Meltdown 08: Gang of Four/Tom Tom Club

Royal Festival Hall, London - 20 June, 2008

"Kiss so sweet, sweat so sour"

[Meltdown 2008]Meltdown is an annual festival on London's South Bank the curators of which are chosen from across the spectrum of the music world each year by the organisers. Those curators then go on to select the acts they want to play. Past curators have included David Bowie, Morissey, Lee 'Scratch' Perry and John Peel. So the results are at least ecelectic if nothing else. This year it was the turn of cult Bristol trip hop group Massive Attack.

Tom Tom Club hit it big the the UK charts a couple of times in the mid 1980s. Singles Genius of Love and Wordy Rappinghood are the abiding (actually only) memories that non-fans like myself and, I suspect, most of you reading this, have of them. Mature in years and (seemingly) having kept gigging during the intervening couple of decades the band is built around drummer Chris Frantz and two old school rock chicks: bass guitarist Tina Weymouth and the lead vocalist. Bassist Weymouth in particular retaining plenty of cool charisma. Whilst the set had an unmistakable air of 'seasoned pros doing the fan circuit' about it their musical ability was never in doubt. Their songwriting on the other hand was patchy at best.

She's Dangerous was dedicated to Condoleezza Rice and it's reggae groove was quite addictive. The Man With The Four Way Hips had a good vibe despite some of the band's keyboard samples having been taken by security(!). Genius of Love stood the test of time but was almost ruined by unnecessary (but entirely expected) guitar wank. Famous as one of the earliest songs (along with Blondie's Rapture) to bring rap into the arena of the mainstream charts, Wordy Rappinghood is still a great track and its hit status is easily understood. A couple of covers, an indulgent You Sexy Thing by Hot Chocolate, and encore The River by Talking Heads, rounded out a talented and energetic if ultimately unexciting set.

Another name that dates back not only to the 80s, but beyond, and back into the late 1970s is Gang of Four. Sharing their name with a Chinese far left politcal movement, one of the original post-punk acts, Gang of Four are one of the bands from that scene and era who what they lacked in chart success made up in credibility and conviction. There was an angry, political charge to their songwriting that, despite utilising elements of funk, didn't rely upon technical musical ability to get its message across. After remforming the original line up in 2004 and sustaining that until the start of this year, the Gang of Four is actually down to a gang of two these days, original members singer Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill, with guests. David Bowie's female bassist Gail Ann Dorsey and a young drummer rounding out the band for now.

Native American chants and a wash of red light bathed an empty stage. The minimal setup: drums, bass guitar, lead guitar and vocalist, was pure essence of punk's raw simplicity. There was nowhere to hide. In contrast to Tom Tom Club, this was only about the songs themselves - never about the musicianship required to deliver them. (When Gill paused to tune up his guitar between tracks, he only half joked: "You may wonder why!". And he was right: why bother?) Trascending the resolutely non-punk surroundings of the Royal Festival Hall, this was like stepping back in time. So captivating was their performance that the plush red seats of the hall somehow disappeared from the conciousness. Even now, reflecting on the gig, it could have happened in a small Camden pub for the atmosphere that was generated. The thrill of seeing people putting everything into their message instead of the rock star posturing was a breath of fresh, or should that be fetid?, air. (A joke about playing a cover of a song from the new Coldplay album perfectly summed up what Gang of Four are not about.).

It didn't matter that the vocals were often out of key. Or that the guitar was choppy, in an under-rehearsed rather than stylistic way. Even Jon King's tambourine work was out of time. It was as if they'd deliberately not over-rehearsed for fear that it would ruin the effect. Whether any of the many technical shortcomings were planned or not, the result was thrilling. Like early Killing Joke. As We Dream Alone saw hunched King jumping around like a brain-damaged monkey. The horns on We All Got Opinions were more in keeping with the surroundings but still fitted well enough within the punk remit. King's shaker though was still, firmly, out of time! The drumming style recalled early Joy Division. Paradise If You Can Earn It was another highlight. Only a roadie's constant running back onto the stage to pick up or reposition Gill's frequently displaced microphone impinged on the punk presentation.

As the set progressed the performance became increasingly frantic, ragged and exciting. Instruments increasingly came under attack. Microphones were dragged across the floor and thrown around the stage. Guitars were chucked from Gill to King, and kicked back again; picked up, and played on. By the time a baseball bat was taken to a miked-up microwave oven, the industrial percussion produced a cavernous sound full of reverb and echo that filled the Royal Festival Hall to its very high ceiling. The involuntary clapping along to Natural's Not In It may not have been very punk rock but added another dimension to the experience as the sound of the audience mixing with the music surrounded you. The band's best-known legacy I Love A Man In A Uniform was simultaneously banned by the BBC and requested by the US Army for a recruitment advert! (the band refused to grant permission). It's still a rollicking good tune and went down a storm. Seminal b-side Love Like Anthrax with its feedback intro and dissonant, dual vocals was a glorious few minutes. Their ability to spin lyrics beyond the basic scope of many of their contemporaries was further witnessed on Damaged Goods. It's memorable "Your kiss so sweet, your sweat so sour" was delivered with an edginess and vigour that made you forget the guys belting out this lot were now in their 50s. It's final refrain of repeated "Goodbye, goodbye" a fitting end to an exciting set. The classical music that played as the audience left the auditorium was a knowing (even respectful?) nod to convention, and in stark contrast to what had just been. No doubt Gang of Four relished the subversive nature of briefly bringing anarchy to the South Bank. We certainly did. 7/10

Rob Dyer