Gang of Four: Return the Gift (U.S. Version)

Gang of Four
Return the Gift (U.S. Version)
U.S. Version

I’ve been burned quite a few times. The first time was when I was seven and I tried pouring a pot of tea for my parents and instead spilled scalding water all over myself. The second was when I was eight and I touched the hot side of an iron to see if, uh, it was hot. My third (and certainly not last) time was when I was 15 and training for the Los Angeles Marathon. No, it wasn’t sunburn from a five-hour run under the California sun; I never even made it to the race. Still, it was of an arguably deeper degree. The funny thing about a burn that serious is that you don’t realize how serious the burn is initially. Mine began on the first day of training.

I met my coach at my high school’s track early that morning. To my surprise, there was another runner already working out. My “peer” was a small, wiry man, about 5′ 5″ and 125 lbs., if that. Though long gray hair and a grizzly beard masked his features, the deep lines that creased his forehead and tucked generously underneath his eyes spoke volumes of age and experience. His outfit was equally striking: a dark colored headband that pushed his heap of hair up and over his forehead, a sad and graying white tee that had seen better days, equivalent sneakers with knee-length white socks, and baby blue short shorts. As my coach gave the orders of the day, I sized up my coincidental competition out of the corner of my eye. His diminutive size, off-color appearance, and, most important, his age led me to tag him as a “lapper” — meaning, I could pass him with every lap. However, as my coach yarned on, I noticed something else: he was a good runner. His arms were stiff, but he had a long stride. When the coach finished, I hit the track for my warm-up, positive I was starting on a good foot.

As I trotted around the first bend — woosh! — the man zipped past me. His speed and, from what I could tell as I plucked dust from my tongue, natural grace was… intimidating. Flummoxed, I stepped up my pace, but the man’s lead grew quickly. By the time I completed my first warm-up lap the man had escaped my field of vision. No sooner had I realized this I heard a familiar patter approaching quickly from behind. Half-bewildered, half-infuriated, I kicked up my gears. Without fail, the man rolled past me, leaving me to trail his mangled mane again.

Within the space of a few minutes, this man went from being a complete stranger to imaginary whipping boy to arch-nemesis. I fixated on his flopping and sticky hair, imagining myself swinging this burnout by his ponytail and then wiping my hand clean with a wet wipe. I focused on his sweat-free shirt and thought, “Launder!” And I glared at his shorts. Oh, those shorts. Who would wear those gam-revealing nut-huggers? Not I, the fashionable teen with sagging chinos and olive drab, ankle length short pants. Everything about this hippie imp became a source of aggravation, a point of difference, an example of his weakness. And yet, he was lapping my ass.

This humbling sequence of events continued each morning, yet the lesson did not end when I stopped training due to exhaustion two months later. Nor did it end when I passed on the marathon all together nearly six months later. In fact, I’ll say the burn didn’t stop for a full eight years until I finally ran the bloody 26. Not that the patchouli past dogged my memory the entire time. Rather, it was a matter of nerve: knowing when and how to have the nerve to come/go through. And the valuable lesson: that you can be old, look like a Muppet version of Richard Manuel, have a terrible sense of fashion, and still stay fly through the years.

As alluded above, I have managed to play the role of Burning Man several times in spite of such nuggets of hard won common sense. In this manner, my life with Gang of Four has not been all roses. I had heard of the British quartet through a number of bands I liked, so I decided to do a bit of research. Lo and behold was Entertainment!, a gem of furious funkiness. Admittedly, listening to a band retroactively — especially one that is defunct — is a convenient way to assess music. Ten years later, I had the chance to make up for my absence of Go4 nostalgia. However, ignorant petulance had grown into rationalized petulance — where was the Running Man when I needed him? “The inactivity of musicians over a prolonged period has rarely translated into soulfully engaging music.” Wha? “It’s not that they’re older, it’s just that they haven’t been together in so long.” Ya heard? I even had the opportunity to pose the concern directly to the group, to which bassist Dave Allen nearly bit my head off; this was no humdrum, in it for the… reunion. This was a band. Playing. Again. And play they do on the original lineup’s first record in roughly twenty years.

Return the Gift is pure top shelf. That the group has only recently restarted playing together is commendable. That their recorded results are in better condition and hungrier than those from the latest hot sensations is incredible. The original Four sound as if they have been caged and steadily aged, spending the time in captivity carving a lean and muscular sound: former shoulder jerkers like “To Hell With Poverty” and “Ether” have become frightening fuck-fests; “What We All Want” has left its ’80s growing pains in the closet and comes out raw and in the flesh; and “He’d Send the Army” drives home the point with the big beat drum. These are not just “songs that have aged well” — though the continued socio-political relevance of the group’s work is undeniable — these are fine-tuned performances.

As if this were not enough, the old Gang makes up for lost time and condenses its roots (tracks from its first two albums) into one album for all the young lions. In a market where veteran artists see the death knoll in the engraving of a best-of tombstone, Go4 spits on the retrospective with RtG. No new tricks, no hits for the sake of hits, just a solid show of how it’s supposed to be done. More important, it is a (violent) reminder of how vital and vibrant each of us can be, regardless of age.

A key point about RtG is that it is old material performed in the present; the past not necessarily modernized, but re-contextualized. Go4 takes a look back before allowing VH1 the pleasure. As such, RtG cannot be assessed in the same manner as a longstanding band’s album of new material. Nevertheless, the effort is an impressive document of the band’s discipline. Like my former running mate who approached running with admirable vigor later in age, he was an excellent runner for his circumstances. Similarly, RtG is pretty damn good for Gang of Four at present. Even if the reunion proves short-lived, RtG remains an enthusiastic smack upside the head for young’ns like myself, the type who need a burn every once in a while.

RATING 8 / 10