A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Gang Of Four (Review)

This compilation captures the panic and urgency in Gang of Four’s stripped down, funked up post-punk.
A Brief History of the Twentieth Century - Gang of Four

These days, it seems like you can’t open a music rag without seeing some mention of today’s current “it” band, Franz Ferdinand. And rightfully so, as their self-titled debut is a certifiably hot album. If you don’t believe me, just give “Take Me Out” a listen and try not to get caught up in the hype. Go ahead, I double dog dare you. “But,” you might ask, “what does that have to do with the band being reviewed?”

Well, it’s probably a safe bet that any in-depth coverage of Franz Ferdinand’s music will probably contain some mention of Gang of Four. Furthermore, if you’ve perused reviews of any other recent “it” groups like The Rapture or !!!, or even of lesser-known artists such as Out Hud, Moving Units, or The Fall of Troy, it’s likely they’ll contain some mention of this relatively unknown post-punk band as well.

Now, the statement “relatively unknown” might only ring true for me, because as much as I’d seen their name in print, I knew virtually nothing of them until a few months ago. It wasn’t until I heard “Natural’s Not In It” on a friend’s blog that I got some inkling of the band’s music. But having listened to A Brief History of the Twentieth Century, not only is it impossible to dismiss Gang of Four’s massive influence over much of today’s hip indie-rock, but it’s also obvious that many of their followers haven’t come very close at all to matching their intensity. Much of their sound has been appropriated, but little of the message or immediacy.

Gang of Four formed in the late ’70s, following the British punk explosion led by the Sex Pistols. However, the band’s urgent, angular sound had more in common with the music that emerged following punk’s inevitable collapse, with the post-punk scene dominated by Joy Division. However, Gang of Four’s songs differs from Joy Division on two notable counts. First of all, the band’s music is far more dance-friendly and even funky at times, thanks in large part to Dave Allen’s basslines and Hugo Barnham’s propulsive, stripped down drumming. Meanwhile, Andy Gill didn’t play his guitar so much as use it to send sharp, jittery shards of noise and feedback ricocheting through the songs like shrapnel bouncing around the insides of a tank.

Over it all was Jon King’s vocals, spouting out clipped prognostications of social decay, angst, and anxiety like a frail, epileptic drill instructor. Much of the music’s power flows from King’s lyrics. As the essay in the album’s liner notes states, the band’s music was consumed with “the notion that every day life… was not natural,’ but the product of an invisible hand. It was an interested construction, someone else’s project, a rulers’ project.” Or as King himself said, “The attitudes and beliefs that people take as being natural have been inherited through the social structure they’re brought up in.” There’s a panic, an urgency to the band’s music, but it’s not so much paranoia as it is realization, less “The system is out to get us” than “The system has already got us, and has had us for a very long time.”

Gang of Four’s music rails against this, singing out against the usual bevy of agit-prop topics like sexual politics and feminism (“It’s Her Factory,” “A Hole in the Wallet”), the dehumanization of sexuality (“Damaged Goods”), materialism (“Capital (It Fails Us Now),” “Cheeseburger”), and middle-class ennui (“Naturals Not In It”). However, what strikes me most is the seeming sense of hopelessness that pervades the music, as if the band realized that even as they sung about these topics, the best they could hope for was that people might realize the situation.

These aren’t necessarily calls for revolution, but rather recognition and awareness that these structures are in place — which might serve as the seeds for revolution. However, when one of the songs’ characters does try to make a change, such as “I Love a Man in Uniform“ s protagonist (who joins the military so as to feel like a capable, productive male), it’s presented as yet another hopeless, even ridiculous attempt.

As powerful as these songs are, you don’t get a real sense of the band’s full capabilities until you hear their live rendition of “What We All Want.” If this track is any indication, Gang of Four was an absolute powerhouse live. Barnham’s drumming moves with deadly purpose while Allen’s slap bass is all over the place, knocking you upside the head from every angle. Gill’s guitar threatens to rip the song apart, tearing through it like an F4 Phantom on a strafing run through some tiny, helpless Vietnamese village. And King’s breathless, haggard voice spits out his most desperate words — “You can’t help being hard up/Can’t trust the God we trust in/Don’t think that’s any insurance” — before imploring “Could I be happy with something else?/I need something to fill my time/Could I be happy with someone else?/I need someone to fill my time.”

Not surprisingly, Gang of Four’s music, for all of its energy and power, leaves me feeling rather bleak even as it taps into my inner high schooler’s sense of angst and rebellion. But if anything, their music feels even more applicable to today, as recent years have seen the power and influence of impersonal structures, corporations, and conglomerations grow rather than diminish. It’s gotten to the point where we want to be lied to, we want peace and security and pleasure, regardless of the cost to us as individuals.

One need only look at the current presidential administration for an example of a populace’s desires for peace and security overriding desires for truth and integrity. One need only look at the pacifying shit that passes for “Must-See TV” (it’s so bad now it’s even pulling in the Amish). And one need only look at the corporate influence in politics to see how much of the world’s power truly does come from behind the scenes, almost as if life is imitating art. It’s not a case of “they’re out to get us.” “They,” whoever “they” are, already have us, and have had us for a long time. Gang of Four realizes this in their songs, as well as the futility of moving against “them.” And yet they rage on, as should we all, looking for “a hope that does not fade.”

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