I found that essence rare

The first time I encountered Gang of Four’s Entertainment! was in 1988, through the Hawaiʻi State Public Library — it was part of the library’s vinyl collection.

An article I read in Rolling Stone magazine at the time listed it as an essential album. The magazine described Entertainment! as “New Wave”, and until then, my picture of New Wave meant ABC, the Human League and Duran Duran.

What I heard sounded nothing like Duran Duran.

Too, I was distracted by a growing curiosity about 20th Century classical music, so I returned the record to the library and went back to listening to Steve Reich, John Adams and Philip Glass.

It must have left some sort of impression.

The first thing I thought when I heard Franz Ferdinand was, “Huh. I liked this group better when it was called Gang of Four.”

Entertainment! has been out of print in the US since 1997. It was last remastered in 1995. The band’s original 1982 line-up reunited recently, and to precede tour dates and an anticipated new album, Rhino Records reissued and expanded Entertainment!.

Given the brevity of my initial exposure to this album, there’s no way I’m going to critque the fidelity of the remastering.

But how I listened to music when I was 18 is vastly different than how I listen to music at 33. Technically, I’m revisiting Entertainment!, but really, I’m hearing it for the first time.

And damn if this album isn’t some of the most jagged and danceable punk rock ever made.

Entertainment! juggles a number of contrasting elements. It’s simultaneously simple but dischordant. It’s rhythmically complex but choppy. It sounds both brittle and piercing.

The melodies are often robotic and monotone but highly musical. “Guns Before Butter” starts off with a repetitive verse, but the call-and-response between the guitar, bass and drums gives the song a brilliant depth.

A stuttering drum beat contrasts an insistent bassline and a nervous guitar riff on “Ether”. And “Natural’s Not In It” is the most danceable and direct track on the album. Singer Jon King also delivers the best lyric: “This heaven gives me migraine.”

The extended liner notes by Michael Azzerad do a wonderful job explaining the unique sound of Entertainment! EMI executives complained the album sounded too much like a demo, which the band considered a compliment.

Given the tinny fidelity of the album, it is easy to see how a remastering job would do it service. As lo-fi as Entertainment! is, it still sounds ahead of its time.

This new edition tacks on eight additional bonus tracks, which is probably of more interest to long-time fans than to newcomers.

The four-track Yellow EP, some of which was included in the 1995 edition, doesn’t possess the same kind of clarity as the rest of the album, and alternate versions of “Guns Before Butter” and “Contract” show the band was on the right track for choosing the final cuts.

A raucous live cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” is a nice addition, even if the world doesn’t really need another cover of “Sweet Jane”.

Entertainment! deserves its nods as a classic album. Gang of Four wrote a tight set of songs and recorded them with a singular sound. It’s never too late for discovery. Or re-discovery.