#273: Entertainment!, Gang of Four
Why did I think this was “That’s Entertainment” by the Jam? It’s not. But it IS by a band from the same part of the world and the same decade. Even though the Jam leans more towards new wave and Gang of Four is danceable punk, they’re similar enough to invite comparisons among rock critics, so I’m not crazy. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there.
Despite the obvious parallels, the Gang is way more impactful than the Jam. This was one of Kurt Cobain’s personal top favorite albums, and Flea of the Chili Peppers said this record “completely changed the way I looked at rock music and sent me on my trip as a bass player.” Some famous people associated with them too, including founding member Andy Gill (who was maybe one of the first COVID casualties) and bassist Sara Lee (who has no relation to the prepackaged cakes sold in the US). I was pretty excited about Lee, who’s worked with artists including the Indigo Girls, the Thompson Twins, the B-52s, and Ani DiFranco. Oh, to be Sara Lee.
Entertainment! is their debut and doesn’t feature her, but it is the only one to feature all four founding members and their only entry on the RS 500 list. Like I said, all your favorite artists love the Gang, so whether you’re a rap fan or a punk burnout, you’re probably at least somewhat familiar with them, even if you don’t know it. Run the Jewels samples the staccato opener “Ether” in their wild song “the ground below.” “Return the Gift” sounds a bit like the Cars, if they had real edge and attacked their guitars a bit more.
This record belies some political commentary that isn’t nearly as simple as musical political commentary tends to be. “Guns Before Butter” has such vicious harmonies and powerful bass riffs that I didn’t care to listen to the music until I read that the inspiration for this song was a quote from Prussian President Hermann Göring: “Guns will make us powerful; butter will only make us fat.” That provides a dark context for the catchy, snarling lyrics: The motherland’s no place to cry for/I want some sand to hide my head in. To say nothing of the mystically-titled “I Found That Essence Rare,” which claims that the worst thing in 1954 was the Bikini, and they aren’t talking about the swimsuit. It’s a scrappy sound mixed with radical ideas that may or may not be half-baked.
Maybe they’re not the most subtle band in the world, but punk rock is no place for subtlety.
The Gang’s political and philosophical interests range from Marxism to something called Situationism. But you don’t need to know anything about that to appreciate the stop-and-start guitars of songs like “Natural’s Not In It,” a song that contemplates The problem of leisure, which is what to do for pleasure. It’s too fun to be so smart. “Not Great Men” states in no uncertain terms that history was NOT made by so-called Great Men. “5.45” (a title that references both prime time and AK-74s) uses a freaking melodica, and uses a secret agent guitar a la “Rock Lobster.”
Now, “Contract” threw me. Hmm, must be about the Social Contract, I thought to myself. (Social Contract Theory: The idea that citizens have implicitly agreed to abide by the rule of reigning authority by enjoying some of the safeties and privileges offered by said authority.) (“Hi, I’m Karla Clifton, welcome to my music blog.”) In fact, this song is about disappointing your partner during sex. Our bodies make us worry. Okay, fine, that’s an interesting subject too.
It’s a subject tangentially related to another subject that Gang is be preoccupied with: anxiety. “At Home He’s a Tourist” depicts two people who spend their time at home filling their heads with culture. As a music writer and a literature student, I felt a tiny bit attacked by this.
There were some songs that rode the line between being about love and being about … something else. I was pretty sure that “Damaged Goods” was a high-stakes, indignant, masochistic love song; the Genius notes postulate that it’s “a Marxist critique of everyday life — characterizing … a breakup in the terms of a financial transaction.” I mean, sure, fine, I guess.
Since I’m the Queen Cynic, my favorite song ended up being “Love Like Anthrax,” which is about love but is not a love song. It’s about being too disconnected to be able to write about love, or love at all. Ought to control what I do to my mind, they sing, a little defensively. It’s maybe not a super healthy takeaway but it is a masterclass in dynamics. From low fuzz to cacophonous fuzz to slow grooves to sharp basslines, you travel up and down the volume scale, feeling like a beetle on its back. And there’s no way for you to get up.
Becoming a great punk band is an inexact science, an alchemy that depends on so many variables. Should you not give a f***? Should you give so much of a f*** that you construct every song like a thesis paper? Should you pretend to have a PhD in international affairs? Should you smear peanut butter on your chest? The truth is, punk is the most subjective genre of music out there, and the mysterious formula that makes sense to you might be pretentious drivel to the person sitting next to you.
Jesus. I’m thinking so hard I hear my brain whirring. I need to go listen to Meatloaf, or maybe Britney Spears.
Least Favorite: I think that “Glass” is a filler song.