Music Box: Gang of Four's "Entertainment!"

After Marie Antoinette I couldn’t help but wonder, why I haven’t written anything about Gang of Four’s Entertainment! before. This is one of my most influential albums that is so bold in deconstructing our society and goes beyond the “everything sucks” ideology of many punk albums. This is post-punk, of course, and while there are other political albums in music’s history, at least for me nothing achieves what this album achieves. It’s angry without being loud, it’s intelligent and challenges the listener because it doesn’t provide easy answers. It’s simply brilliant, lyrically and musically. If I ever need inspiration for change, for doing something, I put this one on and get going.

Entertainment! was released in September 1979. Just the cover, with its depiction of colonial exploitation and phrases of political propaganda that we still hear every day, is a masterpiece on its own.

Ether kicks off the album with all the paradoxes and trappings of our culture.

Dirt behind the daydream
The happy ever after
It's at the end of the rainbow

The desire to find a better life but also the realization that this can never be achieved. Thrown in are political references to prison, torture, censorship and war combined with a monotonous beat that is merciless. It’s somewhat repetitive but that’s part of what makes it so effective.

In Natural’s Not In It is about the commercialization of sex but also about the void that living in this culture creatures.  Again, it’s supposed to be perfect, but

Dream of the perfect life
This heaven gives me migraine

So we escape and one of those escapes has become sex itself, foregoing pleasure and love for satisfying primal desires and feeling less numb. Those are amazing lines, even more true in our newer age of porn.

Fornication makes you happy
No escape from society
Natural is not in it
Your relations are of power
We all have good intentions
But all with strings attached

Those last two lines pretty much sums up most of our attempts and failures for change.

Not Great Men expresses something I tell my students whenever I can, which is that history as we learn it in school is very subjective and often wrong. It is often told as a story about heroes and villains, but we have to remind ourselves that it’s still just stories. Every time students have to learn the names of kings and presidents and other rulers, those lines resonate with me:

No weak men in the books at home
The strong men who have made the world
History lives on the books at home
The books at home
It's not made by great men

History is also always a story of progress and success and advancement, but

The past lives on in your front room
The poor still weak, the rich still rule
History lives in the books at home

Our selves are Damaged Goods because of our society, so that not even love is easy anymore.

Sometimes I'm thinking that I love you
But I know it's only lust

This is one of the best songs of that period and probably of all time.

The album is from the late 70s, so war is more prevalent than it probably is nowadays, although the list of armed conflicts and the fear of terrorism is still going strong. But back in those days it was more normal to talk about the fear of war. Guns Before Butter is about that very fear.

All this talk of blood and iron
Is the cause of all my shaking
The fatherland's no place to die for
It makes me want to run out shaking

It’s a shame we don’t hear songs like so often anymore, but then again it’s good that war has become more unpopular as long as there aren’t new reasons to motivate people to get themselves killed (like new terrorist groups, for example). The song also includes another nice summary for a meme in our culture:

Just keep quiet, no room for doubt

I Found That Essence Rare is another of my very favorite songs, but let’s look at Glass that encapsulates how people feel as members of our culture most of the time.

 I'm so restless
We talk about this and we talk about that
I'm so restless, I'm bored as a cat

If you're feeling all in take some asprin
If you feel in a mess put your head on a head rest
Your back on a back rest, foot on a foot rest
Or your arm on an arm rest or your leg on a leg rest

Always thought life should be so easy
It seems that I have misunderstood
Nothing I do can seem to please me
What I say don't sound so good

Those lines are so brilliant, especially the head rest, etc. The doubts, the insecurity, the shallow comforts and reassurances are just perfect.

Contract also portrays how relationships are often practical, detached and helpless.

The same again, another disappointment
We couldn't perform in the way the other wanted
These social dreams put in practise in the bedroom
Our bodies make us worry

That’s not the passionate romance we are promised in movies and books, but two emotionally disconnected people having no idea what to do with each other. If put this way, sex for money sounds much easier indeed, if we can't even trust our bodies.

5.45 is the other best song of all time from that album. I love the energy and anger of it, the blunt criticism of the media that thrives on the wars of the world, the disconnect between the viewers at home and the struggling lives abroad, the feeling of being manipulated and controlled.

How can I sit and eat my tea
With all that blood flowing from the television
At a quarter to six, I watch the news
Eating, eating all my food
As I sit watching the red spot
In the egg which looks like
All the blood you don't see on the television.

Down on the street assassinate
All of them look so desperate
Declared blood war on the bourgeois state

Watch new blood on the 18 inch screen
The corpse is a new personality
Ionic charge gives immortality

Guerilla war struggle is a new entertainment

The album ends with Anthrax (how popular that song title would have been after 9/11!), again talking about the depressive lives we accept as normal

Woke up this morning desperation a. m
What I've been saying won't say them again
My head's not empty, it's full with my brain
The thoughts I'm thinking
Like piss down a drain

And I feel like a beetle on its back
And there's no way for me to get up
Love'll get you like a case of anthrax
And that's something I don't want to catch

This is followed by a kind of speech about love and its portrayal in love songs and while this is not representative thematically for the rest of the album, it’s still very strong in its message and attitude. I wish so much that groups were still as bold and smart about reflecting upon our society as Gang of Four were on Entertainment! It’s an album that should be taught in school because it almost forces you to ask “Why?” Why do we accept to live this way? Why are discouraged from changing it? Why do we think having miserable lives is the only right way?