"They offer cut-up situational accounts of the paradoxes of leisure as oppression, identity as product, home as factory, resident as tourist, sex as politics, history as ruling-class private joke," wrote Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone of the Gang of Four in 1980. But as the band's drummer, Hugo Burnham, says, "We were also a great fucking rock & roll band."
The band's propulsive funk riffs ran headlong into jarring stops and starts; singer Jon King's harangues battled against Andy Gill's noisy guitar lines; bassist Dave Allen's heavy bottom laid down the law as Burnham pounded out tricky tattoos. The relentless, churning thrust of tracks like "Damaged Goods" and "I Found That Essence Rare" built up unbearable tension, then released it in transcendent explosions.
Heeding funkmeister George Clinton's slogan "Free your ass and your mind will follow," Gang of Four was intent on shattering both musical and lyric conventions — that their driving, dissonant music prove danceable was not only necessary, it was also inevitable. "We were trying to invent a new kind of music, a new kind of language," Gill says of Entertainment! "We were using the building blocks of 'rock music,' 'funk music' and 'pop music,' dismantling them to see what was there and using what we felt like using."
And Gang of Four's revolutionary pop rhetoric not only infiltrated the dance floor — it also invaded the corporate world, as the band was one of the few early postpunk outfits to sign to a major label. It was a situation some found hypocritical, but as Burnham says, "If you've got something to say, and you want people to hear it, what's the best thing to do? Make as many people hear it as possible."
The radical musical approach is epitomized by the way Gill's atonal, arrhythmic guitar ricochets all over "At Home He's a Tourist" or by his post-Hendrix feedback on "Anthrax." In his lyrics, King may work in anything, including Godard films, news items, terminology from video games and TV advertising slogans, to make his points about the effect of Western culture on interpersonal relationships.
The title of the album neatly reflects its own paradox — that of commenting on entertainment and being it. The title comes from the song "5:45," in which a man watching the evening news comes to the realization that "guerrilla war struggle is a new entertainment!" It isn't all straight sociopolitics; songs like "Damaged Goods" and "Contract" are about romance, demystified and reduced to a transaction — "a contract in our mutual interest." "Anthrax" contains two separate sets of lyrics sung simultaneously: one a song comparing love to a cattle disease, the other a brief essay about why pop music is so fixated on love.
Recording took place in four weeks, from April to May 1979. The mood at the studio was hardly convivial — Gill and King helped produce the record, and there was as much jockeying over production credits as good seats at the mixing console. "It was really vicious, it was hell," Burnham says with a chuckle. "But we got a fucking brilliant record out of it."
One can spot a clear Gang of Four influence in R.E.M., INXS and U2, as well as countless other bands. Unfortunately, Gang of Four never quite matched Entertainment! again and underwent a gradual and messy breakup, leaving behind this postpunk masterpiece as its legacy.