Interesting article in the Crooked Timber blog about Gang of Four’s politics, including some quotes from an interview I did with Andy Gill a few years ago.
What’s especially interesting is this quote from Gill that’s cited:
“I’ve always felt that we were considered “political” by default. I think a lot of time, we were singing about elements of everyday life in certain ways. It’s quite observational. It was looking around our immediate world and the world further afield and drawing observations about those things….Also, to be fair, we would talk about various Marxist writers like Walter Benjamin. If you mention someone like that, people are going to say “Ah right, they must be Marxists.” But something like that is just one of many different elements in the pot.I think people saw us as political because if you look at the overall spectrum of music, [most bands] strive to be as apolitical as they possibly can be. If anything in your songs makes any kind of social or economic or political idea or can be interpreted in those kind of ways, then everybody suddenly starts screaming ‘Rabid Marxist!’ at you.”
I don’t know why this didn’t register with me when he said this a few years back but with the Gang among us again, it does have some resonance. Clearly, they’re a bunch of cheeky guys who still don’t play by the rules. Their reunion has added to up to tours but no new album. Instead, they re-recorded their old songs and let some other bands remix their oldies. Not what you’d expect from a bunch of Marxists exactly.
What’s poignant about Gill’s quote is that he sees the group’s lyrics in more of a sociological context than any political context. Nevertheless, many listeners back in the day (myself included) saw it just the opposite. If you’re a bunch of hard-edge punks shouting slogans, you’re political. Not so if you’re the Monkees playing “Pleasant Valley Sunday” or the Spice Girls talking about “girl power.” You know, they’re pop and they obviously didn’t really “mean it,” right? (even if “Stepping Stone” was covered by the Sex Pistols and Minor Threat among others).
It’s also worth pondering all the recent articles that bemoan the lack of political music nowadays. Frankly, it’s not worth tracking down those articles again and you’ve already gotten the gist of them by reading the last sentence. Is it possible that rather than overt political music (i.e. Neil Young’s Living With War), it’s possible to make a strong statement without a direct message? Of course it is but since it doesn’t provide listeners (and especially critics) with easily digestible lyric-bites, you’ll rarely hear about this. That’s not to say that you’re going to find some debatable discourse about the social condition in say Fergie’s “London Bridge” but then again, the same can be said for most of the new albums from Bob Dylan or the Mountain Goats. The latter two indulge in immensely personal narratives so their words are constantly gleaned for meaning that frankly, just ain’t always there. We can try to tease out all the meaning that we’d like from them but as Gill could tell you, their take on life and their scenarios are just their own window on the world. We the listeners are the ones who attach meaning to them and then decide if it matches our own scenario.