Gang of Four: “Satellite” (Mall, 1991)
In June, 1998, my wife, who at that point was still just a friend, and I were in Borders Books & Music in Manchester, Connecticut, getting ready for our upcoming radio show. I knew a guy who was the program director at WECS in Willimantic, which was the station of Eastern Connecticut State University. He gave me a program on Saturday morning because he needed to fill airtime, and depending on whether the guy who was scheduled after us showed up or not, we were on the air for two to four hours every weekend of the summer between high school and college (neither of us went to ECSU).
She worked at a horse barn and I’d been doing janitorial work on schoolnights, and we had money to burn on CDs—we took having that radio show not just as an excuse to play stuff we already liked, but also to find stuff we didn’t yet know we liked. This was one of about six trips we took together to stock up.
We each already had a handful of discs when we chanced upon the dollar bin. But, hey, who can resist a dollar bin? Or who could, I guess—the internet has taken quite a bit of the shine off of CD dollar bins.
My brain is perversely wired to forget things like mowing the lawn and buying all the correct ingredients for something I want to make on the weekend but to remember things like this: she bought cut-outs of the Posies’ Frosting on the Beater, School of Fish’s debut, and something called Digital Orgasm—the album title was D.O. it. I bought the same Posies album (still my best dollar bin CD ever), and Gang of Four’s Mall.
Gang of Four is a legendary post-punk band. I had read about them somewhere, though I forget the context in which they were mentioned. But I knew they were a big deal to a lot of people, so a buck for one of their albums, which were supposed to be hard to find, seemed like a steal.
Thing is, Mall is not the Gang of Four that everyone holds up as one of the all-time great bands. It’s a reunion album featuring Jon King and Andy Gill without the rhythm section of Dave Allen and Hugo Burnham, and the brittle agit-funk of their great early albums is absent, replaced by synthy, political pop-rock with a slight r&b tinge.
This album is pretty legendary in its own right. For being awful. I hadn’t listened to it in probably about twelve years until this weekend. The animal rescue I work with held a fundraising garage sale, and I went through the boxes of CDs that have been pushed off my shelves over the years and came across it, band-saw incision on the spine and all. Look at the album cover (yikes):
By now, I’ve heard every note Gang of Four ever recorded, and I have the albums that cemented their legend. I bought a few of them as imports before they were reissued. I’ve written about the band’s most recent reunion. And through it all, Mall has lurked in the back of my mind. Back when I first heard it, I had no idea that its critical reputation was terrible, and that it wasn’t the album people were worked up about.
So I approached it with an open mind. I liked this record. I didn’t love it, but there were a few songs I’d put on mixtapes, and I played at least “Cadillac” and “F.M.U.S.A.” on the radio. I knew “Soul Rebel” as a partially reunited Gang of Four song before I ever knew it as a Bob Marley song. I remember distinctly not getting what made the band so special that it had the reputation it did, but I thought, “hey, this is fine.”
Of course I had to play it when I dug it out this weekend. And… it’s not very good. But nor is it an unmitigated disaster. Vietnam War critique “F.M.U.S.A.” is exactly the kind of heavy-handed we tend to love in high school and recoil from as adults, but “Cadillac” is okay, and a couple songs I don’t remember rating at all back then, “Motel” and “Satellite” actually sound pretty great if you take the record on its own terms and don’t hold it to the standard of Entertainment! and Solid Gold.
This goes against our critical impulses. Why wouldn’t you compare it to other things the band did when assessing it? Well, I suppose if I had to review it, and stack it up for people considering spending money on it, I would. But I don’t have to. All I’m doing now is seeing how I hear it differently now. It certainly strikes me how different the sense of dynamics and songwriting is from other Gang of Four, but I think I understand how this music’s earnestness spoke to me when I was 18 in a way it can’t now.
“Satellite” is a song this band couldn’t have done at any other point in its fitful career, not even King and Gill’s second reunion, when they made 1995’s decidedly gnarlier Shrinkwrapped. The band’s usual focus on the lurid and consumerist elements of our culture is missing, their politics present only in the brief “empires falling down like ninepins” line in verse two. And Jon King can actually sing—there is no declamatory detachment here. It’s a love song, a sort of inverse of XTC’s “Another Satellite.”
It’s not a lost gem or anything, but I’m glad I took one more listen to Mall. Creative lives are complicated, and rarely go in the kinds of straight narrative lines that we’d like them to. There’s almost always a Mall in the mix somewhere, and there’s often as much fascination in an artist’s failings as there is in the triumphs. This album is among the most fascinating of failures.