by Scott McLemee on September 7, 2006

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.

So I printed the essay out, then turned to more urgent matters. Settling down to read it yesterday, I put on Return the Gift—last year’s GoF reunion album, in which the band covers, so to speak, its own songs from the late 1970s and early 1980s.
A strange gesture. But I find the new record itself preferable to any of the anthologies culled from their albums. In duplicating the original songs they somehow change them in ways it defies my vocabulary to sum up. You can listen to Return the Gift online for free, here.
And as for the essay, it is smart, and worth reading. But…well, it’s not wrong, exactly. Yet there are certainly moments when it is off. Just a bit.
The author, Timothy Sexton, claims that the Gang “locate[d] their Marxist theory in the Althusserian notion of expressing resistance through the contradictions inherent in the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA) of the corporate-controlled rock music industry.”
The ISA being EMI, in this case.“But what reason,” he goes on to ask, “could a devoutly Marxist band have for signing with a devoutly capitalist entity like EMI?”
Here, a vulgar materialist might pipe up with answers such as “food” and “rent.” But no, it seems, this was not so. By entering a contract with the most powerful recording company in England, the Gang thereby heightened the ideological contradictions.

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.

An interview with Andy Gill (the man behind the brittle, jagged guitar shards) implies that might be overdoing it:

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
Economic circumstances

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.

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Sometimes I Wish I Were a Professor of “Critical Studies” « Organizations and Markets
09.07.06 at 1:57 pm



Richard J 09.07.06 at 8:15 am

According to a friend of mine, who used to work for him, the lead singer is now the MD of a contract publishing company that specialises in corporate customer communications.


Brendan 09.07.06 at 8:50 am

I always thought that the Gang of Four were just as influenced by the Barthes of Mythologies as much as Marxism per se. Certainly there was never much ‘workers of the world unite!’ or similiar in their lyrics. It was always much more in the vein of interrogating the everyday, or defamiliarisation . And like Andy Gill says, if you start doing that you are always going to sound like a Marxist because you will see that things don’t have to be this way, and that the way we live now is actually quite weird, historically speaking. And you are also going to see power relationships and so forth that aren’t always apparent ‘on the surface’. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you think history is inevitably moving forward to a Communist Utopia.

Which is just a preamble to saying that I saw the reformed Gang of Four last Sunday, and they ROCKED.


engels 09.07.06 at 10:05 am

And Debord himself would have pronounced Althusser’s name with the well-practiced contempt available only to an alcoholic who violenty hates everybody in the world, more or less, except perhaps for his closest comrades, who he just barely tolerates, and never for long.

I really wish that you and Harry would try to refrain from these occasional little tantrums. I honestly do not think that they add anything to your posts, which are otherwise reasonable and interesting.


harry b 09.07.06 at 10:23 am

Hey, what are my tantrums? Are you referring to my unkind words about Russell? (Russell and Debord, there’s a pair). Who else have I defamed? (I’m not looking for a long list, just some reminders). And this is only Scott’s first post — for all we know he’ll do this every time!


engels 09.07.06 at 10:34 am

No, it’s only Russell I had in mind. I hope he isn’t going to do this every time, as that would then confirm the thing I find most irritating about blogs.


astrongmaybe 09.07.06 at 10:47 am

Engels: go easy. The comment on Debord is hardly that far of the mark, after all. He was an alcoholic (and then some), as well as one of the 20th century’s great polemicists, fuelled by an magnificently omnidirectional hatred. While he did romanticize ‘comradeship’, he inevitably ended up loathing and ostracizing a large number of ‘comrades’ and friends. None of that lessens Debord’s peculiar greatness one iota, imho. I’m sure he would barely contest a word of it, except that he would pretty much contest everything anyway.


joel turnipseed 09.07.06 at 10:47 am

Bravo, Scott: great stuff.

As to this: “…confirm the thing I find most irritating about blogs.”

What’s that? Pithy (and, in the case of Scott’s, hilarious) character descriptions?

“HELL NO!” I say.

(Must now go contemplate GoF lead as middle-aged suit while filling out grant/fellowship applications that stave off my own return to corporate life…)


perianwyr 09.07.06 at 10:52 am

oh well then you had better stop reading them.


engels 09.07.06 at 11:05 am

Thanks, Perianwyr! To Scott’s other two forceful defenders: I do not deny that Debord was an alcoholic. I was objecting to the claim that he violenty [sic] hates everybody in the world, more or less, which I think might be politely described as “uncharitable” or “overhasty”, rather than “pithy and hilarious”.


Uncle Kvetch 09.07.06 at 12:01 pm

But I find the new record itself preferable to any of the anthologies culled from their albums. In duplicating the original songs they somehow change them in ways it defies my vocabulary to sum up. You can listen to Return the Gift online for free, here.

I certainly will do so, as soon as I’m freed from the iron grip of my capitalist overlords (i.e., when I get home this evening). The whole exercise struck me as, well, silly and pointless, frankly, and I say that as someone who loves the band. But your post (fascinating stuff, btw) has prompted me to rethink this.

As for recuperation, I think the Mekons summed it up much more pithily than the Go4 ever did:

When I was just seventeen
Sex no longer held a mystery
I saw it as a commodity
To be bought and sold
Like rock ‘n’ roll


harry b 09.07.06 at 12:32 pm

engels –I was teasing about him doing it every time. I thought it was funny (I didn’t think my Russell comment was funny, though, and it was in a comment not a post!) I suspect that my and Scott’s common history has familiarised us with more people than we’d care to know who do appear at least violently to hate everyone in the world more or less.


Steve 09.07.06 at 12:39 pm

“Return the Gift” was recorded because their contract reverted rights on rerecorded songs to the band after 20 years; a best-of compilation would have been owned by EMI.


engels 09.07.06 at 1:29 pm

Harry – I do not personally find “Pourquoi détestez-vous la France?” to be an intelligent or fair-minded critique of Debord. If the sentence I quoted was not meant seriously then I can’t object to it, except to say that the joke was lost on me. But perhaps we can put that one down to the Spectacular nature of internet relations.


John Emerson 09.07.06 at 2:21 pm

What the fuck is wrong with violently hating everyone in the world, more or less? Debord is now on my to-read list.


Seth Edenbaum 09.07.06 at 2:23 pm

I’m amused I guess by the need to see Gof4 as somhow successful at something other than expressing contradictions, and to accept retrospective observations by King or Gill as somehow reflecting what either of them thought when they were 25 year old ex students of T. J. Clark.

I’ve met King and Gill, the latter a couple of times and I had reason to think he wasn’t that much of a feminist. And King runs a software company. You can hear the change from intelligent angry pretentious postadolescent cafe revolutionaries, to sad ironic complacent professional adulthood in the span of 4 albums.
Interesting stuff. Not brilliant but I liked it.
Academic control freaks as hipster leftists. There was something new about it at the time. But the academic control freak thing is another part of the problem, init?


engels 09.07.06 at 4:10 pm

What the fuck is wrong with violently hating everyone in the world, more or less?

Nothing, John, obviously: for many bloggers it seems to be an asset.


John Emerson 09.07.06 at 5:05 pm

Engels, your twisted sense of reality makes it very difficult for you to function appropriately in the world of today. Here you have needlessly defended an innocent man who needed no defense whatever, in effect subtly casting aspersions on his character — a dead man who is unable to defend himself, no less.


Tom Lynch 09.07.06 at 6:27 pm

As opposed to all those dead men who can ably defend themselves, having anticipated all posthumous attacks decades in advance!


Delicious Pundit 09.07.06 at 9:54 pm

This is good. Is there going to be a “CT Consumer Guide” now that Christgau’s been fired?

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