Gang of Four is one of the most radical, and radically important, rock groups of the last 30 years. Their music, starting with 1978’s Damaged Goods EP, offered a danceable solution to the problem of where four-piece guitar bands could go next after punk. They also provided the perfect answer to the question: how to be polemical without being po-faced, ponderous, banal or doctrinaire?
Four young men in their early twenties who convened in the late ‘70s in Leeds, they were the first white rock group to come up with the idea that using contemporary funk and reggae rhythms might be an interesting way forward for rock’n’roll, a way out of punk’s cul de sac. With Andy Gill slashing away on guitar over the Dave Allen/Hugo Burnham rhythm section while Jon King declaimed over the top about love as disease or the torture of prisoners in Northern Ireland like a deranged demagogue, Gang of Four were like Dr Feelgood jamming with Parliament-Funkadelic produced by Lee Perry as a Radio 4 newsreader intoned balefully in the background.
More than anything, Gang of Four were about visceral, high energy, maximum impact rock’n’roll. They made you dance and they made you sweat just as they made you think. That exclamation mark at the end of the title of their 1979 debut album Entertainment! _ incidentally, one of the greatest debut albums ever made; in fact, one of the greatest long-playing records, period _ was no accident or sleight of design. Nor were they rentagobs or rabble-rousers. They managed to inveigle complex ideas into powerful songs that were provocative yet simply thrilling. The music on that debut long-player was born out of a specific time in history, the result of a series of very specific circumstances and conditions _ social, economic, emotional, political, musical _ and yet it remains as true, as resonant, as relevant, as universally applicable three decades on as it was the day it was released.
The same could be said for the next Gang of Four music and lyrics contained on such albums as Solid Gold (1981), Songs of the Free (1982), Hard (1983), Mall (1991) and Shrinkwrapped (1995). But Gang of Four have never been about nostalgia, about becoming a dusty relic in the great museum of rock’n’roll. They are urgent, they are angry, and they are happening now! Gang of Four have always operated in a permanent, continuous present tense, or rather tense present. This is why people enticed by the notion of an intelligent but electrifying funk-rock outfit _ and by “people” you can include such GOF acolytes as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M., Bono, Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party, some of the biggest acts on the planet, old and new _ were enthralled by the announcement, back in 2005, that Gang of Four were coming back.
Over the last two years, Gang of Four has played some exhilarating live shows around the world that have been as visionary, relevant and exciting as ever. Their classic songs have connected with a new generation of fans, many of whom have discovered the band through finding the source that has inspired many of the best current guitar outfits. In 2005 Gang of Four re-recorded a selection of their favourite tunes on Return the Gift, featuring Mark Heaney on drums while Hugo Burnham played live shows with the band until mid 2006 , when he left to focus on his successful academic career in the USA. Mark then took over as drummer for live appearances and has played across Europe with the band ever since. In April 2008 Dave Allen left to be replaced by Thomas McNiece. Andy and Jon have now written new material every bit as powerful and insightful as their classic work. And now you’re going to hear them, in 2008, almost 30 years to the day since Gang of Four first emerged.
One new GOF track, Second Life, is, explains Jon, “the story of a drunken night in Soho, a story about an individual salaryman going through the routine of killing time like a king for the day in some cod medieval fayre.” Jon believes that there’s no lack of things to write about in 2008, and is surprised that the subject matter which the overwhelming majority of current bands write about has, if anything, shrunk rather than expanded.
“The limits are only ever self imposed. Andy and I used to think we were revolutionaries in a funny kind of neurotic, petit-bourgeois way. I’m astounded by the lack of radicalism now. There seems to be an incredible reluctance to rock the boat. For a lot of indie or so called left field music, the radicalism is often only in being either obscure or loud or both: loudness being a cheap signifier for rebellion and obscurity for being interesting or mysterious, like wearing sunglasses at nighttime. But loudness and pretentious cleverness can’t be the point. We live in a fucked-up world where we internalise everything, thinking it’s all about ourselves, and the world becomes a mad parade. We censor ourselves or get self righteous about peripheral issues because it’s convenient to do so and we can let ourselves off the big lies we sleep with every night. For example, it’s incredible how almost no musicians will take on a big subject like the Iraq war, whereas, during the Vietnam war era, all of pop, even people like Kenny Rodgers with his great Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town _ alongside Edwin Starr and Marvin Gaye and the Byrds etc – would have a view. Rock and pop don’t get engaged in that way today. Gang of Four songs like I Love a Man in a Uniform, which was banned by the BBC during the Falklands conflict, or ether work now because they move people on a physical and musical and mental level. And they’re funny, too. That is, if you like laughing. ”
Gang Of Four, contends Jon, are as challenging and questioning in 2008 as they were in 1978. “What I’ve been thrilled by over the last two years is that our music still seems to makes sense to our audiences, however old they are, and these days they’re mostly under 30. They tell us that our music means something, that it makes them want to go start a band. That amazes me. I would never have imagined when we started off that we would have this impact after such a long time. We are a noisy, great rock’n’roll band. And that exclamation Mark still applies: we should call ourselves Gang Of Four!”
“We’re loud and physical and visceral,” he continues. “We make music to dance to and shout to and get drunk to _ maybe not get laid to, because of the trouble that might get you into on the rhythmic front. We feel obliged to do more great things. We work hard every time we play and it works.”
More than anything, Jon is excited by the new material that he and Andy have been writing. “What we’re trying to do is keep it totally stripped down, where everyone in the band makes an equally intense contribution: guitar, bass, drums and vocals.” He’s as energised as ever by his old schoolfriend’s guitar playing. “I love what Andy does on guitar _ it’s completely unique. How many original guitarists have there ever been, not just now? He’s one of the few living signature rock guitarists: you can recognise an Andy Gill riff at a distance and you can recognise who’s been listening to him. He’s up there with Hendrix.”
Equally unique is Jon’s worldview, and the music that comes from the Gill-King partnership that makes them a sort of Lennon & McCartney of agit punk-funk. “It’s been a stroke of luck for both of us to accidentally happen to have been at the same school and then work with each other,” says Jon. “It’s very stimulating. We provoke each other and make each other laugh. I’m a bit of a fan of his! I always tell him, ‘Do a guitar solo like Voodoo Chile [Slight Return],’ which is my lifelong favourite piece of music. It’s my ambition to write something as totally immersive and unique as that. Probably every musician has their own Everest to climb like this. But having that ambition to rival a piece of music as great as Voodoo Chile is what makes you want to keep doing it _ the idea that can inject something fresh and vital and radical into the world and inspire people to engage with the world in a positive and creative way, the way I was inspired at 11 by Bob Dylan and by Jimi Hendrix at 15. They changed my life for the better. Now it’s our turn to do the same to the next generation. Really, it’s an incredible privilege.”