“I do believe this club is The Ritz,” said Jon King after Gang of Four finished their opening number, You’ll Never Pay for the Farm, (the new album is Content and available now) at Webster Hall last night. King was right–the band had played there at least once, in the fall of 1983, when that was its name–and except for an intervening 27 years or so not much had changed.
Bands face a particular challenge. They can keep at it and hope their fans change with them. A nice idea that rarely happens so, for instance, Weller breaks up The Jam rather than find himself in the punk Rolling Stones. Or they can become a nostalgia trip that keeps the band members fed. Musicianship aside, does anyone think that isn’t what The Allman Brothers March Madness at The Beacon theatre is all about?
Now layer on the additional complicating factor for an act like Gang of Four–they are a political band whose politics were formed in a different world than the one we now live in. Is there room for alt socialism in post financial crisis Britain and America?
The evidence suggests the answer is yes. I sometimes think everything about Gang of Four is a political statement and that begins with what is the sparest of stage setups and instrumentation–a bass set-up, two guitar amps and a drum kit. What you get on stage is what you get in the music–space.
In a world where over-compressed, dynamic-range challenged music is the norm Gang of Four stand apart. You get bottom–loads and loads of thumping, funky bottom–you get guitar and you get vocals. That’s it. The contrast with a spectacle act, like those Peas at the Super Bowl two nights before, couldn’t be any greater.
What you get, in return for giving up spectacle, is energy. Pent up frustrations unleashed in a torrent of sound wrenched from the guitar in short, explosive bursts. You don’t get guitar solos with this band, you get feedback solos. I know, I know, King and his co-founding bandmate Andy Gill are past 50 now and they, too, have bills to pay. So you could argue that this is their job and they do it incredibly well.
I’m not buying that. King, who according to my friend Marc Farre declaims more than sings, moves about the stage in a spastic, shambolic turmoil jerked this way and that by the sounds of Gill’s guitar. Rock stars don’t trip over guitar cables. King almost broke his neck at one point. He repeatedly threw his arm around or climbed on the back of Gill and the bass player. There are pictures of that same move dating back to the early 1980s and the look on his face remains unchanged thirty years on.
That King manages to get out the lyrics is itself amazing. When the lyrics are, as a friend once said, more like philosophy it’s a particular challenge. All the while Gill, dressed in what looks like the same grey suit from 1983–clearly a stage uniform–moves back and forth jabbing and slashing at his guitar. As then, he does this without a trace of emotion on his face. No silly rock star faces here. The notes, strangled, over-loaded and distorted speak for themselves.
So what did they play? Pretty much the entire first album, Entertainment. King’s vocals were indistinct at first but by the time they got to Anthrax–which they closed with in 1983–the problem was fixed. Paralyzed was a personal favorite because I don’t remember it in the ’83 set and I loved the irony of Gill spitting out “they say our world is built on endeavor/but every man is for himself/wealth is for the one that wants it/paradise if you can earn it” in a room that probably contained more than a few denizens of Wall Street.
The set was a tight hour or so followed by two encores of three songs each. The last pre-encore song was At Home He’s a Tourist which I recall as the opening number with an extremely long drums-only bit back in the day. The disco hit (it was never one of my favorites) I Love a Man in a Uniform got an airing as did We Live as we Dream, Alone which also appeared on Songs of the Free. To Hell with Poverty got me dancing.
The final number was Damaged Goods, a particularly apt choice I thought. Throughout the band was tight, focused and committed to the music–and I think totally committed, to the lyrics and their meaning as well as the sound–in a way that made this aging heart feel young again and believe in possibility.