Jon King discusses the new Gang of Four stacked new box set covering the band’s first four years
Another monster re-issue is upon us and this one might make you want to sit up and take notice.
GANG OF FOUR: 77-81 is a limited-edition box set including remastered versions of Leeds-based band’s first and second albums, Entertainment! and Solid Gold, a singles LP, and a double LP of the never officially released Live at American Indian Center 1980. And a shitload more. A cassette tape compiling 26 never-before-issued outtakes, rarities and studio demos from a history of, 100-page, full-color handbound book.
It’ll run you between $160 and $200. The vinyl version is out now; expect the CD version April 23.
Forty years ago, I saw Gang of Four for the first time and this is some of what I wrote for the Boston Globe: “Entertainment!, the title of the Gang’s debut album, cuts two ways. The music is, after all, entertaining and danceable; what it isn’t is escapist. The Gang hits hard and topics range from the anti- chauvinistic “Guns Before Butter,” to the modern phenomenon of watching war on TV, “5.45” – ‘Guerrilla war struggle is a new entertainment.’
VIDEO: Gang of Four “He’d Send In The Army” (Live)
[In concert] Singer Jon King functioned, like Talking Heads’ David Byrne, as an equal component in the mix. The Gang wrapped their lyrical message around Andy Gill’s abstruse guitar lines and the taut, ever-shifting rhythm of bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham. It was a riveting, emotional presentation – one that bound the non-stars on stage to the non-stars in the crowd.”
Gill introduced us to a radical, choppy guitar style, something we in the rockcrit biz often refer to as angular. Years later he told me, “People have a signature to their way of playing you can’t get away from. That’s what I’ve got.”
Gill died a year ago this past February (quite possibly a COVID-19 victim); the box set was well in the works at that point and now, with its March release, we take revisit what it all meant and may still mean via an email interview with King.
All music is born out of certain tenor of the time, the social or political climate of when it’s produced. Some musicians tune out the bad stuff or live in a bubble, and offer pure escapism. Of course, that’s fine. Pop music. But others like Gang of Four did not. At what point in the Gang’s formation did you decide you wanted to try and have a greater import than just playing rock ‘n’ roll?
In the beginning, forming a band was a lark. It fitted well into our social lives and our shared passion for music. At first, like most everyone else, we played genre music that aped our heroes like Dr Feelgood. Gill’s stage act & guitar style was lifted from Wilco Johnson, and mine from Lee Brilleaux. Our first songs were straightforward verse, bridge, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus, middle eight, and out, with lyrics that weren’t distinctive. We learned our chops by playing anywhere we could. But soon we began to write non-genre material where the band began to express Andy’s incredible guitar work splintering over Dave & Hugo’s fearsome and propulsive funkified rhythm section, and me writing about things that mattered to me, trying to avoid cliches. The breakthrough was ‘Anthrax,’ which we all felt promised something exciting. We’d found a sound. As fast as we could we wrote new material and dumped the old tunes
Playing off that thought, I loved the title to the first album, Entertainment! because, of course, yes it was that – but more than. Were you thinking of a double-meaning there or was there an ironic intent? (And, of course, playing off “Guerrilla war struggle is a new entertainment” in 5.45.)
The exclamation mark had it. We wanted to be entertaining, to have music that was thrilling and danceable, but that also said something or asked questions about real life. I liked the lyrics to often hold contradictory or radically different concepts, like “Home” & “Tourism”. Sadly, guerrilla war struggle is still entertainment, and misery is big box office.
From my understanding, you had a research grant to write about Jasper Johns during your third year at Leeds in 1976. You went to New York with Andy and spent a lot of time at CBGB and seeing The school Ramones, Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids before their debuts had come out. You returned to England and said “We should give this a go.” Is this accurate? What did you take from that early New York punk scene that found its way into Gang of Four, either the music or ethos?
This is accurate. I was in the year above Andy at Leeds and wanted to write a thesis about Jasper Johns, needing to go to NYC to see his work. A friend of a friend, Mary Harron – then a journo writing in Punk magazine, an amazingly talented person who later directed American Psycho – said I could crash at her teeny St Mark’s Place studio flat. Gill asked if he could come with me, having blagged a travel grant for “A photographic study of Gothic architecture in Northern France”, (Outstanding!) which paid his airfare to New York. As he and I we were great friends, this was an excellent excuse for an adventure. Mary was a bit surprised when we both landed on her doorstep. She was a brilliant host and knew everyone on the nascent NY punk scene, and also could get us into CBGB’s. We saw all the then little-known bands like the Voidoids, The Dead Boys, Talking Heads etc. When we returned to the UK we were inspired & thought we should form a band, too.
Footnote: When we got back, I wrote, on Gill’s behalf, a short essay about the fictitious photography trip to the body that had given him the money, as I’d once ridden a motorbike through Northern France, and had read a book about French Cathedrals. The climax of this nonsense was that Andy’s camera kit had been ripped off, therefore sadly no pix. No one believed it.
The liner notes to the new package reference “lyrics that traded in Marxist theory.” But in that 1980 interview, you told me, “We do put forward anti-authoritarian ideas. They’re not Marxist ideas, but they’re leftist ideas. I don’t know if the distinction is apparent in America, but there’s a whole left thing that does not have a Marxist basis to it.” Thoughts on that now?
Progressive politics is a baggy mush of ideas from all sources. Marx’s core concept of class struggle, alienation, and commodification is powerful and persuasive, but he didn’t write about gender, identity, and race. It’s been said that the mildly left UK Labour Party owes more to John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) than to Karl Marx. We were solid lefties, but opposed to oppressive states like the Soviet Union, and we were active in Rock Against Racism, The Anti-Nazi League, and Rock Against Sexism, as well as benefits for charities like Amnesty International.
I know you and Andy had considerable disagreements about Gang of Four in later years. Although this story is about the new box, I wanted to get your take on what the latter-day situation was. Here’s what Andy told me, after you and he parted company: “I tried Andy Gill’s Gang of Four for five minutes. Authenticity, people define it by original members. My idea of authenticity is to continue with the ethos – it doesn’t even matter if I’m in it. The general purpose or intent is to propose ideas that relate to the time we live in. As to owning the name, the basic point is I contributed the music – I’m the musical director – and some of the lyrics.” Thoughts?
Andy and I totally disagreed about his use of the band name, but it would be unfair to publicly air this now. Rather than talk about us falling out with each other, I prefer to remember how he and I were firm friends. You can see in the box set book photos that we were a solid crew. As for “authenticity,” I’ll leave it to others to compare his late work with Entertainment! and Solid Gold.
Andy was a genius guitarist, a determined character, fine company, but he was never a Musical Director. I’ve worked with many MDs over the years, and they typically prepare for rehearsals and shows; take worked-up songs into the room; and direct or routine players and bands through their parts. Andy never did any of this. Perhaps it’s crossed wires, and he was talking about recent times.
[Buzzcocks frontman] Pete Shelley once said to me, probably on our 1980 US tour with them, having seen how we often fractiously approached musical decision making: “The trouble with you lot is there’s too many Chiefs and not enough Indians”, which was fair comment at the time, if sounding off now.
We wrote the music as a group in the rehearsal room, with rarely anything prepared in advance, although we sometimes had a concept designed to kick things off. Everyone wrote their own parts, and we arranged songs together. This is why the song credits read Allen, Burnham, Gill, King.
Dave, Hugo, Andy, and I wrote bass, drums, guitar & lyrics, vocals & lyrics (& melodica!) respectively. Dave and Hugo would typically work up a beat Andy & I would improvise over, having kicked it off with some riff or idea.
For example, Andy came up with the two-note verse riff in ‘Return the Gift’; Dave and Hugo invented what we thought was a mutant disco groove that took it somewhere fresh; I played with monosyllabic sounds over the Duh Di Duh, Duh Di Duh, Duh Di Duh, Daa Daah; and then dug into my notebook for words that might kick things off, like, “Head Away/From The Years/You’re on the/Price list”. I polished the words offsite on my own. The collective method worked, at least for a while.
Lyrically, if you hear my voice, I wrote the lyrics; if you hear Andy, he wrote his own part, with the exception of the “There may be oil under Rockall” line at the end of ‘Ether,’ which had been my starter on that one. So, for example, I wrote all words on ‘Natural,’ ‘Tourist,’ ‘Gift,’ ‘Essence,’ etc, while Gill & I co-wrote the opposing parts on the call and response ‘Ether’ or ‘Anthrax’ and his brilliant lyrics to ‘Paralysed.’ He and I never collaborated on words and left the other to do his own thing. It kept it fresh.
Andy’s Gang of One – as some wags had it – had pluses and minuses of course, the big minus being you not there. My understanding is you, Hugo, and Dave were looking for a new guitarist and were about to launch some sort of reunion tour focusing on these first two albums (and associated singles and EPs)– and then COVID shut us all down. Are those plans still alive?
We met up to see what playing with each other again was like. But abandoned any notion of gigging due to COVID, and it looks like live work’s not going to kick off again until 2022. Maybe we’ll think about it again when things get better. It would be wonderful to give this material a final outing.
I know the band consciously avoided rock ‘n’ roll star cliches and pitfalls – except for maybe some offstage drink and drugs – but did this unwillingness to “play the game” put you at a disadvantage in the marketplace?
Maybe. We didn’t want to market the band as personalities or on what we looked like. That’s why the first albums and singles didn’t have any photos or images of us included with them. In a personality and looks dominated media, this was probably unhelpful. But Who Gives A Fuck!
You’ve talked about how the Sex Pistols were fun at the time, but the music sounds rather “boring” now. There’s been the thought that the Pistols were basically amped-up punk-ified three-chord Chuck Berry. But I gotta say when I listen to their first four singles, it brings me right back to the place I was then. Happy, but fierce. And the same goes for listening to the 77-81 package tonight. But what do you think separates Gang of Four – maybe gives it more legs, more resonance 40 years down the road – than a band like the Pistols?
Don’t get me wrong, listening to Pistols takes me right back, the singles are totally about 1977, and the thrill of it all. But aside from bringing back memories, it’s a bit of a musical yawn. Lydon’s PIL was much cooler. The songs don’t trigger earthquakes like revisiting ‘Voodoo Chile (slight return),’ or ‘Kind of Blue,’ or ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ which still hold a promise that we can change the world.
I’m probably a poor witness as to why our music still seems to have legs, other than it sounds like itself and doesn’t speak in cliches. And it doesn’t sound like a Max Martin record!