On their wildly influential debut album, Gang Of Four stepped forward to create a jarring, funky post-punk masterpiece that was the pitch-perfect distillation of their socio-political beliefs and anti-rock stance, as Gary Tipp discovers…
With the dust now settled, it’s clear that punk rock wasn’t the beginning of a glorious new chapter, but rather an emphatic full stop. In the registers of music history, the gob-splattered movement will go down as a resplendently vital kick up the ruling rock establishment’s complacent backside, but, ultimately, its retro leanings towards rock ’n’ roll revivalism were hardly breaking any new ground.
What’s more, punk had more or less burnt itself out by the middle of 1977 and its long tail was struggling to produce any music of real consequence. The paragraph opener for the glorious new chapter was, in fact, the scene that followed it: post-punk.
Gang Of Four were at the forefront of this post-punk scene, alongside such sonic luminaries as Public Image Ltd, Pere Ubu, Siouxsie And The Banshees, The Fall, Wire, Magazine, Joy Division and Talking Heads.
As a direct reaction against the one-chord simplicity of punk and the self-indulgent rock that came before it, these new groups feverishly experimented with fusing together any number of different musical styles, such as funk, dub, dance, jazz and even disco. “Rock is obsolete,” snarled Public Image’s ferocious bassist Jah Wobble at the time. Few would want to argue with him.
As rock critic, cultural commentator and early Gang Of Four champion Greil Marcus was quick to point out: “The difference was, with each of these groups you could hear people thinking, trying to figure things out, as you listened to their songs. It was as though they were talking to themselves, and at the same time trying to speak to other people. It was tremendously exciting.”
Determined to make a clean and decisive break away from predictable rock influences, the post-punk band’s conceptual horizons were far broader and much richer than your average one-chord wonder in bondage trousers. Typically, they were inspired by avant-garde sensibilities and very happy to cherry pick ideas from fine art, European cinema, literature, philosophy and radical politics.
In certain quarters, debate still rages hotly about which band made the first decisive post-punk record. Magazine’s debut single Shot By Both Sides was released in January 1978 and has a strong claim – so too does Siouxsie’s Hong Kong Garden (August 1978), while the release of Public Image, PiL’s first 45, in October 1978, was a powerful statement of intent.
Gang Of Four producer Bob Last was convinced the band’s Damaged Goods EP, released in the same month as the latter, was post-punk’s definitive game changer. “Not to take anything away from PiL – that was a very powerful gesture for John Lydon to go in that direction – but the die had already been cast. The postmodern idea of toying with convention in rock: we claim that.”
Stance And Sensibilities
Naming the band provocatively after the leadership faction in the Chinese Communist Party, singer Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill were schoolmates from Sevenoaks, who went to Leeds University together. It was there, in the radical hotbed of the Fine Art Department, where they teamed up with drummer Hugo Burnham and, eventually, bassist Dave Allen, to form Gang Of Four.
If ever a group were to be awarded a distinction for ticking the most boxes on the ‘what makes a post-punk band?’ questionnaire, it would be them. From the very outset of the band’s existence, they embraced a fiercely anti-rock stance and adopted aspects of funk and dub into their sound. What’s more, they were more than motivated to flirt with Marxist politics (courtesy of the Frankfurt School) and were heavily informed by prominent European thinkers, such as German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, Italian polemicist Antonio Gramsci and social revolutionaries Situationist International (SI). Dressed in plain shirts and utilitarian trousers, Duran Duran they most definitely were not.
The pursuit of something new and cliché-free made the group challenge all the traditional baggage that came with being a guitar band. Famously, Gill and Allen once attempted to beat the living crap out of each other after the bassist had dared to place his foot on a monitor during a gig, an act that the revisionist guitarist violently disapproved of for its blatant rock connotations.
“We were trying to invent a new kind of music, a new kind of language,” Gill said of Entertainment! “We were using the building blocks of ‘rock music’, ‘funk music’ and ‘pop music’, dismantling them to see what was there and using what we felt like using.”
Jamming was another rock custom that was rigorously forbidden under any circumstances. “Everything was thought out in advance,” said Gill. “No jamming.” To further emphasise the anti-rockstar stance, rumour has it the roadies were paid more than the band during the early tours.
Recorded at the Workhouse Studio on the Old Kent Road and released in September 1979, the band’s debut album on major-label EMI, Entertainment! was the pitch-perfect execution of Gang Of Four’s sound, stance and sensibilities. It exists now, as it did then, as a striking product of what the group believed in. Adhering strictly to the band’s manifesto of “No corny lyrics, no obvious melodies and no change of key,” it was received well critically on both sides of the pond, but commercial sales were not exactly going to make them unlikely tax exiles. As music critic and author Simon Reynolds described the album in his post-punk history, Rip It Up And Start Again: “It’s one of post-punk’s defining masterworks, every aspect of the record – the lyrics, the music, the artwork – is perfectly aligned.”
Gang Of Four’s jagged, jarring, slashing, choppy (insert extra adjective if necessary) punk-funk sound on Entertainment! may have been a calculated rejection of what had gone before, but the band’s guitar sound actually owed a big debt to Canvey Island’s finest pub-rocking axeman, Wilko Johnson. As Gill said in a recent interview: “Seeing Wilko and Dr. Feelgood was a real lightbulb moment. He never stopped looking at the audience and didn’t spend much time looking at his guitar. That robotic, machine-like thing the whole band had, that sort of riffing. It was almost like an electronic take on Steve Reich or something.”
The band’s ideological egalitarian beliefs informed the sonic setup on Entertainment!. “It’s democratic music, where we don’t have a star thing,” Jon King told Sounds back in 1978. This is true of some of the album’s greatest moments – such as Natural’s Not In It and Return The Gift – where, exhilaratingly, the guitar, bass and drums drive as one immense rhythmic unit. Dave Allen put it best in an interview with the NME: “Gang Of Four doesn’t believe in the individual.”
The last thing Gill wanted to be regarded as was an axe hero, as the band as a unit was vitally important to Gang Of Four. Paradoxically, for all the anti-rock posturing, the band were all fans of 70s rock band Free, whose heavily rhythmic, stripped-down sound held an appeal; but the boy/girl narrative of their songs certainly did not. As Gill explains: “You could say Free influenced Gang Of Four, but our approach was: ‘Take that bit, but leave that ridiculous bit out’.” Dub reggae was also a huge stimulus for the album’s sound and informed a fondness for creating space in the songs. “Instead of guitar solos, we had anti-solos, where you stopped playing, just left a hole. Valve amplifiers were verboten. They’re the prerequisite for a ‘fat’ rock tone, that ‘warmth’ that people talk about. I had transistorised amps – a more brittle, cleaner sound, and colder. Gang Of Four were against warmth.”
Political With A Small ‘p’
King wrote the majority of the lyrics on Entertainment! and the songs’ narrative content also shaped the band’s collective approach and cold-blooded sociopolitical aesthetic. The deliberate lack of a personal creative vision, of any real first-person emotion, led them to an oblique objectivity and a canvas onto which they could happily apply their mini-manifestos about the paradoxes of modern life.
As Simon Reynolds explained: “The songs depicted relationships and situations in diagrammatic fashion… using the scalpel of Marxist analysis to dissect the mystifications of love, ‘capitalist democracy’ and rock itself.” A post-rational Gill saw it this way: “We looked at our lives and the lives of our friends and came up with a simple rather than simplistic view of modern capitalism. I mean, we didn’t tell anyone to go and smash WHSmith’s windows.”
Without The Cowboy Outfits
Unfortunately, Gang Of Four never scaled the peaks of Entertainment! again and underwent a gradual and messy break-up. The dogmatic template of the first album was largely ditched on the follow-up, Solid Gold, as the band, paradoxically, succumbed to a more conventional hard-rocking sound that replicated the intensity of their live performances. The album flopped in the UK, but made a deep, lasting and influential mark in America.
As Burnham said: “Countless times in the States, people would come up to me after gigs and say: ‘I read the NME interview and I thought you’d be really boring’. They were taken aback because we fucking rocked, rather than standing around in long macs looking miserable, like your typical post-punk band. It’s the same reason The Clash were so successful in America. And we were The Clash without the cowboy outfits.”
Allen jumped ship first and formed funk-punk band Shriekback with Barry Andrews, formerly of XTC. He was followed by Burnham, who worked as a session drummer (ABC, PiL) before moving into A&R at Island Records. He is now an associate professor at the New England Institute Of Art in Boston.
King and Gill soldiered on, disbanding then reuniting on an irregular basis. In 2004, the original line-up reformed and toured the UK once and the States twice, as well as playing shows in Europe and Japan. In October 2005, Gang Of Four released a new disc featuring fresh recordings of songs from Entertainment!, Solid Gold and Songs Of The Free, entitled Return The Gift.
Andy Gill is now a noted producer of albums by Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Jesus Lizard, The Stranglers, Killing Joke, The Futureheads and Michael Hutchence. He still tours with a repackaged Gang Of Four as the original member. Jon King, no longer in the band, works in consulting, broadcast television and the media.
Yet it’d be wrong to sign off with talk of the band as individuals, as they once formed a mighty, punky-funky collective and what they truly leave behind as their legacy is the hugely influential post-punk masterpiece entitled Entertainment!