I've said it before and I'll probably say it again, nostalgia is a dangerous thing. Especially if you're like me and fifty is not only on the horizon but is looming in the very near future like some sort of measuring stick against your perceived success or failure. So naturally there is something seductive about the past; your supposed wild and free youth. However, the trouble with the rose coloured glasses most of us use to look back in time are their tendency to induce myopia. So the visions they offer of a supposedly better time often have little or no bearing on reality. Heavy thoughts to start a music review I know, but when ghosts from the past start issuing press releases about new CDs - which hadn't even existed when they were first making records - the ground tends to shift under you somewhat and your mind wanders.
It was the end of 1982 and there were probably about a thousand of us scattered over the floor of the old Masonic Temple in Toronto to see the primary exponents of British punk/funk, the Gang Of Four. While they had had some marginal success with songs like "To Hell With Poverty", they had been too blatantly political for even the most liberal of radio stations to give them much airtime in North America for the first part of their career. A line up change in the early 80s saw their original bass player replaced by former Robert Fripp side-woman, from his group League of Gentlemen, Sara Lee and whether it was a coincidence or not, their music underwent a change at the same time. They toned down the stridency of their political message somewhat and smoothed the edges of their raw sound. The result was radio airplay in a real way with the song "Man In A Uniform".
While there were the usual mutters of sell-out, and sarcastic comments like "Gang Of Four meets the Human League", if anybody bothered to listen to the lyrics of the song they might have realized subversion doesn't have to be blatant. Unfortunately satire is lost on left wing punks just as much as it is on everybody else. However if the band lost some of its more hard core followers, they more than made it up for it with increased air play and the chance to have their message heard by a wider audience.
With the Clash on the verge of collapsing in on itself, Gang Of Four were one of the few overtly political bands left at the time. With the air waves gradually becoming awash with abominations like Duran Duran and Rick Astley, it was something of a relief to have them still out there slugging. The concert that night back in 1982 was hard edged punk/funk of a type I'd not seen or heard before live, and it blew me away. Unfortunately the band disappeared from my radar screen shortly after, and even though they put out albums through to the 1990s, I didn't hear anything else they did after that night.
So it was with understandably mixed feelings I decided to listen to their first new release in something like fourteen years, C O N T E N T, on Yep Roc Records, hitting shelves on January 25 2011 in a store near you. The first thing you'll notice is whatever else the passing of the years might have done it sure hasn't changed their intensity. There had always been the feeling you were listening to the equivalent of shock troops with these guys. Their songs had been like quick strike attacks targeting a specific subject and shooting straight to the heart of the matter. The driving music combined with vocalist Jon King's impassioned singing not only brought you to your feet but compelled you to listen to what was being said. While the make up of the band has changed since I last heard them in the early 1980s, bass player Sara Lee and drummer Hugo Burnham have been replaced by Thomas McNiece and Mark Heaney respectively, it's like the band hasn't missed a beat.
Andy Gill's guitar still does the remarkable job of laying down chopping funk rhythms with a primal edge that reminds you of why rock and roll scares the crap out of the establishment. Age may have imposed a few limits on King's vocal range, but it hasn't done anything to restrict the level of his intensity and his ability to make himself understood even while he is spitting out lyrics railing against the system. For while other supposedly political bands might think it's "A Beautiful Day", Gang Of Four aren't about to paint pretty pictures today any more then they would have thirty years ago. "Who can lie when everything is true?/Who wants old when everything is new?/Who am I when everything is me?" they ask on "Who Am I". As scathing an attack on the loss of personal identity in a time when self expression is being able to personalize your profile on Facebook as you'll ever hear.
But not every song is in full attack mode, as they give listeners a much needed break now and then. However just because the music is little bit mellower the message is still pretty pointed. Take " A Fruitfly In The Beehive", where the music is less funk and a little more soulful, but lyrics like "And when the true believers die/more and more get born again/If the queen can't cope at all there's a number she can call." are as biting as ever. We're all just buzzing around in our little beehive, and the only way it keeps running is because we're all willing to play the game. It doesn't matter which game it is either: religion, social networks, or believing that working forty hours a week for fifty years and then retiring is a definition of a life well lived, if we didn't play along none of it could exist. We're all just little worker bees in the hive following orders, and if the leaders ever have doubts they're not about to show them to us.
You always worry a little bit when bands you admired thirty years ago put out new albums. First of all you wonder at your own motivations for wanting to listen to them - are you only trying to recapture your misspent youth? Then you have to wonder if the band aren't doing the same thing by putting out a new release. Thankfully, in the case of C O N T E N T from Gang Of Four, what you'll find is a recording far more musically and lyrically interesting than most of what's being released today played with enthusiasm and more than a little passion.
You might not want to sit down and listen to it all the time, but when you feel the need for a jolt to bring you back to reality, or you're tired of people oversimplifying a complicated world, you'll be amazed at how much better it will make you feel. The Gang Of Four are proof that expressing anger at the system can be done creatively without being violent or mean spirited. A lesson a good many in our world need to learn these days.
(Article first published as Music Review: Gang of Four - C O N T E N T on Blogcritics.)
(Originally posted January 2001)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.