The resulting long dispatch is the heart of the book. In it he sees a performance at a venue promoting a “Chile Solidarity Disco,” is lectured by an all-female quartet, The Raincoats, on the ways in which rock is inextricably bound to “the exclusion of women and the ghettoization of blacks,” comes to understand the financial structure of an independent record label, talks to the marvelous nineteen-year-old singer and saxophonist Lora Logic about punk as self-invention, and after asking the same pretentious questions I would like to have asked them, comes to understand Gang of Four as “the voice of false consciousness in rebellion against itself, and, almost simultaneously, the voice of resistance to that rebellion, the voice of a yearning for accommodation.” This was, in every way, a group that fulfilled every promise ever made on The Sex Pistols’ behalf.
None of it mattered for those who didn’t do their own digging in the days before Google and torrent sites, when the surface was not easily chipped, and this is the source, presumably, of much of Marcus’s desperate energy and passion. He wanted people to know how good Gang of Four were; he wanted them to be popular. One would not write this way about a fringe act today, when there is no broad consensus and even the most saleable act aims only to hit a niche, but there was a sort of bravery in Marcus’s exertions. Other critics wanted to change what people heard; Marcus wanted people to change the way they heard.
He, and the band’s other backers, failed: among people who care about such things, Gang of Four is hardly any kind of obscurity, but they topped out at number fifty-eight on the UK charts and did even worse in the States. This was, writ small, the failure of punk, which was after all a popular form and not a pretext for referencing Theodor Adorno. Even when its best got everything perfectly right, no one really cared.
This was on some level the subject of what was probably punk’s finest moment, The Mekons’ 1985 return from oblivion with Fear and Whiskey, in my opinion the best record of that decade. It is a lot of things: a great collection of drinking songs, a dark meditation on the death of labor and of the promise of America, and the first and best and most convincing of what would eventually be far too many fusions of punk rock and country. (The Mekons sold even less than Gang of Four, but are just as responsible for vast amounts of terrible music made by other people.)
As Marcus writes, this record “carries an unmistakable undertone of self-mockery, of humiliation, of shame, because it cannot count. Fear and Whiskey is just fear and whiskey, nervousness and oblivion; it is the music of people who are sure that the world they cannot change will never find a place for them, that what they have to say will never be heard.” It is the best record about a terribly modern fear, that in the vast cacophony of people liberated to say whatever it is they feel they need to say, no one will ever hear what you have to say.
Improbably, given The Mekons’ origins as the sloppiest and most amateurish band in the world, Fear and Whiskey was just the first of an uninterrupted string of wonderful records that continues to this day. They are not really a going concern and not quite a business, but every so often they take a short tour or release a new record, and their audience, which barely rises to the size of a cult, takes it as a gift. All along that was the future of rock: a great old band in a small club, cheerfully oblivious to their utter obscurity and everything but their lives and what compelled them to start in on music at all.