In this exclusive chat, Jim Sullivan and the original Gang of Four drummer share their memories of the pioneering guitarist and songwriter
“People have a signature to their way of playing you can’t get away from,” Andy Gill guitarist told me about five years ago, talking after a gig at the Paradise club in Boston.
“Jagged” and “angular” were two of the most common words employed when describing Gill’s attack. And an attack it was. Short, staccato bursts that disrupted and detonated as much as they drove the sound forward. Sharp shards of sound.
In 2015 – 35 years after seeing Go4 the first time – I was once again ensnared by Gill’s guitar playing. During “Not Great Men,” I was at the Paradise rock club in Boston and scribbled something in my notebook that it looked and sound like a downed electrical wire, sparking furiously along the pavement. (That would be good thing.)
VIDEO: Gang of Four “Not Great Men” Live at KDHX 10/8/15
“The surprise when we first emerged was great, but then, to a certain extent, people get familiarized with that shock. I think what I like is to reinvent [my sound] in different ways,” Gill said after that show. He was still working it and, when I saw him last year with the current Gang of Four lineup at the ONCE club in Somerville, Mass., the magic was there.
Gill, 64, died Feb. 1st in a London hospital. A lifelong asthmatic, he’d gotten sick after an Asian tour late last year and checked in with a respiratory illness. He was moved to intensive care, as that illness became pneumonia.
The first Gang – Gill, singer Jon King, bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham – formed in Leeds, England in 1976. Their debut album, 1979’s Entertainment! was – and still is – regarded as one of post-punk’s high-water marks. Canadian writer Jim Dooley published an exhaustive book on the band, especially looking at those early years, in Red Set: A History of Gang of Four in 2017. Also check out Kevin Dettmar’s Entertainment! contribution to the 33 1/3 series in 2014.
The Gang’s music came out of punk, but they played a sort of heady, mutant art-funk, influenced by the music of James Brown and the guitar work of Dr. Feelgood’s Wilko Johnson and P-Funk’s Eddie Hazel.
The ferocity – both physical and intellectual – of early Gang of Four was something to behold. Some of the songs – I Found That Essence Rare, Damaged Goods, – had deep hooks but establishing and repeating a melodic hook wasn’t what the group was aiming for.
“There’s a lot more to music than the idea of a dominant line,” King told me in 1980, after an ecstatic gig at the Channel club in Boston. “African music is not based on melody; our music is based on grinding rhythms. We wanted to make something that was uniquely ours, that no one had done before. What I like about music is dancing. I don’t like singing along.”
Gang of Four had 11 players over the years, always anchored by Gill and, mostly, King. They recorded nine studio albums and were working on a tenth when Gill died. When Gang of Four re-emerged for an album, What Happens Next and tour in 2015, King was not with them. Gill and King, friends going back to their days at Leeds University, had what we might politely call “differences.”
By that point, the original Gang of Four hadn’t existed for many years, aside from a one-off re-recording of early material in 2004 and a 2005 reunion tour.
Bassist Thomas McNeice had been part of the Gang for eight years, drummer Jonny Finnegan was the new kid behind the kit, replacing Mark Heaney who’d been there since 2006. The guy at the mic was then-25-year-old Jon “Gaoler” Sterry, He 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.
“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 admitted audiences greeted him with an attitude of “what have you got. Hopefully, we can win them over and toward the end of our shows it’s been positive.”
In 2011, Gill and I were talking about Content, their first disc in 16 years. “This time around,” said Gill, “I think there was an unspoken feeling more than anything to chip away anything that was less than essential, to discover what the essence is about. I think to a certain extent it’s not so much trying to sound like the first or second album, it’s asking very similar questions and coming up with answers that are not that dissimilar to the answers we came back with a while ago. You have to do it in a way that’s fresh, new and exciting. And that might mean defying convention in the way of going about it.
“I think the thing is what I do on the guitar sounds like me. That’s something important. With this record, some of the tunes, I had melodies in my head and sequences and notes and things I thought were great. But when I played them the way they sounded sonically, it was ordinary. It wasn’t gonna work and I had to chip away at that. I said [to myself], ‘Do it like you’re Andy Gill.’ A penny dropped. ‘That’s what I’ll do.’
“I often wonder why the hell didn’t we do this sooner. It’d be hard to explain, but it does occur to me. It’s enormously enjoyable going through the recording process, getting it done and out there. I think there’s an appetite for what it is we do – people want something which is a bit more – that questions some version of reality. I think there is a hunger for that.”
A couple of days after Gill’s death, I spoke with Burnham, who has become a friend and lives not that far from me on Boston’s North Shore. “It’s been a miserable couple of days,” Burnham said. “Whether it’s Facebook or Instagram or emails or whatever. I opened up and the New York Times today and there’s the top obituary. I mean, he earned the attention. We earned the attention. He went on and did a number of very visible things with other people, too. I’m very sad he’s gone.”
So, Hugo and I tripped back in time …
What are your best memories of band’s early days? Maybe when you were beginning to taste success, but on the cusp of something more.
My best memories are of engaging in an adventure with three people. Well, a little more than three. At the beginning there were all these other people around, the Mekons, who dragged along behind us like rambunctious kids at the mall, but then like rambunctious kids at the mall they start to run ahead of you and get a record deal. Come back here! But then we quite soon put a team together with our manager Rob Warr and my brother Jolly and Dave’s brother Phil. If we had any money, we split it equally. We made delightful noise, we enjoyed a few drinks, we got into fights with other people, running battles in the street whether it was police or National Front or whatever. You’re 19, 20, 21, 22, it was a time of great change, politically, artistically, socially, and you’re in your 20s. Fuck. The possibilities seemed limitless. Andrew, at one point, when we finished Entertainment! said, “This is really important work” and I think Rob just laughed because, for fucks sake …
Because saying it was “important” was over the top?
We pushed each other up and along, but we also slapped each other down. But it was a gang, we were having an awful lot of fun, we worked really hard and it felt like day to day – “Oh my god, we made a record,’ “Oh good god, we’re on the radio,” “God, we’ve been asked to be on Top of the Pops,” ”Oh god, we’re going to America.” You’re rolling with it. We were in charge of our business, but we weren’t great businessmen. There was not a great battle plan.
So, when you made Entertainment! You didn’t have any sense of how resonant and ground-breaking it would become?
No, we just wanted to make it our way and have it be somewhat uncompromising. The studio engineer hated it, because it was so not what he wanted to do or was used to doing. We were creatively very different; the whole thing was very untreated. He was working in waters with which he was very unfamiliar. He didn’t go with the flow. We disliked him as much as he disliked us. Definitely not a meeting of the wills. Quite frankly, he should have been working for us as opposed to trying to “guide” us. It was so long ago …
Recording [our second album] Solid Gold was a much more cohesive and enjoyable setting. We found our footing and we were in a much nicer studio space. The producer [Jimmy Douglas], he brought the referee position to it all. There was less battling, a more cohesive fun time. I was terribly nervous doing Entertainment! But not so for Solid Gold.
Tell me about Andy as a guitarist. Everyone has always talked about how much he got from Dr. Feelgood’s Wilko Johnson, developing his style from it and taking it beyond.
I’ve been listening to a lot of our early demos of late and, yeah, he sounded like Wilko Johnson, Doctor Feelgood mixed with Free. If you’re going to build a style based on somebody, you couldn’t go very far wrong than with Wilko. Although Dr. Feelgood were playing sort of standard stuff, it was just the attitude and ideas and the way they presented it. Andrew was an extraordinary guitar player; it’s that simple. I mean he took as much from Wilko’s stage presence as he did his playing style and the four us developed our own performance style. It wasn’t about guitar solos or drum solos, dull things like that. Actually, we took the opposite approach, based very much on dub reggae – which is everyone stopping so that somebody else wail. People would just drop out, creating space which was far more interesting.
In terms of the songwriting, on the first album it was a four-way split and then later it mostly became Jon and Andy.
By the third album, yeah. That was partly to do with – well, for a start I had to get involved with management after a big change and I think the publishing thing, Andy suddenly began to realize what it was [financially]. I mean there was sharing of all income, even though by the third album it was not exactly equal. The third album [Songs of the Free] they basically wrote in a studio in East London.
AUDIO: Gang of Four “On The Instant”
Did it break down into Andy mostly music and Jon mostly words?
By that point, yeah, but there was a lot of back and forth.
As a songwriter, what did Andy bring to the party?
Oh god, I don’t know. I haven’t worked with many other songwriters. To me, it’s attitude about what he wanted, a real understanding of deconstruction of ideas and sound. But that was prevalent in the things we liked to listened to, in the way of building songs and rehearsing them.
Did that sound gel with you all right away?
I don’t think there were big discussions. Well, there were big discussions about everything – the price of a Mars bar up to the sort of lyrics we might or might not avoid hearing on stage whether it was It’s Her Factory or Love Like Anthrax. Every night could have been a little bit different. It coalesced and gelled around something we all believed in and felt comfortable with.
Without each other, none of us would have got to where we are today. Four quite different and disparate people who weaved in and out of each other’s lives. Without sounding like I’m a fucking hippie, what we did when it was the original four of us together seems great – which I’m very grateful about and which we all should be. It’s still very there. Which is not to say that once the four of us split up, what went on since wasn’t of value. I think it was good of Andrew to keep going. He didn’t stand still. He found some other people to work with and obviously enjoyed that way of working.
On Facebook, Burnham posted: “We made a lot of great noise and art together. We had a few drinks. We traveled the world and made friends. We made people dance, and think, and laugh, and love. We laughed together. A lot.”
Jon Langford, one of those pesky Mekons mentioned earlier, posted: “When we first met in Leeds the Gang of Four knew exactly what they wanted to do and we mekons bumbled along in their wake all part of a strange inseparable art school pinko pack. I have no idea what I’d be doing today if I hadn’t cross paths with those people at that time.”
VIDEO: Gang of Four Rockpalast 1983