Based on what seems to be the consensus of Internet users, I feel obligated to begin this review with a Public Service Announcement:
GANG OF FOUR STAND ACCUSED OF SPREADING MARXIST PROPAGANDA AMONG THE MASSES!
And just in case anyone from the MAGA crowd drops by, I’ll throw in the Fox News version:
GANG OF FOUR ARE SOCIALISTS KNOWN TO HAVE COLLABORATED WITH THE RADICAL DEMOCRATIC PARTY!
As is usually the case, the Internet consensus is crap, reflecting user bias rather than objective critical analysis. I have a question for those out there in the ether who believe with all their hearts and souls that Gang of Four shared their total commitment to Marxism: “Do you really think that dyed-in-the-wool Marxists would have signed recording contracts with EMI and Warner Brothers?”
Let me add that “Marxism” is a meaningless term in the same sense that “Christianity” is a meaningless term. Both of those “faiths” have evolved (or de-evolved in the case of Evangelical Christianity) over the years and split into various sects—sects that are often in conflict with one another. People have so frequently cherry-picked quotes from the bible and from Marx in support of their personal agendas that nobody can say with any certainty what either “faith” is all about. Fans cherry-pick song lyrics in the same way because they ache to identify with their heroes, sometimes twisting the evidence to eliminate inconvenient contradictions.
Ironically, attaching one’s identity to the people we’ve transformed into commodities (i. e, celebrities) is one of the problems Gang of Four attempted to warn us about on Entertainment!
After rummaging through the available literature on Gang of Four (most of which is written by admitted die-hard fans, so one has to tread carefully through the sweet muck), I arrived at the following conclusions. The offerings on Entertainment! were influenced by Situationism, an artistic, political and philosophical movement that “expanded the Marxist critique of capitalism, particularly its tendency to replace authentic experience with ‘individual expression by proxy’ through the exchange and consumption of commodities.” (Wikipedia) Lyricist and lead singer Jon King confirmed that influence, but his confirmation fell short of a complete embrace of Situationist philosophy: ” . . . where I think that Situationism was good was in the development of its revolutionary tactic: ‘reinvesting’ the cultural past. Situationism conspicuously used popular imagery in order to subvert it – to make the familiar strange, rather than rejecting the familiar out of hand. The tactic was good, worth ripping off, as in the Entertainment! cover, or the original ‘Damaged Goods’ sleeve.” The songs on Entertainment! are less concerned with political revolution than attempting to increase our awareness of the insidious aspects of capitalism that shape our identities and encourage listeners to apply critical thinking to “taken-for-granted” assumptions about the way the world works. The example King cites most frequently involves an advertisement featuring a beautiful woman hawking perfume that he stumbled across in Paris: “There was a great poster of the time: ‘Je sais que je vous exploit mais je ne le fais expresse‘ which meant ‘I know I’m exploiting you but I’m not doing it on purpose’.” Dadaism and Surrealism influenced the work of art school students King and guitarist Andy Gill as much (or more) than Marxism, and while their deep skepticism regarding capitalism places them firmly in the left wing, their approach is more about raising consciousness than storming the Bastille.
All this philosophical jabber may give one the impression that Entertainment! is a work created by elitist, intellectual artistic types whose music is likely to be difficult to decipher, but nothing could be further from the truth. Jon King’s lyrics are thought-provoking, but the language is clear and direct (more Hemingway than James Joyce), reflecting the lyricist’s working-class origins. Lines and phrases are frequently repeated in the songs to drive home the relevant points, so there’s a better-than-even chance that you’ll “get it” by the time a song reaches the end. The music is post-punk, so while Gang of Four veers from pure rock ‘n’ roll to incorporate more funk and Jamaican influences, the chording remains fairly simple, with a heavy emphasis on power chords. However, if you’re in the mood for a “pleasant listening experience,” Entertainment! is not for you. There are no pretty melodies or sweet harmonies; the musical emphasis is rhythmic and the treble knob on Andy Gill’s strat is stuck at the highest possible setting. Simon Reynolds of Pitchfork described Andy’s sound as “metal splintering,” and that’s the first time I’ve agreed with anything I’ve read on Pitchfork since . . . I don’t remember when. Having grown up on a steady diet of punk, I rather like Andy’s no-bullshit attack that mirrors Jon King’s no-bullshit lyrics and the guitarist’s stylistic insistence on forming a tight integration with the outstanding rhythm section of Dave Allen on bass and Hugo Burnham on drums. You’ll rarely come across a band as tight as Gang of Four on Entertainment!
The rhythmic emphasis and tightness are on full display in the opening track, “Ether.” Dave Allen kicks things off with a high-treble bass riff in a syncopated 4/4 rhythm, cutting off just before the end of the measure to allow Burnham to complete the phrase with a POW-POW! Andy crashes the party with sharp-cut rhythm guitar, working off the initial syncopation while Burnham fills the space in the back with a slightly different syncopated pattern. The herky-jerky result is somewhat reminiscent of early Devo, but the palpably rougher sound imparts a greater sense of urgency and determination—a kind of “I’ve had it with this shit” musical message that sets the stage for the façade-ripping lyrics.
Those lyrics are initially presented from two perspectives using a call-and-response pattern of contradiction: Jon King presents the view of the oblivious Brit living comfortably within the system and Andy Gill replies with the ugly truth of behind-the-scenes dehumanization perpetrated by the system:
Trapped in heaven lifestyle (locked in Long Kesh)
New looking out for pleasure (H-block torture)
It’s at the end of the rainbow (white noise in . . .)
The happy ever after (a white room)
The call-and-response is then abandoned for a pithy summary of the situation:
Dirt behind the daydream
Dirt behind the daydream
The happy ever after
Is at the end of the rainbow
The “ugly truth” in question has to do with the British government’s treatment of IRA prisoners in places such as Long Kesh with its infamous H-Block, particularly the treatment applied to the group known as the “Hooded Men.” Amnesty International UK summarized the ghastly events:
During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the UK government arrested hundreds of men as part of “Operation Demetrius” in the summer of 1971.
342 people were interned (imprisoned without trial) as part of the Operation.
14 men were chosen for ‘special treatment’ and were taken to a secret interrogation centre. The men were forced to wear hoods and thrown to the ground from low-flying helicopters while hooded. These 14 men became commonly known as the ‘Hooded Men’.
On top of brutal beatings and death threats, the men were then subjected to what would become known as the five techniques, authorised at a high level:
- Stress positions
- White noise
- Sleep deprivation
- Deprivation of food and water
None of the 14 men were ever convicted of any criminal offence.
Dirt behind the daydream, indeed. Still, having lived in the United States during the Bush-Cheney regime, I can testify that hardly anyone gave a shit about the alleged terrorists who underwent torture in Guantanamo. “Fuck ’em, they deserved it,” was the general attitude. People were far more upset about the two major recessions that threatened their pleasure-seeking than they were about the government’s violation of some silly U.N. convention regarding torture. As I’m sure that there were many people in the U. K. in 1978 (when the album was released) who really didn’t care what the government did with those IRA “thugs,” it took a lot of guts for Gang of Four to come to their defense.
Many of the lyrics are repeated to drive the point home, but the last verse presents another example of the rose-colored glasses the public prefers to wear so they can live their lives in a tenuous state of peace:
There may be oil (now looking out for pleasure)
Under Rockall (it’s at the end of the rainbow)
There may be oil (the happy ever after)
Under Rockall (it’s corked up with the ether)
Rockall is an uninhabitable, bird-shit-covered rock in the North Atlantic a few hundred kilometers west of an uninhabited island that is part of Scotland and a couple of hundred kilometers northwest of Ireland. The Brits initially claimed the rock in 1955 out of fear that the Soviets might use it to spy on their guided nuclear missile tests; in 1972 they officially annexed the rock and declared it part of Scotland. Irish nationalists took exception to that claim, and some idiot from Dublin almost died trying to plant the Irish flag on its shit-covered summit. The 1978 release date of Entertainment! coincided nicely with the decade’s two energy crises that spurred the UK to develop the North Sea oil fields, which in turn inspired Ian Anderson to satirize the fervent belief among the population that North Sea oil would become the viscous savior of the petrol-hungry economy—“the happy ever after” noted in “Ether.” At the time the song was written, the prospect of finding oil near Rockall would have qualified as deeply wishful thinking.
The Rockall Shit Show continues to this day. Greenpeace temporarily occupied Rockall in the 90s (ostensibly to prevent oil exploration) and declared it the new global state of Waveland. Since then, the island has been at the center of controversy between London, Edinburgh and Dublin regarding fishing rights. That’s a lot of hoo-hah over a literal shit pile that measures “25 metres (80 ft) wide and 31 m (102 ft) long at its base, but Rockall has earned a cherished place in the annals of British history as “final territorial expansion of the British empire.” I’m thinking of submitting a recommendation to Merriam-Webster that they use Rockall to demonstrate the meaning of the word “pathetic.”
You can read the full story of Rockall in an article aptly titled “The Fight Over a Shitty Rock.” To me, Rockall symbolizes the utter absurdity of the capitalist emphasis on competition and exploitation.
The theme of pleasure mentioned in passing on “Ether” takes center stage in “Natural’s Not In It,” and the opening lines are worthy of serious contemplation:
The problem of leisure
What to do for pleasure
The “problem of leisure?” What kind of society makes the use of free time problematic? Obviously, this is one of those “first-world problems,” as the ninety-five million people on the planet living in extreme poverty spend all their time trying to survive and thoughts about where they’ll go on vacation never cross their minds. The experts have weighed in on this existential crisis:
. . . the paradox of choice afflicts people with too many options, decreasing their happiness and increasing anxiety. Psychologist Barry Schwartz explicitly links this problem to the consumer abundance of late-stage capitalism and notes that the entertainment industry is among its many proponents . . .
Scholars link the emergence of the term boredom to European industrial modernity, repetitive labour, the standardization of time – and the related rise of the concept of leisure time.
Regulating time was fundamental to the emergence and development of industrial capitalism. Since at least the 17th century, western political, legal and religious authorities emphasized the need to use time productively while constructing racialized, class-related and gendered ideas of laziness and idleness.
What am I going to wear? What are we going to watch? What are we going to have for dinner? Mac or PC? Coupe, sedan or public transit? Ski in the Alps or bask on the beach? And most importantly, who am I going to fuck?
Ideal love a new purchase
A market of the senses
Dream of the perfect life
The body is good business
Sell out, maintain the interest . . .
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
Repackaged sex your interest (repeat six times)
Fornication makes me very happy but trying to find a partner whose approach to sex was natural, instinctual, free of the layers of cultural expectations surrounding what’s sexy and what’s not was easily the most difficult challenge I’ve ever faced–and the hardest part was cleaning out my own layers of bullshit that I’d picked up in a world where nothing sells quite as effectively as sex. I can certainly relate to the repeated closing line, “This heaven gives me migraine,” because the cultural definition of “great sex” essentially requires those involved to put on an act and resort to learned techniques that are a poor substitute for genuine intimacy. We also have to deal with mixed messages coming at us from those who want to make us feel guilty about fucking, captured in the couplet, “Remember Lot’s wife/Renounce all sin and vice.” As we know all too well, anyone railing against sex as sin is simply trying to deflect attention from their own lustful escapades.
Man, this world is FUCKED UP!
The music to “Nature’s Not It It” is rough and minimalist, with Andy Gill’s rhythm guitar dominating the proceedings. Andy also assumes the role of lead singer, and I love his tone of barely disguised outrage at the unnatural state of things in our consumerist universe.
Human history is our next topic, particularly the fallacy of viewing history as a series of heroic stories about “great men.” During the extended downtime of the pandemic, I read several history books and biographies of American presidents and world leaders to try to get a better understanding of how we created such a dysfunctional universe. I learned two things: one, the people who have answered the call to assume leadership were and are seriously flawed individuals whose fuck-ups outnumbered their so-called achievements (so-called because it’s impossible to get anything done without the help of other people); and two, history should be rewritten to tell the stories of how people adapted to and survived such shitty leaders. That’s where the real story lies, and the lyrics to “Not Great Men” tell me that Jon King and I are on the same page:
No weak men in the books at home
The strong men who have made the world
History lives on the books at home
The books at home
It’s not made by great men [Repeat: x4]
The past lives on in your front room
The poor still weak the rich still rule
Yep, that about sums it up. The lyrics are attached to a delightful display of funk rhythm that works wonders, and though I bring a touch of pianist snobbery to any discussion of a melodica, its introduction in the mix makes me laugh and I fully grant its status in the DIY universe of punk.
“Damaged Goods” was Gang of Four’s breakthrough hit, an unusual breakup song because it exposes the dishonesty that usually accompanies a breakup and the convoluted attitudes we have about sex. Those attitudes are shaped by a consumerist society where people learn to view each other as consumable goods, a state of affairs encouraged by the objectification of human beings as sex objects in all forms of media. “I know I’m exploiting you but I’m not doing it on purpose” could be pasted under every nude pin-up or closed-captioned under every porn film ever made, but I think we’ve reached the point where the models are in fact doing it on purpose and are willing participants in their own exploitation. “A girl’s got to make a living,” and if you have a culturally-defined great bod, why not use it to earn some dough and maybe attract a rich footballer or sugar daddy to take care of all your consumerist needs?
After playing the game of saying something nice and meaningless to the person you’re about to dump, the narrator exposes the dishonesty surrounding sex by letting a bit of honesty slip out:
The change will do you good
I always knew it would
Sometimes I’m thinking that I love you
But I know it’s only lust
Your kiss so sweet
Your sweat so sour
People often confuse the sheer power of the sex drive with love and it’s nice to hear someone admit it, even if the admission was but a momentary escape from the façade. What’s even better is found in what I suppose passes for a chorus, where the narrator expresses the confusion and ambivalence that arises when people treat sex as a transaction, consciously or unconsciously:
Damaged goods (ah, ah, ah, ah)
Send them back (ah, ah, ah, ah)
I can’t work, I can’t achieve (ah, ah, ah, ah)
Send me back (ah, ah, ah, ah)
Open the till (ah, ah, ah, ah)
Give me the change you said would do me good
Refund the cost (ah, ah, ah, ah)
You said you’re cheap but you’re too much
I’d estimate that 90% of the sexual partners I’ve had were damaged goods corrupted by a society that resists honest and open communication about the human sex drive. “The change would do you good” was lifted from a discount grocery store advertisement, and it serves to illustrate both the commoditization of sex and our tendency to substitute common clichés for genuine expressions of emotion.
Though I’m pretty sure that the couplet “Sometimes I’m thinking that I love you/But I know it’s only lust” gave thousands of would-be record buyers the joy of hearing someone actually say what they’d always wanted to say, there’s no question that the music sealed the deal for me. The band sold me in the introduction where Allen and Gill engage in a seamless two notes/chord back-and-forth that suddenly turns into a wild rock-and-roll ride with high-speed drums, a brisk two-chord rhythm guitar attack and a disciplined flurry of bass runs. Sensing that they needed to shake things up a bit, Andy Gill drops out of the picture for a few lines in the second verse, a nice little break in the full-force action that allows us to marvel at Allen’s scintillating bass. Andy returns to reignite the fire in the next verse, then both bass and guitar disappear for the presentation of the all-important chorus. Things heat to a boil in the final verse, where King and Gill play call-and-response with the lines “I’m kissing you goodbye/(Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye),” and instead of copping out with a fade, the song crosses with finish line with a sour, off-key chord, ending the two-chord monopoly. I’d describe the music as 90% fierce and ironically sexy.
“Return the Gift” is the weakest track on the album, lacking both a compelling rhythm and punchy lyrics. “Guns in Butter” is far more interesting because it rejects the sick Nazi war-loving machismo captured in the Bismarckian term “blood and iron” while dispelling any notion that Gang of Four adhered to party line propaganda disseminated by the Kremlin, reflected in the phrase “joy in labor.” The key to the two verses in question is the use of the terms “fatherland” (Nazi Germany) and “motherland” (Russia, often referred to as “Mother Russia” in pre-communist literature). First, we’ll deal with the Nazis:
All this talk of blood and iron
It’s the cause of all my shaking
The fatherland’s no place to die for
It makes me want to run out shaking
It should come as no surprise that Gang of Four would reject war as a solution to anything. The Nazis embraced Bismarck’s insistence that “Eisen und Blut” (later flipped to the more euphonious “Blut and Eisen“) was the most effective way to forge unity. In a stunning display of obliviousness, Hermann Göring argued in favor of investing in guns (military) over butter (domestic priorities) by remarking “Guns will make us powerful; butter will only make us fat.”
Hermann Göring should have been the last guy to dis fat people.
On the flip side, the alleged Marxists in Gang of Four didn’t think too highly of the Soviet Union:
I’m hearing talk of joy in labor
I’ll tell you this you can leave me out
The motherland’s no place to cry for
I want some sand to hide my head in
I’m hearing talk of strength in labor
That’s something I can do without
The seemingly curious comment “I hear some talk of guns and butter/That’s something I can do without” doesn’t reflect a lack of understanding of the concept that governments often have to choose to invest in one or the other, but an argument that the phrase itself sets up a false choice. It’s not arguing for guns and butter (an approach that didn’t work too well for LBJ) but that military spending is by its very nature destructive and wasteful.
The rhythms in the song are complex, marked by frequent independent syncopation by the members of the rhythm section. The knock-your-socks-off performance comes from Andy Gill, who varies his typically disciplined attack with unexpected bursts of dissonance and out-of-sync picking at lightning speed that strengthen the theme of shaking in fear contained in the lyrics. While Andy doesn’t fit the prototype of the virtuoso lead guitarist, his unique approach to rhythm guitar proves that the classic lead solo is an option, not a requirement.
“I Found That Essence Rare” kicks off side two. “It summed up that lonely desire we all have to find something permanent and real and transformational in the middle of the relentless, oppressive programming and oppression we go through,” explained Jon King, conveniently and probably deliberately ignoring the fact that the song is also the most radio-friendly tune on the album. Once you get past the “oh, fuck it” countdown followed by Andy Gill’s lo-fi guitar intro, the band is off to the races, proving conclusively that they could rock with the best of them.
I should disclose a potential bias before proceeding any further. Though the original Essence Rare perfume (released in 1928, for fuck’s sake) was kind of old-ladyish, the 2018 relaunch has a gentler white floral scent that both I and my partner adore. I love to spray it on my bush because it complements the scent of my pussy beautifully, encouraging my partner to lick as long as her tongue holds out. That’s probably more than you wanted to know, but I haven’t reaffirmed my commitment to the “music reviews with a touch of erotica” headline in quite some time and it’s important to stay “on brand.”
How’s that for a bit of consumerist capitalist drivel?
Speaking of the female anatomy, the first example of oppressive programming involves “the body rare.”
Aim for the body rare, you’ll see it on TV
The worst thing in 1954 was the Bikini
See the girl on the TV dressed in a Bikini
She doesn’t think so but she’s dressed for the H-Bomb (For the H-Bomb)
I always wondered why that skimpy garment was named for an atoll blown to smithereens by American atomic power and the answer turned out to be quite embarrassing for this citizen of La Belle France. Interestingly enough, I found the answer on the website of the American retailer Land’s End, a brand I’ve always associated with sexless flannel and women so thoroughly bundled up that you can’t make out their tits:
Louis Réard thought his invention was as ‘small and devastating’ as the atom bomb, and named it after this infamous location on the other side of the planet, hoping to capitalize on the attention the tests received.
What the fuck, M. Réard? “What the fuck?” thought Andy Gill, but he didn’t use foul language: “It seemed curious that embedded in our culture was this atrocity, the threat of total annihilation, and this flimsy little thing that girls wear to look fit.”
Then I read the rest of the story on the website. What the fuck, Land’s End?
There really is a bikini for every body type. Women with a small chest might like a bandeau-style bikini top without straps. If you’re blessed with a big bust, look for one with supportive underwires and wide straps to give your chest a boost while avoiding red marks on your shoulders.
Translation: If you’re not blessed with a big rack, please consult a licensed plastic surgeon about breast enhancement at your earliest opportunity.
The second example of oppressive programming is directed at the tabloids who shove important news to the back pages and fill the front page with juicy scandals involving the rich and infamous. My favorite is the third, because it’s so exquisitely true:
Aim for politicians fair who’ll treat your vote hope well
The last thing they’ll ever do—-act in your interest
If you ever find a politician who does explicitly act in your interest, you will have found the essence rare somewhere other than the perfume counter.
The riff that opens “Glass” bears a more than eerie resemblance to the riff that opens The Byrds’ “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” which immediately turns me off. The lyrics are devoted to the topic of boredom, but other than listing things people do when they’re bored (look out the window, light a cigarette, talk about this and that) and various remedies for minor pain, the song falls far short of an exploration of existential ennui. “Contract” has a nice funky beat, but pretty much repeats the theme of sex-as-transaction without any additional insight.
We get out of the late-album doldrums with the single, “At Home He’s a Tourist.” I’m going to skip the usual preface and jump straight to the lyrics of the first verse:
At home he feels like a tourist
At home he feels like a tourist
He fills his head with culture
He gives himself an ulcer
He fills his head with culture
He gives himself an ulcer
Since “he” is at home, we can assume that “he” is filling his head with “culture” via the telly or the radio. Now I’d like to share with you an interpretation of this verse I found at songmeanings.com, submitted by a contributor who goes by the perfectly appropriate moniker “Broken Dick.” WARNING: I have not corrected the typos:
It’s about the ways that the THEY, the sistem, an opressive system in Go4’s socialist point of you, want YOU, the common person, to act; the role they want you to play.
They lock you at home with cheesy television programs, glossy magazines and other sources of sterile culture that makes you feel like you’ve got an ulcer. It’s obvious why you also feel like a tourist: cause tv and magazines and etc show you so many diferent places, people, situations, etc.
Oh, for fuck’s sake. If there are any British readers out there who were locked in their homes and forced to watch the BBC by your oppressive system, please use the comment feature to share your story. I will then immediately block you for being a paranoid idiot.
People! I will fully admit that capitalism uses insidious, manipulative imagery and language to get you to buy shit you don’t need by trying to make you feel inadequate because you don’t have this shit or that you will be more attractive/powerful/sexy if you buy that shit, but don’t ever try to tell me that you weren’t blessed with a brain that has the ability to call bullshit when you see it. THEY don’t make you to do anything! YOU CHOOSE to be manipulated by neglecting to activate the dormant critical thinking cells in your fucking brain! If you watch an automobile ad with a hot chick at the wheel and think, “Hey, if I buy that car, I can improve my odds of getting laid,” you’re not a victim—you’re a dumb ass! Read the damn lyrics—do they read THEY fill his head with culture or THEY give him an ulcer? No! He’s doing it to himself! Gang of Four is trying to remind you that you have the power to defend yourself against advertising!
Look, I do marketing for a living and I know all the tricks. Let me give you a few basic tips on how to prevent advertiser mind control. One: Avoid all contact with celebrity endorsement ads and pharmaceutical pitches for the simple reason that they’re 100% horseshit. Two: Know that most ads are designed to make you feel inadequate in one way or another, so don’t fall for it—get angry about it. Three: The most successful ads try to convince you that this product is better than the competition and they will dis the competition at least three times in the ad—don’t believe a word they say. Four: If an ad with a cute puppy pops up, change the channel immediately—there is no known defense against a cute puppy.
The second verse was deemed controversial by the BBC, so one of their minions asked the band to change the word “rubbers” to “rubbish” shortly before their scheduled performance. Gang of Four restored the integrity of rock ‘n’ roll damaged by the Stones’ surrender to Ed Sullivan (“let’s spend some time together”) by telling the minion to fuck off as they headed for the doors. Actually, I don’t think the verse is all that powerful because I think nightclubs provide a valuable public service by selling rubbers to oversexed and forgetful males, but I admire the band for refusing to compromise their art. Verse three flips the gender of the homesitter, but the result doesn’t pack the punch of the first verse. Musically the song is driven by Dave Allen’s pulsing beat supplemented by Andy Gill’s fascinating, random offbeat fills and Burnham’s superb work on the toms (most apparent in the bridge where Allen and Burnham team up to create a compelling rhythm for the vocals).
“5:45” questions the need to show scenes of violence and dead bodies on the nightly news (“How can I sit and eat my tea, with all that blood flowing from the television”) but I really wish they would have expanded their attack to cover all gratuitous violence on the TV screen. Still, I fully endorse Jon King’s perception that violence sells nearly as well as sex and that the “news” had become just another form of entertainment (as Paddy Chayefsky had predicted a few years before in Network).
Watch new blood on the 18-inch screen
The corpse is a new personality
Guerrilla war struggle is a new entertainment (x6)
We arrive at the finish line and find “Love Like Anthrax” waiting for us there. There’s actually very little buzz about the song on the Internet, a very surprising turn of events given the song’s notoriety. The version that appears on the album was actually the second attempt. The original EP take featured a rather cheeky, nihilistic reading of the technical resources used to make the album; it was replaced by the far more relevant monologue about the status of love songs in popular music. I get the feeling that the song could have used a bit more effort to close some lyrical loose ends, but I’m fine with it as is.
The Wikipedia article on the album begins its description of “Love Like Anthrax” with “after a minute-long, droning, feedback-laced guitar intro” and then jumps to the next segment. Whoa! Hold on there, pardner! That minute-and-half is a guitar masterpiece, the most effective use of feedback since Hendrix. Andy Gill’s mini-composition has all the flavor of a symphonic overture, establishing a dark and gloomy mood of unresolved musical contradictions. I have to admit I’m a little disappointed when I hear the drums and bass enter the scene, signaling the end of Andy’s moment, but I get over it pretty quickly and fall in line with the funky beat.
The next part is initially confusing because you have Jon King singing the lyrics in one ear and Andy reading his monologue in the other ear, and human perception limits our focus to only one stimulus at a time, while the rest fades into the background. Since Jon takes the expected role of lead singer, convention requires us to focus on what he’s doing first and get to Andy later.
Here’s what’s important about Jon King’s vocal: he’s had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
Woke up this morning desperation a.m.
What I’ve been saying won’t say them again
My head’s not empty, it’s full with my brain
The thoughts I’m thinking
Like piss down a drain
And I feel like a beetle on its back
And there’s no way for me to get up
Love’ll get you like a case of anthrax
And that’s something I don’t want to catch
Knowing he’s down in the dumps explains why he compares love to anthrax—he doesn’t really mean it, but all it takes is one lousy date or one crummy lay to evoke powerfully bitter feelings. He then does what everyone else does when they’ve done something they regret—he beats himself up and reminds himself of all his flaws and failings:
Ought to control what I do to my mind
Nothing in there but sunshades for the blind
Only yesterday I said to myself
The things I’m doing are not good
For my health
Jon’s imagery in “Love Like Anthrax” is the strongest on the album—“And I feel like a beetle on his back” and “Nothing in there but sunshades for the blind” are killer lines.
Meanwhile Andy’s droning on and on about something or another, though occasionally their voices dovetail on some of Jon’s lines. What Andy has to say turns out to be a rather important message about love in modern society and is presented in much more palatable language than love equals anthrax:
Love crops up quite a lot as something to sing about, ‘cos most groups make most of their songs about falling in love or how happy they are to be in love, you occasionally wonder why these groups do sing about it all the time. It’s because these groups think there’s something very special about it; either that or else it’s because everybody else sings about it and always has, you know to burst into song you have to be inspired and nothing inspires quite like love.
These groups and singers think that they appeal to everyone by singing about love because apparently everyone has or can love or so they would have you believe anyway but these groups seem to go along with the belief that love is deep in everyone’s personality. I don’t think we’re saying there’s anything wrong with love, we just don’t think that what goes on between two people should be shrouded with mystery.
“Unless the intent is to use expressions of open sexuality to make a whole lot of money off fans hooked on celebrity gossip,” I would add, referring to the Beyoncé-Jay-Z duet “Drunk in Love.” Even a slut like me has her limits.
I agree with Stewart Mason’s assessment that “Love Like Anthrax” is “one of the most unique and interesting songs of its time,” and it still carries that uniqueness today.
As noted above, the greatest challenge I faced writing a review of Entertainment! is that the bios and studies of the band are uniformly adoring in tone. The worst offender is Kevin H. Ditmar, who wrote the 33 1/3 volume on the album and had the gall to compare Entertainment! to James Joyce’s Ulysses. You’d think that a guy who serves as W.M. Keck Professor of English at Pomona College (my alma mater) would have refused to allow his adulation to interfere with his assessment, but there you have it. The two works literally have nothing in common—in technique, in style, in language or in subject matter.
Entertainment! is a landmark album, but you can’t expect any band to come up with an absolute masterpiece on their first time at bat. I think it deserves the accolades it has received and have no problem with Entertainment! appearing on nearly every greatest album list in existence. I think its most important contributions and influences include Andy Gill’s one-of-a-kind guitar, the use of complex and varied rhythms and the absolutely vital message that the human race needs to question, question and question again notions of truth and reality fed to us by those in power.
p. s. When I collected the YouTube videos for this review, guess what? Every irritating ad that appeared before the video was . . . an ad for women’s perfume. Fuck Big Brother.