To Hell with Poverty

I saw the Gang of Four play at the Palais Royale in Toronto, an old wooden dancehall by the lake. It may have been 1979, I’m not sure. Their first (and best) album, ‘Entertainment,’ had just come out and, like so much great music, it was hard to put a label on it while listening for the first few times. It wasn’t punk (too many angles) and it wasn’t jazz (too much anger) and it wasn’t pop (too many weird stutter-stops and crazy vocal howling). In a pre-internet time where the only image of the band came from magazines, album covers and occasional press photos in newspapers, I had no idea what to expect from them live, so when they walked on stage in front of, maybe, 200 people, I was surprised by how normal they seemed. I’d only ever seen bands with costumes and teased hair and studded gauntlets before, and if everyone else wore platform shoes, the Gang of Four’s shoes were like my dad’s. Also, there was no fanfare to their stage entrance: no walk-on music, flashing lights, or introduction by a local deejay with a made-up name. Instead, they plugged in– guitars and amps buzzing as cables went from source to jack– lead singer Jon King coughed into his microphone (it sounded like a road cold) and drummer Hugo Burnham– a fireplug of a man– hit one of his toms: POAM. Then Andy Gill– one of the most fearlessly expessive guitarists of his era– started scratching at his pickup, and soon, the grinding sound of the song’s pattern was established. There some bass playing by Dave Allen, and then Burnham fell in. Jon King sang a few words– they were playing “Anthrax,” I think– and the gig ignited; noisy, loud, angry, yet medolic and buoyant. The crowd pistoned up and down and the band roared: one song ending, and another beginning. Jon King leapt to meet our careering excitement and struck his head on a ceiling pipe. He came down in a heap. He was out cold and the band stopped. A roadie came and dragged him, feet first off-stage, then Hugo Burnham walked out from behind his drum kit. The rest of the band left and Burnham started singing Welsh mining songs (at least that’s what he said they were). I’d never seen anyone do anything like that before, let alone a drummer. King came back, a little dazed but good enough to play. I don’t know if they dd ‘To Hell with Poverty’– that might have happened at another show– but every time I play this record, I think of that show, and how the Gang of Four showed what was possible in concert: how, on stage, you could do whatever you wanted and nobody could stop you.

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One thought on “To Hell with Poverty

  1. Great memories. One of my very favorite songs from an amazing album. Someome posted a version from the Old Grey Whistle Test to YouTube from the era you well describe. Such fantastic Stratocaster torture!

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