Gang of Four Surrender!

(from NOT BORED! #3, 1984)

If the Sex Pistols were the aestheticians of late-70s punk -- here defined as something greater than the sum of its precedents (the Velvets, Stooges and NY Dolls) -- and the Clash were its most committed proponents, then Gang of Four were its most radical theoreticians. According to Van Gosse, writing in the Village Voice in 1981, Go4 came up with a "deeper aesthetic for pop," once which made it possible, for the first time ever, for pop to have some genuine content, "other than the unconscious, accidental and purely reflective content it has always had." Unlike the Pistols, who were primarily concerned with questions of content, and the Clash, who were primarily concerned with the forms punk could take, Go4 seemed to be after the supersession of the content/form contradiction, and were thus able to present a "concrete and dynamic totality, one that can be conscious of itself on many different levels, and organize them" (Van Gosse).

The nature of the totality was neatly summed up by the band's name, which was of course borrowed from the post-Mao Chinese government led by Hua Kua Feng, which originally used the phrase "gang of four" to designate the widow of Mao and three other Chinese officials accused of "counter-revolutionary" activities in the 1970s. Everything the (band) Gang of Four did -- whether it was on stage or in the recording studio -- was animated by a perpetual battle between revolution and counter-revolution, between class consciousness and false consciousness, between desire and need. It is commonly thought that the Go4's best expression of these battles was their 1980 debut LP Entertainment! With the possible exception of their second LP, Solid Gold, the band has since then proved increasingly unable to produce work on a par with their best. Unfortunately, this "decline" has paralleled, if not inspired, the band's desperate attempts to record a hit single, which finally culminated in the band's awful last LP, the (in)appropriately titled Hard. As things stand now, no one is particularly upset that the band has evidently decided to break up. The most common reaction seems to be relief.

A possible reason for the decline and gall of the Gang of Four could be the facts that they were always more of a conceptual or "political" aggregation than a musical one, and that their musical limitations -- lead singer Jon King's lack of range, guitarist Andy Gill's underdeveloped melodic sense -- eventually caught up with them. In 1982, Gill told Musician magazine that "ours was a quite thought-out approach, thought-out almost before we picked up the instruments. We weren't really interested in melody, but with making different drum patterns." (As we will see, one of the primary inspirations for the Go4's "thought-out approach" was the Situationist International.) Another possible reason for the entropic end of the Go4 could be the fact that the band's conceptual and personal dynamisms couldn't survive the 1981 departure of original bassist Dave Allen. Unlike the rest of the band (King, Gill and drummer Hugo Burnham), Allen had been a working-class youth before he joined, and not a film, drama or art student at the University of Leeds. With his departure, which was apparently precipitated by the pressures and problems the band encountered during their tour of North America, the Go4 lost its rhetorical (if not practical or social) connection to the class to which and for which the band aspired to be an inspiration: the modern proletariat.

Though these are perfectly reasonable explanations, we think it might be more productive to examine that which has been assumed to be beyond reproach or beneath consideration: their "neo-Marxist" politics. When considered from this perspective, it seems clear that it wasn't the Go4's melodies or instrumental abilities that failed their lyrics and cultural stance, but the reverse. Or, rather, both failed each other. As a result, the Gang of Four ended up tracing out a trajectory than ran counter to their original purpose, which we take to have been the destruction of false consciousness and passivity.

When Go4 first emerged with the knock-'em-dead energy of their 1978 EP, which included "Damaged Goods," "Anthrax" and "Armalite Rifle," the band's musical style was nearly impossible to designate or describe. The band's own pre-Dave Allen description ("fast R&B") didn't even apply any more. Eventually, the rock press -- seizing on the lyrics rather than the totality constituted by the words and the music properly speaking -- came to "pigeonhole" the Go4 as a "neo-Marxist rock 'n' roll band." Apparently a gigantic oxymoron, this ugly sounding description was not without a certain accuracy. Many of the band's early compositions, especially "Damaged Goods" and "At Home He Feels Like A Tourist," drew heavily upon Marx's notion of "commodity fetishism" (advanced in the first volume of Das Kapital). The genius of the Go4 might very well have been their ability to compress and express such unwieldy concepts as "commodity fetishism" and "alienation" in a well-chosen phrase or two.

But the Go4 were taking their inspiration and ideas from a source a lot more contemporary than 19th century Marxism: namely, the aforementioned Situationist International, which was a libertarian Marxist organization (the phrase "libertarian Marxist" is Tom Carsons's) formed in 1957 by nearly twenty European filmmakers, painters and writers. Over the course of the next decade, and up until its dissolution in 1972, the SI developed a remarkably total and unfashionably extreme critique of both modern capitalist society and the Stalinist bureaucracies and Western "vanguard" revolutionary parties that were (and still are) defined as the negations of that society. Both the SI itself and its observers credit the situationists' new methods of agitation with having a significant influence on the May 1968 revolt in France.

The Situationists' principal subject was, like Marx's, economic crisis. In most of the theoretical disputes among Marxists, the central questions have long been: Is there an incorrigible tendency toward periodic crisis in modern capitalism? If so, how does one explain it? Marx himself thought that the rate of profit has a cyclical tendency to decline, thus precipitating crises that lead to a final revolutionary crisis in which a united proletariat seizes the means of production. Most 20th century Marxists (at least those in the Western countries) have disagreed with this position. They have argued that capitalism is not as fundamentally unstable as Marx thought it was, or that capitalism's instability can be corrected by adjusting the balance between profits and wages. Going against the grain (and back towards Marx, even as they went forward into the future), the Situationists were convinced of capitalism's structural tendency to periodically erupt into crisis. In a July 1965 "Address to the Revolutionaries of Algeria and of All Countries," the SI accurately predicted that capitalist society was being rejected in its entirety by a "new" (newly emerged) revolutionary proletariat.

What distinguished by the Situationists from Marx was the former's attitude toward culture. While Marx was alive, indeed, as late as World War I, culture (and its wellspring, the avant garde) had been defined as the activities in which one could seek and actually find release from the alienation and fragmentation produced by the capitalist mode of production. Indeed, Marx himself seemed to fear that the working class would deplete or exhaust its revolutionary energies in the pursuit of culture and the physical pleasures of everyday life. But with the perfection of the technologies by which Mankind dominated nature, capitalism was forced (or finally freed to) find an outlet in the consumption, as well as in the production, of commodities. As a result of the capitalist colonialization of both work and leisure, the whole context in which culture has been defined has shifted and changed. Leisure is no longer a privilege, but a duty; leisure has become as unsatisfying ("alienating") as the work it was intended to offset or compensate for. Revolutionary activity is no longer limited to the political or economic spheres, but is compelled to attack capitalism from the vantage point of culture.

In a remarkably arrogant and prescient essay included in a 1963 edition of their journal, the Situationists stated that, by virtue of their new conception of culture, "we are obviously in a good position to discover, a few years ahead of other people, all of the possible gimmicks of the present extreme cultural decomposition. Since they are useful only in our enemies' spectacle, we merely make a few notes on them and file them away. After some time, many of them are indeed discovered independently, by someone or other and ostentatiously launched on the market." At a certain level, this is precisely what happened during the "punk explosion" of 1975-1977. Technically speaking, Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols and reputedly their connection to the Situationists, was the first "someone or other" to ostentatiously launch on the market the Situationists' "gimmick" that disaffected young "hooligans" had abundant revolutionary potential. However, it was the Go4 who tried to transmit -- in the context of danceable rock 'n' roll -- the "gimmick" of the SI itself, and thereby test the Situationists' revolutionary potential a full decade after May 1968.

In a letter to Greil Marcus, dated 1980, Jon King remarked that "where I think that Situationism [sic] was good was in the development of its revolutionary tactic: 'reinvesting' the cultural past. Situationism conspicuously used popular imagery in order to subvert it -- to make the familiar strange, rather than rejecting the familiar out of hand. The tactic was good, worth ripping off, as in the Entertainment! cover, or the original 'Damaged Goods' sleeve." It would appear that the SI's influence on the Go4 was even more extensive than this: vaguely and sometimes explicitly situationist themes appear in or are expressed by the band's manic state behavior, their lyrics and, perhaps most importantly, their brittle, jarring sound, which is like the violence of hooligans transposed on to the level of cultural critique. Fortunately, reliable translations of the situationist Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle (1967), Raoul Vaneigem's The Revolution of Everyday Life (also 1967) and the SI's journal (1958-1969) have become available for purchase in the United States. It can only be after reading and absorbing these texts that we will be able to understand the Gang of Four's appropriation and use of the style of the Situationists, the reasons for the band's unfortunate and premature demise, and what it all has to tell us about the usefulness of the Situationists' ideas and tactics in the 1980s.

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