Kevin Dettmar is an academic at Pomona College, California, who works on modernist literature, particularly James Joyce, but who has also written extensively on popular music, in magazines and in books such as Is Rock Dead? (I was introduced to him briefly at the London Modernism Seminar and I contributed a chapter to the Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture that he co-edited with David Bradshaw). His book on the Gang of Four’s 1979 album Entertainment! is one of the stronger ones in the series, and avoids some of the structural weaknesses that earlier volumes suffered from; but it still left me wanting something more or something different.
I came to the book as someone who had heard the album a long time ago, and could see the merit in it, but never felt strongly about it one way or the other. Dettmar first heard the album as an Anglophile Californian around 1980, and he begins the book from a personal perspective, confessing that the “strident mumblings of art students from Leeds” weren’t always fully intelligible — in the sense of fully audible — to him. Through the book Dettmar has recourse to the idea of the “mondegreen” (coined by Sylvia Wright in 1954), as a way of excusing his mis-hearings. It has a function similar to the “boy in the room” in Jonathan Lethem’s book on Talking Heads’s Fear of Music; Lethem is Dettmar’s colleague at Pomona, and is thanked in the Acknowledgements. Like the “boy in the room,” the repeated recourse to the mondegreen risks being perceived as self-indulgent — one might be inclined to ask why Dettmar doesn’t admit he was wrong and write about the correct lyrics, rather than parade his errors as if they were virtues — but it gradually acquires significance in terms of the Gang of Four’s ideas about the nature of commodified entertainment:
The album’s made up of debate and dialogue: it’s not concerned with figuring out (never mind presenting) answers, but in opening up interesting questions, engendering productive confusion. Part of this comes through the staccato syntax of the lyrics […]; part, through the staging of different voices and positions in the song […]. In part, too, through mondegreens: this isn’t something a band can program or plan, but when it happens, it’s another way of making the listener an active producer of meaning, and co-owner of the politics of the songs. (p.140)
The structure of the book also owes something to Lethem’s, in that Dettmar intersperses his discussions of songs with short chapters on “Keywords,” inspired by Raymond Williams, much as Lethem intersperses his chapters with wider exploratory questions about the album. The other innovative aspect, different from Lethem’s or any other book in the series that I’ve read, is Dettmar’s pairing of songs in each chapter. While each song is given its own substantial sub-section in each chapter, this arrangement both allows for chapter of a satisfactory size, and more importantly allows Dettmar to break from the sequence of songs as given on the album and to make thematic connections across sides. And while this rearranging of the album might seem a symptom of a culture of i-shuffling and MP3s, Dettmar is alive to the fact of Entertainment! being a vinyl-era artefact, and, for example, the first song on the second side being a key position on the album. (I’d have liked him to expand a little further on why that was so, and what listening practices were involved with vinyl.)
The keywords idea works well, except that the concepts chosen (Ideology, Nature, Theory, Alienation, Consumer, Sex), and / or the perspective that Dettmar takes on them, are essentially sympathetic to the band and to the record. For example, Dettmar uses the chapter on “Ideology” to think about “the popular image of a guy who uses the word ‘ideology'” as “a bit of a bore,” and to explore how Gang of Four avoided the earnestness that might have followed from their having such a clear political position:
No one buys an album, or attends a concert, to be scolded, and the ideological critique undertaken by Gang of Four always contains a wary consciousness of their own inability simply to quit those behaviours, to transcend those attitudes, that they critique in their songs as a species of bad faith (p.32)
These are keywords needed for a full appreciation of the record, but not necessarily the keywords that would provide a critical perspective on it. How might the book have looked if Dettmar had explored, for example, the critical history of “reflexivity” in the post-punk era: the tendency of the more intellectual end of the music press to praise bands who were highly self-conscious about their processes and their position in the music industry; and who, more to the point, displayed that self-consciousness prominently. And how might it have looked if Dettmar had noted that such self-consciousness became just a little too straightforwardly assimilable into the discourse of literate rock journalism? Other keywords that might be explored would focus on the music and the sound of the band and of others in that post-punk era: “funkiness,” let’s say, but also “space” to encompass the tendency of bands to eschew reverb and echo effects in favour of a hard, dry sound.
Generally speaking, Dettmar’s account of the record is led by the ideas and the lyrics, and if you didn’t know the record you could be forgiven at the end for not knowing what it sounds like; more seriously, if you did know the record, at the end your understanding of the lyrics would be much deeper and more nuanced, but I’m not sure the same could be said of your understanding of the music, or of the lyrics as things that exist within music. When he does talk about the music, it’s always interesting and attentive to detail: for example, the way that “I Found that Essence Rare” begins with the same four-note figure repeated sixteen times, and the difference it makes in the John Peel sessions version when they repeated the figure only eight times before properly beginning the song. With sixteen repetitions
they begin to call attention to themselves . . . and to the structure of the song . . . and, by implication, to the structure of pop songs writ large. It’s another example of Brecht’s “alienation effect”: when the opening phrase is played eight times, it’s invisible; when it’s held for twice as long, the listener is forced really to listen. It’s just one of the ways that Gang of Four messed with pop song conventions (p.111)
Dettmar is also alert to the way that the “drama” of “Damaged Goods” is sharpened by the technique of instrumental dropouts borrowed from dub reggae, as are other songs, though his conclusion on this point — that the effect is to provide “different kinds of framing for the vocals” (p.125) — is frustratingly generalized. I’d have liked to hear more about what effects those altered frames have on the lyrics, and to hear speculation about how the lyrics might work differently with different frames.