Earlier entries of this series can be found here: archive.
“We’ll get drunk on cheap wine”
113. Gang of Four – To Hell With Poverty!
Country: United Kingdom.
EP: Another Day/Another Dollar.
Acclaimed Music ranking: #3956.
Song ranking on Acclaimed Music in the artist’s discography: 4th.
Ranks higher than I Can Help by Billy Swan, but lower than Cool Jerk by The Capitols.
Place in the Acclaimed Music Song Poll 2015: Not ranked.
Written by Dave Allen, Hugo Burnham, Andy Gill & Jon King.
Produced by Andy Gill & Jon King.
Lead vocals by Jon King.
Backing vocals by Dave Allen, Hugo Burnham & Andy Gill.
Guitar by Andy Gill.
Drums by Hugo Burnham.
Bass by Dave Allen.
To Hell With Poverty! Exclamation Mark! Let’s shout!
It takes a while before singer Jon King let his voice be heard. For over a minute, the other players are ratcheting up the tension. I’d argue that this prolonged start wouldn’t seem misplaced on a list of the greatest song intro’s ever. There’s the clunky, but funky guitar by Andy Gill, who gets fantastic support from the rhythm section. Dave Allen’s bass stands out to me in particular and although he wasn’t the creative brain behind the group, it almost seems obvious that the decline of the band started when he left. Finally there is Hugo Burnham on drums, perfectly attuned to play against and with Allen.
Finally, when you half expect this to become an instrumental-only song, Jon King allows himself to be heard. He lets out a weird, triumphant scream – or is it a hyena cackle? It is very, very reminiscent to Joe Strummer’s screams on London Calling. That might not be a coincidence, although I can’t be sure. After the groove of the intro, this scream notifies you that this is going to be quite the ride.
Still, things get quieter on the vocal front from there on out. This is Jon King, singer of Gang of Four after all and his trademark is a sort of disaffected, dry singing style. The lyrics are typically heavily political, but rarely did King try to match the fury of the words. The band’s sound is kind of odd, even in the post punk and new wave landscape of the late seventies and early eighties, when artists seemed to be trying really hard to find new ways to keep rock fresh and interesting. Punk consisted of groups with terrible musicians who got away with it based on attitude as well as groups with talent who posed as amateurs. Gang of Four captured a sound in between. Everything creaks and squeaks as if the songs could fall apart any moments, but at the same time you can’t help noticing that these guys can play. It’s a mix I only have noticed done this well by Fugazi.
But yeah, Jon King’s voice is in that unholy, yet satisfying sound, adding another layer that hardly fits, but can’t help but give the band even more character. I like it. Still, the title has an exclamation mark, but when the line appears in the song it isn’t a shout. It sounds like a quiet statement. Too bad. I can’t even read a line like that, with or without added exclamation mark, without shouting myself. “To hell with poverty!” Try it, it’s satisfying.
There might be more going on here than meets the eye though. Although the lyrics by Gang of Four aren’t really poetry (they lose a lot power when you read them; they need a rock band backing them) they are full of wit, irony and dry sarcasm. So the line “To hell with poverty” gets followed by “We’ll get drunk on cheap wine”. Is this defiance or stupidity?
You can interpret this line in two ways. The first and I suspect most accepted interpretation is that poor people don’t need the fancy drinks of the rich to get drunk and have a good time. The statement “We get drunk on cheap wine” is here a defiant one-liner. Secondly though, there might be criticism of the poor in that they spend their already little money on wine to get drunk. If this interpretation seems harsh and unlikely for a self-proclaimed Marxist band, you have to see that the song also contains the line “The check will arrive/ we’ll turn to boast again”, which doesn’t seem like wise spending and saving is on the way.
Gang of Four aren’t cheap Marxists in their lyrics. Theirs is a brand that focusses on personality defects in the rich, the poor and in the singers themselves. It keeps their songs fresh on multiple listens (although their music could do that on their own too; did I mention yet that the rhythm section is great?). It also doesn’t diminish their politics, but made them more lived-in. I wondered why Gang of Four named themselves after one of the most unpleasant groups of communist history (just look up the Gang of Four from the Chinese, Cultural Revolution and despair). It might be naivety or a statement of complexity. Probably most people thought they were named Gang of Four because they were a quartet, so controversy was limited.
There doesn’t seem to be any great backstory to To Hell With Poverty! Perhaps it spoke so much for itself that journalists never got the idea to ask the band about it. I mean, if a far-leftist, openly political, punk band exclaims “To hell with poverty” it doesn’t invite questions as to it’s meaning. You don’t need to agree with the politics of this band to appreciate this song as the music is great on itself. Nonetheless, although great political songs are still being made, there are few bands left who could as defiantly dance to the world’s destruction as these guys.
This song has hardly been covered. In fact, Edward Vox is the only one who did this song. He did it quite good, but there is no creative reinvention available. So we have to make do with a bunch of remixes by The Laylow Posse (oddly enough just credited to Gang of Four on Spotify). These mixes remove the rough edges and most of the lyrics and build a electronic dance sound around the more catchy elements of the song. I’m not sure who this is for or what the point is, but seen out of the context of the original - which it hardly resembles anymore anyway – it is okay.
Perhaps not to be outdone by people like The Laylow Posse, the band themselves rerecorded To Hell With Poverty, along with several of the classics of their early years, on an album named Return the Gift. It is a good, harder hitting version of their original, but even here I’m not sure what the point really is. They don’t seem to know either, because despite solid reviews at the time, the album is the only one of Gang of Four besides their much hated Mall that isn’t on Spotify. But YouTube helps us out here.
Gang of Four’s cover of their own song for 2005’s Return the Gift.
A suberb, live performance with louder vocals by Jon King.