To briefly summarise the Law of Unintended Consequences, virtually all human actions have at least one unintended consequence, with each cause having more than one effect. The examples of this law are many, with not an inconsiderable quantity of these examples having profound effects on the world. Looking at the CIA’s singular inability to comprehend this law for example, their policy of supporting the enemy of their enemy has often had many unintended consequences, as shown by the consequences of their support for Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega, among others. However, not every example of this law in action has such serious effects; indeed, in music there are more examples of the law in action than one might expect. A classic one of these is the existence of Gang Of Four, which if you read the British music press recently you could be forgiven for seeing as divinely ordained for the purpose of inspiring bands such as Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, The Arctic Monkeys, and any other post-2000 British indie band. This is where the Law of Unintended Consequences needs to be properly understood (sadly large sections of the British media seem unable to do this). The existence of these bands wasn’t the intention of Jon King, Andy Gill, Dave Allen and Hugo Burnham at all. Even if they had planned to inspire these bands something very odd would have happened along the way, because no matter what the NME says, Bloc Party and The Kaiser Chiefs simply do not sound anything like Gang Of Four. All of that is irrelevant, however. The point is a simple one.
1. Under the Law of Unintended Consequences it is clear that Gang Of Four didn’t mean to inspire (or be seen to inspire) a huge number of British bands today.
2. In spite of this everyone seems to think that they did.
In case you’ve somehow managed to avoid the music press in the last year (in which case allow me to congratulate you), Gang Of Four are really big right now. Actually, that’s slightly inaccurate. It would probably be fairer to say that at the moment Entertainment!
is really big right now, and it’s dragging along the reputation of Gang Of Four in its wake. That’s perhaps slightly unjustified: albums like Solid Gold
are absolutely not to be sniffed at, but compared to Entertainment!
it’s nevertheless fair to say that they are lacking something indefinable. That X-Factor is something that all the best post-punk albums have in common. Like Vs
by Mission Of Burma, Pink Flag
by Wire, and Q: Are We Not Men" A: We Are Devo!
by Devo, the album bubbles throughout with abrupt, jittery energy that doesn’t ever seriously come close to dragging. As the name of the genre “post-punk” would imply, it’s clearly got punk influences in there, but there’s something else that’s absolutely key to the album which injects renewed life into it at the strangest of times.
This strangeness is most apparent on closing track Anthrax
, which features Jon King warning that “I feel like a beetle on its back, and there’s no way for me to get up”, while Andy Gill at the same time speaks in a barely audible monotone. Like so many tracks on the album, Anthrax
is kept moving onwards by Dave Allen’s bass guitar, although the sudden end to the song after both vocalists have repeatedly warned that “love is gonna get ya like a case of anthrax” is emblematic of another recurrent theme of the album, the humour present throughout the music (again, a common feature of many of the best post-punk bands). Although Anthrax
is gloriously subversive, and probably the single finest example of what could be expected to happen if you put musically gifted, politically aware white college students in a recording studio in late 1970s England, it’s by no means the only example of this sort of songwriting on the album. Take Damaged Goods
as another example. Anyone who can actually sing, “You said would do me good, refund the cost, you said you're cheap but you're too much” without once dropping out of a gorgeously snotty British accent is someone deserving of respect. Another similarity which Damaged Goods
has with Anthrax
is the effectiveness of the interplay between vocalists, with the two vocalists here occasionally playing off each other, particularly during a break in the song around 2 minutes in. Although it’s hard to tell Gill and King apart from one another, their voices are very complementary to one another, and are one of the many things that can provide renewed impetus to this album.
Even without several of the factors that have the potential to do that though (and we’ll get back to them in a minute), the album still would have more than enough to keep most music fans interested. Like Talking Heads at their best, Gang Of Four bring in enough diverse musical elements here to set up the album in such a way that we can never quite tell what they’re going to do next. What allmusic.com describes as a “vaguely funky rhythmic twitch” pervades the entire album, making the continuity of the songs sound like a horde of ants has been let loose, and are making Gang Of Four physically jump about in the studio, accounting for the incredibly staccato nature of the album. This is also greatly assisted by the aforementioned Dave Allen on bass guitar, particularly on songs like Guns Before Butter
, with it’s thinly veiled social commentary and lyrics including, “The fatherlands no place to die for, it makes me want to run out shouting”. While it may be overstating the case to say that there’s rage in the music on this album, there is certainly a degree of anger which, in a curiously English sort of way, sounds like it’s being slightly repressed all the way through the album. The overall effect of this is to further exacerbate the tensions lying through the album, which occasionally explode as in I Found That Essence Rare
when we are bleakly told to “Aim for politicians fair who'll treat your vote hope well, the last thing they'll ever do act in your interest”. Again, like the best albums this album really isn’t confined to the context in which it was recorded. Although it definitely helps if you know something about Britain in the 1970s, the themes and musical styles explored on this album are ideas that most people can empathise with.
Although at the start of the review I referred to the Law of Unintended Consequences, it would be foolish not to at least give some recognition to the many bands that have been influenced by this album. As already stated, it’s one of the
seminal post-punk albums. At approximately 40 minutes and 12 tracks it’s not quite as abrupt as albums by Wire, among others, but it nevertheless has all the characteristics which define post-punk, such as wittily caustic lyrics, production which places emphasis on the bass, and that good old “vaguely funky rhythmic twitch”. What makes this album special is the way that these characteristics are amplified by the vocals, songwriting skills (in case you’ve forgotten this was Gang Of Four’s debut, and the songwriting really has no right to be this good), and the constant willingness to experiment. Although heavy bass is a feature of a lot of post-punk, it’s more evident on this album, particularly on songs like Contract
than on most other similar albums, and the band’s angular guitar riffing combines with all the other pieces of the jigsaw to create something that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Just please, as a new year’s resolution how about we stop declaring British bands as being the “successors to Gang Of Four”" Apart from almost certainly being incorrect, it’s something of an insult. Although Gang Of Four managed to make a debut album this damn
good, it would be unreasonable to say the least to expect other bands to do it as well.