Hanging on every word

Gang of Four blew the roof pearly gates off Heaven last night, and I was in rapt attendance…

Strangely perhaps, for someone who has spent much of the last decade posing as a songwriter, it seems I am not generally a great appreciator of lyrics. I listen to them, consider them, and know which songs’ lyrics I rate, but they tend not to stick (unlike bass lines or counter-melodies). I’m certainly not someone who habitually learns lyrics by heart.

There are exceptions to this. Seeing the Manics at Brixton the other week (belated review on its way), I realised I did know pretty much every word of their pre-2000 output verbatim, and some of those lines are exceptionally tortuous and complex. For example, who could forget such pithy gems as “Until I see love in statues, your lessons drill inherited sin”, “Not punish less, rise the pain, sterilise rapists, all I preach is extinction” or “Power produces desire, the weak have none, there’s no lust in this coma (even for a fifty); Solitude! Solitude! The Eleventh Commandment”. And so on.

Jon King intoning

A more conscious exception to this has always been the work of Gang of Four. While I do love their abrasive, off-kilter music, it is the layering upon this unsettling background of such acidic, challenging lyrics that elevates them to the level of true greatness. Last night Jon King’s vocals were a little muffled but the power of the words cut through anyway, naturally in tandem with Andy Gill‘s piercing guitar. The new rhythm section put out an incredibly ballsy sound too, producing an audio mix much closer to 2005’s Return the Gift than (say) 1979’s Entertainment.

Thomas McNeice and Andy Gill

The set kicked off with the great new single “You’ll Never Pay For the Farm”, an aggressive wad of debt-punk which seems constantly to be tripping over itself in desperation to deliver its timely message. Speaking of tripping over, Jon seemed to do so during the brooding, driving funk of “Not Great Men” (quoted in my thesis! – “no weak men in the books at home”) knocking out the guitar for a few seconds, but it was laughed off as a sign that they were ‘a well-oiled machine’. Once reconnected, Gill’s buzz-saw guitar never let the audience settle, moving confrontationally between rousing chords and sharp treble stabs.

Number one dance move

The topicality of the lyrics is painfully clear. On the one hand there were the many piquant lunges at capitalism, with “To Hell With Poverty” given added zest (though as one of my friends said, it’s all very well when the beer is four quid a pint… but in fairness we were being advised to “get drunk on cheap wine”). At the same time the conflict on Cairo’s streets wasn’t far from the mind during “He’d Send In The Army”. King engaged in the characteristic destruction of a microwave that graces this song.

There are two clear dimensions to the lyrics – in that hoary humanities way, they can be split into the personal and the political (but they are always both…). “We Live As We Dream, Alone” is one of my favourites, an existential lament on isolation and the paradox of company: “We live as we dream, alone. To crack the shell, we mix with others. Some flirt with fascism, some lie in the arms of lovers”. Last night it was taut and urgent, reinvigorating the set which (by virtue of introducing the crowd to new material) started at a slightly uncertain pace.

He'd Send In The Microwave

And then there is “Anthrax”, the great anti-song which musically is a stuck record, looping along, accompanied by two out of phase semi-spoken lines which occasionally (and startlingly) come into sync. It’s a signature piece like no other, proclaiming: “Love will get you like a case of anthrax… and that’s something I don’t want to catch”.

The set climax was riotous, featuring among others “I Love A Man In A Uniform”, “Damaged Goods”, and “Natural’s Not In It”. These were all brutally sublime, showing the range of irony (“the girls, they love to see me shoot”), cynicism (“sometimes I’m thinking that I love you, but I know it’s only lust”) and radical sociology (“ideal love, a new purchase, a market for the senses”) that comes so naturally to GoF. It was a fantastic gig, serving as a sharp reminder to those who might have complacently forgotten that we need chroniclers and agitators who can set their radical thoughts to thumping music.

Full Frontal Assault

Finally, the top five dance moves perpetrated by Jon King on the night were: 5) Balletic destruction of the guitar pedals (accidental I assume); 4) Gyrating Christ on the Cross (it’s classic); 3) Handcuffed hands over head and humping the mic stand; 2) The Forward Roll (unexpected) and 1) The one with fingers in the air which brings this to mind (skip to 35 seconds in). All very alarming and sinister but a key part of what makes him such an incredible frontman.

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Published in: on February 3, 2011 at 10:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

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