Fame and recognition comes only posthumously to some bands, whose influence takes years, or decades, to emerge. But when the 20-year trend cycle comes back around and unearths the music and fashions of the previous generation, those bands – Killing Joke and Nick Drake for example – resurface for a second hearing.
Gang of Four are one of those bands, and their reappearance was foretold ever since The Strokes and the White Stripes and their ilk made spikey, angular, post-punk-revivalist rock fashionable again 10 years ago.
To the uninitiated, Leeds-based art students Gang of Four fused Andy Gill’s unconventional, staccato guitar, vocalist Jon King’s seething lyrics and the machine-funk rhythm section of Dave Allen and Hugo Burnham to produce some of the most furious and original music of the post-punk wave.
They sliced and diced their way through two dark, danceable albums dripping with brutal irony – Entertainment! in 1979 and Solid Gold in 1981 – before internal tensions and a hard US tour culminated in Allen leaving. His replacement Sara Lee also contributed her vocal skills, softening the Gang’s hardest edges on 1982 follow-up Songs of the Free. This also spawned their most accessible hit, I Love a Man in a Uniform, whose lyrics pointed not so much to the brutality of war as to the battle of the sexes – but which was promptly banned when the Falklands War began anyway.
Then the Gang began to fall apart; by the fourth album, 1983’s Hard, Burnham’s departure left them as a three-piece, while the record sounds more Duran Duran than Damaged Goods, their first single from 1979 and only hit.
But more than ten years later, bands like Red Hot Chilli Peppers, R.E.M., Rage Against the Machine, Fugazi and Bloc Party had all discovered and imitated the uneasy listening combination of white-man punk rage and noise with basslines and guitar more reminiscent of Funkadelic.
Speaking backstage at the Macbeth – a tiny pub in Hoxton, London, that specialises in gigs that are small, hot and loud – King and Gill explain how they joined the ranks of the reformed at the start of a four-date tour to celebrate 30 years since the release of Entertainment!
“My 15-year-old son,” King recalls, “was playing music with his mates and I thought it was a Gang of Four track but couldn’t place it. I asked what it was; it was the Chilli Peppers’ new album. It was just the same as Return of the Gift, right down to the vocal a cappella at the end. I thought, why would someone do this?”
For bands that are ahead of their time, the sight of others treading in their footsteps with considerably more success must be galling, but also a slap on the back for being right all along.
“Gang of Four never really sounded like anyone else,” Gill ponders. “It had its own world view, not just musically but the way me and Jon thought about songwriting is rather unique, and became something everyone wanted a bit of.
“I suppose that at the point we got back together everyone sounded a bit like Gang of Four and other new wave bands – that era had produced a whole new young generation we could reach that perhaps hadn’t heard of Gang of Four.”
Above Gill’s guitar, which manages to simultaneously disturb and structure the band’s tight, funky rhythms, are highly critical lyrics to match the sonic assault.
For example, on Ether, with it’s discordant, unsettling melodica, the lyrics contrast the isolation of imprisoned IRA members with that of being trapped in a world sold on love, despite it’s impossibility. In 5.45 (the slot for the early evening news) they attack the media and the state, comparing the yolk streaming from a teatime egg to the blood from warzone bodies whose images are never shown, concluding: “Guerilla war struggle is the new entertainment.”
King said: “We were receiving reports from the TV like everyone else, trying to reassemble them into songs while life went on.
“We were always aware of the conflicting ideas that pull in different directions. Like the first time you saw those images of Abu Grahib, that shame and horror you feel for a moment… and then, hey I’ve got a new phone, or let’s get shitfaced.”
Natural’s Not In It introduces the band’s most common targets – pointless and bland consumerism and the use of sex to sell: “Economic circumstances/The body is good business/Sell out, maintain the interest”. Pointing to the mass market messages we soak up everyday, King explains: “Humans tend to think of themselves as great individualists, this notion that we can make our own lives. But all the research shows we are the product of our environment. Is the way we behave really something you spontaneously come up with, or the product of your environment?”
Not Great Men carries the most relentlessly funky guitar and bass work they ever wrote, while Contract reduces sex to a transaction: “You dreamed of scenes/Like you read of in magazines… Another disappointment/We couldn’t perform/In the way the other wanted”.
If this all sounds a little bleak, then recall that much of late 70s Britain was no fun at all.
“Leeds was shitty, impoverished, grim, violent, full of neo-fascists,” Gill said. “It felt like it was pre-war. I think everyone thought Britain was fucked, finished. There was potential for civil war.”
“You knew the cops were the enemy,” King adds. “They’d already killed someone [anti-fascist campaign Blair Peach, in West London 1979]. That Red Riding trilogy only touched on it – they were totally bent.”
Listening to them recall what drove them to write such sonically brutal, politically charged but danceable punk, what brings back Gang of Four is clear from the show that follows. King is energetic, even taking a swing on the lighting rig, while Gill, shrouded in pinstripe suit a few sizes bigger than he once wore, is a brooding, malevolent presence. It’s suddenly apparent how little has changed in 30 years: cops still beat up G20 protestors, power still lies in the hands of the few who line their pockets, the state still lies to us about wars, and we still lie to ourselves about love.
For a few moments Gill and King are boys again – invigorated not by new fans half their age but by the anger and energy that gives them plenty still to say, and the knowledge that it’s no less relevant now than at any time in the last three decades.
[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, September 2009]