GANG OF FOUR
SIMON McKAY interviewed ANDY GILL from Gang Of Four when they reformed in 2006. They re-recorded some of their finest songs and played some blistering live gigs.
ANDY GILL - Hoxton, London 2009
Playing the intro to the screechy post-punk anthem Anthrax
The original line up of the Gang of Four was together from 1977 to 1981. In that time they recorded two LPs and a handful of singles. Despite touring extensively there were no major hits. In 2005, they reformed and played many dates throughout the year. The sets focused on these early records and largely ignored recordings made by subsequent line-ups. As if reforming wasn't a big enough risk to take with a reputation that had flourished boundlessly in the intervening years, they have re-recorded many of the original songs including the majority of their still much lauded debut album from 1979, Entertainment. 'That' LP continues to stand up to endless scrutiny by the critics and public alike.
Not that they were ever prepared to cruise on the success of their first recordings. Referring back to the press release from their second LP, Solid Gold, I was amused to read, 'the Gang Of Four are as committed and contrary to people's needs and expectations as ever before'. I spoke to Andy Gill, whose guitar style has been an inspiration to successive generations of players, not just post-punk, since the group were first heard. His opening comment makes me think that the quote from way back in 1981 still holds true.
"When it first got out that we were talking seriously about doing gigs there was a lot of talk in chat rooms and there were emails to my website. People saying, 'what are you doing? We've got fond memories of Gang of Four gigs from the beginning of the 80s; don't mess with it.' Reunion is a bit of dirty word. I hadn't really thought about it but I became aware of the idea of bands that get back together to do the 'scampi in a basket circuit'… a kind of nostalgic sentimental thing."
GANG OF FOUR - Hurrah Club, New York 1980
It wasn't just Andy's guitar that had influenced so many groups. There is a unique feel and an intensity that defines the overall identity of the Gang of Four. Over the years contemporaries such as U2, REM and INXS have cited them as influences but what is even more noteworthy is the crop of current big selling acts that obviously owe a lot to the group. Andy understates this to great effect, "Franz Ferdinand, Futureheads, Bloc Party etc… who are bands that I enjoy... it's clear that they've listened to more than one Gang Of Four Record." This was the backdrop to the band reforming. Knowing that there was a new audience waiting must have been very enticing but would it feel right for them when they first played together? "When we first got in a rehearsal room together and we realised that we could play the songs with the right blend of groove, aggression and edginess; I think that is what convinced me that it was a good idea to do it... The essential 'thing' was there. That felt really good; exciting. Also at about the same point, it struck me that playing with these guys for the first time in 20 odd years; it was like they were new songs. That was an odd and very powerful feeling. It felt like we had written them a few weeks ago and not many years ago. They felt very relevant both lyrically and musically. If there had been any doubt in my mind… that was a very persuasive thing to discover. Book the dates, let's do it."
GANG OF FOUR
Dave Allen, Hugo Burnham, Jon King & Andy Gill
BACK ON STAGE AFTER 20 YEARS
Whilst obviously feeling inspired, the reality was that none of the individuals had been stage regulars in the last 20 years. The first to leave the original group had been Dave Allen (bass) after Solid Gold in 1981. He burnt himself out on what he felt was an endless tour schedule. Interestingly, he went onto to have greater commercial success with Shriekback. Hugo Burnham (drums) was the next to leave after Songs Of The Free in 1982. He also found greater exposure after leaving and made it onto Top of the Pops when he played with Sam Fox! Andy and Jon King (vocals) continued with different line ups of the Gang of Four. They played their farewell tour in 1984 although to complicate the story further they released albums as Gang Of Four in 1991 and 1995.
I asked if there was some concern that Hugo hadn't drummed in a long time. "Yeah! Mainly coming from Hugo himself. 'You have put on some weight, Hugo, yeah…too many pies… too much living in America.' He got into his exercise schedule, so he claims." Andy's voice changes and the tone no longer taunts the absent drummer; "No, he worked hard in the run up to it. I mention a wicked dig that Andy made in the press when they reformed. He said Hugo was a good drummer but 'not necessarily the best drummer in the band'. "Did I say that? That was very cheeky. Blimey! Funny that… because when we were in Tokyo at the beginning of the summer to do the Fuji Rock Festival there were gazillions of video game places; there's a drumming thing where the dots move along the screen and when the dot crosses the line you have to hit the drum and keep up as it gets faster. Hugo and I had a battle over it." A drum off! "I clearly won, but he tried to say that he won it." Being the drummer, Hugo would say that although back in 1981 Andy regularly took to the drums for 'It's Her Factory' and Hugo took the vocal mic and stood centre stage.
GANG OF FOUR - Gateshead Stadium 1982
(Sara Lee, Jon King, Andy Gill)
As well as playing Japan recently, the group also toured the States. In the 80s, they were pulling much larger crowds in the US than the UK. So much so that REM regularly supported them. This time around, they were playing Athens, Georgia and REM just happened to be in town for a friend's wedding. "Before the show they were in with us and agreed that they would come on for a couple of songs." In one of rock's great paybacks the combined bands played 'Damaged Goods', 'Sweet Jane' (Velvet Underground song) and 'Man In Uniform'.
THE 'HEAVY STUFF'
Although the Gang of Four were known for their unique hard edged funky sound, what they said in the lyrics was also a huge part of their identity. Their commentary on consumerism and credit sounds alarmingly relevant today but when I interviewed Jon in 1982 he had said, "In the past our stuff was too political or heavy and we got bored with making statements." What would it be like playing 'the heavy stuff' in 2005?
"I said things like that at that time too. What's interesting is everything going on behind that because Gang Of Four didn't make statements. It wasn't about presenting a manifesto but I think it's possible that we allowed ourselves to be convinced that that was what we were doing. Did it feel OK that we were playing the songs again? Very much so, I'm enormously happy with all of the songs in the set. Because we were obliged to do all of Entertainment… (Andy refers to a classic album show at London Barbican in September 2005) there were quite a few songs we hadn't touched in the last year. We were pushed and we said, 'this is actually a great song.' Maybe somebody should make us play another album! We couldn't bring ourselves to play 'Contract' though. It was the one song that we decided we didn't like the music on it. We completely reworked 'Glass'; same song, same chords but we did it differently. 'Guns Before Butter' is great; we've been playing that a lot recently. In 'Ether' there are two vocals. Jon is singing about a person's aspirations, their disappointment and looking for a better life. I'm doing this thing about Northern Ireland. The world's moved on from Northern Ireland. That was a particular point in time but if you substituted it for Guantánamo Bay and the torture of terrorist suspects it would be the same thing."
WINNETOU - image used for the Gang of Four's LP Entertainment
It's been documented how the music on Entertainment was built up from scratch, fitting together the various instruments and voices to the band's own pattern rather than adapting someone else's. They played live for two years before the LP was recorded which was important as this allowed time for honing the sound and the arrangements. I ask if they had a clear idea of what they wanted to capture both emotionally and sonically when they went in the studio? "Sonically we were inexperienced. The fact that we produced it ourselves had pros and cons. I wasn't entirely happy with the sound at the time but didn't know what to do about it. Producing it ourselves meant that we weren't encouraged to make the songs any more conventional. Nobody was there to reinterpret it for us. That was a really positive thing."
As Andy talks, it becomes evident that being a member of Gang Of Four means being involved in a very intellectual process. "There were all kinds of arguments; whether putting reverb or tape delay on the vocal was dishonest or somehow a 'tarting up'. It's quite good to approach things in that way. The good thing about Entertainment is that it managed to be as sparse as it is. It was very much designed to have the space."
It sounds like there was a lot of negotiation going on. What was the atmosphere like in the studio? "Endless discussions/arguments mixed in with a lot of laughter and fun. The mood was always oscillating; typical for us. Sometimes it would be tense there would be things we disagreed about. All that we do is the result of deliberation. There are always points of view being expressed; opposing points of view, which make it richer."
Andy talks a lot about deliberation. I ask if he thinks that they make emotional records? This seems to throw him and he gives the impression that this is less explored territory. "I think they are. I suspect they are very emotional records. They can be a bit bleak but simultaneously exciting. It's a difficult thing to describe."
GANG OF FOUR ONSTAGE - Andy Gill & Jon King
"It's not a very smiley thing is it?"
THE DYNAMIC IN THE BAND / ON STAGE
The reformed band played their first London show at Shepherds' Bush Empire in January 2005 and from the first moment the energy was amazing. I felt such a driving force coming at me that seemed to be propelled by a tension on the stage. This really was business as usual for the group but it felt so edgy! Like it was going to kick off between Andy and Jon and they would both need restraining. I ask if that is how feels it on stage most nights.
"It's not a very smiley thing is it? In the early days, we did physically collide a lot. There's a lot of drama and a lot of theatre in Gang of Four performance. A lot of the songs are written and designed to work on stage, which is unusual for bands. It's normally getting on stage and playing a song. For us, it's more about using the stage as a vehicle to make the point of the song. The physical manifestation is as important as the tune or the chord structure; the way that we do it on stage is crucial to it. You have to absolutely feel it and live the song on stage."
Andy produced the new album, Return The Gift. It offers new recordings of songs that mainly appeared on the first two LPs. It was to give a snapshot of what the band's sound is like now. Given that they had anticipated half of the live audience being made up of under 25 year olds, this made a lot of sense. The original albums are still available so the choice is there but if you like the live show, then the new recordings are more representative. Andy explains, "The current record has the space but the drums are more powerful and explosive like they are live. I wasn't referencing Entertainment, I just got the sound I thought was right... I had concerns about the drum sound on Entertainment and this gave me the opportunity to do it the way that I would have liked to have done it then."
GANG OF FOUR - Jon King, Gateshead Stadium 1982 (Photo: Stephen Joyce)
25 YEARS ON
Entertainment is a great LP that has stood the test of time but the Gang of Four are certainly not just about one record. From 1979-84, they were about the progression of their LPs, the live shows, the John Peel sessions, the lyrics and the artwork but most of all it was the emotion and the power that is pent up behind every beat. I was amazed to find that in everything the band are doing 25 years on, the power remains as strong. There is no wilting and no fuzziness around the edges.
I went to meet Andy wanting to figure out where their energy comes from. Having seen the stage shows, I thought I'd find my answer by focusing on the dynamics and the tension in the band; I expected this to be the driving force. No doubt it is a factor and is surely the root of the edginess but speaking to Andy, I found that the real heartbeat and strength actually comes from the consultation and 'lively debate' within the group. As he described the process of recording Entertainment I realised how their work is based on a mutual respect of each members' contribution and an understanding of not only how each voice or instrument meshes together but also an acceptance of how the personalities link. For example, Andy talks a lot about Hugo and his drumming but it's not like an obsession, it's more of a fascination with a style that is so different to his own. "He's got a style. He hits them hard. It's not a skippy funky light style; it's like a great walloping. That's very much part of the sound. It's not just the design of the beats which is something Hugo and I did together. We fought tooth and nail over exactly where that high hat should open or should the snare beat be on the 3 or should it be on the 2; all those things we fought over. His style and the way he hits the drum is another thing." It's obvious Hugo will give him a run for his money so he has to be very well prepared! It forces him to consider his own ideas very carefully. I sense that there are no easy battles in the Gang of Four.
JON KING (at the moment the set ends) Hoxton, London 2009
When Andy speaks about Jon, it seems much more considered and the relationship is obviously very different, possibly less instinctive and more strategic than with Hugo. They are probably closer in nature and being long-term collaborators they will have already established how they like to work together. Andy tells me that he is keen to do new material and seems really excited about the prospect of working further with the group. "Jon and I started talking about doing new stuff. I hope we do. I think we'd enjoy it." But then he seems to back off and temper his enthusiasm. He chooses his words very carefully. As he continues to speak, the pitch drops slightly, "At the moment, the only thing that's definite is that we're doing some more gigs. I'd really like to do some brand new material... see what Jon thinks about it. He seems up for it, I don't know." There. It's said and that's all that he can say now. There's no doubting what he wants but maybe he has to be careful how he goes about getting it.
Andy obviously knows his strengths and his role within the band. He knows when something is right but there is a lot of evidence of him consulting with the rest of the band before they commit to a decision. It's as if every opinion is important and each option must be explored before reaching a conclusion. It allows for a single dissenter to provide an insight that might have eluded the others. The group want to push the limits and this seems to be how they do it. By reaching consensus their decisions are sustainable; this is working because each reinstated member has such a strong stake in what they do… as they would have done back in the late 1970s. Hence a highly charged stage show based on decisions made 25 years ago! I'm sure that Andy and Jon could not be playing these songs without Hugo and Dave; not now. Using hired hands was not an option.
Whilst Gang of Four may indeed remain as 'contrary to people's needs and expectations as ever before' perhaps that is for the best! I'm happy with that.