Name one, just one. Name one band that truly, actually, seriously sounds like Gang of Four. Plenty have been said to be heirs to their throne, which was abandoned in 1981, more or less, when the original Four dwindled to three, two and then none at all. The names of the contenders and pretenders litter every story that crops up about the recently reformed Gang; no need to repeat them here, since they're mostly a meaningless lot, anyway, likely to be memorialized as one-hit wonders day after next. (Yes, Franz Ferdinand, we are looking your way; you, too, Bloc Party and Liars and Futureheads and Kaiser Chiefs, only, we wonder, just where is your hit, anyway?)
Besides, no one has ever sounded like Gang of Four--not before, not since, not ever, because how do you replicate a guitar that sounds like it's being played with razor blades commingling with a thunderously funky rhythm section and a singer barking about the commodification of sex and corruption of love in a depraved society? How do you reproduce the sound of a discotheque floor melting into a mosh pit? Can't be done. Won't be done, ever again. Not unless it's Gang of Four doing it, which they are once more, performing such post-punk anthems as "Natural's Not in It" and "Paralyzed" and "Anthrax" and "At Home He's a Tourist" and "Not Great Men" after some two decades away from a scene that has claimed them as influences without knowing what that really means.
"We've always said, huge bands of the world often take an obscure punk rock band song and make it into a big hit, right, and then everyone makes loads of money," says Dave Allen, the Gang of Four bassist first to leave the gang in 1981 and the last to think they would ever reunite, as they did in January. "I was always like, 'That'll be nice if somebody did that with our music.' Then we realized they can't. They just can't do it. I've heard people trying to do versions of our songs, and it just doesn't cut it. It's very difficult. There's some kind of bizarre chemistry that the four of us got that makes it really work."
Ultimately, there was only one band up to the challenge: Gang of Four itself, which this week releases a new disc, Return the Gift, which consists of revamped versions of songs taken from the first two Gang records, 1979's post-punk masterpiece Entertainment! and 1981's almost-as-good Solid Gold. (Two also come from 1982's Allen-free Songs of the Free, including a version of "I Love a Man in a Uniform," which was as close as the band ever got to sniffing a hit.) It's a ballsy move, to retrace old footsteps, but it works, because the boots are heavier now and leave a deeper imprint. If the old records, as brilliant as they were and still are, always sounded a bit thin as a result of on-the-cheap low-fi production, the newer takes are thick--more furious, if such a thing is possible from men 25 years older, and more funky, as though all this time away has left them aching to prove themselves relevant, capable and, above all else, necessary.
It seemed a sketchy idea at first, this re-imagining of past glories that still sound like tomorrow's soundtrack--an unnecessary idea, most of all, and a heretical one, too. Imagine the Stones recutting Exile on Main Street, The Who remaking Who's Next, Dylan traveling down Highway 61 Revisited after all those years on the side streets. But Return the Gift serves as a bracing tonic for those of us weaned on its abrasive herky-jerk; the slap in the face now feels like a kick in the balls. And it will serve as a startling, what-the-fu...? introduction to those who believe Gang of Four's progeny to be legitimate. Unwrap this Gift, and soon enough you will realize its spawn as nothing more than bastard sons, the lot of them.
"In a strange way, we shouldn't necessarily have been screwing around with what we called these archaeological artifacts," Allen says. "This shouldn't be taken in any way as us trying to revisit history and redo Entertainment!, because that is a classic album and it should remain untouched. It's a brilliant record. And obviously you're going to have people that scrutinize this down to the last detail and get back to us and say 'Natural's Not in It' on Entertainment! is way better than 'Natural's Not in It' on Return the Gift, and yet the reviews are now coming in from abroad, like Q and Uncut, and the majority of them are positive. There was a fear there for a while on our part: What will the press make of this? But this is a contemporary record, and at the end of the day, the one thing I would say is that we are the only people who have the right to do whatever we want with our own music. And that's not an arrogant statement. We know what we're good at, and we're not going to deliver you crap."
So the sound is relevant--and the content, too, more than ever. Those who long ago marginalized Gang of Four as Marxist-Situationist-Propagandist rockers--that is, Sex Pistols who actually stood for something other than themselves--made the band out to be dour proselytizers, politico punks out to convert the yoof of England and elsewhere. But theirs was a brand of personal politics, not just some riffs cribbed from a little red book. They didn't tell you what to think, but demanded only that you give a shit and played loud enough so you couldn't ignore them. They wrote hate songs about love songs, they wrote lyrics that equivocated fucking to a business transaction, they wrote about patronizing men who condescended to "housewife heroines," they wrote of mail-order promises delivered C.O.D. And, as a result, they spawned more term papers than any other punk band to hail from Leeds University circa 1977.
"We're not a political band," Allen says, "but having said that, we clearly had a fucking awful lot to say about the state of what we felt was some state of emergency, where it was like, 'People, listen up! Things are not good!' We weren't advocating some kind of anarchistic revolution. We're just saying you have a choice. And when you realize you have a choice, it often makes it easy to be the guy or the woman who just wants to go and work at the bank, who says, 'I choose to do this.' Do you want to improve your lot, or do you want to merely stop complaining about it? And it's a tough choice to make. It was then, and it is now. It really is."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.