What Happens Next - Gang of Four (Metropolis/ Membran)
You may have heard of Gang of Four, maybe even, if you’re very lucky, have seen them.
In 1979, the Gang of Four’s first 7”s had a huge impact on me, particularly their first, "Love Like Anthrax", using feedback as an integral part of the song, drowning us as we heard Jon King’s vocals speaking simply - a little like The Velvet Underground’s "The Gift", but so different that the comparison didn’t occur to me until years later.
Their first LP, "Entertainment!", bristling with slappin bass lines, brittle, spiky guitar runs had me dancing like a demon, and …
They had great lyrics, too; like a series of jabs to the ribs. I’ve always maintained that 1979 saw the release of three of the most extraordinary LPs ever recorded; the aforementioned, The Pop Group’s "Y", and The Human League’s "Reproduction". They’re an odd combo to listen to all together, as they have rather different perspectives - and intentions.
It must be awkward to be a political (oh, left wing, need you ask? although to be fair the Gang of Four always tended to point things out rather than draw precise, right-on conclusions) band when you’re signed to a major label, trying to do that little bit more than most bands; you’re not just motivated to have a hit, but have a hit in order to get the messages across … which means that you weren’t hell-bent on creating just ‘your audience’, but interfering with all audiences…
Perhaps it’s needless to say that Gang of Four has been through several incarnations, with various members leaving, the band breaking up and then reforming again.
In their first incarnation, Jon King wrote the lyrics and Andy Gill the music; think of a more chord-based version of the Pop Group with less emotive propellant; or a politically-motivated Doctor Feelgood warped through Bertoldt Brecht’s American period. Dave Allen’s bass and Hugo Burnham’s drums were as important to what beardies call "the post-punk scene" in the UK and elsewhere; likewise Jon King’s performances were legendary in a time of legends.
So many bands in the late '70s and early '80s set the barrier so high without realising it, that broader crowd expectations proved difficult to fulfill. Audiences would want a second and third dose of the same thing … but the reason the bands had formed - particularly after the wash of freedom set loose after the Pistols - was to see just how far they could go and still make it work as a … business, ultimately, as well as a band.
The Gang of Four’s last LP, "Content", was released in 2011, with King and Gill at the helm, but after the accompanying tour, King left (again).
Now, a word on that current, and it seems endlessly divisive topic: do they have the original members?
Nope. In fact, only one, really.
But, a bit like The New York Dolls (but not like, say, the Pixies or Radio Birdman), when the Gang do get back together, they’ve always ploughed forward; a nod and a grin to the past, but really, it’s all about the here and now. Can’t really see either the Pixies nor Radio Birdman doing that. When the Gang of Four split in ’83, Gill and King refloated the vessel a few years later with other musicians. Dave Allen and Hugo Burnham returned 20 years later, punching the clock for a further 10 years. King finally called it quits last year and so, with the last man standing (in a manner quietly and less wealthily resembling Gene Simmons of ‘Kiss’ - you must’ve heard of Kiss, they were quite popular 40 years ago), Andy Gill continues to harness the sound and determination of a band many thought ran out of steam decades ago.
Except they never did.
For some musicians, a certain band in their past keeps calling, and the owners of the copyright or the ex-members pull out the rubber batsuit, or the lycra trews their 19-year-old daughter stretched out of shape last semester, or careless, fumbly shredding or whatever, long past the moment when decency should’ve been paid attention to. God, you old fuckers, invest in a corset!
Fortunately, not all bands are like that. As far as I am aware, no member of ‘Go4’ (ahem) wears or has ever worn, a rubber bat suit or stretched lycra trews, or clumsily shredded. Nor worn a corset.
In fact, Andy Gill is one of those guitarists who really should be better known. If they tour, I’ll be going partly just to see Gill. I’ve always wanted to see Wilco Johnson, too (I managed it precisely once), and I wished I’d’a seen Mick Green. So. The Gang of Four is capable of tuff rock and roll, splintered into hardfunky, dance-floor damage with malice aforethought. But, all that aside, Gill has put aside much of the savage guitar in favour of the ugly r’n’b, with attracting, leg-twitching catnip.
So, as I said before, the trick is, as Bertie Brecht and Kurtie Weill knew, to play the music in such a way that you’re forced to pay attention to the lyrics, ‘cause the purpose is to push the meaning down your throat. Which rather raises questions of legitimacy of persuasion, but most popular performers never seem to bother with questions of legitimacy of persuasion, so why should we? It’s an inspiration to have Alison Mosshart Herbert Grönemeyer sing here; there’s considerable scope for FM crossover (always the goal of any rock band, whatever they may say to the contrary).
That said, Gang of Four never really made much dosh. Did they deserve to? Hell yes. And their live shows were always honest. Real. And the best way to appreciate the Gang of Four is to listen to their new cd as if it were their first. Does it make an impact? Is it real?
More to the point, does What Happens Next impress despite the band’s previous work? C’mon, do monkeys fling shit at tourists?
"What Happens Next" has as its overt theme the inevitable dissolution and shitting away of civilised England (not the British Empire, Go4 are too young to feel nostalgic for that). No, Gill’s lyrics don’t concern the big picture, rather the poor fuckers trapped in, to quote the Howard the Duck comic, "a world he never made"… and it’s a big, intimidating place …
"Where the Nightingale Sings" (which is England, ok?) is a cracking, deceptive opener; the dustbowl blues is blown away as Thomas McNeice (bass since ’08) and Jonny Finnegan (drums since ’11) set up sterling dance rhythms (and it’s pretty huge, folks), with Gill carefully stalking rather noisy, glorious guitar around the same, with vocalist John ‘Gaoler’ Sterry (since ’12) seducing us in a way I don’t think King would’ve. This animal ain’t the old animal, but that’s a given; certainly we’re invited to re-examine our real everyday world all over again; "turn your back on London’s bitter pride" … Jesus, that’s harsh.
"Broken Talk" is a thumping, dancefloor jitterbug on the isolation of the modern male in our world - sung by Alison Mosshart (of The Kills, and also a feature on James Williamson’s "Relicked" juggernaut). The lyrics ring true; "Sometimes he guesses he might be wrong/ Sometimes guesses that he don't belong"…
There’s a sort of tense, restrained savagery about Gang of Four these days, as if they’re some sort of nasty venomous creature just waiting to get at us. Isle of Dogs starts out fairly nasty and just keeps squeezing, like some sort of ever-strengthening python … no, they’re not the same, fast, choppy bunch as before; now they’ve seen the dark and it’s damned hard to escape it…
It’s rather wonderful how naturally Alison Mosshart fits in with this band. "England’s in My Bones" crashes and plunges around her like an ugly, snarling animal, and she’s holding the whole thing together. Rather wonderful guitar here, too.
"The Dying Rays" features Herbert Grönemeyer, a huge star (as in, the bloke can’t walk about in public without causing mayhem) in Germany. His voice reminds me a little of Gavin Friday, oddly enough. If there’s a song here which you could imagine being played on mainstream radio with bricklayers and typists singing along with a tear in the eye, "The Dying Rays" is it.
"Obey the Ghost", well, the Ghost in the Machine, naturally. The real ghost in the machine is us on social media and pornotube; these days, we’re the ghosts … filling our emptiness with emptiness… Pretty brutal r’n’b here too … first time I’ve heard that bogus term ‘community’ imbued with the lost patronising creepiness it’s always held for me …
"First World Citizen" I liked but not all that much. Maybe it doesn’t fit as well in here.
"Stranded" is another of "What Happens Next"’s huge addictive rhythm beasts, and it’s another you can imagine on FM … with polly’s minions and union members manfully brushing aside a tear. In between bopping on tables (preferably Ministerial).
Actually, that begs the question. How many Prime Ministers, or PM aides, have bopped away the night in theMministerial offices?
Yeah, that’d be right. None.
The beginning "Graven Image" reminds me again a little of the Pop Group, that pensive, just-about-to-hurtle down the slope sensation. I think I’m gonna have to play this a few more times, that bouyant bass together with the pianner is really effective.
"Dead Souls"; no, it’s not the song by Joy Division. "Dead Souls" refers to the Russian practice of paying the state for the soul of the departed … which resulted in rather funny, if painful, novel by Gogol. And "Dead Souls" is quite simply, heavy metal meets intelligence and wit. I apologise if this concept seems difficult to comprehend. Unlike HM, Dead Souls speaks of grey areas … and that’s where I’ll leave you.
"Staubkorn" also features Herr Grönemeyer, and again, really, you can imagine this opening a film which wins four Oscars. Are you with me yet?
No, I haven’t told you much, not really. Serve you right. Tough.
You’re gonna have to figure "What Happens Next" out for yourself. It drags you in using all sorts of currency, and you’ll find … you’re in debt. Just like you are now.
Gill uses England as a metaphor for the collapse of civilisation in the modern world; there is, as ever with this band, a broad spectrum at work. The album works as a whole, the way albums really should. I remember one wacker playing "The Model" from my "Man Machine" LP, and then taking it off as the next song came on … I was amazed, not least because "The Model" is the lamest song on that LP anyway. … You can wear a hole in the dancefloor to "What Happens Next", or you can pay attention, or both, and you’ll still find the same gritted-teeth, poke-holes-in-the-curtain approach that Gang of Four always had; interestingly, the topics are, as ever, different. There’s no banging away at the same drum. You never really know what to expect next. And the song order apparently varies depending on whether you’ve bought cd or vinyl.
I’m going to quote from diffuser’s interview with Andy Gill; "The thing is, it’s fun. You don’t really — once you open the tap it’s quite hard to turn it off. You gotta keep going."
"What Happens Next" is a damn good LP, modern and enjoyable. Perfect for driving or doing the dishes or dancing like an idiot (with a packet of condoms in your pocket).
This link will get you most of what you need.
In case you’re not convinced or unfamiliar, I’d also recommend "Entertainment!", the double disc of "Hard and Solid Gold", and 2011’s "Content"; if you want a quick overview grab "A Brief History of the Twentieth Century", a rather noisy compilation, or the Peel Sessions.
"What Happens Next" is you buy the CD, or the vinyl. If you’d never heard the band before, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Four lagers (and four curry and chips).