“The Xbox people approached us…” Tom Sheehan

Gang of Four earned a rep as rock's foremost Marxist apologists in the post-punk era—while signed to übercapitalistic corporations like EMI in the UK and Warner Bros. in the US. Whether you call that selling out or subverting from within the belly of the evil beast, you can't deny the power and excellence of Gang of Four's music and lyrics. The Leeds, England, quartet's first three releases from 1979 to 1981—Entertainment!, the Yellow EP, and Solid Gold—form a hammer (and sickle) of caustic, staccato punk funk laced with metaphorical lyrics steeped in smart—and smarting—critiques of capitalism's impact on the political and the personal spheres.

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Similar to contemporaries James Chance and the Contortions and Pylon, Gang of Four injected anxiety into funk, a musical style typically known for its party-starting capabilities. Jon King had the guts to sing, "Our bodies make us worry" in "Contract," a sentiment previously anathema in rock and pop songs. It wasn't an enfeebling anxiety, but rather one that catalyzed body and mind. But by 1982's Songs of the Free, Gang of Four were moving toward slicker, more overtly dance-oriented productions while the songwriting showed a more heavy-handed sarcasm than previous releases had done. Subsequent albums Hard (1983), Mall (1991), and Shrinkwrapped (1995) revealed a further slackening of quality.

Gang of Four's new album, Content, while not up to phase-one GO4 standards, shows the creative core of vocalist King and guitarist/vocalist Andy Gill recapturing at least some of the vigor of the Songs of the Free days, if not the raging potency of the 1979–'81 years. Anyway, it's unrealistic to expect men in their mid-50s—even with help from younger musicians like drummer Mark Heaney and bassist Tom McNeice—to match their mid-20s vigor. While King's voice has lost little of its expressiveness and Gill's guitar tone and riff-mongering still sting with venomous authority (especially on "You'll Never Pay for the Farm"), the rhythm section lacks original drummer Hugo Burnham and bassist Dave Allen's coiled propulsiveness and dubwise inventiveness.

When Gang of Four surfaced in the Margaret Thatcher era, critics made a big deal about their Marxist views. Despite the group's biting observations about consumerism, though, Marxism hasn't exactly enjoyed widespread success during the ensuing 30 years after GO4's peak. Reached by phone, Gill responds to a question about whether music has lost the power to effect sociopolitical change.

"I don't think there was ever a mission to educate or anything like that," he says. "That would presume that we felt that we were in possession of very valuable knowledge that we had to distribute. A lot of the time, we were just trying to describe things in a truthful way. We were often doing it by directly describing it or by analogy or through little dramas that would happen onstage.

"Jon and I were art students, and we had some interesting people around at that time," Gill continues. "Tim Clark, who is in Berkeley teaching art history these days, was a professor of art at University of Leeds back then. A lot of interesting things were being talked about, and some of the stuff we were reading was post-Marxist things like [Louis] Althusser or Walter Benjamin. Some of those ideas may have crept into some of the ways we thought."

When King sang, "Ideal love a new purchase/A market of the senses," in the stuttering, stun-gun funk classic "Natural's Not in It," he probably never thought it'd be used to help peddle a consumer item for one of the world's biggest businesses, but these capitalist-­critiquing blokes recently sold the track to Microsoft for a Kinect ad.

"The Xbox people approached us to use 'Natural's Not in It' for a TV commercial," Gill explains. "Ten out of ten! If we'd ever been asked to define a dream scenario for this song, the first lines of which are 'The problem of leisure/What to do for pleasure,' this would be it.

"Just like in '79, [when we were] about to sign to EMI, some people were outraged, saying we should be with an indie, but our music really makes sense being with this company that is a global distillation of capitalism. The use of ['Natural's Not in It'] in a Microsoft gaming-console commercial would be an extension of our ideological integrity. We are interested in exploring the anxiety of consumerism. And we did so not out of scorn for those who fuel the capitalist machine, but to acknowledge our own complicity in it."

All political debate aside, Gang of Four's legacy as an influential band is assured. For better or for worse, the dance-punk explosion of the '00s owes a massive debt to Gill and company. Countless other agitational bands cite GO4 as inspirations. He's humbled by that notion. "The number of people who say to me and Jon, 'You guys changed the way I thought about things'—people say that again and again. I'm proud that what we talked about and the conversations we tried to initiate have been found interesting and provocative." recommended