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Gang of Four - 77-81 Music Album Reviews

Gang of Four - 77-81 Music Album Reviews
The UK post-punk pioneers’ influence always outshone their popularity, but a new box set makes a convincing case that stardom actually was within their reach.

Why didn’t Gang of Four become pop stars? Four and a half decades after the UK band began, the answer might seem obvious. From the start, their work was innovative and challenging, with politically aware lyrics that drew on academic theory and music that moved at razor-sharp angles. One reason why their early singles and first two albums—collected on this new 77-81 box set alongside a live 2xLP and a cassette of demos—still sound so vital is that the band never pandered to the mainstream or dumbed its songs down.

At the time, though, it wasn’t far-fetched to imagine Gang of Four as the next big thing. Their melodic and danceable music quickly snared them eye-opening gigs supporting the Buzzcocks and Siouxsie and the Banshees and landed them on the cover of New Musical Express before they had even been signed. Despite their art-school backgrounds, they were intrigued by the idea of popularity, and they chose a major label, EMI, to release their debut album, the half-ironically titled Entertainment! “We’re not trying to be difficult and hard-to-understand,” guitarist Andy Gill said. “There might be some pretty out there things that we’re doing, but we want our records in the charts or whatever. To us, that’s half the point.”

It’s hard to say exactly why Gang of Four didn’t top those charts. Maybe radio wasn’t ready; maybe timing and perception didn’t align; maybe their refusal to play on BBC’s Tops of the Pops when asked to censor their lyrics doomed them. (“Frankly, you could say [the BBC decision] was career suicide,” said drummer Hugo Burnham years later). Whatever the reason, 77-81 makes a convincing case that, based simply on their songs and performances, stardom actually was within their reach.

Early singles—tightly wound gems like “Damaged Goods” and anthemic shout-alongs like “Armalite Rifle”—had immediate power. Entertainment! and its follow-up, 1981’s Solid Gold, were filled with lyrical hooks that you could chant despite their sophistication. Take “Natural’s Not in It,” a jab at the commercializing of relationships (“Ideal love, a new purchase… the body is good business”), or “Why Theory?” a pithy argument to treat society as more than “natural fact,” or “He’d Send in the Army,” an indictment of the patriarchy couched in a child-like tale. With their words, Gang of Four encouraged thinking critically and systemically, while still leaving room for interpretation.

Their music matched that openness, inserting maximal energy into minimal sounds that allowed listeners to fill in blanks. As Gill put it, “Instead of guitar solos, we had anti-solos, where you stopped playing, just left a hole.” The band’s working methods had a populist bent: Creative decisions were made democratically, and whoever wrote a song would usually sing it. Even their design—see the bold colors and cut-and-paste commentary on the cover of Entertainment!—had pop-art appeal. Altogether, the Gang of Four approach was accessible enough that legendary producer Jimmy Douglass, who had worked with Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, and Hall & Oates, was convinced to oversee the recording of Solid Gold.

Alongside that oft-told part of the Gang of Four story, the unearthed material on 77-81 reveals new evidence of the band’s magnetism. The demo cassette—one side taken from three different late-1970s recordings, the other from a 1981 session at Abbey Road—shows how their exhilarating mix of spare beats, clockwork riffs, and high-stakes singing emerged fully formed. “No jamming—that was the J-word,” Gill said. “Everything was thought out in advance.” Hearing the band confidently sprint through songs that ended up on singles, then into previously unreleased tracks like the swinging “Silence Is Not Useful” and the funky “Disco Sound,” makes the term “demo” seem ridiculously insufficient. Even the more polished recordings on side two show how each song was a self-contained machine made of fast-moving parts. “We spent a lot of time stupidly pissed,” Gill admitted. “But when it came to the work we threw ourselves into it 100 percent.”

That ethic is equally borne out by Live at American Indian Center 1980, composed of 15 songs from a 1980 concert in San Francisco. Gang of Four more than earn their reputation as a great live band here—the songs shoot out quickly and with little pause, finding a speed that the studio albums never hit. That was by design, as they specifically avoided recreating their live sound on record, instead wisely using the studio to hone the more elemental aspects of their sound. As Curtis Crowe from Pylon—who opened Gang of Four’s first U.S. show—says in the book included in 77-81, “Gang of Four was first and foremost a live-wire act and I always felt the recordings failed to do them justice. It seemed like trying to photograph lightning.” The extra juice applied to the racing “At Home He’s a Tourist” and the stair-stepping “Guns Before Butter” adds a third dimension to songs that were already bursting.

Gang of Four didn’t stop in 1981, and subsequent work retained much of the band’s fervor, even as the lineup fractured (Gill, who was the only original member in the recent version of the band, passed away last year, likely ending the Gang of Four story). But the material on 77-81 is clearly a big bang, informing not just everything the band did after, but a lot of what other bands did, too. Though Entertainment! and Solid Gold have been reissued many times, this box set is the first release to fully capture the moment that created them, as well as the first reissue controlled by Gang of Four, who were recently able to reclaim rights to these recordings after many decades.

The history of post-punk is long and sprawling, but combine 77-81 with a remarkably similar archival box by Gang of Four’s comrades Pylon from last year, and you instantly get a clear sense of why post-punk mattered—as musical innovation, political movement, and DIY statement. In this band’s case, that came from blending complex ideas and radical music into something that landed a direct hit on the ears of anyone lucky enough to hear it. “What we were doing wasn’t intellectual,” Gill insisted. “It was from the gut, like painting a picture.”
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Gang of Four - 77-81 Music Album Reviews Gang of Four - 77-81 Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Monday, March 22, 2021 Rating: 5

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