Hugo Burnham alone would be reason enough for crowds to dance so hard and so variously to this band--from all-body shakes to long, streamlined grooves to, of course, the ska in all two of its variations. The Gang--touring at five, coed, and dressed in floppy gray flannels whose symbolism I didn't get (bankers? skyscrapers?)--have gotten old enough to scoot by will rather than nerves, but nerves took over pretty soon, with King throwing his eel-like body up in the air three or four times until it caught like an outboard motor. I wish the female additions, Sara Lee on bass and Edi Reader (for the tour only) on vocals, had scooted too, but their sere sopranos knocked the socks off the night's biggest climax, the gorgeous "Call Me Up," a song that had passed me right by when it kicked off the new LP, Songs of the Free.
The big grabber on the album is the simple satire of militarism, "I Love a Man in a Uniform," the little grabber the more complicated satire of imperialism, "The History of the World." But as usual with the Gang, I like them all much better live. On Songs, with their dissonance dominating their dynamism, they come off more like Europop than the multipercussive football cheers I prefer. The themes feel hollow and morose ("We live, as we dream, alone") rather than bitingly gloomy (compare "Show me a ditch and I'll dive in it"). Yet, typically, the live rendition changed the emphases, baring the hook of, say, "It is not enough," and blurring its vaguer underpinnings, like "Our future is in our past," until the new material sounded a lot like the old: terrific.
I wondered quite a bit, as I prepared for this show, why it is that their records do so little for me, and their concerts so much. Even my favorite, the 12-inch, 20-minute EP Another Day/Another Dollar, has one live side, though I think its brevity is equally telling, providing some sense of their urgent live pace on the studio side. Could they really not capture that urgency over an entire LP? Or do they prefer not to, planning record use as a reflective (Brechtian?) experience, but not realizing that their ideas don't bear all that much reflection? Let's be candid--they have no class analysis. Often their satirical objects are in effect the uneducated and vulgar. Yet even the music, whose cunning ought to repay close listening, loses something without the concert push.
Dialectics are slippery devils. They promise you the world and then you wake up alone saying nu? Bette Midler's better live, too. So's Springsteen. What does it all mean? But as my own gang hit Eleventh Avenue, an answer came thrusting through the steamy air: the dialectic missing from their albums is provided by their audience. Not only does this make for great live shows--it deepens their politics. What we all want happens to be a tight, fast, danceable three-encore show closing with everyone's fave, "At Home He's a Tourist," but the fact that as Marxists the Gang of Four give us exactly that indicates generosity and practicality, at least within their own sphere.
What exactly is a leftist rock and roll band supposed to do at this crisis of Western democracy? What can it sell? lnformation? Sedition? Guilt? Courage? Fear? Red Crayola offer strange Marxist luxuries--not for the rich, but for the disciplined. The Clash give us what we want, but they make us pay for it with efnic rhythms and educational first acts. The Gang of Four don't seem to want to lead or inspire or scare us but to be comrades, like some postpunk USO troupe. And that's why I'll keep coming back for them as long as they come back for me, while groups with deeper political insights and more genuinely revolutionary impulses, like the Clash, make me so angry with their sullen machismo and half-cocked edifying that I'm not always sure I want to help conduct their powerful, careless electricity. The Gang seem so delighted to keep our spirits up--and so good at it, so tireless--that as comrades I do trust them, even though their battles might be a bit abstract. They'd never tell the peasants. to eat cake, certainly. But they might say--very nicely, of course, "Right. Er--what is bread?"
Village Voice, July 27, 1982