For The Mekons, quite the opposite was true. They had no idea how to perform, no notion of what it meant; crude as it was, their music was pure, direct reaction to a time of upheaval. In it, Marcus heard “some hint here, some fragmentary cultural memory, of the Ranters, the possessed and sometimes naked heretics who defined the farthest reaches of extremism during the English Civil War.”
There is no such distance in his reaction to Gang of Four. The first time he saw them live, he reports, he left directly after their set despite having wanted to hear the headlining Buzzcocks for years. “I didn’t,” he writes, “want anything to interfere with what had just happened.” This was September 1979, and he had just seen probably the strongest group in the world, one which utterly overwhelmed him even before he could really understand what they were saying.
Preposterously, these four handsome young men had not only perfected an original and fantastically danceable sound that somehow married the bass-led rhythms of Jamaican dub to the jagged guitar of The Velvet Underground and was immediately identifiable as the purest sort of punk—while being clearly suited for radio. (While they were never much commercially, their style has underwritten numerous popular acts over the years.) They were also avowed neo-Marxists, steeped in the Frankfurt School and wary of the notion of individuality. A critic of Marcus’s dispositions could want little more.
“If this is the future of rock, I can’t wait,” Marcus wrote. Within months of first seeing the group he made his way to England to join them on tour and to report on what he called, with no evident irony, “Britain’s postpunk pop avant-garde.” “Don’t romanticize it,” he is warned by the head of Rough Trade, a leading label; he admirably fails.
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.