With Sara Lee back on bass and Slint guitarist David Pajo in the mix, original drummer Hugh Burnham checks in from the road
When Gang Of Four reunited in 2004, after almost twenty years apart and with their original lineup, it seemed simultaneously like a gathering of old friends and a victory lap.
A couple years of touring, some re-recordings with only three original members, and the fissures started showing. Only seven years later, the band had been whittled down to guitar genius Andy Gill and a coterie of sidemen. Some of that spark was still there (shit, Gill could play “Greensleeves” and it would sound like a lost post-punk classic) but this was clearly Gang Of Four in name only. When Gill tragically and suddenly passed in February of 2020, there was no reason to think that this was anything but the death of Gang of Four. Fast-forward a year and Matador Records has released a box set of those urgent first two Go4 records – a glossary and roadmap for so many bands who’ve taken the skeletal funk and hauntingly abrasive guitar scree as their guide. Lovingly curated by vocalist Jon King, original bassist Dave Allen, and erstwhile drummer Hugo Burnham, the set was nominated for a Grammy and could have stood as a fitting epitaph. Andy would have been proud.
But, lo, an image popped up on social media in October of 2021. A multi-colored shot of King, Burnham, Sara Lee (Allen’s replacement on 1982’s Songs of the Free and 1984’s Hard), and……David Pajo? Something was afoot. Soon thereafter, a tour of the states was announced. Gang Of Fucking Four was back and would be celebrating their first three records on the road!
And so it was that I found myself on a cold Sunday night in Buffalo attending the first Gang of Four show featuring 3/4 of the early 80’s lineup and the guitarist from Slint! Prefaced by nothing but a DJ, the band took the stage to the telltale staccato guitar stabs of “Return the Gift”, and any question about how Pajo would fit into the puzzle was instantly answered. This was the Gang of old – King flailing about like a man possessed, Burnham pounding away on his kit, and Lee beaming and plucking away coolly at her bass strings (the sight of Sara Lee playing with a pick was a treat in and of itself!) and we were treated to a performance that was nothing short of inspired.
Leaning heavily on the debut but touching on everything represented in the box, the set was littered with treats – “Outside The Trains Don’t Run On Time” for the first time since 1981; Mary Ramsey (Natalie Merchant’s replacement in 10,000 Maniacs) providing perfect background vocals on “We Live As We Dream, Alone” and “I Love A Man In Uniform”; King bashing a baseball bat like a metronome on a microwave oven during “He’d Send In The Army”; an airing of “I Parade Myself”, the highlight from 1996’s maligned Shrinkwrapped. And throughout it all David Pajo proved himself not only a worthy successor to Andy Gill, but also retained his own sense of style. This was not slavish imitation – it was part tribute, part blasting-off point, and his playing elevated these classics into something new and vital. It was breathtaking to behold. Just 15 songs, 72 minutes – that was all it took for this revitalized Gang to justify why they were back. And, goddamnit, I for one am glad that they are.
Drummer Hugo Burnham, in a rare break from his scholarly duties as Assistant Professor for Experiential Learning and Internships in the Visual and Performing Arts Dept of Endicott College, took time to answer some quick questions about the reformation of Gang of Four, the tour, and the integral addition of David Pajo.
It’s exciting to see you, Jon, and Sara back together celebrating the first four Gang Of Four albums. How did the tour come together?
Thank you – yup, we’re excited too! Slowly and steadily – obviously, finding and bringing Pajo in was the keystone that allowed us to build a bridge that stays up. Small note: it’s the first three Gang Of Four records, plus one of Jon’s songs from Content that all love and have twisted in an upward direction.
It’s been almost 40 years since you and Jon have played together with Sara (Lee, bassist) – what was it like to reconnect with her as a rhythm section? She is a much more supple player than Dave Allen.
Sara hasn’t played with a pick since she left G4 in 1984! A re-learning curve for her…but it was all excitement and laughs when the four of us were rehearsing together for the first time back in January. I miss being with Dave, but I’m missing nothing playing with Sara. Man, I’ve been so lucky with bass players – these two and, for an all-too brief time, Busta “Cherry” Jones.
I was surprised to see the addition of Pajo on guitar – while he wouldn’t initially seem to be a natural choice to fill-in for Andy, he certainly has the chops and the feel to replicate his playing. How was he brought into the fold?
Who the hell would be a “natural choice”?!? A quandary, for sure. An old friend of mine, Patrick Ferguson, has a wonderful podcast called “Crash & Ride”. He and I have talked about music for years, and when I said we wanted to find that person (no easy task, obviously) he said, “Pajo! I just interviewed him!” So he connected us, and it became quite obvious very early in the discussion. Not sure that “replication” is the best word for how David came at this. Respect? Deep investigation? A great versatility? And Jon and I telling him that we are neither a tribute act nor a cover band; that we wanted him playing as an equal creative member of Gang Of Four, today. Oh, and Patrick is our stage tech on this tour.
With the recent (and not-so-recent) slide towards fascism, those first few Gang Of Four records seem to be as relevant as they were during the early Thatcher/Reagan years. What was it like revisiting the material in our current political climate?
We deliberately did not write music and lyrics of their particular time…no “Fuck Thatcher”-type ranting. It’d be like writing an anti-Trump song today…boring. The songs are just as relevant today as 40 years ago. Rock Against Racism, Black Lives Matter? Plus ca change. For every “two steps forward…”, right?
On a personal note, you’ve been engaged in higher education as a professor and administrator. As a student affairs professional myself, I am pleasantly surprised by the political and social engagement and leadership by Gen Z folk. It feels like we might just make it out of this. Has that been your experience?
Difficult to say, or at least difficult to compare the rampant student activism of my youth with today. Like the music business…the battles are on different fields with different tactics, but they’re out there. Slowly, not always laser-focused on what we older fighters might perceive as the real dangers. But happening. They don’t need us as models. These are their fights. I hope they fight hard.
Perhaps the elephant in the room, are there plans for more Gang Of Four activity beyond this string of shows? Any thoughts of new music?
Yes. And yes. ☺
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