Saturday, July 18, 2009

490. Entertainment- The most ironic title yet.

Album: Entertainment.
Artist: Gang of four.
Year: 1979.
Genre: Overly Earnest English political punk.


1. Ether
2. Natural's Not in It
3. Not Great Men
4. Damaged Goods
5. Return the Gift
6. Guns Before Butter
7. I Found That Essence Rare
8. Glass
9. Contract
10. At Home He's a Tourist
11. 5.45
12. Anthrax

When I started this blog I promised I’d give every album at least four listens all the way through. Every note, every lyric, four times. So far that hasn’t proved too difficult. There have been some releases I’ve reviewed that haven’t floated my boat but they haven’t sunk it completely either. Entertainment by Gang of Four was the first time I’ve really had to suffer during this experience.

Gang of Four are a bunch of English lads who are described by most people as post-punk. In other words they took aspects of punk and added other things, although I can’t help but think they actually took things away rather than bringing anything to the punk table. They seemed to do away with melody and vocal variation for a start. Almost every track on Entertainment is identical: abrasive guitars and monotone vocals with lyrics that suggest someone is taking the whole experience far too seriously.

Thatcher’s Britain politicized music in a way that no era has since and only the Vietnam War did before. Everywhere you looked bands were turning their back on love/sex/parties and other lyric staples and writing songs about political oppression. How can we dance when the miners are striking? How could you think about making love at a time when the country is being ruled by a despot? How could you possibly be having a nice time when the Iron Lady and her oppressive regime still runs the country?

During the Vietnam War, music was political but capable of having a bit of a giggle with it as well. In fact humour was often seen as the most effective way of getting a message across. Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie is the most effective anti-draft song you’re likely to find and part of its impact is the fact that you’re laughing while the message hits home. Phil Ochs and Country Joe skewered the war with wit and their lesson was no less appreciated as a result. Bob Dylan made right wing anti-communist paranoia look totally absurd with Talkin John Birch paranoid blues and live versions show just how much his audience laughed along. But that sense of humour just doesn’t seem to be present in Thatcher’s Britain.

My personal theory on this is that in Nixon’s America comedians weren’t addressing the war while in Thatcher’s Britain alternative comedy was a very powerful force. While American protest singers didn’t have anyone poking fun at the war in a light hearted way those who lived under Thatcher had scores of Left-Wing comedians doing Thatcher gags. When you listen to 60’s protest songs you’re hearing the voice of the counter-culture, when you listen to Thatcher era protest music it’s only one voice in the choir of dissent.

The end result is bands like Gang of Four who are just so damned earnest. They take themselves so seriously so it’s hard to get involved when you don’t share their concerns. While the issues of Vietnam seem relevant in today’s political climate the problems Thatcher caused don’t seem relevant 20 years later in another country. When we’re all focused on renewable energies the plight of striking coal-miners doesn’t seem like a big issue. It’s from another world.

Gang of Four take their lyrics very seriously which makes it kind of hard for me to. When I hear passages like this...
“How can I sit and eat my tea,
with all that blood flowing from the television.
At a quarter to six,
I watch the news,
Eating, eating all my food
As I sit watching the red spot
In the egg which looks like
All the blood you don't see on the television.”
...from a track called 5:45 it just looks to me like bad teenage poetry rather that serious protest stuff. You can’t really take someone seriously when they use the phrase “bourgeois state” without irony. The whole thing just reminds me of Rik from The Young Ones, who is not someone you want brought to mind while listening to an album. “See the girl on the TV dressed in a Bikini/ She doesn't think so but she's dressed for the H-Bomb” Isn’t that a great lyric? Not sure what it says to you but to me it says: “we’re weighed down with the troubles of the world and looking down on you for not being as deep as us.”
I know comparisons to Husker Du aren’t all that helpful but it’s the only other Punk album I’ve heard all the way through and so my home base for a point of discussion. New Day Rising is a badly produced soup of joyful punk with melodies and hooks and things that made it infectious. Entertainment is much slicker in its production but lacks melodies or variation. The vocals are sung in a monotone and the abrasive guitars almost dare you to try and appreciate them. (The bass is great though, shame cool bass lines aren’t enough to save an album).

Listening to Entertainment (four times) I couldn’t help but feel that the band was suffering and wanted us to as well.

The basslines
Lowlight: Pretty much everything else.
Influenced by: The injustices being perpetrated on the citizens of the world by the fascist regimes of Thatcher and those like her.
Influenced: The Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Two of whom cast votes on this poll.

Favourite Amazon Customer review qute: “I can't think of any band so rough and refined, so young yet so right on, a perfect car crash... a crooning lover alone... bare as could be but fat as hell... from noise that couldn't have been intentional except that it's perfect, passed with melodies and chanting of melloncholly and outrage and anomie... something you can sing at the next political protest you attend from the bottom of your lungs to the top of your pallat so the whole godDAMNED WORLD CAN FUGGIN' HEAR IT!!! i have! and in denny hasterts' district!”

-To be honest when I first read this I thought the word “anomie” was made up but I googled it found it wasn’t. I’ve been educated.

So do Gang of Four provide Entertainment or not? Let me know below.

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