Justice Undone

The group's name suited its locked-in collective movement: bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham banging away in perfect unison that demanded dancing, Andy Gill tearing corrosive noise out of his guitar ...

Gang of Four made one great album; it was their first, it's called

Entertainment!, and you can't buy it any more. Entertainment!

was a brittle, raw, very funny critique of post-colonial capitalism, played

by an unbelievably tight punk band that loved dub and disco and knew the

value of

empty space. The group's name (a reference to a government conspiracy of

the Chinese Cultural Revolution) suited its locked-in collective

movement: bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham banging away in

perfect unison that demanded dancing, Andy Gill tearing corrosive noise out

of his guitar that seemed to skid across the rhythms' surface and lifted

off into silence half the time, Jon King chanting in numb horror about the

daily humiliations of consumer culture and sexual politics and gracing the

mix with occasional slashes of melodica. They knew that if history's a

joke, it's a short, bitter one: "The Indian smiles, he thinks that the

cowboy is his friend," read the caption on that first album's sleeve. "The

cowboy smiles, he is glad the Indian is fooled. Now he can exploit him."

After that, their trajectory was straight downhill, through a

series of occasionally good but increasingly dodgy albums and EPs, lineup

changes, breakups and half-hearted reunions, flirtations with funk that

turned into messy long-term relationships with dance-music forms they

couldn't quite handle. Their post-peak records start out as less-good

copies of Entertainment!'s style and gradually become attempts to

disassociate themselves from it, at the cost of the band's best qualities.

100 Flowers Bloom (another Cultural Revolution reference) is a

comprehensive, two-disc Go4 retrospective, which is honestly not something

they needed -- especially since the comprehensive, one-disc Go4 retrospective

A Brief History Of The 20th Century is still in print and cuts off

before their mostly wretched '90s reunions. More bafflingly, the

Flowers

arrangement is seemingly random, leaping back and forth between early demos

and lame remixes of late-period stuff and '80s album tracks, with nine

Entertainment! songs in one form or another randomly studded

throughout the set. The impression the compilers mean to give is of a

versatile, long-running band that brought its political ideals with it

through a

series of stylistic adjustments; the impression they achieve is of a dour,

repetitive, melodically challenged band that only clicked on the rare

occasions when it stripped away the guitar whine and disco gunk and let

the rhythm section do its stuff.

The story of the band's decline, in fact, is the story of its shift

from the collective action of four to the controlling axis of two: Gill and

King, who were the Gang all by themselves at the end, backed up by studio

hacks. Every time they made a move toward what they perceived as the pop

mainstream, their music and their lyrics became more generic and distanced,

less the white-hot disaffection of the smart guy trying to understand how

he's being screwed over and more the detached hauteur of the theorist who

wants to explain to the proletariats how they're being screwed over.

You can see hints of it even at the beginning, with Gill's

explanation of why their British label, EMI, was "perfect" for them -- not

because it offered the band a bunch of money, but because it was "one

of the biggest industrial conglomerates in the U.K. -- a huge multinational,

trading in everything from arms to entertainment. If we'd been on Rough

Trade, it would have been a far less potent juxtaposition." But the way the

Gang positioned themselves above the transaction is what slowly did them

in. The Dutch punk band the Ex made the point on 1982's "E.M. Why": "The

Gang of Four smiles/ They think that EMI's their friend/ EMI

smiles/ He's glad the Gang of Four is fooled/ Now he can exploit them/ Now he

can exploit them/ Now he can exploit them."