Gang of Four Part 2: I Found That Essence Rare

We’ve all got opinions
Where do they come from?

— “Why Theory?”

Reading Jim Dooley’s invaluable Red Set: A History of Gang of Four1 last year I was fascinated with how some of the philosophical underpinnings of the band’s songs mirrored what I’ve been dealing with in writing materials with comrades in a labor group. What follows is not a review of Dooley’s book, but rather a commentary on the mirrored passages and also, to a much lesser degree, remarks on my exposure to theoretical thought through pop music (of all things). This post is based on the notes I took at my first (and only) full reading, and is not a comprehensive look at Gang of Four reasoning.

Art & Language

The future Gang of Four’s Jon King and Andy Gill both met Terry Atkinson while studying art at Leeds University in the mid 1970s. Atkinson, an instructor, had been a cofounder of Art & Language, an association of artists that molded conceptual art into concretized ideas. But that collective also had a cachet for fans of popular music. Just as avant-garage rockers Pere Ubu would collaborate with Red Crayola in 1979,2 the latter’s Mayo Thompson already had worked with Art & Language on the LP Corrected Slogans (1976).3

So Atkinson had a built-in interest amongst students of art and music, like King and Gill and future Mekons Jon Langford and Mark White. Dooley quotes Atkinson from the beginning of a 1990 essay that appears to be so in line with Gang of Four’s song “Why Theory?” (1981) that it could raise a chicken-or-egg question if we weren’t aware of the interaction between the instructed and their instructor. Atkinson, followed by Gang of Four:

No matter how much theory is disguised or repressed, there is no practice without theory. The theory that practice has nothing to do with theory is a theory, a disingenuous and naïve one, but none the less a theory.4

Each day seems like a natural fact
And/But what we think
Changes how we act

The operative word is “seems.”

Dooley follows this up with a discussion of Jon King’s interest in the original Situationists and their culture jamming, which is fairly obvious, but of course integral to the GO4 story.

Seventy pages later Dooley discusses how, if action can’t be divorced from thought, institutions can’t be separated from their history. In other words, there is nothing necessarily “natural” in the order of things. On this point Dooley cites a text that King provided, by Georg Lukács.5 (I include here a preceding line because of its correspondence with Atkinson, above.)

Marx opposes to [his predecessors] a critical philosophy, a theory of theory and a consciousness of consciousness. It dissolves the rigid, unhistorical, natural appearance of social institutions; it reveals their historical origins and shows therefore that they are subject to history in every respect including historical decline.6

(Racist police as progeny of slave hunters comes to mind.7) To perceive any institution, law, idea as natural—the flipside being unnatural (as in acts)—simply perverts and subverts human agency. For worse or better, these are our constructs. Natural is not in it, as Gang of Four exclaim in their iconic song from the first album.

The same song poses:

The problem of leisure
What to do for pleasure

Dooley cites a Situationist International line: “The emptiness of leisure stems from the emptiness of life in present-day society, and it cannot be filled within the framework of leisure.”8 As Dooley notes, this implies that leisure “is somehow exterior to our everyday working lives, and larger society […].”9

It’s a sharper critique than British band Multivizion would present in their 1981 single “Work to Live, Don’t Live to Work,” which actually leads off with the line, “There’s dignity in labour” before complaining of a demanding boss who wants “blood for money,” and which encourages resistance against the status quo without questioning it altogether. The lyric does, however, declare, “Well, money comes in handy/ But I don’t need it that badly.”10

The (In)Dignity of Labour: Too Dear a Price

I’m compelled to digress here and comment on Multivizion’s critique by way of what I read decades ago in Bartolomé Bennassar’s The Spanish Character: Attitudes and Mentalities from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century, first published in 1975.11 In a chapter titled Power, Work, and Wealth, the author begins by mentioning the need for immigrant labor in the households of the wealthy during the first two centuries of his study, quoting Jorge Nadal, who wrote a few years earlier that “Spain, especially its Catalan and Valencian regions, was invaded by a multitude of immigrants from the other side of the Pyrenees.”12 Bennassar then explains that such a dearth of labor was in part solved by slavery.13

In a subsection titled Attitudes Toward Work, Bennassar writes, “Very early it seems, foreign travelers and attentive Spaniards noted this people’s lack of interest in manual labor and, more generally, their poor opinion of labor.” Felipe II’s 1561 study of his realm showed that prominent cities like Valladolid and Burgos had only 40 and 48 percent of family-heads declaring an occupation, respectively; Segovia only 70 percent.14

Bennassar quotes Henry Swinburne, who visited Spain in 1775 and 1776:

The poor Spaniard does not work, unless urged by irresistable want, because he perceives no advantage accrues from activity. As his food and raiment are purchased at a small expense, he spends no more time in labour than is absolutely necessary.”15

Bennassar also provides several examples of Spanish industriousness. Labor that long was considered “honorable” includes work on the land as well as public service—“the royal service, the study of letters, and the sea (the road of conquest and large-scale commerce).” Looked down upon were “mechanical professions” (use of hands) and “dealings in money.”16

Then Bennassar discusses what caught my eye nearly thirty years ago. I’ve never liked to work for a wage myself, and I guess this resonated at least on the level of “work to live.”

For Spaniards of the Old Regime, labor, even if remunerative, was not an end in itself. Labor might be the necessary condition for a decent life, but excess in work should be avoided.17

And then:

We must dismiss the legend of interminable days of labor, of years made up of identical days, all devoted to labor. A large block of time was always reserved for diversion.

Bennassar goes on to explain that even after the archbishop of Toledo had reduced the number of dioscesan holidays, per a papal recommendation at the end of the eighteenth century, feast days plus Sundays totaled 94 a year—ten days shy of our own 104 weekend days—

[…] to which must be added the parish feasts, the occasional corridas, the Mondays off demanded by artisans, apprentices, and day laborers as free time. This comes to 170 idle days in the year.18

We can roughly contrast this with our (U.S.) 104 weekend days, six relatively firm national holidays, and ten days of vacation: 130 total (if we’re lucky). To which, Bennassar adds that the workday itself was “rarely longer than six hours,” citing Joseph Townsend from 1731.19 Bennassar makes a near-summation in this subsection by quoting another foreigner, Théophile Gautier, a hundred years later:

Pleasures like ours, gained by dint of pain, fatigue, tension of spirit and application, they think are bought at too dear a price.”20

Leisure is loss

Nearly forty pages later in my reading of Red Set Dooley points to another Gang of Four song, “A Hole in the Wallet” from the second album, which deals with the commodification of “all aspects of contemporary life.”21 The song concerns women, however, whose “business” is to have been educated in order to recognize their equal status, but also: to be seen and not heard, to mask their “nature” with makeup, and to “stay in bed or in the kitchen.” Love, too, is a dead end:

Why work for love if it shows no profit
You’ll only earn emotional losses
Wasting time is a hole in the wallet

Dooley writes that the song “seems to ask whether we can possibly succeed if we don’t exclusively dedicate ourselves to our work. In a way, leisure is loss.”22 In work as in love.

Situationist Guy Debord, not cited at this point by Dooley, discusses the work-leisure dialectic, writing that leisure, i.e.,

inactivity is in no way liberated from productive activity: it depends on productive activity and is an uneasy and admiring submission to the necessities and results of production; it is itself a product of its rationality. There can be no freedom outside of activity, and in the context of the spectacle all activity is negated[,] just as real activity has been captured in its entirety for the global construction of this result. Thus the present “liberation from labor,” the increase of leisure, is in no way a liberation within labor, nor a liberation from the world shaped by this labor. None of the activity lost in labor can be regained in the submission to its result.23

Another song on that second album (Solid Gold)—the aforementioned “Why Theory?”—also had its genesis in a feminist critique, although one might be hard-pressed to detect it. Dooley quotes Andy Gill as saying the song’s title and possibly some of its lyrics were “sampled” from a “thick pamphlet” of feminist thought. The song expressed Gill’s dearly held idea “that all of this is man-made, it’s all idealogy—it’s created and it’s used to shape the world we live in.”24

Trying to tell you a dream

My notetaking skipped sixty more pages to mark an interconnection between Joseph Conrad, Karl Marx, Margaret Thatcher, and Guy Debord. The song is “We Live As We Dream, Alone” from the third album Songs of the Free. Dooley writes that the song “is linked to Gill and King’s shared enthusiasm for […] Heart of Darkness,” with Gill observing that the book “is as much about London as it is Africa,” i.e., colonization begins at home.

The title comes from a line in Conrad’s novella, exclaimed after its narrator explains that he’d lost his ability to view Kurtz rationally:

“He was just a word for me. […] It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no realation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essense of dreams…” […]

“…No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essesnce. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone…”25

Defining ourselves

As Dooley writes regarding this same song, “Interconnected are the Marxist ideas of reification and alienated labour,”26 covered thusly in the lyrics:

Man and woman need to work
It helps us define ourselves
We were not born in isolation
But sometimes it seems that way

The space between our work and its product
Some fall into fatalism
As if it started out this way

In conversation, I find the perfectly “natural” question, “So what do you do?” to be pretty personal, just this side of asking someone about their sexual orientation. We hardly are defined by what we “do” any more than by what we do (or don’t) in bed (or whereever). And so that “space” (GO4’s term) of some workers’ estrangement from the product of their labor grows, just as it does for some young people these days vis-à-vis their gender and their sexual preference(s). Last summer Harvard’s Gay & Lesbian Review reported that, according to a British poll, “only 46 percent of eighteen- to 24-year-olds identified as ‘exclusively heterosexual’—0 on the Kinsey scale.” Another 35 percent fell in the categories of Kinsey’s 1 (predominantly hetero, only incidentally homo) and 2 (predominently hetero, but more than incidentally homo). So nearly one out of 5 fell into the area of bisexual-to-exclusively-gay.

A 2017 poll stateside already had expanded that sample to ages 18–34, and the results matched: 20 percent IDing as LGBTQ.27

The G&LR then reported last fall that stats from a survey of Yale’s first-year class—admittedly a tiny sample—essentially were the same, even if the categories weren’t Kinsey’s. “Straight” came in at 76 percent, while “Asexual/Ace” polled at three, “Questioning” at six, “Bi/Pansexual” at nine, and “Gay/Lesbian” at five percent.28 Just as there are people who accept a sexual status quo on its face, yet move beyond its bounds—say, anyone in that 2 slot on the Kinsey scale—, there are workers who do the same. Even those who adhere to “be thankful you have a job,” as if all value came from Capital—“as if it started out this way” (GO4)—, manage to finagle the system by myriad methods, from lifting paperclips to calling in sick, at the very least.

Society’s Bunk!

They’re invincible, didn’t exist!
— “History’s Bunk!”

The third connection to “We Live As We Dream, Alone” is noted by Dooley’s citing29 of Garry Mulholland,30 who draws a parallel between the song’s sense of estrangement and Margaret Thatcher’s famous quip in an interview five years later, that people

are casting their problems on society, and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.31

Months later she issued it as a statement, itself of interest given what we’ve discussed above:

All too often the ills of this country are passed off as those of society. Similarly, when action is required, society is called upon to act. But society as such does not exist except as a concept. Society is made up of people.32

Dooley then quotes33 from Situationist Guy Debord, the final interconnection:

What binds the spectators together is no more than an irreversible relation at the very center which maintains their isolation. The spectacle reunites the separate, but reunites it as separate.34

A way out of this dead end is presented by Gang of Four’s “I Love a Man in Uniform,” from the same album. As Dooley writes, “Soldiering is not only a way to make a living in difficult economic times”—“Handouts, they got me down” from the lyrics—“it is also an occupation that offers some sort of structure to a chaotic life.”35 “I had to regain my self-respect,” the song’s narrator sings. “To have ambition was my ambition.” The whole song is a justification for joining, a justification that would change days after the song’s album Songs of the Free was released in March 1982: the Falklands War began April 2.36 Debord: “The spectacle reunites the separate….”


My next two notes, scribbled between a couple dozen pages, concerned how Gang of Four viewed their engagement with the message in their music. Dooley cites37 a New Musical Express profile of the band by Charles Shaar Murray in which Andy Gill makes a distinction between GO4 and other bands championing a cause. Gill could have named a number of musicians, but chose Paul Weller, who “seems to be interested in areas of social welfare, but we’re not in the same category at all. A display of conscience is not the same bag as discussing ideology.”38 The difference is between a soul being simply sympathetic and being critical of the order that’s responsible for engendering that sympathy (via the order’s action, or inaction).

Gill had received questions from women friends regarding the song “Woman Town,” which was inspired by Fellini’s City of Women, in which Marcello Mastroianni’s character finds himself in a city with no men—especially a scene in which he “walks down a hallway that seems to consist of countless images, and audio fragments, of women from the doctor’s past,” as Dooley writes. It’s a sexist portrayal in the film, Gill tells Dooley, and is sexist in the song. So Gill’s friends’ queries re the song become problematic, since the song is a commentary on sexism using the sexist as mouthpiece. Such an approach, Gill says, “should be about truth and not trying to present some kind of politically-correct balanced view of the world. Because if that is the case, then what you are presenting is not truth but ideology.”39

Leonard Cohen’s third album displays his stubbled mug and a poem on the verso that begins, “They locked up a man/ Who wanted to rule the world.” To my knowledge that poem, like “Woman Town,” is not autobiographical. And Andy Gill is not Joni Mitchell, who remarks in the current issue of MOJO, “My work is personal, too vulnerable,” in reference to her paintings and the ignorance with which they’re met. “That’s why I quit making records.” But this quintessential confessional-singer-songwriter cuts to the quick regarding the underlying star-making machinery. Upon hearing that A&R types “are no longer looking for talent, they just want people with a certain look and a willingness to cooperate,” she thought: “That’s interesting, because I believe a total unwillingness to cooperate is what is necessary to be an artist—not for perverse reasons, but to protect your vision.”40

Of course, Mitchell could be relegated to the same bag as Weller, but her comment remains a critique of capitalism. (For a thoughtful critique of ideology, not out of line with what Dooley presents, see a concise introduction by Chad Kautzer, who first introduced it to me.41)

Pastel Palette, Hard Harmonics

People hated Gang of Four’s album Hard, the band’s fourth, on which “Woman Town” appears, and there’s a lot to dislike, beginning with the cover: pastel palette, a group shot (a first, suggested by their manager, according to Dooley42), the geometric doodles on the verso that were a lot more Malcom Garrett (Assorted iMaGes) than GO4, although the matte finish is a nice touch.

Surfaces aside, I can’t get enough of the opening cut, “Is It Love,” owning four vinyl iterations, which I mixed live as a deejay. It’s not the song’s lyrics but rather the sound that grabbed me. Gill and King had planned to work with Nile Rodgers of Chic, being “huge fans.” But when Rodgers’s fee increased following the popularity of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, which he co-produced, GO4’s manager nixed it, according Gill, as recorded by Dooley.43 Still, Hard, which was produced with brothers Ron and Howard Albert, has a disco sheen akin to Chic, a departure from the prior punky-funk. It opens with Brenda White and Chic’s Alfa Anderson’s piercing a cappella “Is it…” falling nearly an octave to a serene “love…,” which seems sampled from Brian Eno’s Music for Airports. Andy Gill demonstrates the depth of his artistry by crafting a guitar solo out of his harmonics—unmatched in his oeuvre, to my mind. It comes off as disco, unapologetically. Yet the band members spend a whole chapter apologizing to Dooley for the album.44 My notes urged me to reread the critique of Hard. In the course of doing so I was grateful to Dooley’s citation of two critics who put into words what I was feeling vis-à-vis disco—the music and its temples.

Disco Dialectic

Simon Frith gets into territory too involved to discuss at length, but states, for instance, that on the disco floor “there is no overt competition for partners, no isolation.” In my experience that was an element of the disco dialectic, that one could be surrounded by potential partners while feeling alone.45 And to quote a line of Frith that Dooley does not:

There was an obvious link between the vocal styles of disco and 1930s torch songs: Billie Holiday and Donna Summer alike stylized feelings, distanced pain, opened up the texts of sexuality (and for this reason, disco, despised by punk-rockers on principle, had an immense appeal to the post-punk avant-garde).46

One can list a number of artists in the latter camp: Lizzie Mercier Descloux, James White/Chance, Malcolm McLaren, The Slits (sorta), Robert Fripp, Talking Heads (they’d hedge by calling the sound African rhythms), Scritti Politti. And Gang of Four. (And all white.)

Dooley also cites Richard Dyer, writing in a publication issued by a gay men’s socialist collective: “[Disco’s] eroticism allows us to rediscover our bodies as part of this experience of materialism and the possibility of change.”47 I never danced to “Is It Love,” but Dyer distills the feeling at least some men had on a dance floor in the ’70s and ’80s. After which we might walk outside and be bashed.

My late musical partner John Callahan who, like me was a fan of both punk and disco, would comment that both genres were reactions to rock’s baroque tendency. The rhythm was reinvigorating, whether via punk’s simplicity or disco’s Latin-esque complexity. Dooley himself touches on this.

It could also be argued that embracing disco had overt political overtones. As with [Gang of Four’s] use of a melodica and the employment of dub techniques, the norms of robust, hyper-masculine rock music were thereby contested. A challenge was made to categories within genres and genders. In many ways, an active dancefloor is the very opposite of music being created by a lone genius and enjoyed by solitary home users. Community is realised via participation.48

But, again, at night’s end, we dream alone.

It’s Not Made By Great Men

Dooley covers more ground in 100+ pages before summarizing the Gang of Four legacy in his final chapter, titled Blooming Flowers, which can be read as a stand-alone essay. My last two notes referenced Fredric Jameson (cited throughout the book), Gramsci, and Foucault from the many thinkers in this section. Dooley writes, “The Gang of Four members are not heroic outsiders pointing to societal ills but rather players caught up in those contradictions, ambiguities and compromises. If answers are even possible, they are hard to come by.”49 He then quotes Jameson, who speaks of the Left’s “very self-defeating nostalgic position, just trying to slow down the movement of history.” This can be said to a certain extent of the Industrial Workers of the World, with a rich history that can tend to overshadow a radical modus operandi that never ended. Dooley cites the concept of “movement of history” via Gramsci’s “notion of hegemony that most aptly captures where Gang of Four were coming from. For Gramsci the idea was that power was in a constant state of flux—that it was something perpetually negotiated and reconfigured. Power was not solely oppression, or force, from above, but also entailed an element of consent. As there was an element of contestation, there was always a potential for agency.”50 And Dooley cites Foucault who asks “the ultimate question” in a discusison of emancipation: “How can the growth of capabilities be disconnected from the intensification of power relations?”51

As Dooley illustrates over and over again in Red Set, Foucault’s question lurks in the background regarding Gang of Four’s internal dynamic. The members constantly second-guessed their choices while also unnerving their bandmate comrades by their probing. (Read the book…) Again, as Dooley puts it so well, Gang of Four were (are) not heroic outsiders but rather participants—not great men.

See also Part 1: Natural’s Not in It

Header image: The Mekons
The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen

  1. Jim Dooley. 2017. Red Set: A History of Gang of Four, London: Repeater Books.
  2. The result was Soldier-Talk, issued by Radar Records (which counted among its roster Elvis Costello).
  3. The album was issued on the Music-Language label, a play on the Art & Language periodical Art-Language. A couple of the LP’s tracks appeared in different forms on Soldier-Talk.
  4. Terry Atkinson. 1990. Phantoms of the Studio, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Jan), 49–62.
  5. Dooley, 132.
  6. George Lukács. 1920. Class Consciousness, collected in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, translated by Rodney Livingstone, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971, 47.
  7. A week ago in Boulder, where I grew up: this.
  8. The Use of Free Time, Internationale Situationniste No. 4 (June 1960), translated by Ken Knabb, archived at Collaboratory for Digital Discourse and Culture @ Virginia Tech.
  9. Dooley, 132.
  10. The single was released on the Situation Two label, founded in 1981 by Peter Kent, who had cofounded 4AD with Ivo Watts-Russell in 1980, according to Wikipedia. Interestingly in the present context, the single’s cover art depicts people in leisure attire: swimming trunks, roller skates, and baseball uniform.
  11. Bartolomé Bennassar. 1979. The Spanish Character: Attitudes and Mentalities from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.
  12. Bennassar, 104–105, quoting Jorge Nadal, La Población española, Barcelona, 1966, 81.
  13. Bennassar, 106–116, in his subsection titled Slavery: Service, Prestige, Profit.
  14. Bennassar, 117–118.
  15. Benassar, 119, quoting Henry Swinburne, Travels Through Spain in the Years 1775 and 1776, London, 1787, Vol. II, 275 ff.
  16. Bennassar, 121.
  17. Bennassar sets the bounds of the Old Regime as beginning at the end of the Reconquest (1492) and ending when that regime “crumbled” with the loss of the Spanish American empire in 1824 (Bennassar, 2).
  18. Bennassar, 121–122.
  19. Bennassar, 122, citing Joseph Townsend, A Journey Through Spain, London, 1731, Vol. I, 144.
  20. Bennassar, 122–123, quoting Théophile Gautier, presumably from Un Voyage en Espagne, 1843, but his citation is missing a reference.
  21. Dooley, 168–169.
  22. Dooley, 169.
  23. Guy Debord. [1967] 1977. The Society of the Spectacle, Detroit: Black & Red, archived here. The quote is from Chapter 1, No. 27.
  24. Dooley, 170. In this passage Gill also credits his reading of Gramsci, Barthes, and perhaps Foucault, who “looked at the idea of items, or ideas, being idealogically charged while appearing innocent and neutral.”
  25. Joseph Conrad. [1902] 1963. Heart of Darkness, New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 30.
  26. Dooley, 232–233.
  27. Nicholas Adjami. 2018. Sex and Gender Fluidity versus ‘Born This Way,’ Gay and Lesbian Review, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Jul–Aug), 5.
  28. BTW (column), About the Millenials, Gay and Lesbian Review, Vol. 25 (Nov–Dec), No. 6, 10. Yale replaced the terms “freshman” and “upperclassmen” with the gender-neutral terms “first year” and “upper-level students” two years ago, as reported by Fox New Insider. G&LR, however, still used the abandoned f-word in its column.
  29. Dooley, 233.
  30. Garry Mulholland. 2006. Fear of Music: The 261 Greatest Albums Since Punk and Disco, London: Orion Books.
  31. Douglas Keay, “Aids, Education and the Year 2000!”, Woman’s Own, 31 Oct 1987, 29–30.
  32. Statement issued to Sunday Times, 10 Jul 1988. Both this and the interview transcript for Woman’s Own are posted at Margaret Thatcher Foundation.
  33. Dooley, 233.
  34. Debord, Chapter 1, No. 29.
  35. Dooley, 235.
  36. Dooley, 235.
  37. Dooley, 240.
  38. Charles Shaar Murray, “Gang Floored,” New Musical Express, 15 May 1982.
  39. Dooley, 261, 262.
  40. Robert Hilburn, “Joni: The Interview,” MOJO, Issue 304 (Mar 2019), 66.
  41. Chad Kautzer. 2015. Radical Philosophy: An Introduction, Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 130–131.
  42. Dooley, 265.
  43. Dooley, 255–256.
  44. Dooley, chapter titled No One Lives in the Past, 251–279.
  45. Dooley, 264, quoting: Simon Frith. 1987. Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock ’n’ Roll, London: Constable, 246.
  46. Frith, 247.
  47. Dooley, 264, quoting Richard Dyer, In Defence of Disco, Gay Left, No. 8 (Summer 1979), 23.
  48. Dooley, 264.
  49. Dooley, 395.
  50. Dooley, 397. Dooley does not provide any references re Gramsci.
  51. Dooley, 397.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *