Counterbalance No. 145: Gang of Four’s ‘Entertainment!’

Gang of Four

Klinger: Hey Mendelsohn, ever play that game Taboo? Where you get a word or a name and you have to get the other person to guess it without using any words from the list? Like if you get Groucho Marx, you can’t use words like “cigar” or “mustache” or “nudist”? Let’s try that with this week’s Counterbalance. We’re going to talk at length about the Gang of Four’s 1979 album Entertainment!, but we can’t use any of the words that critics invariably fall back on when describing the group’s sound. So our Taboo words are scratchy, angular, and chattering — let’s see how we do!

While you’re planning your strategy, I’d like to go on record that I wish I’d had the good sense to get into Gang of Four and groups of their ilk while they were still a going concern. I was this close when I was young, having gotten into Elvis Costello and whatnot when I was a young youngster, but somehow I got myself distracted by the classic rock that was unavoidable and I ended up with a bunch of Eric Clapton cassettes. And to think I could have been the coolest/dorkiest 13-year-old in my suburb.

Mendelsohn: We all make mistakes in our youth, Klinger. Back in the middle of the last decade I got into the whole post-punk revival that was popular for a minute thanks to the success of bands like the Bloc Party and Interpol and a bunch of others I can’t remember because their music was mostly forgettable. I even went so far as to trace post-punk back to its roots and get my hands on a couple of Gang of Four records. Records I promptly never bothered to listen to. So had you gotten in on the ground floor and had I followed through on some meaningful intentions to broaden my musical vocabulary in my youth, we would already being having an in-depth conversation about Entertainment!—as opposed to playing silly party games.

Aren’t there more words we should add to the list? Like jangly, stuttering, and post-whatevers?

Klinger: Maybe “post-Marxist” or “post-consumerist” or all those other concepts that made my eyes glaze over in my Contemporary Sociological Theory classes (and seemed to get the English students all fired up). But if you mean “post-punk”, I’d say we’re going to have to allow it, because it’s hard to conceive of a discussion of post-punk without talking about Gang of Four and vice versa. In fact, when you talk about Gang of Four, it seems that you’re invariably going to end up talking about the vast swaths of influence they had.

Just about everybody from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to R.E.M. to the Wiggles claims Gang of Four as an influence—Red Hot Chili Peppers tapped guitarist Andy Gill to produce their debut album. Listening to Murmur with this knowledge makes you realize that the thick, fluid bass and choppy rhythms lying beneath all those echoey guitars have an even more obvious antecedent. And even when the influence is less obvious, critics occasionally try to create a link (I’ve seen attempts to tie the group’s sound to the nu-metal gibberish of Limp Bizkit, which… I guess…). And that’s a good idea, on balance, if your goal is to get younger generations to dig in. But when we do so, are we ultimately detracting from the pleasures of listening to Entertainment! for its own sake? (I’m assuming here, Mendelsohn, that you are enjoying this album as much as I am. You are, aren’t you?)

Mendelsohn: Yeah, I love this record. But Entertainment! was one of those records that I can only really appreciate now that I’m older. Obviously, Gang of Four had immense influence over a wide range of artists. Back in 2005, I never understood why Bloc Party’s debut Silent Alarm picked up so much pre-release buzz. It was featured in Newsweek of all places (back when Newsweek was a thing and people read it—including people who were my parents). And I only now realize that the Bloc Party did an incredibly effective job of stealing everything they could from the Gang of Four before repackaging it for a new generation. A generation, by the way, that was pre-disposed to like post-punk, with its driving rhythm, out-front bass, sparse, searing guitar licks, and mostly shouted vocals, thanks to several decades worth of bands who gleaned whatever they could from this record.

For those reason above, I like this record. The thing that makes me love this record is the riddum—not the rhythm—the riddum. I would have never noticed it had I not spent some time listening to dub reggae, but Gang of Four does an excellent job of incorporating the rhythmic sensibilities of reggae—the relentless, danceable drum beat and the rolling omnipresent bass—and updating those in true rock fashion to serve their needs. Hell, my heart even melts a little whenever they sneak in a little melodica. It’s not as strong in some songs as it is in others—”Damaged Goods” is a great example while “Glass” is more straightforward pop-oriented rock—but those influences pop up all over this record.

As much as Gang of Four influenced everyone else, I’m fascinated by the things they found influencing them and how they repurposed those musical genes to fit their end sound.

Klinger: Yes, the riddum, and I will go so far as to say it is the rhythm as well. The songs on here are driven by the complex interplay between guitar, bass, and drums, as well as the call and response between the lead and backing vocals. It’s all woven into a tapestry of sound that’s driven by rhythmic propulsion without ever really being what we’d call funk (although a surprising number of critics have done just that).

As I’ve spent a protracted amount of time with Entertainment!, I’ve come to realize that—much like very nearly every other album we’ve covered to date—there lies underneath all of the trappings a curiously accessible pop record. Switch the guitar around a little bit, scale back the bass line, and all of a sudden a song like “I Found That Essence Rare” shifts from the post-punk of Gang of Four to the regular punk of the Buzzcocks. Of course, that stands to reason, but once that realization permeated my thick skull, I was all of a sudden able to hear all the hooks. It stopped mattering so much which groups were influenced by which elements of which songs. I stopped thinking about whether I really understood all of the current events they reference in songs like “5:45” or “Ether”. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Jon King and Andy Gill’s literate take on late-’70s British culture and sociopolitical whatnot, or that I’m not spending a lot more time pondering the lyrics, but once Entertainment! became entertainment, I couldn’t (and can’t) get it out of my head.

Mendelsohn: Entertainment! is most certainly a pop record. It just happens to be a pop record with some sharp opinions and lots of guitar distortion, which, by the way, creates an interesting dichotomy within the album. On the one hand you have the clear-headed drums and bass that seem to work in lock-step tandem, laying down the driving funk while the guitar slashes, screeches and screams in an almost vocal nature. It’s an interesting dance that respects the space of each instrument in an organized noise attack without ever being overpowering or forgetting the true pop nature of this record. “Anthrax” may be the best example. There is so much going on, for the two minutes the song seems to be trying to pull itself apart, held together by only the bass and drums before the feedback subsides a little and the hook kicks in and all of the elements of the song fall into place next to each other.

We have passed this admonishment back and forth a couple of times but I think it bears repeating—it really helps to stop thinking about this record so hard and just sit back—or get up—and enjoy the groove. Sometimes that can be difficult especially with the extreme political nature of a lot of the material on this record.

Klinger: I know, as much as you love to get up and shake your groove thing, I do respectfully maintain that it is still important that we take time to consider the sociopolitical ramifications of the album, both vis-à-vis its lyrical content and in terms of its overall place in the larger culture, and I simply cannot do that while I’m dancing. For example, it’s worth noting that Entertainment! was released on EMI, which was the largest label in Britain at the time. Of course, a precedent had been set when the Clash signed to CBS a couple of years prior, but Gang of Four opted to double down on that rather than draw a proverbial line in the sand. To me, that’s as much a part of the group’s legacy as its scratchy, angular gui… Oh, shoot.