As mentioned in this piece last week I have decided to follow the example of the new Master of Jesus College Cambridge and select an Album of the Week. I started with “Pin-Ups” by David Bowie and have followed it with “entertainment!” by Gang of Four. It was their first album, released on EMI here in the UK in 1979. My choice was prompted partly by the sad news that the band’s co-founder and guitarist Andy Gill died at the start of this month, aged 64. On his “Sounds of the 70s” show on 2 February Johnnie Walker paid tribute to him and played “Natural’s Not In It” (Track 2 on the album). It’s here, for the next 14 days, at 1:49:59.
My main memories of Gang of Four, as with many post-punk, guitar-based bands of the late 1970s, are from seeing them live. As a teenager, still at school full-time, I generally had enough money to see the bands I wanted to, but not enough to buy their albums as well. I never heard a Gang of Four album in its entirety until 1982, when I bought a cut-price cassette of “Solid Gold” from Andy’s Records in Cambridge. I didn’t hear “entertainment!” until the early 2000s, when I bought it on CD in one of my “50 quid man” visits to Tower Records, HMV or a Virgin Megastore, catching up on releases that I couldn’t afford when I was younger. Even then, I didn’t play it often enough to become familiar with all the tracks, so that makes it a suitable pick for Album of the Week.
Last Wednesday I attempted to play the disk on one of the many CD players we have bought over the last 20 years. It wouldn’t even play Track 1 (“Ether”) without jumping. For a while, between 2002 and 2007, I would routinely “rip” many of the CDs I bought so that the music would be available on PCs. I never had an MP3 player but would listen through computer speakers. Using Nero software that came with an external DVD burner, I usually created files in MP4 format rather than MP3, to save space. If I had used the MP3 format instead I would have run out of disk space on the PC I was using in those years, with its tiny 9Gb hard drive. These days most USB drives have at least 32Gb, but 15 years ago my day-to-day home computer had less than a third of that, with around half of it taken up by software.
As the CD had failed to play correctly, I dug around to see if I had created MP4s from it all those years ago. I had and was pleased to find that they play without problems on my phone as well as the Windows 7 netbook and Windows 10 PC that I switch between most days. For the last week I have played the album and its three bonus tracks a dozen or more times, resisting the temptation to keep picking out the two songs I know best, “Damaged Goods” (Track 4) and “Love Like Anthrax” (Track 12). They both featured on the band’s first 7” release, along with “Armalite Rifle” (not included on the CD) and were the songs that prompted me to see the band for the first time, in October 1978.
In the late 1970s you could hear a previously unknown band on John Peel’s Radio 1 show and find that they were playing soon afterwards somewhere in London. As I recall, that’s how I heard of Gang of Four, a few days before they played the Nashville Rooms in West Kensington. The date of that gig is one that I have never had to look up: Saturday 14 October 1978. The other band on the bill were The Soft Boys. I had seen them supporting other acts, like Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias at the Marquee Club and, rather incongruously, at The Damned’s Farewell Show at the Rainbow in April 1978. Yes, The Damned split up for the first time nearly 42 years ago.
I was keen to go to the Nashville for the gig, but my older brother wasn’t interested and nor were any of the schoolfriends I asked. It was easy enough to get friends to come along to places like the Roundhouse, where you had to buy tickets in advance, but not to one-off shows by bands they’d never heard of in pubs they’d never been to. And, accommodating though my parents were, they wouldn’t let me go to a pub gig on my own.
I had given up on seeing the show, but late in the afternoon a schoolfriend who lived nearby called round. We walked up to the High Road, looked in at two of the record shops (Tune into 296 and Second Summer), didn’t buy anything, and returned to my place for a cup of tea, typical Saturday afternoon behaviour. Eventually I persuaded him to come to the Nashville for the first time. We had been to plenty of other venues together (Hammersmith Odeon, Marquee, Wembley Empire Pool, Rainbow, Roundhouse, Red Cow, in that order) but not this one. He called home, told his mum (in Punjabi) that he wasn’t coming back for dinner, and we were off, a 91 bus from the High Road down to North End Road.
We arrived far earlier than we needed to. There were maybe 10 other people in the place. We sat at the table nearest the stage. There was a small area in front of us where people usually stood, but not for this gig. We got chatting to a married couple who were in their 20s. They were surprised to learn that we were still at school, and at least two years too young to be allowed in the venue. The woman was very self-conscious about her hair. She had always worn it long, but that afternoon had had it all cut off, not in a punky style, but more like Sue Lawley’s, maybe a bit shorter than that. She kept patting the back of her head. We told her, every time she asked, that really her hair looked fine, and no you couldn’t tell that she’d had so much cut off, and yes it suited her. The couple had also heard Gang of Four that week on John Peel, which was why they had travelled down from North London to see them. They played first, and the bar was still more than half-empty by the time they finished. By the time the Soft Boys began the place was a little over half-full.
If I could go back in time and revisit any of the many hundreds of gigs that I have been to, it would be this one, for the atmosphere, for the performances, and to take a look at the other people there. Alan, one of the Scottish brothers I wrote about in this piece about Oily Fish, was there that night, but we didn’t know him yet. We would go on to see many more bands and have many nights on the beer with him before he died earlier this century. A woman I got to know well when I was at university a few years later was there too. She was alive and well and living in New York City last I heard. I’m sure there were other familiar faces there too.
A few months after that night at the Nashville my gig-going companion had formed a band and was playing at a school event called “Rock at Rivercourt”. They included a version of “Damaged Goods” in their set. They did it well. The vocalist, a boy called Terry, died last year. Playing “entertainment!” for the first time last Wednesday evening, through headphones, the opening bars of Track 4 took me back to both evenings, and many more since. Quite unexpectedly I had tears trickling down both cheeks within a couple of minutes. I have written before about songs that make you cry but never expected “Damaged Goods” to be one of them.
I can’t find any links to the whole album for you to check out, only Blocked Videos, but if you start here with “Ether” (Track 1), most of the album should play afterwards. I doubt if “Damaged Goods” will have the same effect on you as it did on me, but you never know.
Next week, something completely different: “Norman … Rockwell” by Lana del Rey.