Introducing responsible, usable political discourse to pop music is no simple matter. There are serious problems with format and context as well as questions of intention and content. Britain's Clash has had continuing difficulties reconciling the private nature of such convictions with its manner of utterance in public. The band's countrymen, The Gang of Four, have dealt with the challenge precisely by playing up the personal side of such issues.
That the Clash continues addressing itself to this body of topics at all is an achievement. "Combat Rock" (Epic FE 37689), the group's fifth album, features some of its most aesthetically coherent and ideologically persuasive moments since its debut. "Know Your Rights," the leadoff track, is a good representation of what the Clash is up to in 1982. Elements of ska, funk, rockabilly and avant-garde electronics are fused seamlessly, animated by a strong melody line and hard-hitting rock beat. In the wake of the fractiously eclectic "Sandanista!," the band thoroughly integrates the styles it has toyed with in recent years.
"Know Your Rights" and its companions, "Straight to Hell" and "Overpowered by Funk," are bold, passionate, intensely personal statements in which the Clash voices its worst fears for the sanity, safety and comfort of man. Lead singer Joe Strummer spits out lines like, "Oh, you've caught an atom tan" and "He knows welfare 'kindness' and Agent Orange blindness" with unmistakable sincerity. There's no questioning the authenticity of these sentiments or their immediate, intimate importance to the Clash.
Nonetheless, in some instances the Clash does oversimplify and sensationalize for theatrical impact. Complex social and political concepts are boiled down to catchy phrases, chorus hooks. Pop convention and stylization are allowed to infect and inflect the manner of expression, occasionally vulgarizing and depersonalizing the issues.
It's a two-edged sword. It has helped bring Clash's messages to a wider audience than more ideologically pure, stylistically uncompromising groups. On the other hand, it has devalued the information being transmitted.
The Gang of Four deals directly with this conundrum, proceeding to the point where action or reflection is unavoidable. It has exploited the pop medium to humanize and demystify the terminology of political theory; it promotes understanding and provokes involvement.
On "Songs of the Free," (Warner Bros. 1-23683), the Gang openly propounds Marxist doctrine, but in terms of personal, emotional relations. "We Live as We Dream, Along" describes alienation as "the space between our work and its product." Individual loneliness is consequently portrayed as a side effect and is pointed out as being at the root of both fascism and love. Repeatedly, the Gang of Four depicts economic and political circumstances intruding on and shaping our attitudes and actions towards love, sex--even the family. Then, in "The History of the World" it shows the dynamic operating in reverse, an ingenious, extremely revealing twist.
"I Love a Man in a Uniform" similarly looks at facets of the military mind in sexual, emotionally charged terms. Lead singer Jon King sardonically proclaims, "I had to be strong for my woman;" Sara Lee--the group's new female bass player--replies, "Oh man you must be joking!" King continues, adding an ominous sexual subtext, ". . . I had to regain my self respect/The girls they love to see you shoot."
"I Love a Man in a Uniform" is already a sizable hit on underground radio and in dance clubs, probably more so for its music than its message. The Four has created an attractive sound, choosing wisely from a number of commercial genres, notably hard funk and disco.
The heart of this music, though, is unrelentingly radical innovation. Guitarist Andy Gill plays a unique style of abstracted, very expressive near-noise. Gill deals in pure sound, nonmusical effects. "Call Me Up" rings with huge, thunderous peals of feedback. On "It Is Not Enough," he generates a veritable firestorm of atonal, electronic squalling.
The studied use of repetition and minimalist structuring devices breaks the more daunting aspects of the material into manageable units, giving the listener sufficient opportunity to enjoy it. Where this delicate equation is not in order, the going gets rough indeed--tuneless, monotonous--but that's more the exception.
The band's unorthodox approach usually works. This music is exotic and disorienting enough to grab the listeners' attention, shake up their perceptions; it prepares them for the challenging lyric content. At the same time, it's conventionally alluring and familiar enough to get across to the uninitiated. "Songs of the Free" is, in many instances, marvelously successful in its ambitious synthesis of content and form.