Gang of Four - Biography
By Scott Feemster
Gang Of Four were one of a handful of bands that emerged in England in the late 70's in the wake of the punk movement. They took the basic aggression and stripped-down DIY spirit of punk and fused it with influences of American funk, Jamaican dub-reggae and 20th century minimalist composition, creating a new movement referred to as post-punk. This alone would have made them highly influential, but Gang of Four also fused their new hybrid of music with strident lyrics criticizing Western society, politics and consumer culture.
Gang Of Four were formed in the English industrial city of Leeds by Leeds University students Andy Gill and Jon King in 1977. The two took a university-backed trip to New York and checked out the scene at the legendary Bowery punk venue CBGB's, catching sets by Television and The Ramones. Suitably inspired, the pair came back to Leeds and enlisted the aid of drummer Hugo Burnham and bassist Dave Allen. There is some controversy as to whether the name of the band refers to the obvious Maoist Gang Of Four in revolutionary China or if it refers to the so-called “big four” Structuralist theorists: Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Claude Levi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan. The band has stayed mute on the subject, though identification with either group would be enough to elicit a fair amount of curiosity, if not controversy-- appropriate for a band bent on dragging the skeleton of 70's funk into the skin of nervous, noisy rock.
Gang Of Four's influence on rock in the late 1970's cannot be overstated. Along with other post-punk bands (Public Image Ltd, The Pop Group, The Slits, etc.), Gang Of Four were taking dance music that was popular with working-class, mostly ethnic minority groups and fusing it with the pure anger and frustration of noisy guitar rock, mostly produced by working-class white youth. Andy Gill's jarring, aggressive, staccato guitar style was neither “lead” nor “rhythm,” but combinations of sharp, jagged noise clusters with longer sections of distorted triplets and just plain feedback. This and the nearly-spastic vocal delivery of Jon King danced and squirmed along the top of the solid snap of Allen and Burnham's rhythms.
Gang Of Four's first foray into recording was their debut single “Damaged Goods” backed with “Love Like Anthrax” and “Armalite Rifle.” The single was released in 1978 on the upstart indie label Fast Product, also home to other British misfits like fellow Leeds residents The Mekons and The Human League. The single became a #1 hit on the British independent charts and received lots of radio play from influential BBC Radio DJ, John Peel. He invited the group to record two live radio sessions; the band accepted the opportunity and recorded two red-hot sets. The sessions received attention of not only domestic fans, but fans in Europe and North America, leading to sold out shows on both continents. They also received the attention of the major record companies, and signed to EMI in the UK soon after. The band's first effort for the label was “At Home He's A Tourist,” which charted in the British Top 40 in 1979. Because of the popularity of the single, Gang Of Four were asked to play the BBC program Top Of The Pops, but walked out during the last hour because the BBC insisted the band substitute the word “rubbers” in the lyric with “packets.” The band refused, and the single was banned from BBC Radio and TV. The band was due to get a big push from EMI, but smarting from the bans, the label backed away and supported more “friendly” bands-- namely soon-to-be MTV darlings, Duran Duran. Gang Of Four later created more controversy when their single “I Love A Man In A Uniform” was banned during the height of the Falklands War in 1982.
1979 saw the release of The Gang's first album, Entertainment (EMI UK/Warner US). The album’s influence continues to reverberate through music up to the present day. The wry observations regarding history, politics and even relations between the sexes are shouted or read out in a martial near-monotone; the guitars buzz, chop and howl, the bass is a funky rubber bottom-end keeping the shards of noise from slipping through, and the drums are the spine walking the edge between austerity and get-down-with-it funk overload. Special attention needs to be paid to one song in particular: the closing track “Anthrax.” The song begins with a long section of just pure guitar feedback, then abruptly ends and segues into a funky, menacing bass and drum duet with double-tracked vocals, each different and coming out of both right and left stereo channels, only joining on certain lines like “Love will get you like a case of anthrax, and that's something I don't want to catch.”
Solid Gold (Warner) was the band's next album, released in May of 1981, and continued on with the template of the first album’s mission to make you think while shaking your ass on the dance floor. Lyrically, the second album was more focused on economic disparity and political dissatisfaction, including a swipe at the U.S. and capitalism in the form of the song “Cheeseburger.” The song had field recordings of someone ordering food in an American diner juxtaposed with seemingly cheery but obviously subversive lyrics about the supposed classless American society and the endless treadmill of working for the next buck. The album also included the song “Paralysed,” a Kafka-esque take on the feeling of helplessness which begins with the sound of what sounds like a whip hitting a table and continues throughout the song as the basis of the rhythm. Live, Jon King has utilized everything from a metal folding chair to a television to a microwave on which to beat out the sinister slap, obviously carrying out another level of tongue-in-cheek criticism. Much was made, especially at the early part of Gang Of Four's career, about the members coming across as overly-serious raincoat-wearing Marxists. In hindsight, it seems nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, they were lobbing pointed comments on the state of the Western world from a left-leaning view, but their snarky humor comes through loud and clear.
An exhausting American tour followed the release of Solid Gold, and rising tensions within the band came to a head with the departure of bassist Dave Allen, who went on to found the dance and funk-oriented band Shriekback with former XTC keyboardist, Barry Andrews. Allen was briefly replaced by Parliament and Talking Heads sideman Busta “Cherry” Jones, but Jones left to work with the Rolling Stones and was then replaced by former League Of Gentlemen bassist, Sara Lee.
The new line-up resumed work and released Songs Of The Free (Warner) in 1982. The band now had a bassist who could add a new angle with female vocals, and enlisted a new producer, Mike Howlett, known for working with The Psychedelic Furs and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. The result was an album that had much more of a pop sheen than previous records, resulting in The Gang's first bonafide “mainstream” hit, “I Love A Man In A Uniform.” Many fans of the first couple of records were turned off by the band's embrace of soul-diva background vocals, gated drum sounds and the smoother production touches typical on British pop records of the early 80's. A year after the album was released drummer Hugo Burnham left, effectively making the band a vehicle for Jon King and Andy Gill.
The trio version of Gang Of Four carried on for one more album, 1983's Hard (Warner). By this point almost all the hard edges had been burnished off of the gritty aggro-funk of the first few albums. King and Gill didn't even bother replacing Burnham, instead relying on drum machines and sequencers to provide some measure of funk, and the result was an English pop album that sounded very much of its time, but sorely lacking in inspiration. Gang Of Four effectively disintegrated in 1984 after releasing a live album of their last tour, At The Palace (Mercury UK).
Andy Gill and Jon King spent the next few years on various projects-- most notably Gill produced the first album by American punk/funk band The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The re-emergence of funk rock and the rapid rise of hip-hop in the early 90's got The Gang's founding pair to consider the viability of doing another project as Gang Of Four, and the duo recruited studio musicians to flesh out 1991's Mall (Polydor). The album was a partial return to form, grafting some of the original band's vitriol and noisy guitar on top of more modern sounding rhythms. Critics were generally receptive, but most of the band's fans had seemed to have moved on. Sales were poor and the band's new label, Polygram, dropped them soon after. Gill and King gave it one more shot with 1995's Shrinkwrapped (Castle), an album underrated and mostly ignored by both critics and the public. The album was darker than previous records, both in sound and subject matter. Sexual obsession and perversion rather than political diatribes were the order of the day, and Gill's guitar snaked around in clouds of feedback and reverb, occasionally evoking the dissonant snarl of the band's early work.
After the release of Shrinkwrapped, Gang of Four once again disbanded. But along the way a funny thing had happened, younger bands had discovered the power of the early Gang records and were highly influenced by them. Clear echoes of Entertainment and Solid Gold can be heard in early records by The Rapture, Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand and numerous other bands on both sides of the Atlantic. Sensing a groundswell of interest, the original quartet of King, Gill, Burnham and Allen re-united in November of 2004 for a tour and sounded every bit as raw and vital as they had back in 1977. In 2005, the band re-recorded some early tracks and released them as the album, Return The Gift (V2).