Gang of Three

New York trio plays minimalist punk with a British bite

Lucky for us, the members of Radio 4 are a nice bunch of guys who just want to see you out on the dance floor exercising good judgment. Otherwise they might temper their propulsive beat manifestoes with irrational suggestions like "Donate your organs to a disreputable charity" or "Beat everyone whose name begins with a K into a bloody pulp," in which case you'd have no other choice but to submit.

As it stands, it's hard to tell exactly what Radio 4 is singing about half the time. For a week, we were convinced "(No More Room For) Communication" was about the cancellation of RuPaul's chat show. Further listening might lead you to the erroneous conclusion that these lads must be right out of art school in the Sheppard's Bush, living in a squat somewhere near Warrington Crescent and trying to get on the dole.

It's easy to mistake this Long Island/Brooklyn trio for a group of Britons, given their BBC-like name, their obvious love for English combos Gang of Four, the Clash, the Jam and Magazine, as well as their odd pronunciations of words like "what" and "sure." But assuming a bit of a limey attitude is the best way to sing the kind of anthems of dispossessed youth the band specializes in.

Take a lone rhythm guitar that sounds like a lock being furiously picked and pit it against dub level bass 'n' drums and unison vocals and you've got a sound you forgot you missed hearing until you stumble on Radio 4's debut, The New Song and Dance. It's a style that the band members guitarist/singer Anthony Roman, bassist/vocalist Tommy Williams and drummer Greg Collins -- were too young to have experienced firsthand, but one they decided they could resurrect, seeing as their respective groups had just both broken up.

Of their pre-Radio 4 efforts, Roman describes Williams and Collins' Sleepasaurus as "poppy," and Garden Variety, "The band I was in, was rocky. Sometimes it was labeled 'emo,' which I didn't think was a fair description." The unlikely common denominator between the two camps happened to be Gang of Four, an outfit whose mix of sparse instrumentation and dance suited the power-trio format perfectly.

"We wanted to do something that would excite us and in turn excite the audience. So we all said, 'Let's do something in a Gang of Four vein,'" recalls Roman. "I didn't think so many people would comment on it. Actually, I'm a little surprised by that."

Wisely, Radio 4 steered clear of the Marxist rhetoric that tripped up every dogmatic punk group after the first big record company advance came in. "We're not that political. Most of our lyrics are social commentary but none of them are heavy-handed. We tried to keep a certain amount of light at the end of the tunnel. I think because the music's jagged, hard and a little dancey."

Do people actually dance at Radio 4 shows? "Yeah, especially the last tour, which is why we're excited to be going out with Dismemberment Plan," says Roman of the group's forthcoming winter trek with the Washington, D.C., quartet. "They have a crowd that dances. Not moshing, but dancing without bumping into each other. No one's beating anybody up or anything.

"Not a lot of people in the indie world are doing that," Roman continues. "We're not laid-back and we're not that loud. It's somewhere in between. A lot of the indie bands out now just sound so similar. There's no beat, there's no pulse, it just goes whining along. There's no reason for everything to be that way."

Oddly, Roman has found that some fans of The New Song and Dance are using the album as their own motivational tool, the same way athletes used to drop the needle on recordings of old Knute Rockne speeches.

"That's what everyone's saying -- 'Wow! It's so up,'" enthuses Roman, his voice jumping a few octaves to capture the excitement of a new recruit. "'I play it in the morning before I go to work. It gets me going.' It's an amazing concept," he adds, laughing. "Rock 'n' roll, punk rock, whatever -- it's supposed to get you going, not make you wanna hide in a corner.

"We're just listening to a lot of music that lends itself to that direction, stuff that's 'up' even when the lyrics are down. The Clash were good at that, getting you out on the dance floor and then telling you how bad everything was. A lot of techno stuff . . . there's really nothing happening lyrically, if there even are any lyrics.

"I think the combination of dance music and disseminating information that bands like the Clash and Gang of Four did was really unique. [Former Bikini Kill leader Kathleen Hanna's] Le Tigre is a new band that's very good at getting you 'up,' even though she's talking about serious things. You can tune the lyrics out if you want to. It works on a couple of different levels, which music doesn't seem to be doing much of lately."

Two Radio 4 songs that beg interpretation on the eve of Decision 2000 include "Election Day" and "We Must Be Sure." To anyone with a healthy skepticism watching the lackluster presidential candidate debates, the latter's insistent Strummer/Jones-influenced chorus "We must be sure that we're bored by what you are saying" sounds like an appropriate mantra.

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