DAMAGED GOODS, SEND IT BACK “I think when we write songs, we’re always asking questions,” says Jon King (left), “and I think the big question that we ask ourselves is, ‘How far do we collaborate in our own situations?’ ”
The history of popular music is littered with musical questioning, from "Why must I be a teenager in love?" to "Who put the bomp in the bomp buh-bomp buh-bomp?" But when pop turned to rock and artists began to attempt to wield their popular might in order to do right, that inquisitiveness often turned into telling people what to do and think. It's an aspect of the politics of rock and roll that's always troubled Jon King, singer and co-theorist for UK post-punk legends Gang of Four. King's band have long been pegged as purveyors of political music, and he is clearly not crazy about the distinction. To him, being "political" means claiming to have the answers instead of being willing to ask the important questions.
"The thing is, I find politics, with a capital P, quite boring," he quips from his home in London, where he is preparing for GoF's world tour in support of Content (Yelp Roc Records), the band's first album of new material in 16 years. (It'll bring them to the Paradise on Monday.) "I'm not a member of a political party, and I don't advocate the point of view of an organized movement. I mean, I'm obviously left wing, and I believe in a fair society. But I still think that it would be boring to put that into songs, to write songs that advocate, for example, higher minimum wages or better care for the elderly. It's just not interesting, artistically. I think when we write songs, we're always asking questions, and I think the big question that we ask ourselves is, 'How far do we collaborate in our own situations?' "
Yet Gang of Four have often phrased their questions in the form of exclamations. Their debut, 1979's Entertainment!, is a masterful synthesis of aggression, yearning, and existential angst, each tune a Gordian knot of volleying vocals and rhythms cut through by the lacerating guitar contortions of Andy Gill. "I think that Andy and I approached each song like an art project," King explains, "because we were very interested with what things meant, arguing and debating. I found that I'd walk down the street and see something and think, 'That's ridiculous,' and that would be an inspiration."
Entertainment!'s inquiry continued with 1981's Solid Gold, a stark and bewildering cycle where the space between musical elements laid bare lyrical unease and at times outright panic. "With that record," King continues, "musically, we were standing side by side. Rather than on most commercial music, which is stacked, like a layer cake. You know, you take one layer off and there's another, and there's tracks and tracks on top of each other like a cake. With our stuff, it kind of has its own logic."