Funk and dub fans Gang of Four helped launch a post-punk subgenre that built song structures on rhythm-section vamps, with the guitarist providing noise, texture, and tonal/atonal touchstones/tangents. As theorized by Bowie, Eno, and Byrne and practiced by PiL, U2, and others, the politics of this aesthetic—that the worker class in the rhythm section is equal to the guitar-singer elite—proved impossible to realize. Quickly, Lydon-Levene, Bono-Edge, and Gang of Four’s Jon King and Andy Gill became the glimmer twins of their respective collectives.
When Gang of Four added pop touches, backing harmonies, and electronics, their impact dissipated. No wonder two-thirds of their reunion-tour set last week at Irving Plaza was from their debut, Entertainment!, recently reissued by Rhino. The live show is still about the beat, spiking like a piston run amok, all muscle and no sway, like the pogoing it continues to ignite. Drummer Hugo Burnham and bassist Dave Allen still craft their white funk steel-edged and furnace-forged. Allen’s ostinato riffs inspired later punk-funk virtuosos like Flea and Les Claypool. Avoiding the snare and high-hat patterns that funk and reggae drummers live by while inventing more tom-tom variants than just about any rock drummer since Ginger Baker, Burnham industrialized Allen’s r&b roots.
Gang of Four pioneered a critique of pop capitalism that reverberated in the mainstream like Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing.” Mark Knopfler sang about installing microwave ovens; Jon King sings about riots and looting while demolishing a miked microwave oven with a baseball bat, crashing metallically on the beat. Gill stares, squints, and scowls, throwing jagged, dissonant riff-comments against the perpetual-rhythm machine or wafting enormous distorted clamor punctuated by silence. Introducing “Damaged Goods,” he shakes and slaps feedback screamed out of the guitar like an abusive nanny. King plays the antihero with a variety of stagy ironies: St. Vitus’ Dance for a comrade crooner, crucifixion poses for a proletarian savior. By the end, the band seems stunned watching the crowd chant their lyrics. They’re thinking that we love them but they know it’s only lust.