015. I Found That Essence Rare: The Gang of Four with The Hoi Polloi, March 5, 1983Posted: November 30, 2011
What a rip-off: they took the ticket and I only got to keep the end stub.
015. I Found That Essence Rare: The Gang of Four with The Hoi Polloi, Wonderland Gardens, London, Ontario, Canada, Saturday March 5, 1983, $9 (+ A Meditation on Friendship and Shared Communities).
This entry on the Gang of Four not only recalls the concert from March 1983, but also reflects on key changes in my social life as I began my 20s in conjunction with a shift in the local underground community, and of finding one’s tribe and its importance on one’s personal development.
Just 18 weeks following the Iggy Pop scrimmage and here I was back at Wonderland Gardens to see the Gang of Four. However, there had been some significant changes during that brief time in between: changes that were positive and needed, having far-reaching implications in my life. And they happened concurrently with my turning 20.
It started when Lady Bump met a lass who I’ll call Thing 1. At the time, LB was working at a women’s clothing store in a downtown mall with Thing 1 employed at a similar place in the same complex. One went out to shop in the other’s store and, noticing their similar styles of dress and appearance — both were trim, spiky blonde-haired punk/new wave types in their early 20s — chatted, clicked, and began hanging out.
In addition to working at her store, Thing 1 was also a punk stripper who lived with her boyfriend, Thing 2. He was a college student who was into working out, music, and a variety of herbs and chemicals. Soon Le Château — who I think really was then working at Le Château, the trendy Canadian clothing chain, also in the same mall — was tagging along. Somewhere around Christmas 1982, I was introduced to the Things.
Thing 1 was nice enough; Thing 2, less so. Both were rich in surface with not much to engage with. They were, however, becoming part of a social epicentre of a third wave of sorts in the downtown London underground music community. That did interest me. I have written about my connection to that first wave of punk in London, Ontario in the late ‘70s, where I was part of it but decidedly younger than most involved. Because of that difference, and my difficulty in passing for legal age at the bars, I didn’t really consider this mostly older gang to be true peers and vice versa.
With the second wave in the city, spanning approximately 1980 through ’82, I had minimal involvement at best. It was a replication of what was occuring elsewhere punk-wise on this side of the pond, being influenced by the Oi! bands from the UK, US hardcore, and plain old “’77-will-never-die!”-style stuff as opposed to the more experimental and forward-looking post-punk music of the era or its poppier or more groove-based offshoots.
My theory behind it goes something like this: whenever I would read seemingly serial press accounts during the ’70s that tended to get the punk scene wrong, with the most unironically stupid and thuggish elements foregrounded in bold face, I would think “why does this not reflect my reality or the people I know?” Sure some troglodytes were part of the picture, but they were more the minority from my perspective and not really taken seriously. Most of the scenesters I knew were more “acting out,” with a wink and tongue planted firmly in cheek.
I think that the second wave tended to be long on doofusy types who had also seen those largely innacurate media depictions, not knowing it was often press-invented sensationalism or self-aware theatrics, and went “Duh, hey, datz me!,” creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. While some missed punk the first time around because they were too young or it was simply too obscure a phenomenon over here, a lot of that second wave was composed of those too stupid and ultimately too conservative to have gotten on board earlier when it really was happening as an unprecedented, evolving entity. Once punk was codified and regimented as a safe, easily-digested take on rebellion, they were on it like a dirty shirt. These weren’t the smart, interesting misfits nor even the damaged-and-living-their-id-to-the-extremes participants but common or garden types who wanted to live the punk cartoon life. Their values tended to be not much different than your typical heavy metal fan when you got right down to it. They just liked a patterened noise of a different beat.
Count Mara in particular had friends who were very involved in what was happening in the scene at that time and whenever he would introduce me to those second wavers, I usually came away thinking “wow, what a tool!”
Entertainment!‘s “Not Great Men”
As always, there is an action/re-action, and this third wave was partially a backlash against the suffocating, redneck-y conformity. It was more open, ambiguous, and pansexual. “Punk rock” was part of the menu but it was more of a smorgasbord than what had recently dominated the downtown culture: funkier, and more eclectic. It was an umbrella for the varients and hyphenates that blew up in the wake of punk’s opening of possibilities that the second wave had tried to expunge.
The Things’ orbit became a magnet for a whole new gang of folks converging at this time, being a conduit for multiple inter-introductions. While I didn’t really care much for Thing 1 or 2, I did start meeting many others through them who I quickly became tight with.
By the time we rang in 1983, LB, LC & I found ourselves among a whole new social circle. It was largely a patchwork of previously isolated clusters of people, like we had been, interweaving together into a new fabric. While some remained simply bar pals who I would see only when I went out, I met a number of others who made big impacts on my life, some for a few years while others I still count as friends until this day. I had been looking for these people and now here they all were: the resident bizarros from neighbourhoods across the city, coalescing.
The accumulating social snowball of key friendships during my 20s started rolling and continued to do so throughout the next decade. As parts of it drifted off while in movement, new additions would seemingly pop up and pile on.
Up until this point in my story, I have been writing about experiences with old friends and acquaintances who I lost track with many years ago (although MZ and I had a brief surprise reunion with Château a few Xmases back, plus there is someone else I have yet to mention who I shall get to in due time). But it is from this point onwards that I will be writing about a number of people who have played an ongoing role in my life — and that got me to thinking: Why is that line in the sand drawn here? After pondering this question, I think I have an answer.
While it’s no coincidence that things change forever for me at that point, it’s not like I was friendless or anything pre-20s. A good case in point would be to consider my best pal from my early teens, a guy I’ll call Autobahn. I referenced him in the 1978 Elvis Costello concert entry.
My “Autobahn” 45 by Kraftwerk, a huge hit here in Canada in Spring 1975. I’ve chosen this nickname for a childhood friend of German heritage, with both of us having a passion for this song when it came out, kick-starting a life long love of Kraftwerk for yours truly. Click on the label to hear the song.
Autobahn and I met when we were 10 and remained friends through our mid-teens. We lived a few streets apart and hung out a lot at each other’s homes, both loved music (I introduced him to plenty of new stuff, most notably David Bowie who we were both fanatical about), both saw a lot of movies together, and both had twisted senses of humour (he was my only friend who loved the then-obscure Monty Python’s Flying Circus as much as I did). We also had a similar family background wherein one or each of our parents came from Europe, with that cultural heritage as a big part of our upbringing and identity: mine, British, his, German.
Still, I have this clear memory of being about 11 or 12, walking back from his place one day after having had a good time hanging out, yet with the thought crossing my mind: “Is this what friendship is? Is this it?” Or as Peggy Lee pondered, “Is that all there is?”
I couldn’t quite put my finger on or articulate what I felt was missing, but somehow I reckoned that there should be more. I sometimes felt like a tourist visiting the concept of friendship rather than being a tax-paying resident whereas I think I unconsciously knew he was simply a visitor to outsiderdom, a land where I was indeed a full time member with voting privileges. While we shared in a lot of things, it didn’t seem always … there, and it was down to a fundamental disconnect at the root.
Entertainment!‘s”At Home He’s A Tourist,” live on Jools Holland’s UK TV show, 30 years after its initial release, in 2009.
Fast forward a few years and I’m meeting my later-teens gang, especially Bump, Mara, and then Château (although there were also other less-music focussed pals in the picture that I haven’t written about). Our lives became even more entwined than it had ever been with any of my friends from my younger years, but in hindsight I can now see that they too were bound to be transitory figures in my life. I think it comes down to who we were as people at our cores, what each really needed, and how that impacted what each of us was ultimately looking for.
It’s now clear to me that LB, LC, & CM were fundamentally not-too-happy people who had come from some pretty dysfunctional-to-nasty home lives. I wasn’t exactly Mr. Pollyanna and could be pretty pissy about a lot of things but, while I had a sometimes combatative relationship with my parents, it wasn’t poisonous or hostile. I come from a very safe, sane, stable, and structured home life and I long ago realized that it gave me the grounding to be able to indulge in all manner of experimenting, admittedly getting quite out there sometimes, yet know when “one more step” would be “a step too far.”
At the time, I used to think that my family was rather dysfunctional with plenty of dischord but now I would simply characterize all that as as “fairly inconsequential bickering.” As I got older and, one by one, started to hear friends’ tales of the physical, mental, or sexual abuse from family members or simply having grown up in glacial or grossly toxic environments, I started to realize that my upbringing was closer to that of an eccentric, British-Canadian take on Leave It to Beaver, with a bit of Rhoda’s family neurosis thrown in (my sister and I did call my mother Ida Morgenstern in the ‘70s). What I then saw as arguments I now see more as nitpicking, the inevitable friction of different generations under a roof. It wasn’t really mean spirited. People didn’t hate each other and family was a big, nurturing part of my life — and still is.
All these things I simply took for granted until I got older and started understanding how this was hardly a common experience. Even though I have had many ups and downs in my life, and some tough times when things looked grim, I don’t think I have ever spent a day on this planet feeling unloved or unwanted — and I now realize that having that is a huge, huge gift, forming a bedrock on which I’ve built my sense of confidence and feeling relaxed in my own skin. Mum, Dad, & the whole clan: you did good.
LB, LC or CM weren’t quite so lucky on that front. I think that The Count was really just looking for drinking buddies to blot out facing a lot of unpleasant lifenoise, and LC had his eye on anyone who could provide an exit strategy into something more glamourous to help him forget a dark homelife. Ditto LB. With Bump, though, it wasn’t so much of a glamour fetish as … well, the Steely Dan song “Any World That I’m Welcome To” comes to mind. I think she was looking for somewhere, anywhere, to belong, with the “belonging to” part more important than the specifics of “who” might make up that scene or group or “what” it might be.
I was looking for more. I was looking for comrades. Allies. Co-conspiritors. Partners in crime. Most of my pre-20s friends were more like blank pages seeking to be filled, and while I was very much a work-in-progress, rough notes had already been jotted down on my page. I was searching for complementary equals; others who also came with some text and who were a little more fully formed. People who could show me as much as I could them.
And I finally discovered a few of them among this new gang. It wasn’t just that I found people who “liked” me, I found people who finally “got” me. It was the difference between being invited into someone’s home, and feeling completely “at home.” That question I’d pondered on my way back from Autobahn’s house eight or so years earlier finally received it’s delayed answer.
My life had now hit traction as the needle found the groove and the record began to play.
With this new crew, I felt a sense of belonging and affirmation that just hadn’t been there before. I believe that it’s important for all of us to have that interaction, often helping us grow, alternately pushing us out of our safety zone while existing as a safety net. I needed these types of connections and, with them in place, I feel my life really began the process of blossoming.
While a panoply of new faces made varying impacts on the wash of my day-to-day/night-to-night life at that time, such as Chubby Junior, Mr. Bad Feet, Dave Junkie, Weasel, Tooth Fairy (actual nicknames from the period) or The Bass Player, Dawn Davenport, The BD’s Back, C. Trendite, Sue Catwoman-esque Stripper, The Artist, Upscale Mohican, With Special Guests, and the Gang of P (nicknames I just assigned), there were three people in particular who were special.
Two I met through the Things and had come on to the scene as a combo platter, much like Bump-Château-myself. Having been friends since high school, they bonded as the Catholic School eccentrics, drawn naturally to punk rock and now the downtown scene. One has already been mentioned and has herself written in this series as M. Zeppelin aka MZ, while her co-hort, Miss Bennies, makes her debut (credit goes to MZ for that nickname … as for its meaning, if you’ve read the series this far, you should be able to figure it out).
MZ was a UWO art student, had a radio show on the campus station, and possessed a distinct fondness for The Stranglers. Miss Bennies waitressed at a few places, had a passion for hardcore without being anything like the standard hardcore drone, and could do remarkable replications of Curly of the Three Stooges’ “whoop whoop whoop.” Lots of Minor Threat and MDC when Miss Bennies was around. Both had decidedly unique perspectives on things, wicked senses of humour, and incredible partying stamina.
The third was introduced to me by LB and will be known as Special Guests. We were close in ages, with his music tastes fairly similar to my own. SG and I have been trying to discern where and when we specifically met, although he remembers me telling him that I’d seen him around town as early as that Ramones gig in 1980. I recall him saying at the time that he’d noticed me because I had a Fun Boy Three T-Shirt that I often wore which he coveted.
Although we were part of a larger social circle, Special Guests, Bump, Château, MZ, Miss B, and I became a particularly close knit unit, with Count Mara, The Bass Player, Dawn Davenport, Chicklet, and SG’s roomie With Special Guests often part of our core circle. They’ll be showing up at various gigs/entries down the line as the series goes along.
We all spent a lot of time out seeing local bands and getting quite pissed and then some, primarily at a bar called Fryfogle’s. However, it was with this Gang of Four show that I attended my first gig of note in tandem with my new posse of pals, along with my sister and BiL, finally flanked by that elusive community I had been seeking but not finding during the previous few ’80s years.
Oh, and the Gang of Four themselves? They were fucking great.
“I Love A Man in Uniform” video from 1982’s Songs of the Free.
The Leeds foursome played a prime set, their taut funk, angular, dissonant guitar and incisive socio-political lyrics passionately delivered in top form. Frontman Jon King flung himself into his vocals and around the stage with wiry agility while the band behind him attacked the avant-grooves with battle-like determination.
I was also lucky to get to see them at the 11th hour of what could be argued as their prime period. They had burst on the underground scene in England with 1979’s Entertainment!, one of a handful of discs from that year that, along with PiL’s Metal Box, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, The Slits’ Cut, and Wire’s 154, created a cumulative definition of what became known as post-punk. The Gang of Four’s instantly recognizable sound emphasized the funk or reggae-ifed bass lines that frequently doubled as a melodic anchor, with the guitar often taking a scratchy, impressionist role. They paired this with an abraisive energy and scrappiness, melded to dub-wise approaches to sound, space, and production, with liberal pinches of wilfully experimental, uneasy listening.
Entertainment! (above) and cover detail (below), a thinly veiled comment on the interactions between artists and record labels (Photos and scans by VA).
Entertainment! was a shattering innovation, creating a new kind of punk-funk hybrid. It wasn’t simply the music that made fans and early press champions sit up and take notice though, but also the album’s lyrical content and sonic presentation. I’m a political animal by nature when it comes to almost every other non-arts avenue but had to admit to myself long ago that very few artists can pull off overtly political/historical lyrics well, avoiding shrill, pedantic stridency. The pointed, observational barbs in the Go4’s “5.45,” “Guns Before Butter” or “Not Great Men” put the band in a rarefied league along with the likes of Bob Marley or The Clash (PJ Harvey recently made a brilliant album via the strongly political, war-themed Let England Shake, perhaps her finest to date).
As for the sound of the record, in an era when most commercial rock productions emulated rich, “wet” L.A.-style models, Entertainment! was Sahara-dry and minimalistic, giving it a jolting immediacy and intimacy that made it stand out among the pack. EMI, their UK label, initially baulked at releasing it, feeling that this deliberate approach made the LP sound more like a series of demos rather than a finished product. It was as if they had plugged everything directly into the board.
It still routinely shows up on “Best Albums” lists and its influence has never wavered. R.E.M., Nirvana and countless others have acknowledged their debt to the Gang of Four, while acts such as The Rapture and Bloc Party recycled elements of the band’s sound during the ’00s. However, if any group got more mileage out of what the Go4 started, at least musically, it must be the Red Hot Chili Peppers, with the Gang’s guitarist Andy Gill producing their first album and RHCP bassist Flea later admitting “I just don’t understand why (they’ve) never sued us.”
While many have tried to replicate aspects of the Gang of Four’s distinctive sound, no one has ever quite been able to employ it so successfully as it was on Entertainment! — including the band themselves as it turned out.
In the interim period between that debut album and this gig, they had released a string of terrific 45s (1981’s “To Hell With Poverty!” may just be their single finest moment) and two audience-dividing albums: 1981’s dense, paranoid-sounding Solid Gold and the slicker indie-disco of Songs of the Free. While I like both, neither comes anywhere close to that opening shot.
“To Hell With Poverty!” on The Old Grey Whistle Test, 1981. The Gang of Four were big on exclamation marks!
Bass player Dave Allen left after Solid Gold, replaced by bassist-to-the-alterna-stars Sara Lee. And it was this line-up that I saw as they wove across North America, promoting Songs of the Free.
The body movin’ tone started earlier in the evening with the short-lived Hoi Polloi, former Demic Keith Whittaker’s electro-oriented project. It was a night of people ready to maniacally dance their asses off (I seem to recall this shindig in particular as one where piles of snow weren’t just restricted to the grounds outside) and indeed they did, greeting the Four with hip shaking ebullience from the moment they appeared on Wonderland’s postage-stamp stage. Songs of the Free had been a frequent visitor to my turntable in 1982 and so it was fine by me at the time for the set list was stacked with tunes from that album, with the performance of its big dance club hit “I Love A Man In Uniform” as one of the highpoints of the night.
In terms of other specifics, Free’s “We Live As We Dream, Alone” and “Call Me Up” flicker in the filmstrip of my mind along with “To Hell With Poverty,” Entertainment!’s “At Home He’s A Tourist” and Solid Gold’s “Cheeseburger.” Otherwise, I don’t so much have a song-by-song recollection of this gig as an impression of the mood and the overall feel of the evening. Intense might be the word, with band and audience locking together from start to finish. Instead of the combatative nature of the Iggy show from October, this night was more celebratory, letting go upwards rather than downwards (again, the copious vision dreams of passioncirculating that night may have had a bit to do with that).
Solid Gold (1981), Songs of the Free (1982), and Hard (1983)
Special Guests was at the gig but says “I can’t remember much of it. I do remember being extremely intoxicated and then going to a party afterwards at the house shared by The Bass Player and Dawn Davenport. I had been sitting in the back seat of the car with Sue Catwoman-esque Stripper and she was kissing my forehead. When we got to The Bass Player’s, I went to the bathroom and when I looked in the mirror, I had red lipstick marks all over my forehead!!” MZ was there too but has zero recollection of the night, recalling a second Go4 gig which took place several months later in upstate New York much more vividly.
The Gang of Four’s twelfth hour struck soon after this March show with the departure of powerhouse drummer Hugo Burnham. At that point, the wheels truly came off the cart. The band’s fourth and final album from its original period, the ironically named Hard, limped out later that year, taking Free’s glossy sheen from slick to anonymous. It was roundly disliked, showing a disintegrating unit bereft of ideas, their moment now passed. The inevitable happened with their break up the following year.
Since then, variations on the full or partial line-ups have reunited at different points in the ’90s and ’00s, although the current King-Gill version has been an ongoing working entity for several years now. The recently released Content is no embarrassment, but it’s no Entertainment!either. But then, nothing after it ever really was.
Still, this was quite a night: a pre-twilight late afternoon in their career day, happening in concert with one of the most important social shifts of my life. And be it smaller things like that first album and this live performance, or larger things like human connections and lasting bonds with people in your life: I’ve found that essence rare.
“I Found That Essence Rare” from Entertainment! (1979).
© 2011 VariousArtists