A Heavenly Happy Birthday to Andy Gill

The groundbreaking Gang of Four guitarist would have turned 65 on New Year’s Day

Andy Gill (Art: Ron Hart)

Andy Gill, the great Gang of Four guitarist, would have turned 65 on the first of the year. Alas, as it happened, he died a month after last year’s birthday from pneumonia and organ failure.

Was he an early victim of COVID-19?

Maybe.  

Last May, the NME reported a new post on the website of Gill’s wife, author-activist Catherine Mayer. She revealed that he had suffered the symptoms of the disease, including lethargy, a lack of appetite, and low oxygen levels. “Andy thought it unlikely he had come into contact with [coronavirus],” she wrote, explaining that doctors had asked Gill whether he travelled to Wuhan. He had not but the band had gone to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

A doctor who treated Gill told Mayer the more they learned about COVID-19, the more likely it was “a real possibility” that he had been infected with it.

From Boston, I covered Gang of Four from the early days, their first U.S. tour in 1979. to what would be their final one in 2019, and a stopover at the (now defunct, COVID-killed) club called ONCE.

What follows was written nearly six years ago, and keyed to Gang of Four’s first U.S. tour without its co-founding lead singer Jonathan King. But it was not published, due to a change in format of the web magazine it was slated for. It’s been on shelf, or, in the computer’s documents queue.  

So, I’ve resurrected and reworked it for Rock and Roll Globe. A snapshot of the Gang on the verge of a new life …

The marquee outside the Paradise Rock Club in Boston read Gang of Four and pretty much everyone who saw it quipped, “Really, isn’t it Gang of One now?”

 

AUDIO: Gang of Four Peel Session 1979

The original Gang of Four – Gill, King, bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham – hadn’t existed for many years, aside from a one-off re-recording of early material in 2004 and a 2005 reunion tour. But when the group has been active over the past 30-plus years it’s always been co-fronted by King and Gill.  Up to this point, that is. 

With the release of the What Happens Next CD and a U.S. club tour, we were seeing the King-less Gang for the first time.   (They’d previously toured Europe and Asia.) Bassist Thomas McNiece has been part of the Gang for eight years, drummer Jonny Finnegan is the new kid behind the kit, replacing Mark Heaney who’d been there since 2006 last year.

Most rock fans are pretty accepting of personnel changes – look at the people that have been in the Fall, say, to cite a Gang of Four peer group that was still rumbling along (at the time of my writing.) But the Fall wouldn’t be the Fall without singer Mark E. Smith (who died this month in 2018) and there is a legitimate debate about whether the Gang of Four is legit without the main voice and the band and principal lyricist. 

 

 

The guy at the mic now is 25-year-old Jon “Gaoler” Sterry, who met Gill when he went in the studio to work on a non-Gang related project. They clicked … King exited the group … and Gill wanted to carry on.

One line that popped out large during show: Sterry singing, “You know the change will do you good/I always knew it would.”

Hugo Burnham, who lives north of Boston, has become a friend over the past few years. He and joined me at the show and later, on Facebook, pegged the group as the Andy Gill Experience. (Burnham embraced Gill warmly backstage after the show, but considered himself “Switzerland” regarding any ongoing or simmering disputes residing among the original Gang members.)

Yes, Gill said, he considered going out under a moniker like not unlike what Burnham jested. “I tried Andy Gill’s Gang of Four for five minutes,” he told me. “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.” 

 

VIDEO: Gang of Four at the Paradise in Boston Feb. 2011

To the 440 or so people who went to the Paradise for the 70-minute set, this was the question: Was this going to be glorified tribute band or a continuation a group’s sound and vision, one instrumental in the post-punk clatter of the late- ‘70s and early- ‘80s? My take on the Gang’s 2011 reunion gig at the Paradise was be a resounding yelp of praise: It lives! (Albeit, temporarily.)

This time, my take was more conflicted. Not just because there were a couple of equipment cockups with Gill’s pedal rig that the ground the set to a halt briefly. That’s sort of a “so what?” in my world. It’s only rock ‘n’ roll and all that. Shit happens and slick’s not in it.

I have loved and continue to love Gill’s guitar sound – those spikes and shards, those jagged bursts that drive songs both forward and sideways so that they implode as much as explode. And I’d loved the lanky King’s gawky/kinetic stage presence. The idea that when all these gears were in sync, Gang of Four recreated something that was once ground-breaking – this politically charged, acerbic art-funk-punk – that had become part of our common post-punk lexicon.

So now, with Sterry as lead singer, even if you’re heading toward the “glorified tribute band” angle, a genuine replica, if you will, isn’t this still a good thing to have, to keep this vital music alive?

Yes … and it felt good, but of course the disconcerting factor was not having King there but watching Sterry, who as a kid was a fan of Futureheads, a Gang-influenced band Gill produced. One wag in the crowd opined that the handsome, blond Sterry looked like he just walked in from Duran Duran – presumably the Duran Duran of the mid- ‘80s. There were times when he seemed a bit lost, as when the equipment failed and others, like “At Home He Feels Like a Tourist,” that he was full-bore into it. He certainly sings well in the same limited range as did King.

“When I started with the band, I was a fan, but I didn’t realize the legacy I was stepping into,” Sterry said, post-show, backstage. “I try to keep the energy Jon King was doing, but I’m trying to do my own thing, too.”

He admits audiences greet him with an attitude of “what have you got. Hopefully, we can with ‘them over and toward the end of our shows it’s been positive.”

The band played on a stage most often lit by in dark red hues, with some strobe-like effects. Although Gill & Co. took a risk by opening with a new one, “Where the Nightingale Sings” (all tension, no release) they soon were digging deep into the catalog – six from the classic first LP, Entertainment!, another two from the Another Day, Another Dollar EP and two from the second LP, Solid Gold.

 

 

During “Not Great Men” – and not for the last time – did I think of Gill’s guitar work as being like a downed electrical wire, sparking furiously along the pavement. (That’s a good thing.) 

The old sentiments – couplets and catchphrases – remained snarling, ironic and arch – “To have ambition was my ambition,” “Love’ll get you like a case of anthrax/And that’s something I don’t want to catch,” “To hell with poverty!/We’ll get drunk on cheap wine,” “Please send me evenings and weekends, “Look at the world through you Polaroid glasses/Things’ll look a whole lot better for the working classes – working classes! … I found that essence rare, it’s what I looked for/I knew I’d get what I asked for.” 

After it was over, I, of course, asked about King, “Over many decades, it’s been a stop-start operation with Jon,” he said. “Sometimes he’s enthusiastic and keen and sometimes he loses interest. In 2011, he said ‘That’s it, I’m done.’ He saw the project as limited. I said, ‘I’m going to carry on with the band.’ When people respond, I’ve found most people are happy with it accept it.’ Is it really Gang of Four? Was it when Dave and Hugo left? I don’t care.”

(I didn’t reach out to find King or get his take.)

“As to owning the name,” Gill said, “The basic point is I contributed the music – I’m the musical director – and some of the lyrics.” No one would argue Gill’s status as co-leader back in the heyday, but there’s been much dispute in the old Gang camp about those other statements.

Look, this is the Gang we have now, maybe the last Gang in town. I’m sorry about the tattered history and frayed emotions; I wish Gill and King had been able to come to some amicable agreement to keep the machine up and running as it had been for the 2011 album “Content” and subsequent tour. But change is the only constant and I was glad this constant remained in my post-punk life, some 36 years after I got my first jolt.

 

 

    

 

 

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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