At what point does one drift into helpless, even embarrassing fits of nostalgia? That thought was on my mind even before it became the subject of discussion on the ride home after last night’s Gang of Four show at Irving Plaza.
A related question: when is a band no longer a band? That second question may be more important than the first. A few months back I found myself embroiled in a discussion about seeing a dream reunion tour (it was either Led Zeppelin or The Who, I can’t recall which). I saw The Who in 1979 with Kenny Jones on drums and still don’t think I ever saw the band. So what do you make of a band that has replaced all but one of its members?
That’s the current status of Gang of Four, the political post-punk band that are probably the most significant thing to happen in Leeds since The Who recorded their live album there. Only Andy Gill remains of the orignal lineup, Jon King having left after I last saw them in 2011.
The gentlemen at right (I think that’s a more or less official band photo) are most of the current line up. They ripped through an efficient, at times ferocious, hour-long set last night that leaned heavily on the first three albums. As a companion put it, “All the hits.” There is a new album, ‘What Happens Next,‘ to promote yet only the opening song, “When the Nightingale Sings,” was from the latest record.
Yes, I said record and most of the people in the room would have as well. At one point between acts I heard someone behind me say “It’s a great record” and had to invent a reason to turn around and ascertain the age of the speaker. He fit squarely in the sweet spot of 50- to 60-year olds that predominated. Luckily he was not one of the ones clad and adorned to suggest it was still 1982 or to announce, with a spanking new tee shirt, that they supported their favorite band of that year.
I understood my peer group’s presence but I confess to being confused as to why anyone in their 30s or younger would be in attendance. There remains something subversive about a band once described as being able to set The Communist Manifesto to a dance beat and that’s amped up in the self-described financial capital of the world.
You might have noticed I slipped back into using the word band. I see no upside in parsing fine distinctions of line-ups or assigning relative merit. What we had on stage last night was a shit-tight band playing songs of righteous aggression with as much energy as they’ve ever been played. Maybe I can be gracious because by the time I first saw the Gang, Dave Allen was already gone. So as with Pete and Roger‘s band, I never really saw the Gang.
The thing is, those songs hold up. I think songs of righteous anger almost always do. At least that’s what I learned from Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Listen to ‘Somebody to Love‘ and tell me that almost 40 years later the rage behind those opening lines–“when the truth is found/to be a lie/and all the joy/within you dies”–isn’t palpable. I saw Jefferson Starship back in the 1970s and there was a stark difference even then between the new songs and the ones from ten years before.
What about the songs? ‘Anthrax,’ the feedback-driven noise track from the band’s first album was introduced by Gill as a pop song. ‘Paralysed‘ remains the most devastating critique of consumer capitalism ever delivered in 3:40 and Gill still sneers his way through the key line “wealth is for the one that wants it/paradise if you can earn it” even as he’s managed to make the last line, “I was good at what I do,” take on added weight.
The rhythm section, anchored by Thomas McNiece on bass, was especially good even on the older songs where the back beat is as likely to be rendered on a floor tom or the ride cymbal as on the snare. King’s replacement, John Sterry, was borderline intolerable. He looked like the missing member of Heaven 17 and preened and strutted as if he wanted to be a typical frontman. Gill remains without equal in wrenching sounds from the first five frets of the guitar without showman-like pandering. I’ve always thought he looks a bit like Gregory Peck and that’s more apparent as he ages.
There were some almost communal moments. I’ve never been one to lose myself in a crowd so it was easy, in my laryngitical state, to not sing along with the crowd that gladly chimed in with “6 steps back” on “At Home He’s a Tourist” and the “hoo hoo hoo hoos” on “To Hell with Poverty.” If you want the truth I wondered if I was experiencing another 80s phenomenon: privileged folks from the right zip codes sporting badges that sloganeered THWP and ‘Kill the Poor‘ in a way their creators never intended.
Despite everything, when they came out for a second encore and launched into ‘I Found that Essence Rare‘ I was gone, transported back into a state of dancing rebellious abandon. Gill warned that they’d only tried it a few nights before for “the first time in a very long time and got it sort of wrong” but that wasn’t the case here. I can’t think of a better way to end a Gang of Four show than to have hundreds of voices singing along to “Things’ll look a whole lot better for the working classes (working classes).”