To create a spike of novelty high enough to land in the history books depends on a lot of things aligning: an open-armed zeitgeist, an interested public, a little bit of chaos, and a lot of charisma.* Sometimes they become folklore, affecting only those who were there, like Woodstock, Altamont, or the June 4, 1976 Sex Pistols show in Manchester: Supposedly everyone there left that show dead-set on starting a band. There’s even a book about it. Other times these events are recorded, as great performances, art works, books, or records. Two of the latter that emerged from 1979 and have since been documented elsewhere are Gang of Four’s Entertainment! and the Germs’ (GI).
Emerging at the end of the 1970s, Gang of Four‘s debut album tapped in to a tectonic shift in the times. 1979 was just close enough to Year Zero. As Mark Fisher writes in The Ghosts of My Life (Zer0 Books, 2014), “It has become increasingly clear that 1979-80… was a threshold moment – the time when a whole world (social democratic, Fordist, industrial) became obsolete, and the contours of a new world (neoliberal, consumerist, informatic) began to show themselves” (p. 50). It was also the dawn of post-punk. In tangents like tentacles, Joy Division, Wire, Gang of Four, The Fall, PiL, Talking Heads, and Television, among others, were stretching punk in new directions.
One of the more significant of these, Gang of Four combined the lean muscle of punk with the bare bones of funk. Lyrically social and political, their lanky limbs swung hard and wide against the “middle-class malaise” of the 1970s (Dettmar, 2014, p. 36). Satire of such subtlety and impact wouldn’t be seen again until the rearing of Radiohead.
Like Kevin J. H. Dettmar (invoking Simon Reynolds and quoting Gina Arnold), I never knew “punk in the present tense” (quoted in Dettmar, 2014, p. 3). The closest I came was in the aforementioned tangents: post-punk, hardcore, and new wave. The first time I heard Gang of Four’s Entertainment!, suddenly much of what I was already listening to made much more sense. Fugazi had a lineage. Naked Raygun had context. Wire had contemporaries. During the post-Lollapalooza package tour phase, I finally saw them live in 1991. It was a woefully crippled line-up that only included Andy Gill from the original Four, sharing Atlanta’s Fox Theatre stage with a motley mess of bands: Young Black Teenagers, Warrior Soul, Public Enemy, and The Sisters of Mercy. Years later, I met and worked with bassist Dave Allen and am since proud to call him one of my best friends.
The original Gang of Four reconvened in 2004 for a brief run, but ideological differences would drive Dave and drummer Hugo Burnham out of the fold again by 2008. When it came to recording new material, half the band wanted to go the traditional route. Dave, having consulted many bands on negotiating the music industry’s new digital landscape, wanted to do something new, something different. He told me at the time, “If we don’t own the idea, there’s no point in doing it.”
And we don’t know
Just where our bones will rest
To dust I guess
Forgotten and absorbed into the earth below
Double cross the vacant and the bored
— Smashing Pumpkins, “1979”
While the Germs one and only studio album is often as high on the influential list as Gang of Four’s debut, its foundation—personal, personnel, and otherwise—wasn’t near as stable. The Germs’ enigmatic leader struggled with fame, substance abuse, and his sexuality while the other band members struggled with him. Their lone record, (GI) (Slash Records, 1979), produced by Joan Jett, represents one of the very few times Darby Crash found himself in a studio. The record pre-dates Entertainment! by several months. Often touted as one of the first documents of the hardcore movement, (GI) is a thin slice of the West Coast chaos the Germs helped stir up in the wake of punk. Darby’s five-year plan to take over the L.A. scene culminated in his suicide on December 7, 1980, only to be over-shadowed by the death of John Lennon the very next day.
Some say he was a lyrical genius, others accused him of just plagiarizing Nietzsche. Either way, it is notable that before they recorded (GI), Darby distributed photocopies of his lyric sheets instead of a demo tape. Brendan Mullen, Don Bolles, and Adam Parfrey’s oral history, Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and The Germs (Feral House, 2002), is a very even handed account of Darby’s brief and tumultuous time in this world. Lexicon Devil‘s compiled quotations from the people who were there provide a slightly less aggrandizing but no less entertaining picture of Darby and the Germs than Roger Grossman’s biographical film What We Do Is Secret (Peace Arch, 2007).
Both of these bands illustrate the undeniable chemistry that great teams have. Think Sonic Youth, R.E.M., Pink Floyd, and Rush. Darby Crash proved that he, Pat Smear, Lorna Doom, and Don Bolles were something special together when he reunited the Germs after an abortive attempt at forming The Darby Crash Band (many tout the 1980 reunion show as their best ever). And everybody knows that Gang of Four is only really Gang of Four when it’s Jon King, Andy Gill, Dave Allen, and Hugo Burnham. It’s never just the one thing or the one person. It takes a team, a network, personality, and persistence.
Corgan, Billy. (1995). 1979 [Recorded by Smashing Pumpkins]. On Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness [CD]. New York: Virgin.
Dettmar, Kevin J. H. (2014). 33 1/3: Entertainment!. New York: Bloomsbury.
Fisher, Mark. (2014). The Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures. Winchester, UK: Zer0 Books.
Mullen, Brendan, Bolles, Don, & Parfrey, Adam. (2002). Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and The Germs. Port Townsend WA: Feral House.
* I’m borrowing the concept of novelty from Terence McKenna‘s Timewave and the idea of nodal points from William Gibson‘s Idoru (1996). The former is a computer-generated time-line based on chaos theory and the I-Ching, in which the peaks represent increased human novelty (e.g., artistic innovation, scientific discovery, etc.). The latter is a sort of subconscious pattern recognition where certain seemingly mundane data converge into sharp points of interest. Influential and classic cultural artifacts like records are excellent examples of both.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.