The members of Gang of Four would likely be the first to tell you that you do not need an extravagant Gang of Four box set. They’re the ones who released a 45 sarcastically titled “To Hell With Poverty” and backed it up with “Capital (It Fails Us Now),” a lampoon about a newborn baby reaching for its credit card. They skewered advertising culture on “I Found That Essence Rare” and quipped, “The problem of leisure, what to do for pleasure, ideal love a new purchase” on “Natural’s Not in It.” But for all the Marxist, anti-capitalist ideology of their lyrics, they also likely know that there’s a difference between needs and wants. And it’s perfectly valid to want 77-81, the box set that compiles the one-two punch of their first LPs, 1979’s Entertainment! and 1981’s Solid Gold, along with singles, live recordings, demos, and memorabilia.
The collection presents a concentrated look at the genesis of one of England’s most vital post-punk bands. Although they’re best remembered for the acerbic sociopolitical commentary and aggressive disco musical sensibility of Entertainment! — the album where they improbably combined all the good times of Chic and all the no-fun of punk — the collection shows how, like any great band, they were a product of their environment.
Its 100-page book explains how they met at art school in dreary Leeds and formed a band there after vocalist Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill took a trip to New York in 1976 and fell in love with the Ramones and Richard Hell. But since they also loved Hendrix, the Velvet Underground, and Dr. Feelgood, they approached punk with artier sensibilities. Once bassist Dave Allen joined the band, which also included drummer Hugo Burnham, they incorporated the funk and reggae rhythms that set them apart from other bands at the time but also helped them to fit in with the budding Leeds scene along with the Mekons.
But the early demos recordings in the collection show a long-forgotten side of the band when they had more generic interests in punk and rock & roll. Gill, one of the most daring guitarists of his generation, plays bluesy FM-rock guitar solos, and the tune “What You Ask For,” is a fun throwback to early Sixties rock & roll. There are primordial, slower-paced versions of later Gang of Four classics like “Love Like Anthrax” and “Armalite Rifle,” but some of the other punk numbers, like “Elevator,” owe more to the streamlined songcraft of the Buzzcocks than the Gang of Four’s more esoteric ambitions. Eventually, they strip away their more commercial ambitions — in the accompanying book’s passage on “I Found That Essence Rare,” King says they wouldn’t allow EMI to put it out as a single because it sounded too commercial — and come into their own. (The fact that these demos are all relegated to a cassette suggests how they might still wince while listening to them.)
The remastered editions of Entertainment! and Solid Gold don’t offer any new revelations other than reinforcing just how good Gang of Four were in the first place. Gill’s unpredictable guitar playing, which could transition from Jimmy Nolen scratches into Jackson Pollock splatters without warning, still sounds revolutionary; sometimes he summons tinny pitches from his instrument that seem to float above his bandmates, and it still make sense as music.
But more than that, what’s apparent is how the group — the Gang — really did need each member to function as a whole. Allen’s bass playing is the secret dynamo of the group, a lead instrument in its own right, throbbing and thumping in perfect concert with Burnham’s inventive drumming. And King’s stentorian vocals, with messages attacking war, media exploitation, governments, and staid sexual politics, among other social causes, were decades ahead of its time. In the liner notes, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck credits Gang of Four with opening his band’s eyes “to the social, ethical, and nonsexist world that was new in rock & roll,” while Steve Albini revels in an eye-opening early encounter with Burnham where he could hear Donna Summer coming out of the drummer’s headphones. Gang of Four took punk rock and tilted it further to the left.
The box set’s concert album, Live at the American Indian Center — a title that doesn’t seem to fit in with their progressive politics, but hey, that was the name of the San Francisco venue they played in 1980 — offers a glimmer of how enjoyable they were onstage. The group plays all but one song off Entertainment! (including the melodica solo on “5.45”) and the way Gill’s guitar makes chiming sounds above the bass on “Guns Before Butter” has a curious jitter, while “At Home He’s a Tourist” sounds like an Iron Maiden song with its bass gallop until King’s brusque vocals and Gill’s guitar force it off the tracks. They tease each other onstage (when Gill plays drums on “It’s Her Factory,” King calls him “the Frank Sinatra of the drum stool”) and they call the Mekons a bunch of tossers, before covering that band’s “Rosanne,” even though the audience probably neither knew what the Mekons or “tossers” were.
The material in the box set ends at the right point. Although Gang of Four found some commercial success in 1982, with “I Love a Man in Uniform,” it was after Allen quit and formed Shriekback, leaving only an original Gang of Three, which became a Gang of Two by 1983’s mediocre Head album. The band reunited in various forms in the Nineties and Aughts, but for much of the past decade they were only a Gang of One with Gill, still an innovative instrumentalist, playing with new members. Following his death last year, this collection underscores his contribution to the deconstruction of punk, as Gang of Four’s influence has echoed through decades in the music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (whom Gill produced), R.E.M., Nine Inch Nails, the Rapture, and Screaming Females. Even Foster the People have covered Gang of Four live, while Run the Jewels and Frank Ocean have sampled their music.
As a whole, 77–81 presents Gang of Four’s brilliance while putting it on context. In the book, Gill posits, “It’s not a group’s function just to be entertaining. A group should entertain and try and change things.” The box set bring that philosophy into focus, whether you need it or not.