If I was to say to you British music in the late-seventies, you would think Punk, the Sex Pistols swearing on TV and grainy news footage of teenagers in ripped jeans gurning on street corners. What if there was another reality, different to that characterised by popular memory today? This was ‘Post-Punk’, a inadequate yet widely used label to group a number of bands such as Wire, Joy Division and Killing Joke who came up with music that meant more than just mindlessly thrashing a guitar around. Above all others Gang of Four was one such band that refused to dip its toes into the quagmire that was popular music in the seventies, Rainbow anyone? They preferred to formulate their own sound influenced not just by Punk (from both sides of the Atlantic) but James Brown’s funk, Reggae and even Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic rock.
The Band originally comprised of lead vocalist Jon King, guitarist and vocalist Andy Gill, bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham. It would be Gill, the only original member left in the band, who I would be speaking to today. Formed at Leeds University, the band was part of the generation growing up with 1970s recession and the ‘Winter of Discontent’. When asked if he had any advice for students living in a country coming out of recession today, his answer was to the point “don’t piss about too much”. He goes on to admit that he was “guilty of that”, but anybody referencing the Situationist International in their work must have been paying attention in their politics modules.
Asking whether he had advice for any student bands today for coming up with a new and unique sound, he stresses the importance of finding people that you can “really be creative with”. Although Andy admits, perhaps after years of being in a band with a constantly changing membership, “there’s no point in arguing over nothing”. King and Gill’s were two volatile creative energies that somehow locked together. The former provided biting socio-political commentary and the latter, stark and distorted guitar riffs that were yet funky and catchy. Although it has long since disbanded this creative unit, this unique fusion of “strong ideas” (as he simply puts it) has continued to remain influential to a wide variety of bands right up until the present day, for example REM, Nirvana, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, even Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party.
The explosion of Punk opened up Gang of Four’s eyes to the fact that, as Andy puts it, “Pop music did not have to follow so tightly to the agenda of previous decades”. He provides a characteristically to the point rule of three to describe his process, “taughtness, urgency, abrasiveness” – the first word referring to his unpretentious yet forceful musical style, the second to the importance of the music’s message and lastly the third to the proposed effect of the combination of said style and message. The wearing down of the nullifying affects of uninspired commercialised society as symbolised by the band’s anathema, manufactured pop. One of the many such examples of this is the song “Return the Gift” on their acclaimed debut Entertainment! with the lyric “You’re on the price list” repeated over and over again, a wake up call to the impressionable teenagers of the nation.
In another song, from the Band’s third album Songs of the Free, “I love a Man in Uniform” it’s “funny, unusual and weird” double entendres says Andy, “The girls, they love to see you shoot” remind us that, as he goes on to say, there was “a lot of sense of humour in Gang of Four”. It was this capacity for the satirical as well as the serious that also formed part of the band’s lasting appeal. Famously, a fearful BBC banned the song during the Falklands War, while according to Gill, the American army wanted to use it in a recruitment advert, unaware that the band were perhaps not as wholeheartedly supportive of militarism as they thought.
A sign that the band have been consistent in their convictions and that their capacity for commentary had not waned, was in 2010 when they offering to sell vials of their own blood to fund the recording of their then upcoming album Content. I asked Andy if there was anything more to this marketing gimmick or was it perhaps a comment on the literal dismemberment of the artist in the age of popular music. He replied it represented musicians being “battered by people not paying for music anymore”. It was at this point with the mention of this injustice that a change in his tone revealed hints of the band’s characteristic starkness, it was like saying, he said, “what do you want? Blood?”. I could not deny that a reciprocal feeling of solidarity with his message intensified inside of me due to the power of his argument.
Conscious that I was interviewing a great of a scene of music, well praised in the annals of alternative rock history, I was curious to find out whether Andy himself felt that way too. Demurely he answered that he “didn’t really think about it that much”. Perhaps like all musicians who are still performing he did not want to only be thought of a key musician of a past age but one active in the present. I remind him of the band’s own references to history and historical events evident even in their name, countless songs such as “The History of the World” and “F.M.U.S.A.” referring to the Vietnam War. He admitted that his and the band’s fascination with History stemmed from people’s “different versions of reality and the truth” and therefore the inextricable link between politics and history, therefore Gang of Four couldn’t help but to contribute to this “continuum”. But again no-nonsense Andy re-iterated his statement that Gang of Four’s uniqueness should be inspirational but not revered, “In an ideal world people wouldn’t be referring to Gang of Four at all really.”
The progress of music history marches on and Gill’s reformation of the band marks the next chapter in Gang of Four’s own history, with a refreshed line-up including lead vocalist John “Gaoler” Sterry, bassist Thomas McNeice and drummer Jon Finnigan all of which he was “excited” to be back in the studio with. Appropriately the upcoming album is called What Happens Next and will be released March 2 in the UK via Membran. The album also features an eclectic mix of guests musicians including, the Big Pink’s Robbie Furze; Herbert Grönemeyer, the most successful selling musician in Germany; Hotei, a Japanese guitarist who was prominent in that country’s own post-punk scene and Alison Mosshart of the Kills features on the first single from the album “Broken Talk”, which is available to listen now on the band’s SoundCloud stream. It struck me as weird that the name of one of the most praised and influential bands of the pop-punk scene now had the SoundCloud hashtag “#GO4” but there’s nothing keeping them in the past. I look forward to listening to What Happens Next in the New Year and hearing a band that is eager to tackle a not so optimistic future.
Gang of Four will be performing at the Holmfirth Picturedrome in Huddersfield on November 27 and at the Hammersmith Apollo in London on November 28