The 1979 Files, Volume 1

September 01, 2009 | Comments (0) | by Wolter

Ah, 1979. I have nothing but the fondest memories of that year. Probably because the only memories I have of that year are vague ones about seeing the Star Wars reissue in the theater and getting a puppy for Christmas. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that 1979 was pretty much the watermark for Music That Is Designed to Make Wolter Happy. Which therefore makes 1979 the Artistic High Mark of Human Culture.

Bear with me on that.

I know you’re going to talk about the prevalence of shitty disco and bad chart music. But know this: since the 60s ended, every year’s top 40 and dance music has been crappy. That’s what top 40 and dance charts are for, and it can be safely ignored. Also, I should cop to the fact that unlike bartender Chip Wesley (who could probably write a top 100 albums for every year TMS has been around), I own maybe 25 albums recorded in the 21st Century. Of which I regularly listen to about 3.

So with this, the first in a potential running series of articles (we’ll see how much steam I have on this) highlighting the achievements of this underrated year, I’ll start with an obvious choice:

Gang of Four – Entertainment

Practically Perfect in Every Way.Leave it four very Caucasian Marxists from Leeds to take funk, remove the sexy from it, add political sloganeering and guitar noise (and just a slice of dub-reggae production), and create a masterpiece of angular, quasi-danceable, post-punk manifestos. This album is the aural equivalent of a slow building mental breakdown, except halfway through the process you realize that going crazy was probably the sanest thing you’ve ever done.

From the plodding, spaciously-claustrophobic opening track (“Ether”) to the final ominous, noise-droned anti-love song (“Anthrax”), which on one channel has Jon King chanting neurotic lyrics about his aversion to love, while on the other channel, guitarist Andy Gill casually and clinically analyzes why bands record shallow songs about love, not a note is wasted. Gill’s scraping guitar often sounds like it’s spilled across Dave Allen and Hugo Burnham’s muscular rhythm section, only to coalesce into a tight, noisy lockstep that shows he knew what he was doing all along.

God, I love this album. Sure, the lyrics are mostly sloganeering, but so are all political songs. The unreconstructed angry leftist in me eats up songs decrying the Great Men Theory of history (“Not Great Men”), Patriotism and Militarism (“Guns Before Butter”), and the commodification and work-induced regimentation of every waking moment of our lives (“Return the Gift,” with the insistent, chilling chant of “Please send me evenings and weekends.”). But the bitter, alienated cynic in me can latch on to the anti-Romanticism of the aforementioned “Anthrax” (a case of which King compares falling in love to catching), and the jaundiced view of sexual relationships found in songs like “Damaged Goods” and “I Found That Essence Rare,” (which reminds us that the bikini is named after an atoll decimated by atomic testing – “She doesn’t think so, but she’s dressed for the H-Bomb.”).

Before you start sneering, “Jeez, Wolter…that sounds really fun. Why don’t I just open a vein instead,” I need to point out that this album rocks. Hard. Sure it’s angular and dissonant, but it’s also danceable and funky as hell (in a funhouse-mirror sort of way). And it has a long reach: Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers has said that hearing Entertainment! changed the way he viewed playing bass guitar, and a slew of the stronger Punk/Hardcore/Independent bands of the past 30 years have followed Go4’s lead, which is especially clear in the way both 80s SoCal stalwarts The Minutemen and 90s post-hardcore legends Fugazi incorporated their guitar vs. rhythm section arrangements. And I’m not even going to spend more than a sentence saying that Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, et al, have more or less made careers out of re-hashing Go4 songs, in the same way that Enemies of TMS Oasis have done with the Beatles and their contemporaries.

Top this off with provocative cover art about Cowboys and Indians that can be interpreted as a slam on historical Colonialism, the unspoken media presentation of racial and cultural issues in simplistic terms, or simply emblematic of the album’s relentless assault on the exploitation, commodification, and dehumanization of modern society (repackaged as entertainment, no less), and you have one hell of a party.

If these adjective-vomiting histrionics have somehow inspired you to check out this album, I strongly suggest the Rhino reissue, which has the entire Yellow Ep as well as 4 other bonus tracks (including a surprisingly faithful live cover of “Sweet Jane”) tacked on to the end.

Tune in next time, when I will probably review an album with tits on the cover.