Over the weekend, Political Theory Daily Review linked to a recent essay on the Gang of Four. (The band, that is. Not the group in power in China thirty years ago this month, and in jail thirty years ago next month.) The title indicated it would treat the band’s work as Marxist cultural theory. Not in terms of, mind you, but as. Good call: The Gang’s lyrics were always very explicit about reification, class consciousness, and whatnot. No ex post facto Zizekian-epigone hijinks necessary, thank you very much. Makes its own gravy! A critic who understood that from the start might go far.
I’m sure it did. Still, that may not have been the entire motivation. Sexton quotes the band’s liner notes to confirm the whole heightening-the-contradictions scenario. But as Marx says somewhere, we do not equate the meaning of an event with what people say about it. Plus, you do have to eat. That’s in The German Ideology, I think.
We will get back to certain problems involved in claiming the Gang for Althusser’s theoretical crew in just a moment. But first, it is worth questioning the idea that they were, in Sexton’s phrase, a “devoutly Marxist band.”That impression is understandable, given, for example, their name—but only if you take the Cultural Revolution allusion as a matter of po-faced solemnity.
I’ve always felt that we were considered “political” by default. I think a lot of time, we were singing about elements of everyday life in certain ways. It’s quite observational. It was looking around our immediate world and the world further afield and drawing observations about those things….Also, to be fair, we would talk about various Marxist writers like Walter Benjamin. If you mention someone like that, people are going to say “Ah right, they must be Marxists.” But something like that is just one of many different elements in the pot.I think people saw us as political because if you look at the overall spectrum of music, [most bands] strive to be as apolitical as they possibly can be. If anything in your songs makes any kind of social or economic or political idea or can be interpreted in those kind of ways, then everybody suddenly starts screaming ‘Rabid Marxist!’ at you.
While Sexton makes some interesting points in the course of applying Franco-Maoist structuralism to the Gang’s lyrics, he utterly misses the element of irony and play in the band’s approach. The best reason for calling a band “Gang of Four” is that, when you get right down to it, “Gang of Four” is a pretty damned good name for a rock band. And to say that you signed with EMI because Rough Trade could never have adequately interpellated the listener as consumerist subject—well, yes, that might be a matter of deliberate revolutionary policy. But chances are, it’s (also) an exercise in deadpan humor.
Not that it was all affectless irony. That stuff was rare back then. You had to make it yourself, by hand, not like nowadays, when it’s sold in bulk.
The lyrics were clear and sharp, and often did, in severe earnest, just the kind of ideological critique that Sexton identifies. (I am pointing out his essay’s blindspots, not denying its insights.) Nowhere is that critique carried out more sharply than in “Natural’s Not In It.” The clipped, stentorian delivery fires the lyrics at you:
The problem of leisure
What to do for pleasure
Ideal love a new purchase
A market of the senses
Dream of the perfect life
The body is good business
Sell out, maintain the interest
Remember Lot’s wife
Renounce all sin and vice
Dream of the perfect life
This heaven gives me migraine
The problem of leisure
What to do for pleasure
Having defined “the problem” at the outset, the lyric then runs through its forms and conditions—only to turn out that, damn, “the problem” comes back again in exactly the same words: “What to do for pleasure.” The affluent society can be demanding, and very persistent.
And then the Gang seals tight the hedonistic exits. “Rock and roll” once meant sex. And there was a whole lot of rock and roll going there, for a while. It didn’t change too much, socialstructurewise, did it? So, no, you aren’t getting out that easily:
Coercion of the senses
We are not so gullible
Our great expectations
A future for the good
Fornication makes you happy
No escape from society
Natural is not in it
Your relations are of power
We all have good intentions
But all with strings attached
The Gang were very dogged about intimacy and the commodity. It’s the subject of “Anthrax,” and they return to it in “Contract”:
You dreamed of scenes
Like you read of in magazines
A new romance
Invented in the bedroom
Is this so private
Our struggle in the bedroom?
So did they have Althusser in mind while working out this incredibly grim (yet, deep-down, funk-based) analysis of romance as “a contract in our mutual interest”?
It is not entirely impossible. The members were art students in Leeds in the mid-1970s. At the time, Anglophone theoretical anti-humanism was still riding high in the saddle—available in super-consolidated form in Coward and Ellis’s Language and Materialism, which debuted around the same time as “God Save the Queen.” (These developments being, as the saying goes, relatively autonomous.)
So, to revisit the question: Althusserians? Maybe. But I’d bet not.
If you were an “art Marxist” back then—and for some time after, but maybe especially at that time—chances were your main theoretical reference for grasping the culture right in front of you came from Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.
All the more so since Debord’s comrades in the Situationist International were themselves artists of various kinds. (Confidence artists, some of them, it sounds like. But again, you gotta eat.) They developed ways to appropriate pop-culture forms—tearing out the bourgeois stuffing and setting it on fire—and then filling the empty shells with reflective diatribes on how the whole cultural mess around us normally operates.
Which is also what Gang of Four did, with rock.
The resemblance was not coincidental. Jon King, the band’s singer, confirmed in 1980 that the Gang was influenced by the Situationist effort “to make the familiar strange, rather than rejecting the familiar out of hand. The tactic was good, worth ripping off….” (See Bill Brown’s concise Situ commentary on the band.)
Now, the Situationists considered Althusser and his students to be pathetic ideological flunkies of totalitarian pseudorevolution. (In 1968, with Paris in the midst of a general strike, the Situationist International sent cables to Washington, Moscow, and Peking warning that international worker-student revolt would smash their pathetic tyrannies forever: “Humanity will not be free until the last capitalist is strangled with the guts of the last bureaucrat.”) And Debord himself would have pronounced Althusser’s name with the well-practiced contempt available only to an alcoholic who violently hates everybody in the world, more or less, except perhaps for his closest comrades, who he just barely tolerates, and never for long.
You could probably work out an elaborate conceptual framework reconciling Debord and Althusser—but only now, way downstream in history, and purely as an intellectual exercise. (Not that you shouldn’t, of course. Still why bother?)
And apart from various sectarian and/or theoretical lines of demarcation, there was a really enormous difference in sensibility and cultural practice between the Situationist ultraleft and Althusser’s young Communist mandarins-in-training.
The Althusserians loved Theory. It was their shibboleth to spell the word that way, with a capital letter, as if Theory were the name of a deity, which in a way it was. For Althusser, there were many theories (all more or less contaminated by ideology) but only one Theory, which would be “all-powerful because all true,” as the formula went.
Construing them as quasi-Althusserian, Sexton inadvertently turns the gang into, first and last, a band of theorists . (Or, to use a slightly different word with more damning connotations, “theoreticists”). On this reading, they are primary revolutionary intellectuals doing combat within the upper storeys of the superstructure. Sexton cites the lyrics, which can be treated as “interventions” within and against the Ideological State Apparatuses. But intelligent and pointed as the words were, the Gang was also doing more than writing lyrics.
They were making noises, too. Like the painters, poets, filmakers, and shoplifters of the Situationist movement, they were ripping things off and finding new uses for them. Sure, the Gang expropriated and retooled chunks of Marxist theoretical discourse on alienation, reification, etc. But that was nothing compared to what they did with the way everything sounded.
To quote Andy Gill again:
The guitar was very staccato, very stripped down, very repetitive, loop-based. The drumming was basically funky but not through copying various icons of black music, more through simply deconstructing the nature of drumming and where you place the beats. It was like starting from ground zero with the drumming. Hugo and I would argue endlessly about what the drum parts would be like. Anything that sounded like rock drumming, I would change. In conventional rock drumming, you just play the snares on the 2 and the 4 and the high-hats are either doing fours or eights and then a big fill or rollaround on the toms. In what we were doing, the tom parts were being incorporated into the drum pattern. Some tom beat would be thrown in somewhere in the bar. It would end up inevitably with some kind of syncopated, funky vibe that didn’t sound like any of black music or Little Feat (laughs). It sounded like something else basically.The same thing happened with the melodies. The tunes had vocals to it but it was very rhythm and phrase related. You could tell by listening to Gang of Four music that punk had happened. But it definitely wasn’t punk music.
In time, of course, that sound diffused. Dozens of bands copied their sound, or tried. And then hundreds more did. And then it all morphed into hiphop-metal, or whatever the hell it is the corporations are using to sell cars now.
It was, as the term went, recuperated. It is hard to imagine that the Gang were totally surprised by this. They had to have suspected it was in the cards. It is part of the metabolic process of the society of the spectacle. The sort of thing that made Guy Debord fire a gun into his own heart.
The lyrics didn’t change anything. The Ideological State Apparatus moved on. And the Repressive State Apparatus is doing just fine, now, thanks. In fact, the Gang now probably just sound like “alternative.” A jaded listener will go: So what? Nothing new here.
No, not any more there isn’t. But I remember going back to my dorm room in 1981—where a bunch of other freshmen were hanging around, as tended to happen with an open door—and putting on Entertainment! for the first time.
A couple of songs in, some witty guy (pre-law, if memory serves) asked if it was supposed to be music. The record kept playing. They all left the room, which then became, for a short time, a liberated zone.