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Entertainment! Turns 35: An Interview with Kevin Dettmar, the Author of Gang of Four’s Entertainment!

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SEM continues its week-long celebration of the 35th anniversary of Gang of Four’s Entertainment! with an interview with Kevin Dettmar, the author of Gang of Four’s Entertainment!, a 33 1/3 book on the album that comes out on Thursday.

When we talked to Dettmar, we were pleased but not surprised that his responses to our questions were thoughtful, detailed, and truly enlightening. Dettmar helped us deepen our engagement with and passion for Entertainment!, one of our favorite records by one of our favorite bands.

But this interview just hints at what Dettmar accomplishes in his wonderful 33 1/3 on Entertainment!. The book parallels the album in the way in which it challenges the reader to, as Dettmar says, “think deeply about [political and cultural] situations.” Stay tuned for our review of the book.

SEM: Under what circumstances did you first hear Gang of Four’s Entertainment! and what were your first impressions?

KD: I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. UC Davis in the late-70s/early 80s was blessed with an incredible music scene. Kendra Smith fronted a local band called The Suspects, before leaving to form The Dream Syndicate with Steve Wynn. She sat next to me in one of my English classes – or rather, I always made sure to sit next to her! – and wore these amazing, tooled-leather cowboy boot earrings. She was a DJ at the campus radio station, KDVS, and along with lots of others, played really amazing stuff. I remember hearing Pere Ubu’s Dub Housing for the first time on KDVS; rumor was that a DJ got fired for calling David Thomas – Pere Ubu’s resident genius – long distance in Cleveland and talking to him, live, on the radio for over an hour. “Long distance” used to be pretty expensive back then.

In step with KDVS’s programming, the student union booked incredible shows into a small venue called The Coffee House, guaranteed to lose them money every time. But it was an incredible privilege to be at those shows. So I first heard Entertainment! on KDVS, quickly ran out to buy the album, and saw Gang of Four at The Coffee House.

My impressions? I didn’t know what had hit me. My head had been pretty stuck in progressive rock in high school and in the early years of college. I still have a bit of a soft spot for that stuff – which is why Radiohead has been the major musical crush of my adult life. My first college roommate, assigned by lottery, was a Rush fan. I was playing Yes all the time. We had a difficult year.

But I needed – without quite knowing it – some music that would get me out of my head a little bit, something a bit more visceral, without being stupid. Much of punk struck me as fun but stupid. Gang of Four was fun, more than a little bit menacing, and really smart.

SEM: What inspired you to write a book on the record?

KD: As I describe in the last chapter, the idea that I should write about Entertainment! came as something of a surprise and a revelation to me. It wasn’t my first impulse. I’d pitched ideas to the good folks at 33 1/3 twice previously, and in both cases, I’d picked records that I thought would seem Important. I was trying, I’d say, to guess what they were looking for. Twice I’d guessed wrong.

Of course, trying to guess what might make someone else happy is a fool’s errand. I’m always telling my students that they’ll write best when they’re writing out of their own passions, whether passionate enthusiasm or passionate dislike. And when I asked myself the question, “What album has meant the most to me?,” the answer came pretty quickly.

And in coming up with the answer in that way, I ended up picking a really Important album anyway – one that’s important to many others and not just to me. If I remember correctly, I was competing against two other proposals to write about it for 33 1/3. Dave Allen, the band’s bass player, told me when we met that many people have spoken to him over the years about writing about the album. But I thought that the only way I could write about the album would be to write about why it’s important to me, what it’s meant to me, how its meaning for me has changed over time. How, in some ways, I’ve grown into the record.


SEM: What was happening in music in 1979, when Gang of Four released Entertainmnt!?

KD: Well one thing’s for sure: progressive rock, on which I’d cut my teeth in high school, had gotten so flaccid that even I couldn’t get interested anymore. In high school I had convinced myself that I loved Yes’s Tales from Topographic Oceans. It’s pretty clear to me now that I loved it in spite of what’s actually on those four LP sides, although I can still listen to it now and again with real pleasure. And Going for the One, which came out in 1979, was just stupid.

So in 1979, my friends and I were still listening to punk and New Wave, especially Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Buzzcocks, and XTC. For whatever reason, I didn’t get into bands like Joy Division until much later.

SEM: In what ways was Entertainment! similar to and/or different from other post-punk records of its day?

KD: So, embarrassing confession: I’m still not sure what post punk is. When my college friends and I were first listening to Entertainment!, we thought of it as punk. We weren’t alone in that. Logically, a certain gap needs to open up between punk and its offspring before we’d think to call it “post,” and that hadn’t happened yet.

In the year that I first saw Gang of Four, at the UC Davis Coffee House, I also saw Elvis Costello and XTC, along with a number of less famous acts. In terms of a vibe, the closest thing I saw live that year was Elvis. For whatever reason, when I saw him, he was pretty angry. I heard, after the fact, that some kid had spit on him – “gobbed” him – as he came through the crowd to mount the stage. It wasn’t put on. He was really pissed and kicked the mic stand at someone in the crowd.

But Elvis’ anger seemed personal. Even though he famously sang “I’m not angry” in a tensely angry voice, he always seemed pissed back then, as Kanye often seems pissed now, largely because he was a kind of prima donna. That is to say, his anger wasn’t political. And the great thing about Gang of Four was the way that they combined the personal and the political by looking at their own behavior in the light of the political commitments and political theory they’d embraced.


SEM: In your book, you argue that critical theory informs the lyrics, arrangements, and even the packaging of Entertainment!. Let’s start with the lyrics and focus on the song “Natural’s Not in It.” How does the track demonstrate Gang of Four’s engagement with theory

KD: Gang of Four’s engagement with British Marxist thought is explicit, which is why I’d thought I’d make it explicit in the book. One can argue that, for instance, Jean Baudrillard was important to U2 as they were cooking up Achtung Baby and Zooropa, and I think there’s a good case to be made. But Jon King and Andy Gill were students of T. J. Clarke at Leeds. Jon references the Situationists all the time in interviews. It’s not a stretch to connect them to this body of political thought. As Au Pairs might say, “It’s obvious.”

“Natural’s Not in It” is the perfect example. I love that opening line, “The problem of leisure….” The very idea that “leisure” is a “problem”: already we’re on some pretty strange turf for rock music. Raymond Williams, in his book Keywords – with which members of the band were familiar – says that “nature” and “culture,” which are locked into this sort of yin-and-yang structure, each one determining and defining the other, are the two most complex words in the English language. “Natural’s Not in It” is about the use of the term “natural” to cover up the fact that our reality is shaped by power, rather than just given to us. When we believe that something’s natural, we stop thinking about it, stop analyzing it, stop worrying about it. If we think that poverty is just a natural consequence of human nature, we stop worrying about the poor.

In particular “Natural’s Not in It” is about the most “natural” thing in all of human relationships: sex. And if we’re honest, anyone who has had it would have to admit that “natural” is at most half of it! In the song Gang of Four are concerned with the ways that cultural notions of male dominance play out in the bedroom, cloaked under the guise of “nature.” Gang of Four is more often identified with Marxist than feminist thought, but no band I know of from that period, with the exception of Au Pairs and The Slits, were doing more targeted feminist work in their music.

SEM: “Ether” and “Anthrax” bookend the LP and feature lead singer Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill simultaneously singing two different sets of lyrics. Two questions. What theorists inform these songs and why do King and Gill sing simultaneously?

KD: I’d never thought about that technique bookending the album. Thanks for that! Although in “Ether” the effect is very different. At the end of “Ether,” Jon and Andy trade lines, call-and-response style. In the hands of a different producer, you can imagine Jon singing from the left channel, Andy from the right. So there’s no interference between one voice and the other. Each is isolated. In “Anthrax” Andy’s just mumbling in this desultory sort of way, kind of muttering, while Jon sings. So he’s doubly unintelligible. His vocal track would be hard enough to decipher if it were all we had to listen to, but Jon’s vocals are more prominent in the mix, and to a large degree bury Andy.

Why do they do this on “Anthrax”? They point to The Velvet Underground’s “The Murder Mystery,” from the third album, as an antecedent. The theoretical justification for this would be Bertold Brecht and his notion of the “alienation effect,” which art – in Brecht’s case, theatre – should highlight rather than try to elide. The distance between art and life. That an audience should constantly be made aware of its active role in producing meaning. In other words, “Anthrax” isn’t a song that you can just sit back and listen to and passively consume. You have to be actively involved in its production, its construction. In the end, that’s one of the secrets of Gang of Four’s power. They made their listeners work with them as they analyzed the world around them. I found – and find it – absolutely thrilling.


SEM: Gill, bassist Dave Allen, and drummer Hugo Burnham blend jarring punk riffs, noisy guitar feedback, and funk rhythms on Entertainment!. How do their innovative arrangements work in conjunction with the lyrics to create a social and/or political critique?

KD: Maybe the best answer is that the music/lyric interface works differently in different songs. The first song I thought of when I heard your question, for whatever reason, was “Why Theory?,” from Solid Gold. In the refrain, Andy sings, “Each day seems like a natural fact.” The phrase is repeated seven times in the course of the short song. But the accents fall slightly differently each time it comes up. It’s as though Andy’s thrown slightly off-kilter by the rhythms the drums are setting out. There’s nothing natural-sounding about the way the line is sung. It’s stiff and herky-jerky.

It’s easy to sound pretty daft making these sound/ideology comparisons, so I’ll restrain myself. But the very harsh and industrial sound that we associate with Andy’s playing does a lot of very important work on the album. It’s the inhospitable environment through which the human voices and lyrics try to find their way.


SEM: What does Jon’s melodica—which shows up occasionally—add to the sonic mix?

KD: I’ve come to believe that Jon’s melodica was Gang of Four’s secret weapon. He didn’t use it often, but when he did … well, it’s simply impossible to imagine a song like “5.45” without it. I think it’s both soulful (or soulfully soulless) and plastic at the same time. In its sound and its embodiment, it sort of exemplifies post-industrial urban alienation. It’s haunting. It’s the sound of anomie.


SEM: I’ve always thought that Jon and Ian Curtis—whose band Joy Division released its first LP, Unknown Pleasures, in 1979—are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Jon is very outward looking in his social critique, whereas Ian is very inward looking in his Romanticism. I’m curious to hear your reaction to my assessment.

KD: That’s a great pairing. But I’d mix it up slightly: I’d say that Jon was very inward looking in his social critique. The legacy of “political” rock, going back to at least the early Dylan, is what’s sometimes described as “finger pointing”: “You masters of war, you, you, you….” The problem’s out there: I see it, I’m calling it out. What Gang of Four did was fundamentally different: I recognize all these problems out there, because I first recognize them in here. We have met the enemy – or the ideologues, the victims of false consciousness, the sexists, the racists – and they are us. That’s why, in the book, I end up arguing that Gang of Four pioneered a kind of musical political pedagogy. The songs are case studies in which we’re invited to use the political and cultural theory we’ve been learning through the songs to think differently about the situations they present.

SEM: Let’s talk about the cover art. Why does Gang of Four employ the cut-up method?

KD: I think what Gang of Four does with the cover art is close to the Situationists. Like the Situationists, Gang of Four was interested in taking familiar images and words that circulate in the culture and giving them an irreverent spin. The example from my own childhood that I mention in the book is how guys at my high school would take an In-N-Out Burger bumper sticker and turn it into “In-N-Out urge”: a kind of moustache on the Mona Lisa. Jon, especially, was interested in trying to make the official propaganda of commercial culture say things it didn’t want to say.

The cover of Entertainment! is a small-scale summary of the album’s politics. On it some frames from a “cowboys & Indians” movie are given impish Marxist captions that point out the real politics that underwrite the film’s narrative. The Western film as a genre depends on the viewer taking certain things as natural. The captions start to suggest the “unsaid” of the film – the film’s ideology – which would point out that these “natural” conventions are all constructions of power. “Your relations are all power,” as Jon sings on “Natural’s Not in It.”


SEM: Was Entertainment! a commercial success when it was first released?

KD: Well, no. Warner Brothers – in the US – had high hopes. Those seem to have been dashed, somewhat, when the band wouldn’t censor the lyrics of “At Home He’s a Tourist” when they were invited to appear on Top of the Pops. They were unceremoniously uninvited. That show had the power to break a band into the mainstream; Gang of Four lost their chance, standing by their principles. The BBC objected to the word “rubbers.”

What seemed like their other big chance to break through was their single “I Love a Man in a Uniform,” from 1982’s Songs of the Free. It also dropped like a stone. Just as the song was picking up momentum, it was banned from the airwaves during the Falkland Island crisis. The British government wasn’t in any mood to listen to a rock band making fun of the military. They really couldn’t get a break.

SEM: What was the influence of Entertainment! and Gang of Four in general on the underground music of the 1980s and early 1990s? I know that Sonic Youth, Fugazi, and R.E.M. were big fans…

KD: In terms of their politics, unfortunately, my sense is that Gang of Four’s influence has been rather slight. As your previous question points out, the band never quite lived up to the expectations that their major-label masters had for them. In some minds, I think, the conclusion was that political rock doesn’t sell. At least not thoughtful, intelligent political rock – the rock of reflection rather than sloganeering. I love The Clash – I won’t apologize for that – but theirs was a feel-good politics that finally required very little from the listener. Whereas it was hard to listen to Gang of Four – really listen – and not feel like you needed to change your life. The guy who wrote the one book-length treatment of the band, Paul Lester, opens by talking about how he “scored” with a girl for the first time with Entertainment! on in the background. Wanker. The music certainly doesn’t prevent that kind of bad faith, but it should at least make it pretty uncomfortable.

As far as musical influence goes, I think Gang of Four is everywhere. In addition to the bands you mention, there’s no Franz Ferdinand without Gang of Four, no Bloc Party. I think you can hear Andy’s guitar all over the place. I think, for instance, that at a crucial moment it changed the way that The Edge plays. I hear him, even, in Kurt Cobain’s playing. And maybe St. Vincent? Flea, from the Chili Peppers, always gives props to Dave Allen’s buoyant playing. I’m not aware, though, of anyone taking up Jon’s melodica.


SEM: Are there any contemporary bands that have that special Gang of Four blend of intense political engagement and musical integrity?

KD: If there are, I don’t know them. But I mean that literally. I don’t mean there aren’t any, but only that I’m probably not familiar enough with the political rock that’s being made right now. They’re no longer “contemporary,” but the comparisons for me are always Minor Threat/Fugazi and Rage Against the Machine. Though I admire both bands a lot, and actually listen to Rage quite often – it’s great “mood music” for certain kinds of tasks – I think that compared to Gang of Four, Rage is humorless, Fugazi both humorless and tuneless.

SEM: Finally, do you think it’s still possible for a young band to release a debut album that lives up to the high standards of Entertainment!?

KD: Oh, of course. I mean, I almost have to. It’s almost a contractual obligation. I published a book in 2006, Is Rock Dead?, which was a diatribe against middle-aged rock writers, like myself, who conveniently decide that all the good music was made while they were in high school and college and that everything that’s coming out now – “kids these days” – is all derivative, pandering, shit. It’s a dishonest, self-promoting position, and I oppose it just on principle.

That said, the industry has changed fundamentally in the last 35 years, and making a splash with a debut album today is a much different challenge. But while neither is anything like Entertainment!, just look, over the past two years, at Lorde’s Pure Heroine and Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City – actually his second studio album, I know, but his first on a major. In very different ways from Entertainment!, and of course from one another, those are staggering major-label debuts. Rock’s not dead: not hardly.

Check out our interview with Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen here.

Check out our interview with Gang of Four drummer Hugo Burnham here.