Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Great: Not Great Men

Gang of Four: Not Great Men

There’s an old theory of history called the “Great Man” theory, which, not surprisingly, looks at the historical record by focusing on a series of “Great Men,” like kings, generals and presidents. I suspect that this is still the way that many children are taught history in school, despite the fact that most modern historians believe that so many other factors shape history, including people who aren’t men, or aren’t “great.” And as a former history major, I’m happy to see that broader inquiry into the lives of all people, no matter what gender, or what level of “greatness,” has in many ways changed the shape of the historical narrative. I do believe that while there’s still a reliance on teaching history through focusing on prominent individuals, many schools are widening their curricula to take into account the lives and influence of “ordinary” people. Although as John Oliver pointed out on Sunday, there are big problems about how American History is taught.  History teachers, feel free to comment. 

For example, one recent, high profile example of this was The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which investigated the profound influence that slavery had on the founding and development of the United States, from 1619 to the present. And although one of my favorite college professors, among others, have raised questions about some of the premises of the “1619 Project,” the disagreement didn’t dispute the essential conclusion that slavery was an enormous factor in our nation’s development. (And some of the disputed language has been revised.)

But, as I often have to remind myself when I go off on a tangent, this is a music blog, even though my musing was inspired by our featured song, Gang of Four’s “Not Great Men,” from their remarkable and influential debut album, Entertainment!.  Andy Gill, one of the band’s founders and its guitarist (who died in February, possibly as an early casualty of COVID-19) once said about the album,

I remember saying to Rob Warr, who was our friend and managing us at the time, and the others: ‘Do you realize how important this is? Do you realize that this is going to change the musical landscape? Do you realize that they’re going to teach this in schools?’ And they’re like, ‘You’re mad, you’re fucking mad,’ and just basically laughed at me.” As it turned out, “I kind of was right, but everybody else thought I was being stupid and crazy. 

Although I don’t remember the first time that I heard that album at WPRB, I do know that it became a regular part of my shows, and most of my fellow DJs loved it (and based on a quick look at some playlists, they still love it, decades later). The album was unlike anything I had ever heard before, with pounding beats, metallic guitars and political, Marxist influenced lyrics. From 1979’s Entertainment! through the Yellow EP, 1981’s Solid Gold and 1982’s slightly more accessible Songs of the Free, the Gang of Four was incredible. After that, I sort of lost interest, as they went through personnel and stylistic changes and a series of breakups and reformations. I interviewed drummer Hugo Burnham on the air at WPRB, and always assumed that it was in connection with a gig at City Gardens, but my research indicates they only played there at times that I wouldn’t have been on campus. So, maybe it was when they played in another club in the area. I remember being impressed by Burnham’s intelligence, and after leaving the band, he ultimately became a college professor. I think that I eventually did see them the summer after graduation at The Pier in NYC.

“Not Great Men” takes direct issue with the “Great Men” theory of history:

No weak men in the books at home
The strong men who have made the world
History lives on the books at home
The books at home

It's not made by great men [Repeat: x4]

The past lives on in your front room
The poor still weak the rich still rule
History lives in the books at home
The books at home

Political criticism that you can dance to.

Bonus cover: I came across this cover of “Not Great Men” by what appears to be an all-female Javanese gamelan ensemble, Sekar-Melati, which is both utterly unexpected and completely charming.

And, remarkably, there’s another gamelan cover of that gamelan cover, this time with vocals:

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