By Keenan A. Mount
Gang of Four’s debut and highly influential post-punk album, “Entertainment!,” was released at the end of a decade, 1979, that saw capitalism’s legitimacy and colonialist tendencies come under scrutiny within the UK, the country Gang of Four is based in, and the world at large. This critique of capitalism was spurred on by overproduction crises and the suffering inflicted by the colonial actions of capitalist nations.
“Entertainment!” reflects this skeptical sentiment towards unfettered capitalism thoroughly and effectively using sardonic satire in describing the condition of all things under capitalism.
The name itself is a way of representing how art is commodified and thus made generic entertainment under capitalism.
The album art depicts an Indigenous American shaking hands with a generic cowboy with text that portrays the innocent communal nature of the native juxtaposed with the predatory ulterior motives of the cowboy. Their faces are also highlighted to emphasize their races and subsequent role in the soon-to-be-established capitalist nation.
This narrative extends into the lyrical content of “Entertainment!” as the album is laden with effective and potent parallels to the human condition under capitalism. The opening track “Ether” accomplishes this by likening the experience under capitalism to being “Locked in Long Kesh,” a detention center for members of the IRA in Northern Ireland, which is itself a result of a conflict that was mostly triggered by capitalist and imperialist conditions in the UK. “Ether” also contains the idea that capitalism facilitates this pursuit of pleasure through consumerism that is endless and is thus exhausting and dissatisfying but is disguised as a “heaven.” “New looking out for pleasure. It’s at the end of the rainbow. The happy ever after.” Of course there is no end to the rainbow just as there is no satisfaction or contentment to be found in endless consumption.
Commodification and the subsequent culture of consumerism are also illustrated in the proceeding track, “Natural’s Not in It,” wherein this idea of an economically efficient “heaven” is expanded upon by describing love as a commodity itself.
Every track on this album has some allusion, whether direct or more subtle, to the ailments one suffers from under capitalism for both those directly participating and those that are subjects and/or victims to it. This consistent theme allows the album to have a cohesive and coherent thesis, laissez-faire capitalism is a sea of commodities and the blood of the exploited that only provides fleeting pleasures and shaves down raw emotions into refined easy to consume products and entertainment.
“Entertainment!” is far more than its commentary, however. It doesn’t ask you to actively and critically listen to appreciate it as its musicality is a perfect blend of the avant-garde and approachable as well as sincerely ahead of its time.
While the vocals are punk-influenced raw energy, the production itself is refined for the most part and pop-esque. Segmented guitars never maintain a riff for too long which is akin to modern synth-dominated production. The funk-influenced rhythm of the album allows it to maintain digestibility in the face of the unrefined yet fitting vocals and sometimes maddening and scratchy guitar, like on the intro to “Love Like Anthrax.”
I personally gravitate to experimental sounds in music and appreciated their usage in the album, but they weren’t overly present, allowing “Entertainment!” to be more universally enjoyable. The musicality of “Entertainment!” is well proportioned without being stale and has a liveliness and personality exclusive to Gang Of Four.
Gang of Four debuted with a project that was seminal to the post-punk genre as well as the whole of music and that is still politically relevant over 40 years later. Gang of Four has been cited as an inspiration by Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and even seemingly unrelated artists like Frank Ocean and Pharell. Ocean even sampled “Love Like Anthrax” on his “Blonde” cut “Futura Free.” As capitalism’s slow-burning ailments become more and more apparent from general existential dread, a topic recently explored in Bo Burnham’s “Inside,” to climate change, “Entertainment!” remains as pertinent now, if not more, than when it was released in 1979. Because of “Entertainment!’s” weight as a body of music and commentary on capitalism, it makes it essential listening for music fans and those that find themselves on the left side of a political compass.