#483: Gang of Four, "Entertainment!" (1979)

I read Wikipedia articles like “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels, each hyperlink a cobalt pathway to destinations far and esoteric. I begin at the Café Wha? and twelve clicks later I’m at a list of professional darts players. And for the most dire of procrastinators, there’s always the “Random Article” button, the wiki-quivalent of shuffle songs. How else would I have ever found out about teledildonics?

To click or not to click? Dare I disturb the dull hum of informative prose? Every blue word is a gateway, a detour, a trap door that plummets you further and further from the initial inquiry. Infested with algorithms, the Internet is constantly suggesting, recommending, interrupting. Whatever media you’re trying to savor—click this instead.

Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

Before I listen to an album, read a novel, or weigh in on Hollywood gossip, I brief myself on Wikipedia, reading just enough to grasp the common understanding. Sure, it’s a secondary, unreliable source, but it’s quick and free and… something about democracy.

Like anything, music is amplified through context, the ethos of a radio station, a coffeehouse playlist, a friend’s Spotify account or an iconic magazine’s 500-best. When we conjure a song online, multiple tabs offer an all-you-can-eat buffet of tidbits and unsolicited commentary. Of course, we don’t always have to multi-task. Maybe it’s not so hard to press play and lie on your bed away from the screen, gazing at the ceiling until you can actually see the melodies dripping through the cracks. One album, all the way through, that’s how I always imagined professional record reviewers do it. The rest of us don’t have time to sign off.

When I type in “Gang of Four,” Wikipedia first greets me with the story of the Chinese Communist faction led by Mao Zedong’s wife, attributed to the deaths of almost 35,000 people during the Cultural Revolution. The most common usage of the term. Part of a series on Maoism.

We must disambiguate. Along with several other political sanctions across the world, Gang of Four might refer to:

Or it might refer to you and your three childhood friends who wreaked havoc on the playground back in the day. I click the link for the band and brace my attention span for more temptation.

Gang of Four are an English band from Leeds, classified as post-punk. Click. Post-punk is a rock music genre, an artsier and more experimental form of punk. Click. Punk rock is music that embraces a DIY ethic. Click. DIY ethic refers to the ethic of self-sufficiency through completing tasks without the aid of a paid expert.

And if I keep clicking, keep wondering, I might just find myself circling back to the Gang of Four page, conquering the click-hole once and for all.

rs500_entertainment2 1.jpeg
Illustrations by Lena Moses-Schmitt

Illustrations by Lena Moses-Schmitt

However I get there, I scroll down to the discography section, for their debut album Entertainment! Click. Released in 1979. Click. 1979 (MCMLXXIX) was a common year starting on Monday of the Gregorian calendar, the 1979th year of the Common Era (CE) and Anno Domini (AD) designations, the 979th year of the 2nd millennium, the 79th year of the 20th century, and the 10th and last year of the 1970s decade. The year McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal.

For the informed listener, is there such a thing as too much context? Back on the record’s landing page, I can hone in on the trivia that might coat my ear drums; If I listen carefully enough, I’ll be able to glean influences of funk, reggae and dub.  Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea claims that the first time he heard the record, "It completely changed the way I looked at rock music and sent me on my trip as a bass player." Pitchfork Media listed Entertainment! as the eighth best album of the 1970s. Kurt Cobain listed it in his top fifty albums of all time. What I’m about to listen to is officially Good.

But if I ex-out all those boxes, let the screen fall to sleep as I plop on the mattress, perhaps I can isolate the magic for just 53 minutes. I can pretend these raw sounds exist within a vacuum in between my ears.

I don’t stay in bed for long. Entertainment! is without question an album to dance to, equally suited for moshing and the twist. The bass lick that ignites the first track is as harsh at it is playful, a variation on the dips and thrusts that sustain the entire record. In all twelve tracks, the spittle of the drums and thrashing guitars spew at you from multiple directions, and the bass line always catches your fall.

I could look up the names and faces of Gang and Four, break down who sang lead on which track, his astrological sign and worst childhood memory. Or I could just tell you that the lead vocals on Entertainment! are commanding and sarcastic. Despite the context-blocker I’ve installed in my mind, I can’t hear their British sneer without likening the band to their punk forefathers. The lyrics follow the same formula perfected by the Clash and the Sex Pistols: exposing the dirt behind the daydream:

From “5.45”:

Watch new blood on the 18 inch screen
The corpse is a new personality

From “I Found that Essence Rare”:

Aim for politicians fair who'll treat your vote hope well
The last thing they'll ever do: act in your interest
Look at the world through your Polaroid glasses
Things'll look a whole lot better for the working classes

But what saves Gang of Four from becoming a Mohawked cliché is the vibrancy of their sound. The instrumentation is winking. What’s fighting the system without a few laughs? If we developed anything in the sphere between punk and post-punk, it’s a sense of humor.  

The lyricist is self-aware—repeating his sharpest lines over and over to build not choruses, but chants, mantras. Phrases had I left my laptop open, I would make my Facebook status, challenging my friends to the reference. But instead, alone in my bedroom, I shout along with the recording, over and over, until the syllables transcend semantics.

Try it:  

          I’m so restless, I’m bored as a cat.  Three times.  

          Our bodies make us worry. Four times.

          Repackaged sex keeps your interest. Six times.

          Guerilla war struggle is a new kind of entertainment. Eight times.

          Please send us evenings and weekends. 19 times.

          Goodbye. 37 times.

The polemic might dominate Entertainment!, but a few love songs soften the album’s character. True to traditional punk-rock etiquette, the Gang of Four vocalists interrupt each other throughout the entire record, and in the finale song, “Anthrax,” the argument comes to a head, with two voices talking and singing over each other. The chorus, what we’re supposed to be listening to, might be written off as typical adolescent heartache: Love will get you like a case of Anthrax, and that’s something I don’t want to catch.

But there’s a droning voice underneath the melody, incoherent but impossible to ignore. I put the song on repeat, pressing my ear to the left speaker. I catch a few phrases, but after the fifth listen I give up and search for the lyrics on the internet. These are the words literally between the lines:  

These groups and singers think that they appeal to everyone by singing about love because apparently everyone has or can love or so they would have you believe anyway but these groups seem to go along with what, the belief that love is deep in everyone’s personalities. I don’t think we’re saying there’s anything wrong with love, we just don't think that what goes on between two people should be shrouded with mystery.

Had I listened to this record B.G. (Before Google), I wouldn’t consider the song a piece of social commentary. I would have accepted the underlying soliloquy as indecipherable, like the thoughts inside a broken lover’s head. Have I cheated, tainted my listening experience? Perhaps the context should stay buried—maybe The Crucible has nothing to do with McCarthyism, and Animal Farm is really just about some huffy pigs.

Any given listener might know nothing of the British punk movement, of the Neo-Marxist rhetoric Gang of Four was channeling in the liner notes. But the same rage, defiance, and absurdist scoff could be felt by listeners in Cairo, Kashmir, or Ferguson, Missouri. And thanks to YouTube and torrent hosts, anyone in those places could stumble upon this record, burn a few mix CDs, and start a revolution. But the record isn’t titled Social Justice. It’s Entertainment!  

Entertainment might refer to:

See also: Amusement.

See also: Distraction.

See also: Coping Mechanism.

—Susannah Clark