Gary Steel is slowly compiling all his album reviews in one place. This is a work in progress, or what we call a “live document”. Today is the letter ‘G’.
Gang Of Four is British, not Chinese: that’s official. They are socialists. Not that it makes a lot of difference. Gang Of Four is a group of British musicians who, along with others such as Pil and The Cure, plays the most stimulating, important sounds currently to be heard.
Their debut album, Entertainment! – available in NZ a mere 10 months after its release in England – is nothing short of phenomenal. The lyrics, all clearly enunciated by vocalist Jon King, are at the least provocative and often thought-provokingly serious.
In ‘Naturals Not In It’ and ‘At Home He’s A Tourist’, they examine the new age of leisure, and ‘Contract’ rails against marriage. ‘Anthrax’, the grand finale, uses Hendrix-like guitar feedback to drive its point (“Love will get you like a case of Anthrax”) home.
‘Five-Forty-Five’ is a frightening anti-TV tirade: “Watch new blood on the 18-inch screen, the corpse is the new personality.”
The music reflects the band’s collectivist ideals in as much as each instrument has an equally important role to play. In an effort to avoid established rock sounds and cliches, they have created something new, though not entirely devoid of influence. Andy Gill’s clean, jagged guitar is r’n’b derived, and the music packs the thwack of Beefheart’s Magic Band in its better moments.
The rhythm occasionally resorts to a form of mutated disco, while the sound itself is layered in a form comparable with Jamaican dub.
There are apparent contradictions between their ideals and reality, typified by ‘At Home He’s A Tourist’ where they recount: “She said she was ambitious, so she accepts the process… two steps forward, six steps back, six steps back.”
Surely Gang Of Four accepted “the process” by signing with a multinational record company. But the contradiction does little to detract from the almost faultless, powerful music on Entertainment!
Praise must also go to EMI New Zealand, for the excellent pressing and packaging of this album. 9/10
Entertainment! set a demanding precedent. A phenomenal debut, it shone with creative lustre and came complete with an intelligent philosophy. The sentiment running throughout the album was revolutionary within the rock context and the musical ideas interesting, yet it was very accessible.
Despite EMI’s initial reluctance to release the first album in NZ, it sold briskly. The great punching rhythms proved compelling to intellectuals and adolescent headbangers alike. How sad it is, then, that the long-time coming Solid Gold smells like last year’s thing.
The biggest disappointment is in the mix. The sound is decidedly murky, where the first album was cutting and clear. There’s a general lack of direction, music which repeats itself to death, and lyrics which lack the necessary motivation and purpose.
The only number with immediate lyrical impact is ‘In The Ditch’ with its repeated line of “Macho music/The beat goes on/Head down to the floor…” But it’s totally resigned. Where’s the constructive criticism, the vitriol? This is helplessness.
The music, as on the first album, is a mutated punk-funk, this time with r’n’b roots less in evidence. But where Entertainment! was full of interesting syncopations, Solid Gold is dull and ponderous. ‘Why Theory?’ and ‘If I Could Keep It For Myself’ emulate some of the more unsuccessfully ambitious moments on their debut.
The best thing here is ‘Cheeseburger’. Though I’m not altogether sure of the lyrical content, the music itself is quite compelling. Here they sound interested, even inspired. The rhythm is still bass-heavy, but the song is less down, less ominous.
Also excellent is an unfortunately remixed version of the 12-inch single ‘What We All Want’, a great jarring dance fling. The vocals are uniformly (awfully) shared. They’re mixed upfront, so that their blandness is apparent and the inner symmetry of the music is disguised. Pieces that accent this disquieting tendency include ‘The Republic’ and ‘A Hole In The Wallet’.
Yeah, I was stunned by the first LP and this is a terrible disappointment. Gang Of Four obviously need to spread their wings and take a rest, or they’re in danger of creating their own stifling status quo. 6/10
Nov 1981/In Touch
After The Carnival is my pick for NZ album of the year to date. It’s a breakthrough in the recording sense, as the sound is full, rich and clear. The LP was recorded at Auckland’s Harlequin Studio and mastered in Sydney. Gash, formerly of the much-missed Waves, has made a richly-textured, largely acoustic musical hybrid of the folk and jazz idioms that seems unforced and entirely natural. There’s a lovely, graceful balance between all the instruments which is a sheer pleasure to the ear. The mix of material is eclectic but it works. From the Waves-like folk of ‘Corporate Copout’ to the exotic instrumentation of ‘Alhambra’ is quite a distance for Gash to travel, but it’s attained with no struggle. The only (minor) complaint is in the lyric department. If Gash wants to woo a younger audience, he’ll have to watch those well-meaning but rather banal lyrics (‘Politicians’, for example). Nevertheless, After The Carnival is a surprising and absolutely world-class album. 7/10
This album catches Bristol’s Glaxo Babies at a formative stage – it’s a compilation of unreleased material recorded between December 1978 and June 1979.
The band has since gone through personnel changes, released several singles and the idiosyncratic album Nine Months To The Disco. These, however, are not available in NZ.
Put Me On The Guest List is what a compilation album should be but seldom is: excellent material which is elsewhere unavailable, and a valuable primer for their (soon to be released here?) later material. The music here is comparatively rough, but the sound has that instant appeal of say, Gang Of Four’s Entertainment! Album. Investigate. 7/10
Frannie Golde – Frannie (Portrait)
Golde’s debut is professionally produced but unexciting fare. 4/10
Many people have quietly held high hopes for this album. The Go-Betweens have become another critically acclaimed Australian export to Britain and currently ride high on the independent charts over there.
Expecting something patently ‘weird and wonderful’, it was a pleasant surprise to find the hallmark of Before Hollywood was its masterful sense of understatement, the subtle spaces and quietly impressive dynamics.
The Go-Betweens don’t aim at stunning originality. They attain it by choosing credible mentors – obvious influences being early Dylan and Tom Verlaine. Like Verlaine, this music takes effort and finally reaches home base only by osmosis through continual listening. This review is still at the early listening stage. Before Hollywood is an interesting record. Can’t say more than that. 7/10
April 1982/In Touch
This album came out at the tail-end of 1981. It’s hardly had a mention, and In Touch didn’t review it at the time because we weren’t around. Pity, because The Gordons is one of the best albums to come out of this country.
You’ve probably read the live reviews of The Gordons, if you haven’t actually witnessed the phenomenon for yourself. Vinyl could never quite do justice to the sheer noise and the twisted harmonics that come out of that noise. Nevertheless, this long player is a fair representation of this extreme, original three-piece from Christchurch.
The songs that their fans will know are not to be found here. New material is the menu, and the material is given plenty of room to move, unlike the quick short bursts of songs the fans know.
Initially, it’s a disappointment, but worth some effort. The Gordons are just as noisy here, but they employ a subtlety to go with it that’s all new. ‘Spick And Span’ is in the old style, but longer. The changes are evident soon though: vocals that aren’t shouted on ‘Right On Time’, a real mood created with a classic riff on ‘Growing Up’, the crushing helter-skelter sadness of ‘Laughing Now’.
The Gordons are hard on the ears. But if you’re up to it they’re playing some of the most individual, innovative music around. There is no way you can describe their music adequately, and that in itself is some sort of qualification. 9/10
Peter Green, ex-the inspiration behind the brilliant F. Mac of old, in his much-awaited and recently vaunted ‘comeback’.
His return from religious obscurity brings us an album full of instrumentals featuring relaxed, spare guitar, to a laidback Santana rhythm.
Though it’s a nice sound, excessive praise has been sickening. He brings in another guitarist for the fruitiest solos, his own playing sounding more like ‘Apache’ than ‘Albatross’, and being distinctly rusty around the edges.
Still, it makes for pleasant background noise. But next to the work of old, it’s enough to make you cry. 6/10
Peter Green – Whatcha Gonna Do (PVK)
Green’s third solo in his current burst of post-asylum activity is a cool blues swish even more into nothingness than its sad and empty (but compelling) predecessors, In The Skies and Little Dreamer. This sensitive, broken spirit dwells on a flawed but deeply addictive melancholy. Has the dubious addition of strings. 6/10