Named after the counter-revolutionary group who tried to take over China after Chairman Mao kicked the bucket, Gang of Four were one of the fiercest and most innovative British bands to emerge in the aftermath of punk. With 1979′s Entertainment!, they essentially invented what is these days termed “post-punk” — a high-velocity collision of punky attitude and funky rhythm — a sound that resurfaced in post-millennial British alt-rock via Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party and Futureheads.
In the wake of such retrospective homages, vocalist Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill recommenced Go4 activities circa ’05 — not for the first time, as the two have remained firm friends. Since their original burst of activity King, ever their politico mouthpiece, has been working at his own TV news company specializing in developing countries, while Gill has become a successful record producer.
Upon reconvening, they released a collection of re-recordings of vintage songs entitled Return the Gift. Their first album of new material since ’83′s disco-crazed ‘Hard’, has been longer in the making. Content marks an exhilarating return to the jagged grooves of Entertainment! and 1980′s Solid Gold, and to that era’s incisive lyrics, which ponder the motivations and dislocations in human relationships, as much as our society’s deepening consumerist crisis.
Gill, as ever, is well up for some ethical sparring with eMusic’s Andrew Perry.
Have the last five years been spent working out how to devise a valid comeback record?
It’s been three years in the making. The first year or two, it was very slow, because I kept going off and producing other people. Then you come back to Gang o Four when you’ve finished, and you go, “What’s this about?” There’s the technical thing of just trying to remember where all the files are, and what mic was I using. Then there’s a much more profound conceptual flow, and you’ve lost it.
After a while of doing that, but building up a number of tracks, I just said to John, ‘You know what, I’m not gonna do any other external work until this record’s done. ‘So I spent all of 2009 and the beginning of 2010 polishing it off, and during that period went back and revisited a lot of the earlier tracks, and did new versions. None of the songs ended up on the record in their first version, they’ve all been teased this way and that, and reworked.
Were you not just waiting for global finances to hit rock bottom — the perfect backdrop for a new Gang of Four album, surely!
Yeah, that’s right! It was knocked out in a week when the recession kicked in!
Was it a conscious choice to revisit the savage guitar riffs of your first two albums?
Jon and I never talked between ourselves about, like, “OK, what direction is this going in?” I think both of us, having been around the block a few times with doing different things from Gang of Four — we didn’t even need to say anything. In the back of our minds, it was like, ‘Don’t make that mistake again! ”That mistake ‘primarily being, ‘Right, we’re in the studio, let’s invent a whole new style.’
As a producer, I have in the past been bit guilty of falling in love with production techniques and electronica — sitting down with a sampler, and saying, “Oooh, that’s a fantastic sound,” or programming stuff. That album we did at the beginning of the ’90s called Mall — I wove a lot of sample tracks in with it, so it was a bit dense, and it didn’t really sound like us.
For you personally, has it been a matter of reclaiming your guitar style from its many imitators?
Yeah, I guess so — remembering what I’m supposed to do, and not just having fun sounding like other guitarists. There were people that used Andy Gill-isms, in the ’80s and ’90s, with the Chili Peppers and, to a lesser extent, R.E.M. But obviously it kind of happened more in the Noughties than it ever had done, when so many bands came along with these very brittle, rhythmic guitar sounds. I don’t really think about that. I just get an enormous thrill out of making songs.
I read that the album title, Content, was inspired by the sense that anything creative these days eventually becomes merely “the obligatory filling for the advertising sandwich”. Since Go4 were first amongst us, do you think things have got more extreme in the corporate consumerist machine?
In a weird way, it all looks very different, but when you scrape away some of the surface, it’s fundamentally rather similar, with the same old mechanisms in play. I think human beings are very good at deluding themselves — in general, really! But specifically in relation to, we think of the internet as, “Oh, the world has changed forever and we are now in unknown territory, in some part of outer space.” But the amazing internet is just another communication device, just like the mobile phone, and the fax machine.
So the web’s just a new sales tool, using the same old ad slogans?
Yeah! Stuff is being advertised and bought and sold like it has for centuries, it’s just the exact means by which it’s done are slightly different. I think the word Content works like Entertainment worked with the first album. That was saying, ‘So this is just entertainment, right? ‘That fascinated us: the whole thing of the entertainment industry, which is what you were all in, whether you were in film, TV, music, and what does that entail, and what’s the financial relationships here, who’s economically dependent on whom?
I don’t know if you heard the story back then: we played at Carlisle Art College, and our support acts were a stripper and a Northern comedian.
Not by choice, presumably…
No, but it was brilliant. I think we should go back to having Northern comedians and strippers on the bill. We got involved in a bit of barracking during their performances. It wasn’t meant in any kind of malicious way, but there was a bit of shouting, and we got our fair share back from the Northern comedian.
After we did our bit, we had a conversation with them all, and it was brilliantly enlightening. The stripper came out with the immortal words, ‘I don’t have to do this, but I earn much more than I would in a 9-5 job. ‘That’s why the cover of “Damaged Goods”, our first single, had a picture of a female matador killing a bull, torn out of a newspaper. She’s sticking the sword into the bull, and we had a speech bubble saying, ‘I don’t have to do this, but I earn much more than I would in a 9-5 job. ‘And the bull was saying, ‘That’s all very well, but at some point I feel we really should take responsibility for our actions. ‘So, our experiences in the entertainment business turned into our mythologizing about it, and analysis of it.
It was always said that Gang Of Four were “political”, but there was always something imaginative, even esoteric, about how you expressed your ideas — nothing was handed to the listener on a plate, it was food for thought, to be chewed over at length.
I think that’s right. Broadly speaking, it was true we were a political band, in inverted commas, but it really begged the question, “What do you mean by political?” What we’ve never done is songs bang the leftist drum, or wave the red flag, or issue-related protesting. That’s never been remotely where we’re at.
There’s always a sense in your songs that media images invade and shape our lives. Is that what ‘She Said “You Made A Thing Of Me” ‘is about?
That one isn’t necessarily images from the media. It’s a description of a relationship. One of the cool things about it, I think, is it doesn’t come down on anybody’s side. It describes the fact that the man has a fantasy image — not a sexual fantasy — but a fantasy image of what the woman’s about. I think, again, that’s a very human thing to do, to carry around incorrect assumptions about other people.
Then she recognises that he’s got this incorrect picture of her, so she says, “You’ve made a thing of me.” They have a kid, and then it all gets a bit difficult. The song doesn’t say, “And then they split up.” It leaves it all up in the air really, and sort of suggests that they work it out. I like it, because it doesn’t say, ‘Bastard man! ‘It’s sort of saying, ‘This is just what we all do, to varying degrees.”
Our songs have often been not just from one point of view. There’s usually some sort of dialogue going on — right from the earliest songs we did, like “Anthrax,” Jon’s doing one line, and I’m commenting on what he’s saying from the other side — ‘Why’s he talking about that? ‘Other songs, there’s someone who’s a character, a soldier or something, then the other person is the narrator, giving some opinion about this person.
“Do As I Say” is a conversation between a religious inquisitor and someone burning at stake?
Yeah, in a nutshell. We’d been doing these huge fine art prints of some of our artwork, including the back cover of Solid Gold. I was looking at that image, which was the execution of Charles I, and underneath it says, “I hope they keep down the price of gas.” That really worked, so I thought, ‘Let’s do actually a song that’s set in the 17th Century. ‘Then I thought, ‘Let’s make it about an execution, and I can be the executioner, and Jon can be the executed. ‘There’s nothing Freudian there or anything. Nothing to do with how bloody irritating he is.
In a way, what’s behind that is the way, again, that human beings are good at thinking that somehow we’ve arrived at the end of history. This moment, right now — everything is cool. There’s a few little problems in the world, but they’re not insurmountable. We’ve all got long lives, hopefully, and we’ve got fairly decent health, and by and large people behave in a good way. Then we look back at the 1950s, and think, ‘Weren’t people weird then! ‘Then we look back a bit further, and they just seem like aliens, from the 17th Century.
The truth is that many, many things are fundamentally the same. Just as we did in the 17th Century, we still torture and execute people in the name of ideology-slash-religion. That happens today, in Guantanamo. That’s what that song is relating to.
In “A Fruitfly In The Beehive”, resistance is held up as “proof of life”…
Exactly right. The beehive is always held up as this marvellously wonderful system, where everything is so ordered and everybody has their role, which they all perform marvellously. Then what happens if you don’t want to perform your role marvellously within that? What happens if you are the stranger, the animal that doesn’t belong there?
Without getting all nostalgic about it, was their a special mood in the “post-punk” era?
It was, for us at least, a time of enormous possibility. As much as I love the Sex Pistols, they didn’t really have that much influence on us, except in the sense that, when the punk thing came along, and it was so huge instantly, it made it possible to do whatever you liked. Before then, people who were outside the mainstream seemed to be few and far between. The Sex Pistols brought the idea that you can do whatever you like, that there were no barriers. Which meant there was suddenly lots of rubbish, but also lots of fascinating things as well.
Was your impulse to tap into the noise and energy of punk, but bring in greater rhythmic sophistication, and syncopation? Like, “Yes, but I love James Brown, too!”
Weird as it may sound, I do literally remember thinking about this issue. There’s one or two people who were around in Leeds [where Gang Of Four formed, at Leeds Uni] who’ll remember me playing with soul bands in ’75-’76. I loved such a wide range of music — Bob Dylan and the Band, the Velvet Underground, all that white rock music, Jimi Hendrix, all the Jamaican music, the Wailers, dub reggae, and also American funk music and Motown. I remember thinking, ‘Perhaps one does have to come down one way or the other. ‘Then it also struck me, ‘That’s kind of daft.’
The thing that I love about music is the groove, the beat, the rhythm. I was never interested in those kind of off-the-shelf drum beats, which really means that the drums aren’t really very important at all, and what’s really important are the vocals and the guitars — that old hierarchy of drums and bass at the bottom, then keyboards and guitars above that, and then right at the top there’s the vocalist. That wasn’t particularly interesting.
We were about putting everything side by side, and making rhythms where everything worked together, so the bassline worked around the drums, and sometimes it reinforced the guitars, and sometimes the guitar was doing exactly the same as the hi-hat and the snare drum, and other times it went off somewhere completely different. That was the core of what was going on in Gang of Four.
You never had a hit, as such. Was that a cause of bitterness, or hardship, for the band?
It was a lot easier then than it is now — for us at least. We were coining it on the road in America. It was actually a very well-paid time. The fact that we never had hit singles and stuff over here in the UK actually has probably done us good in the long run. Hit singles are often a poisoned chalice, I think, just watching what happens to other people.
By the time you got to your fourth album, Hard, you’d evolved to a smoother, disco-y sound, almost reminiscent of Chic. How come?
We were supposed to make Hard with [Chic's] Nile Rodgers. It was all kind of booked up, then Nile had this huge hit with David Bowie [Let's Dance], so he turned round and asked our manager for half a percent more royalty — one half of one percent, not a big ask. Our manager at that time was completely corrupt, and was doing a deal behind our backs with some other producers, so he used the half-point interest to turn him down, for which he’ll never be forgiven. So it didn’t happen. That record has its moments, and it has some great songs on it, but it doesn’t sound quite the way it was supposed to.
In the intervening years, Western culture went though a period of unprecedented prosperity, and that spirit of resistance which Gang of Four embodied seemed to drain out of rock music. Now, in the UK we have a Tory government back in power, the recession is biting — are you here to revive that spirit?
I know exactly what you’re saying. The latter part of the ’80s, all through the 90s, were times of comparative milk and honey. The money flowed easily, didn’t it? Credit was infinitely extendable to many parts of society. There was that guy Francis Fukuyama who wrote The End of History — he was like, ‘We’ve arrived! All we need is a few tweaks here and there, capitalism rules! The past may have been a load of bollocks, but now we’ve cracked it, low inflation environment, constant growth, wealth filtering down thru the class system. ‘Again, brilliantly delusional.
So, as all those 4×4 gas-guzzlers, iPads and electrical goods go into repossession, Gang of Four will be here to ‘fiddle as Rome burns’.
Yup. It’s happening already!