Gang of Four wrote protest music for people who didn't think they had anything to protest. On the surface, the characters in their songs were the very definition of happy, satisfied folk: office workers, blithely ebullient clubgoers, people who were falling in love -- or at least thinking they were.
The band's subjects were very different from those chosen by their fellow students in the British punk class of '77; coming from an art school background, Gang of Four focused on people with career opportunities the Clash didn't believe in and a future that the Sex Pistols had violently dismissed. But frontmen Jon King and Andy Gill knew that underneath that routine of work-consume-sleep-do-it-again-tomorrow was an emotional chaos as brutal and angry as any punk song. So punk songs were what they came up with, though they laced them with a funk backbeat. Thank goodness for that concession: When you're being confronted with the horrible truth about the emptiness and desperation of your life, it's nice to have something to dance to.
But for all their catchy beats, it was the outrage in the band's songs that registered. Across the two discs of this retrospective, 100 Flowers Bloom tracks the sound of urban angst, from panic while waiting in line for fast food ("Cheeseburger") to personal panic while waiting in line to enlist ("I Love a Man in a Uniform").
Not for nothing was Gang of Four's 1990 compilation album titled A Brief History of the Twentieth Century; Gill and King were telling the story of how people struggled to balance their roughly formulated hopes with the harsh realities of consumer culture, and that collision is modern times in a nutshell. The band put that collision into song: Gill's guitar, a feedback-laden noise that shuddered and stuttered, rained over the beat like Molotov cocktails thrust at shopping malls, and King's vocals sprayed out like shards of glass. The lyrics were built around simple observations, but they came out like miniature manifestoes: "He fills his head with culture/ He gives himself an ulcer," "Sometimes I think that money is my only goal," "To have ambition was my ambition." Though they traded off on vocals, Gill and King both possessed harsh voices -- all the better to either chastise that hopeful fellow bringing condoms to a club or to sound the cry for help that King announced on "It is Not Enough," damning workaday life. "It is not enough! It is just a habit!"
Churning underneath the vocals was a bedrock of rhythm -- if not quite as limber as the P-Funk the band drew from, it was credibly loose. Bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham concocted a martial pound that was half funky groove, half death march. On 100 Flowers, it's most powerful during a live version of "Anthrax" recorded in San Francisco in 1980. After two minutes of tense, piercing feedback, Burnham begins to pummel away, a beat made even more caustic by Gill's vocals, which equate love with a loss of control: "I feel like a beetle on its back/ And there's no way for me to get up." It was the world recast as a Kafka story, filled with humans as insects, flat on their backs and flailing to right themselves.
It was a bitter pill to swallow, and one that went over better in England, whose pop audience was more willing to look for itself in a punk song. But for American listeners then trapped in the clutches of Christopher Cross, the consumer chastisements of 1979's Entertainment! were only going to go so far. To underscore the difference across the Atlantic, the liner notes to 100 Flowers Bloom include an amusing 1979 letter to the band's manager from Rupert Perry, then vice president of A&R at Capitol Records. "Whilst we respect the great abilities that the Gang of Four have demonstrated and their success in other parts of the world," he wrote, "[Entertainment!] is too left field for the present marketplace in the USA."
Maybe, but it sprang from the left field where most great music originates. Eventually picked up by Warner Bros., Entertainment! was the band's first album and its obvious high point, but 100 Flowers Bloom works hard to show that King and Gill's post-punk political vision was as clear-eyed in the '90s as it was in the '70s, with early demos and rare tracks for those who don't need convincing. However, the CDs cast their spell by playing games with the band's history. Entertainment! tracks are spread across the set, which makes it easier to appreciate the highlights from 1981's harsh, claustrophobic Solid Gold and 1982's more dance-oriented Songs of the Free. That album's "I Love a Man in a Uniform" slunk its way into the clubs, thanks to a brilliant call-and-response vocal between King ("I had to be strong for my woman") and bassist Sara Lee ("You must be joking/ Oh God, you must be joking"). Lee had replaced Allen at that point, with drummer Burnham gone as well, and 100 Flowers Bloom performs a sleight-of-hand job on what followed -- by culling the best songs from the weaker Hard and Mall records and remixing them.
That's disappointing, coming from a band that had always tried to be upfront. Still, Gang of Four's 1995 swan song, Shrinkwrapped, was a return to form in many ways. As strong as much of their early work, the driving "Better Him Than Me" found a perfect subject in a man making his evening commute home. His pleasures are grim, voyeuristic ones: talk radio, where "strangers break down on the phone," malls where he can "hear tape birds call," a wreck on the highway that allows him to reassure himself. "Better him than me, better him than me," howls King -- once again, the band was singing for everyone who felt like a beetle on its back, and especially for the liars who'd convinced themselves that they'd never felt that way.
It was an ugly or beautiful way to close up shop, depending on how you looked at it. The irony is that Gang of Four's members couldn't quite extricate themselves from the money-grubbing music culture they railed against: As England's Dreaming author Jon Savage reports in the set's liner notes, King is the only original member who escaped from the record industry, while Burnham works in A&R, Allen runs a record label, and Gill produces albums. And of course there's a bit of irony involved in the very existence of 100 Flowers Bloom: yours for $29.98 retail, a multidisc set of music from yet another rock band. Except that at their finest, Gang of Four spent as much time commenting on rock music as they did making it. From the well-turned phrase to the beat that would make you listen to it, they helped to define what we consume -- and how much it consumes us.