Seize the Time
Gang of Four and the eternal returns of retro rock.
In an early Ian McEwan short story, a novelist struggles with the follow-up to her acclaimed best seller. The tale has a grotesque psychological twist when the writer's lover discovers that the manuscript the writer has been working on is actually a painstakingly composed, word-for-word repeat of the debut. This isn't precisely what post-punk legend Gang of Four has done on Return the Gift, the first release by the group's original lineup since 1981, but it's not far off. Instead of recording an album of new material like most reformed bands do, they've rerecorded 14 Gang of Four classics cherry-picked from albums such as Entertainment!, Solid Gold, and Songs of the Free.
It's hard to think of a precedent in rock history for Return—essentially, a band recording its own tribute album. The decision has bemused many Gang of Four fans, who wonder why the band didn't just put out a compilation of the definitive versions. Some see Return as proof that the group's reformation was purely opportunistic, an attempt to reap the rewards of post-punk's ultrahip status these last couple of years. The renaissance has involved a swarm of new bands—from the Rapture and Radio Four to Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand—drawing heavily on the Gang's jagged and minimalist punk-funk. Surely, the argument goes, if the group really felt it had a relevant contribution to make beyond being a nostalgia act, it would write an album of new material.
But there are other ways of looking at Return the Gift. The title itself hints that the whole project might be an oblique commentary on retro culture's "eternal returns." That kind of meta-rock gesture was always Gang of Four's signature. When the band formed in 1977, singer Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill were enrolled in the University of Leeds' fine art department, then a hotbed of conceptualism and leftist critiques of institutionalized art. Absorbing this sensibility and bolstering it with extracurricular immersion in Marxist theorists like Gramsci, Gang of Four approached every aspect of their "intervention" in pop culture—songwriting, album packaging, interviews, internal band relations—in the spirit of demystification.
Return the Gift places in plain, unavoidable sight the redundancy and reconsumption involved in rock's nostalgia market. When fans buy new albums by reformed favorites of their youth, at heart they're hoping for a magical erasure of time itself. They're not really interested in what the band might have to say now, or where the band members' separate musical journeys have taken them in subsequent decades; they want the band to create "new" songs in their vintage style. Such consumer bad faith is precisely the kind of phenomenon that the old Gang of Four enjoyed skewering. Could it be that Return is saying, "You want a Gang of Four resurrection? Here you are, then, exactly what you secretly, deep-down crave: the old songs, again."
Yet the motivation for Gang of Four rerecording their songs also has a mundane, pragmatic aspect. "Covering" their own songs is a canny way of honoring and reactivating their legacy while ensuring that any benefits accrue to them. A straightforward repackaging of the old recordings, such as a compilation or box set, would only serve to enrich EMI, their original record company in the United Kingdom. And that's something Gang of Four didn't want to happen. "We have never made any money at all from record sales with EMI and still have unrecouped advances," King wrote in an e-mail. "So we didn't want them to benefit as they did nothing to support us." As for their original American record company, Warner Bros., King claims that they deleted Entertainment!—easily one of the 50 most powerful and influential rock albums of all time—in 1993 and only rereleased it in 2005 in response to Gang of Four's having become a fashionable reference point. Rerecording the songs—something that contracts typically allow artists to do after 20 years—puts Gang of Four in a strong bargaining position for negotiating a new deal with superior royalty rates. "It is our way of reasserting ownership of our own material," says King.
This hardheaded approach may seem "un-rock 'n' roll," but it's perfectly in accord with Gang of Four's commitment to stripping away the mystique from everything. The famous cover of Entertainment! depicts a Native American shaking hands with a cowboy. "The Indian smiles, he thinks that the cowboy is his friend," runs the caption. "The cowboy smiles, he is glad the Indian is fooled. Now he can exploit him." If demystification involves the refusal to be fooled, then such a sober, unsentimental mind-set lends itself to business, where seeing all the angles is paramount. Despite their Maoism-referencing moniker, Gang of Four were never card-carrying Communists (although early on they did operate as a collective, paying their roadies the same wage as the musicians). But it's precisely their Marxist worldview, with its structural understanding of exploitation and the power play of economic interests, that's made the Gang vigilant and astute in their dealings with the record industry.
As it happens, like those Soviet commissars reborn as industrial barons in the '90s, most of Gang of Four "crossed over into enterprise" (as their post-punk fellow traveler John Lydon once sang it) after the group disintegrated and have thrived in the business world. Bassist Dave Allen's long résumé includes stints at Emusic.com, Intel's Consumer Digital Audio Services Operation, and the Overland Entertainment Division. Drummer Hugo Burnham plunged into the corporate heart of the music industry, working for EMI Music Publishing, Warner Bros., and Island before starting his own management company, Huge & Jolly. Until recently, King was the CEO of World Television, a webcasting/corporate TV/news production/event-management company. On the face of it, it's disconcerting that King, author of the savagely mordant lyrics to songs like "Capital (It Fails Us Now)," should have become a sharp operator in the realm of shareholder meetings and venture financing. (At one point, the first part of his e-mail address was "investorrelations"!) Then again, what were they supposed to do during the '90s, this bunch of smart, university-educated guys? Likewise, with Return, why shouldn't Gang of Four exploit their own legend and literally capitalize on their moment in the retro sun?
"Comrades, let us seize the time" is the tongue-in-cheek chorus of "Capital," and Gang of Four have done exactly that. But what does it feel like to listen to Return? The rerenditions are oddly faithful, with only subtle deviations from the blueprints. The fundamental structures of songs like "At Home He Feels Like a Tourist" and "Why Theory?"have been left intact. The main difference between Return and its sources relates to recording ambience, reflecting both advances in studio engineering techniques and the accumulated know-how of the band over the decades. The rerecordings of the Entertainment! songs especially sound glossier and have a modern big-drum sound. Then again, the stark, emaciated production of Entertainment!, a result of its being recorded "dry" (engineer lingo for no reverb), was part of the record's aesthetic statement. Reverb creates the illusion of a band playing together in the same acoustic space. More live-sounding, the Return versions are stronger in a certain sense but are also more conventional and naturalistic. And they lack, of course, the aura of historicity itself.
For this die-hard fan, Return is a curious listening experience, with something of the eeriness of that Ian McEwan story about the blocked writer. You can't help wondering what it must have felt like for the band members, laboring away at remaking songs they'd laid down definitively long ago. On the new version of "Love Like Anthrax," Gill adds some self-reflexive lines about the project to his original spoken-word critique of pop's fixation on love songs. He describes Return as an "an exercise in archaeology," an attempt to find out where their heads were at in those heady post-punk days. When quizzed about the project, both King and Allen refer to the original recordings as "Dead Sea Scrolls" that they could call upon when memory failed. Aged 7, I wanted to be an archaeologist because I thought it was all about stumbling on Mayan temples in the jungle. Then I lost interest when I went to a dig and saw how tedious sifting for pottery shards actually was. Return isn't dreary (it could hardly be, given that the songs are among the most dynamic and structurally inventive rock songs of the last 30 years), but it never quite ignites because of the contradictions that brought the record into existence. These new versions seem to exist neither in 1979 nor 2005, but in a peculiar limbo of nontime, the undefined space of "retro" itself.
Simon Reynolds is the author of Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past.
Audio clips from Return the Gift ©2005 V2 Records. All rights reserved.