Debut albums are a tricky business.
After a good ten years or so of dreaming about entering a recording studio a young group gets flung into the bear pit and expected to produce the goods. Most of the time, what emerges is a half-realised idea of their own ambitions yet sometimes the added pressure pushes the group to undreamt of heights.
Released thirty years ago Gang Of Four’s ‘Entertainment!’ is one such album. Blending punk with funk, visceral rock with modern European philosophy the record turned established templates inside out.
Lighting up the increasingly moribund post-punk scene the album has enjoyed a curious form of second life. More and more groups have emerged who are clearly influenced by Gang Of Four’s contention that rock music is made with your brain and not your cock.
Oi Bloc Party! Andy Gill wants his riffs back! And don’t get us started on Alex Kapranos… One of the most influential albums of the past ten years ‘Entertainment!’ has aged well, and still retains a stunning effect even after a thousand or so plays on the ClashMusic stereo.
Gang Of Four singer Jon King has agreed to talk us through ‘Entertainment!’ and reveals some of the secrets behind this mysterious and influential album…
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We made ‘Entertainment!’ in The Workhouse, a studio on the Old Kent road , then a seedy highway through a depressed South London, but still glamorous compared to the misery of Leeds. We’d routined the songs for a week or so in a residential farmhouse with rehearsal room attached, where we also wrote Great Men. Going into the studio, we knew exactly what we would do, as the songs were all nailed and road tested . We recorded them fast , just as they were. Gill & I produced the session, alongside our manager Rob Warr, in only 3 weeks start to finish. We wanted the songs to be authentic and capture a moment in time with no decoration or overdubs or tracking or FX. We argued a lot about not using any outboard effect that might colour the performance in a misleading way so that what we did was real . When we finished it sounded like itself. EMI left us completely alone and, when we’d finished, after the playback, said only, in a mystified way: “Is this the demo?” to which we said “No. It’s the album”. To the record company’s credit, that was that. And it was put out without any polishing.
Love Like Anthrax
This was the first song Andy & I wrote where we felt we’d got to where we wanted to be. We were big fans of Godard’s movies, & loved the split screens and off-screen commentaries about what was going on in his great film “Numero Deux”. It seemed like a modern way to describe things, how stories can’t always be decoded from a single point of view and, among all the conflicting narratives, a story’s sense changes depending on where you sit. We played with ideas like this on the inside sleeve art, too. I’d written some words, a paean to a traumatising hangover – inspired by Raymond Chandler’s brilliant morning after description: “I woke up. An Axe split my head” – and, having talked about it for a while, wrote down on paper how the song would be before we ever played a note. Our plan was : heavy funky drums & bass throughout, 2x slabs of improvised guitar and two vocal sections where I sang fixed words and Andy commented on the words or wherever we were or whatever we were doing or whatever he was thinking about. This to make every performance different and not handcuff meanings. Andy’s guitar is brilliant, an echoof Hendrix at Rainbow Bridge, working the tremolo, using the pickups, bending the neck; and, live, sometimes destroying the guitar when the neck gives way under the assault. To me, the song is a moment in time freezeframed.
I Found that Essence Rare
There had been a cheesy magazine ad for a perfume, I forget which it was, that used this line. It summed up that lonely desire we all have to find something permanent and real and transformational in the middle of the relentless , oppressive programming and oppression we go through. Somehow we all end up doing, thinking and believing the same things but knowing at the same time it’s all lies and a conspiracy. That all the words we use lock us further into our own little jails of which we, of course, hold the keys. But don’t dare escape from. Discovering this line helped the rest come fast: “See the girl in the bikini, she doesn’t think so but she’s dressed for the H-Bomb” etc. It seemed just right that a two-piece swimsuit was named after nuclear tests in the Pacific. The tune, of early birth, goes: verse bridge chorus, verse bridge chorus middle 8 chorus out! Hugo wrote this in felt pen on his floor tom during the recording to remember it. Essence rocks, in a not entirely formulaic way. EMI loved it and wanted Essence to be the first single from Entertainment! Never missing a chance to miss a chance, we said no way, the song was too commercial (duh!) and wasn’t representative. We refused the release and succeeded in pisssing off our A&R team and lable manager. They moved their affections, what little they ever had any for us, to their new signing Duran Duran. Oh, Rio!
Corked up with the Ether
There’d been a report published in the mid 70’s that found the British Government guilty of torturing IRA suspects. They used to, among a smorgasbord of cruelties, make suspects stand up for hours in hoods while white noise was played at gross volumes to break their will. The Americans, years later, tweaked this format by playing hard rock to the holed up General Noriega in Panama until he surrendered. As US Sergeant Mark Hadsell said at the time: “These people haven’t heard heavy metal. They can’t take it. If you play it for 24 hours, your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken. That’s when we come in and talk to them.” Yeah, dude.
Whatever, the report on what was being done in our name was shameful; reported back to us on TV, alongside some other world atrocity, while we were enjoying ourselves, unwinding at the end of the day, getting ready for fun and games. So the notion was for 2 voices , telling scripted parallel stories. One voice, the one who’s living his fine life, says “Locked in heaven’s lifestyle” while the other, at the same time, says “locked in Long Kesh” (the prison for IRA & UDF members in Northern Ireland). Etc. You get the picture. This one does this as the other does that. The run out chant “There may be oil in Rockall!”, was based on our paranoid notion that the reason the British annexed, in 1955, an ugly & tiny rock in the deep Atlantic was less about stopping the Russians spy on NATO missile tests than the fact there might be oil about to pillage. And it came to pass ! In 2007 the Brits announced a claim to vast swathes of the Atlantic for 350 miles around the rock! The first example of eco-colonialism!
Saturday afternoons, we wandered, walleyed, through the sun-bright aisles of Morrison’s supermarket in Leeds, looking for a 2-4-1 bargains and generic baked beans. The hopeless in-store slogan at the point of sale was: “The change will do you good” meaning “change” as in money and “change” as in switch store. Someone got paid for this rubbish!. I found this good starter for words about a doomed relationship where legover had become, maybe, too much of a good thing. Or at any rate, a thing. Andy punctuates the main lyric with a call and response thing and sings the iconic mid section “Damaged goods, send them back” words. The music’s cute: alternate the guitar and bass duh duh dink! Duh duh dink! & build the song around this R&B clatter among dynamic drop outs where everyone got to feature. We didn’t want a pop structure. We’d had it with dominant, subdominant, tonic chord progressions. So we had none, instead. The song was on our debut Fast Product EP, which became a big indie hit . But we weren’t paid a cent for our work, majorly ripped off, so we re-recorded it for ‘Entertainment!’ I regret not punching out the bloke who ran the label. (Note to self: do this before you die) We’re often asked “why did you sign to a major label if you’re so alternative?” One answer: EMI at least paid us for the records it sold.
The melodica’s a fine instrument: a signature sound, cheap and disposable and not part of rockism. I have a red one. Augustus Pablo had one, too. Reggae music, in the late 70’s, was the most innovative pop music around; pushing the latest technology, playing with form, talking about daily life; it just owned guitar chords on the offbeat. We didn’t want to copy this but were inspired by dub. Here we’re, again, singing about how it is to watch TV and just there on screen a few feet away-there!- are people being shot, abused, wailing, suffering, while we’re in party hats. Andy says: “How can I eat my tea, with all that BLOOD flowing on the television”. It’s a good question. I don’t know the answer. Villains need to be taken to the tumbrils, still. & “Guerrilla War struggle is the new entertainment!”.
Being an Art student is great. You look at pictures and films and events and think about what things mean and there’s always a point of view to have. But rock music generally stays in the box of love, good or bad, and kicking out the jams. Shagging, getting fucked up & fighting are great, of course (the best ever lyrics on the holy trinity in Willie Dixon’s brilliant “Wang Dang Doodle”- “We gonna to break out all of the windows/we gonna kick down all the doors/We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long/All night long, All night long, All night long” Brilliant!), but it’s not all there is. Rock lyrics are so conservative. It’s the invisible 6th member of the band talking, the accountant, asking “is this commercial?”. When we recorded ‘Entertainment!’, I was very interested in Situationism and Andy & I were excited by the ideas of Foucault & Lacan & behind all this how much of what we do or think is a construct. Our professor, the brilliant TJ Clarke, who later became a friend, challenged us to deconstruct what we received and hunt down the meaning within the meaning. We used to have a running gag about what our songs would be if they were pictures. It’s not funny, unless you were there, and not even then, but ‘Contract’ is, to me, Manet’s “Bar at the Folie Bergére”. Are we the point or is the picture the point or is the point the point?
Musicians mostly start off working in genre. It’s the path of least resistance; you knock out the styles you’ve heard or copy the chops of the musicians you rate. After a while you might push it a bit or , later on, file it all away for reference and do your own thing, because , while imitation is the best form of flattery, it’s a bit boring if that’s all you do. But mixing it up is fun, too, and here, we felt good that we’d written what we thought was a cool pop song, even though there’s no bridge or chorus like there should be and it doesn’t follow the Tin Pan Alley rules. Recording it, we wondered whether the fact that it carried a tune was something we could allow ourselves, like an extra slice of angel cake. Were these mellifluous notes a surrender , false consciousness, was a debate that ran & ran late into the night after Hugo & Dave had long gone from the control room. The great guitar riff is melodic , there’s a tune in the vocal and the rhythm section is solid. We recorded this, like the others, in take after take, old style, until we’d nailed it. 2 inch tape could be cut up and spliced but it was bad news , especially with the disengaged sound engineer we’d been dumped with. So this take is a take.
Natural’s Not In It
No, it’s not. Nor is there a verse, bridge, chorus or key change. One monster R&B riff, relentless, drop outs, everyone gets a turn, the words self explanatory, on and on, until it stops. It was a hard tune to get down as it’s all feel and drive and energy and this is often hard to get in a studio without a crowd pushing you to it. At the right time, in the right place, it does the right thing. We’d played this one a few times and it was all there.
At Home He’s A Tourist
Sometimes, you get lucky and a line comes that makes everything easy. Suddenly getting the answer to a question when you turn off and think about something else. Thrown-ness – if that’s a word at all – was something we puzzled over. Why, if everything like it is, do so many things seem ersatz, phoney . But it’s not phoney if you know it’s phoney, as Truman Capote said of Holly Golightly “she’s not a phoney because she’s a real phoney”.
So, with this present from nowhere, Gill was inspired and created the perfect existential squawl, different every time it’s played, but on ‘Entertainment!’ This is what happened that afternoon in a single take. No assemblage, pro-tools confection, just the strings being hit and screaming in pain as they’re bashed and cajoled into a beautiful anti-solo that is all abot the now and no about the maybe. We thought this song was a mutant disco thing, aty a time when it was not done to like dance music, when funk and rock had to be kept in separate rooms for fera of miscegenation. But the genie was out of the box! Ain’t no stopping us now! We even used a delay on the vocals!
Not Great Men
Written in an afternoon in wet Wales in the weeks just before the recording, this was the youngest song on the album. The song felt funky, rocky, tough. It is about what it is about.
Return the Gift
You know, you get these offers that promise so much and, to make sure you know they’re value, you can even send them, back. The advice here, just do it. But not like Nike! A signature guitar figure that propels the tune from here to eternity. We wrote this, I recall, on an acoustic guitar, playing it into a useless cassette machine that crunched tapes like they were dry roasted peanuts in a bar. Playing it back to the boys in the rehearsal room was an effort of hearing, the sparkling, bitter guitar notes transformed into a mush of middle frequencies. But they got it, and the rhythm section do everything that’s necessary to feel the funk.
Guns Before Butter
Goebbels said “when I hear the word culture I reach for my revolver”. The inspiration was John Heartfield’s wonderful photo montages that undermined the vicious Nazi nonsense like this. Here a little guy is quaking in his boots at the lust for Blood & iron and order and control and wonders how he ever got sucked up into this evil. Sung over the relentless machine-like noise that will never end, except in hurt.