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Crossed Signals


Wrapped in Plastic: The cover of Gang of Four's 'Shrinkwrapped'

On Gang of Four's newest CD, 'Shrinkwrapped,' alienation undoes all connections

By Nicky Baxter

During punk's late-'70s heyday, Gang of Four offered a thinking-person's antidote to the hysterical and ultimately empty nihilism touted by the Sex Pistols. Self-proclaimed Marxist socialists, the members of the band--Dave Allen, bass; Hugo Burnham, drums; Andy Gill, guitar and occasional vocals; Jon King, lead singer--formed in Leeds, England, and played their first show in the summer of 1977.

Gang of Four's critique of modern society was, of course, nothing new. Frank Zappa, the MC5 and the Fugs before them all railed against the Establishment (and, in Zappa's case, the anti-Establishment, too), but for the most part these protests amounted to Yippie-styled sloganeering of the "Off the Pigs!" variety. Even the Clash, punk's everymen, substituted bravado and obvious broadsides for actual analysis.

The Gang of Four, however, was up to something altogether more challenging. Sure, it was agitprop, but man, they rocked. Rather than going for the ideological jugular, ranting against the idea of monopoly capitalism, the band proceeded from the premise that in order to get a handle on that system of economic--and, hence, social--relations, it is necessary to scrutinize the relationships, the interior battles, between men and women.

For them everyday life--material possessions, wage labor, the "marketplace" of ideas, sex, gender, media--was not "natural" but the product of unseen forces. King once explained the process: "The attitudes and beliefs that people take as being natural have been inherited through the social structure they're brought up in. An example is a man who believes that women are by definition more suited to working in the home than making decisions. The belief in the natural puts all this outside the realm of debate." In other words, unless it is understood that ideas are not formed innately, change can never occur--an observation Noam Chomsky has been hammering at for years.

But what made the Gang of Four's take on social relations so intriguing was its "objectified" commentary. The band never chose sides, it simply described the phenomenon at its point of combustion. Far from omnipotent, the singer/narrator of Gang of Four songs is just an average Joe struggling to reconcile himself to the contradictions he faces daily. Often he cannot.

Entertainment!, the band's debut album, was an intentional jumble of disjointed narratives and sonic shriekback, a chaotic landscape where "fornication" and compulsive consumerism provide the only relief from nagging questions about one's slot in society. Against a backdrop of Gill's apocalyptic antiheroic guitar and the stop-start funk & roll of the Allen/Burnham rhythm section, King wails in agonized disbelief as he discovers that everything he knows is wrong.

A decade and a half down the road, King and Gill (Burnham and Allen having long since defected) find that while things may look a little different--this is, after all, the new world order--very little has changed. Like the best of the unit's earlier works, Gang of Four's latest album, Shrinkwrapped (Castle), crackles with restive force and savage intelligence.

Longstanding themes of psychic displacement, passivity and disillusionment are rendered with the same journalistic precision as before. The scenarios are littered with pathetic figures beleaguered by bouts of self-doubt and boredom. "Tattoo," the lead track, starts with a hailstorm of post-Hendrixian feedback interrupted by a voice immersed in echo, straining to be heard, to connect with someone, anyone. Cut off from the world around him, a lone figure sits in fatigued desperation, slump-shouldered, "drinking Lite at the bar," a real nowhere man.

In "I Parade Myself," despair gives way to delirium--"Ain't I ripe, What a peach/Everything is in my reach"--but the boast rings false. Deep down, the singer knows that no amount of reinvention will alter his lot, and stirring from his reveries, he turns malevolent: "Don't avoid my eyes/Hid some razor blades/In the wedding cake."

In the background, the rhythm section pounds out a hypnotic dread-beat against which Gill's guitar seesaws between violent outbursts and brooding introspection. Having lost the will to create his own pleasure, Gill and King's lost man can only experience it vicariously.

Lacking dominion over the external world, on "The Dark Side" he reaches for the remote control to while away the hours: "I wore out time/Used up all that should be mine/Shit faced, watch soaps/I only laugh at my own jokes." A compulsive TV addict, he doesn't enjoy television, he consumes it--the way one might a Big Mac.

On earlier albums, Gang of Four describes sex in capitalist society as little more than the exchange of bodily fluids, an "act" performed by men and women who view each other as objects. Far from lovemaking, couples engage in "struggle in the bedroom," committing themselves to "a contract in [their] mutual interest."

However tenuous, though, there was some form of connection. Spurred by the AIDS era and further social dislocation, that connection is now all but severed. With the advent of phone sex and X-rated cable, getting off has become even less a social act and more self-centered--a commodity packaged and advertised for purchase.

Of course, this can only mean further alienation, as the songs on Shrinkwrapped intimate. The imagery of "Showtime, Valentine," for instance, is swathed in a blurry parade of red, black, gray, colors. Coming slowly into focus is a seedy hotel, neon lights winking luridly at nighttime passersby. Sirens shriek in the distance. Inside, a man reclines on a bed, TV on: "Cable's on Porno 1--sound off--lips are red/Silent stud pumping between her legs."

His eyes are riveted on the writhing bodies until, twitching with frustration, he clicks the picture dead. Abruptly, he jerks on his coat and hat and strides out into the night. As King's crooning voice turns cracked and jagged, Gill's guitar unleashes a murderous howl that is finally drowned out by police sirens.

On "Unburden," the connective tissue of fantasy sex is a telephone line. Gill's baritone croak is willfully self-absorbed; he talks at rather than to the sex worker on the other end. Indeed, it is as if he is confessing his sins rather than giving in to them. Not just some raincoated wanker, he is a well-respected businessman, but overwrought by inexplicable self-loathing, he is compelled to wallow in this vulgar enterprise.

She simply goes through her routine, seemingly unconcerned by his distracted monologue. As he rambles on, the sense of utter disassociation grows keener. Still, the woman's prurient cooing continues, more graphic by the minute. Shards of serrating guitar and the plaintive tap of the drummer's tom-toms only reinforce the feeling of missed connection.

Ultimately, that is what Shrinkwrapped is all about: crossed communication, not only with others but with oneself. Here, self-estrangement is just as profound as the alienation a worker might experience on the production line. Thus detached, we become products ourselves, items to be consumed by others or, more likely, ourselves.

Finally, the inscription on the CD cover best sums up the album: "He is shouting now--myself was stolen--I need to be me. I share his pain. I watch his tears flow. For all of us. We return after these brief messages."

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From the Dec. 14-20, 1995 issue of Metro

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