Wednesday, November 10, 2010

November 10: Gang Of Four, "Damaged Goods"

Artist: Gang Of Four
Song: "Damaged Goods"
Album: Entertainment!
Year: 1979

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Certain albums are so good, that even decades after they are released it is still difficult to grasp how such a record was ever created.  These elite albums are so perfect that they are praised by fans of all genres as the years pass, and they stand as the building blocks of all music that came after.  Pulling together a number of genres of their own time, and setting the stage for a handful of styles that all link back to their own, there are few bands in history that have completely altered the state of music as much as one finds in the music of Gang Of Four.  Taking the urgency and attitude of punk and giving it a more harsh edge whilst simultaneously injecting a groove unlike anything else before it, Gang Of Four almost singlehandedly started what would be called the "post punk" movement with their flawless 1979 debut, Entertainment!  Covering a number of topics throughout the twelve tracks, Gang Of Four proved to be the finest lyricists of their generation, and their stripped down, raw musical arrangements can be heard in later bands ranging from Rage Against The Machine to DEVO to Fugazi.  Quite literally every track on Entertainment! is beyond compare, and there is a subversive nature to their music that stands unrivaled more than thirty years later.  Though one cannot go wrong with any song on the album, there is no question that everything that makes Gang Of Four so extraordinary can be heard in their 1979 track, "Damaged Goods."

Though at first listen, the opening of "Damaged Goods" may seem as stereotypical punk as one can find, it is quickly clear that there is an edge and groove to the song that shows a far greater musical talent than such bands, and it is this that serves as the most unique aspect of Gang Of Four.  The tone of Andy Gill's guitar is nothing short of perfect, and the sharp, almost chopping style with which he plays gives the song its signature edge.  Yet the true brilliance of "Damaged Goods" lives within the bassline from Dave Allen, and his work here is without question one of the greatest pieces of rhythm and groove ever captured on tape.  It is in the playing of Allen where the song gets a bounce that pushes the song into a category all its own, and yet at the same time, it is this exact aspect that lends "Damaged Goods" its unsettling, almost stand-offish mood.  With drummer Hugo Burnham adding a dry, jumpy pace to the song, the combined sound shows influences from everyone from The Clash to James Brown to the ska sounds of the late 1960's.  It is in this clear lineage that one can see just ow many different styles combined to make the punk sound, and on "Damaged Goods," one can hear how those sounds in turn became the hardcore and metal that developed over the next decade.  Due to this, one can see the musical arrangements on "Damaged Goods" as one of the most important turning points in the entire history of music.

If there was ever a band that had a singer whose voice perfectly matched the music over which he sang, then it is certainly in the sound that comes from the vocals of Jon King.  His vocals are almost detached from the rest of the music, as they seem to jut forward, cutting across the sharp rhythms of his bandmates.  It is the fact that his singing creates what is almost a second rhythm that makes them so unique, and his almost poetic, spoken style has been copied countless times over the decades.  There are times on "Damaged Goods" that the intensity of King's voice reaches a point where it almost sounds as if he is ranting, and this is made more clear when Gill takes over on vocals briefly during the bridge section of the song.  Regardless which band member is singing, it is in the lyrics to "Damaged Goods" that Gang Of Four is further set apart from their peers, as there is a strong message, yet simultaneously the attitude of the time comes through clearly.  On this track, the band takes a distinctive look at relationships and sexual politics, and there are few lines as brutally honest as when King sings, "...your kiss so sweet, your sweat so sour...sometimes I'm thinking that I love you, but I only know it's lust..."  While what Jon King is singing makes the song a classic, it is the staccato style in which he sings that makes "Damaged Goods" strangely danceable and one of the most unique pieces of music ever recorded.

Throughout all of Gang Of Four's Entertainment!, one can clearly see the true musical genius that lived within the quartet.  While many may be more drawn to their faster songs, it is on this album that one sees just how easily the punk attitude can be transitioned into slower, more mellow arrangements.  It is on this album that the true "punk hybrids" began to emerge, and one simply does not have the post-punk movement, or the proper development of hardcore music without the presence of Gang Of Four.  The way in which "Damaged Goods" seems to almost twitch nervously as the song progresses is one of the most distinctive characteristics of the bands' sound, and the various rhythms they are able to deploy all at once is what makes their music so extraordinary.  Yet as stunning as the musical arrangement is on "Damaged Goods," it is the lyrics found here that would forever change the face of the punk style.  In many ways, one can point to "Damaged Goods" and the other lyrically charged songs on Entertainment! as the point where punk style bands began putting far more thought into their lyrics, and the political songs on the album make this assertion even more clear.  Whether the group was injecting influences from funk, psychedelic, or the still young punk sound, there was no other group before or after them that played as brilliantly, and one cannot overstate the importance of Gang Of Four's monumental 1979 song, "Damaged Goods."

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