Tuesday, March 9, 2021

REVIEW - Gang of Four: 77-81 (Box Set)

Photo courtesy of Matador Records 

“‘Damaged Goods’ will always remind me of being 19 and free. Thank you for that.”

The above words by original Cure drummer Lol Tolhurst, featured in the gorgeous 100-page hardbound book included in the new Gang of Four box set, 77-81 (out this Friday on vinyl via Matador Records with a CD version coming next month), strike a particularly strong chord with me. “Damaged Goods” will always serve as a flashback to my equally free 18-year-old self driving around in a car (my first) full of friends one hot and crazy Saturday night in the summer of 1995 while the song played on the tape deck.

“Damaged Goods” sums up everything that the original Gang of Four was: An energetic and instantly memorable blast of music that prompted the listener to sing along and move even though the deeper meaning behind the lyrics wasn’t immediately apparent. The classic incarnation of Gang of Four made us bop and shake, but it also made us think and feel. This was smart and adventurous music made by smart and adventurous people; in many ways, peers and acolytes (many of whom fill the pages of the 77-81 book with recollections and testimonials) are still trying to catch up to where Gang of Four already was 40-plus years ago. In terms of this fan, Gang of Four hooked me as a teenager and never let go, leading the band to be the most-covered artist in the history of this website. This music matters.

As previously discussed on this site, there is a considerable amount of activity in the world of Gang of Four these days. Sadly, all of these things are unfolding without late guitarist/producer/occasional vocalist Andy Gill, who was the last man standing from the band’s ’77-’81 lineup when he passed away in February 2020 at the age of 64. In addition to the 2020 release of two posthumous EPs featuring music from Gill’s final Gang of Four lineup, the surviving members of the original quartet – drummer Hugo Burnham, singer Jon King and bassist Dave Allen – reconvened to bring this long-awaited collection to fruition.

And My God, is it extraordinary. Let’s dive in…
Entertainment! (1979) has been written about (and reissued) ad nauseum, so I have little to add except 1) It still sounds amazing and years ahead of its time, and 2) I’ve always considered the deep cuts “Guns Before Butter,” “Contract” and “5.45” the most thrilling songs of the lot. While 77-81 succeeds in (again) celebrating a deservedly iconic debut album, perhaps the box set’s greatest strength comes in providing a fresh opportunity for listeners to gain a greater appreciation for 1981’s Solid Gold. Unfortunately, Gang of Four’s second album has spent four decades in Entertainment!’s shadow, unjustly relegated to also-ran status by more than a few fans and music scribes. But when experienced in the context of this box set, it is clear that Solid Gold is everything a sophomore release should be. Bolstered by a much stronger production than its predecessor (goodbye, dead-sounding tom toms!) and substantial progress and innovation in the songwriting department (hello,”If I Could Keep It for Myself”!), Solid Gold is when the music of Gang of Four became bulletproof. Additionally, it stands as the strongest – and, sadly, final – studio-recorded representation of Gang of Four’s finest rhythm section – a special combination of two musicians who were meant to play together. (One listen to ”The Republic” will convince you of this fact.) Allen split after Solid Gold’s release, taking much of the band’s original grit with him. Burnham stuck around for one more album (1982’s softer but no less brilliant Songs of the Free) before King and Gill took the band (by then really just the duo backed by hired guns) in an increasingly Pop-oriented direction before grinding to a halt in 1984.

If you’re reading this, there’s a very good chance you already own the first two albums. (Hell, perhaps you even own several versions of each. Lord knows the re-release marketplace has provided you with plenty of opportunities to do so!) Should you still make the investment in this (quite reasonably priced, all things considered) box set? Without question, and here’s why…

Singles: Seven non-album tracks highlighted by the eternally boisterous “To Hell with Poverty” (perhaps the most glorious Allen/Burnham groove ever recorded), “It’s Her Factory” (featuring Gill behind the kit and Burnham at the mic), a blistering live recording of Solid Gold’s “What We All Want” and the raw singalong charm of the Punk-as-fuck “Armalite Rifle.”

Live at American Indian Center 1980: An official double LP pressing of a long-bootlegged gig originally broadcast over UC Berkeley station KALX. Captured straight off the band’s soundboard, this must-hear collection presents the original band at the peak of its onstage powers, delivering fiery renditions of cuts off Entertainment! and Solid Gold (along with a streamlined cover of The Mekons’ idiosyncratic “Roseanne” that sounds like long-time Gang of Four admirers R.E.M. forming a few thousand miles away). You can practically feel the sweat through the speakers.

The Amazing Book: Lavishly created by Jon King and Dan Calderwood of Quietly, the 77-81 book features complete (and correct) lyrics, visually stunning photographs and dozens of contributions by the usual suspects (Henry Rollins, Flea, Steve Albini, Peter Hook, members of R.E.M.), some surprise cameos (Sofia Coppola, members of 10,000 Maniacs) and a slew of others. (Perhaps the most surreal – and, if you’re a Northeast guy like me, nightmare/anxiety-inducing – moment in the book comes when Burnham shares the tale of the band’s tour van breaking down in the Lincoln Tunnel during Friday rush-hour traffic. The culprit? Sugar in the gas tank – a gift from fellow English band Squeeze.) Packed with content, the book alone makes the box set a worthy purchase.

The Jaw-Dropping Packaging: Designed by King and Bjarke Vind Normann (described in the book as "one of Denmark's pre-eminent industrial and product designers"), the box itself is a sight to behold. Just have a look...

The Demo Cassette*: The vinyl edition of the box set comes with a red cassette of 26 demo tracks recorded from 1977 to 1981 – complete with tentative names for sound sketches (“Asshole,” “Cymbal,” “Reverb,” etc.). Unfortunately (if understandably), Matador did not include the demo tracks in review downloads of this box set, presumedly out of piracy concerns. The sole cut that has been made available in advance, “Elevator,” can be heard below.

The Band’s Clear Autonomy: In addition to King (design and editorial) and Burnham (editorial) taking a hands-on role in the creation of 77-81’s packaging, the box set’s very existence is the result of the band breaking free from its US contract with Warner Bros. Records via Section 203 of the Copyright Act of 1976 (otherwise known as “the 35-Year Law”). As explained in the 77-81 book, “[t]his powerful – yet underutilized – law allows recording artists to terminate grants of rights that they made to record companies, 35 years after publication of the works, and restores ownership of the US copyright in the sound recordings to the artists who recorded them.” Work on the box set – as well as the current deal with Matador – commenced following the official termination of the Warner Bros. connection in 2019 after a two-year process. It’s heartening to see the band finally have control over its recorded output. This isn’t a cash grab by a label looking to capitalize on the band’s legacy and the tragic loss of one of its founders; this is a pure labor of love by those who obviously know how to best respect and represent the band’s material.

If there’s any fault to be found in 77-81, it’s that it is presented as the definitive word on Gang of Four instead of what it really is: A beautiful way to commemorate one very important chapter in its history. The book begins with the words “Gang of Four did its best work between 1977 and 1981[…]” in bold letters, while the proceedings conclude with a statement – jointly credited to King, Allen and Burnham – that the albums included in the box set “show [Gill’s] best recorded work[...].” Yes, this was arguably Gang of Four’s most recognized incarnation and era, but it’s far from the only one that mattered. There was a hell of a lot of great Gang of Four music released post-Allen/Burnham (and even post-King), and Gill was working on new material literally days before his death. While not all of the Gill-led Gang of Four’s output hit its target, there were certainly moments on the band’s later releases that were among his “best recorded work.” To suggest otherwise is to disregard the creative high points of the man’s final years. (For those not in the know, Gill and King reunited for two Gang of Four albums in the 1990s. The original lineup reformed for a spell in the mid 2000s before it was down to Gill and King again. King left following the release of 2011’s Content, leaving Gill to lead the group as its sole founding member until his death last year.)

Quibble aside, 77-81 lovingly – and loudly – represents a time when four very special and deeply inventive people worked together to create something of immense power and significance that will outlive them all. And how many other bands can fill up 10 sides of vinyl in a box set without a single stinker in the bunch?

*The CD version of 77-81 will include a download card of the demo tracks.

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

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