GANG OF FOUR
"Gang of Four knew how to swing. I stole a lot from them."- Michael Stipe (R.E.M.)
Andy Gill interview
by Jason Gross
"Gang of Four is the first rock band I could truly relate to... These limies rocked my world."- Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers)
"The early Gang of Four lineup made some of the greatest and most influential music of the last fifteen years."- Page Hamilton (Helmut)
"(They) took no prisoners. It was art meets the devil via James Brown"- Michael Hutchence (INXS)
"Hard, angular, bold... Andy Gill's chin is the very black hole of '90's music we should have all disappeared into... if we had sense... a dimple atop the body politic, a pimple on the arse of pop. A Gang of Four metal guru, a corporation of common sense, a smart bomb of text that had me 'at home feeling like a typist.'"- Bono (U2)
That's right folks, five out of five rock stars agree- consuming Gang of Four records will give you a happier life. After the Sex Pistols and the Clash, no other English band of the time would carve a bigger stake for hordes of American hard-nosed funky noise-bands: Rage Against the Machine, Korn and Limp Bizkit would be unimaginable without the territory that Go4 fearlessly staked out in a bold, visionary stance that few bands could have taken.
These four Leeds lads started up in the late '70's in the wake of punk but tore the music into a whole new dimension. Rather than a hard-fast rush with anti-everything lyrics, Gang of Four reconfigured the whole guitar-bass-drum line-up into a harsh, funky sound with distraught, politically-tinged slogans atop. As our heroes above testify, this was a new, powerful combination that stimulated a lot of young minds. In the early '80's, their first two records, Entertainment! and Solid Gold (such irony!), were terra firma blueprints for many bands to follow. As the Reagan/Thatcher decade progressed, they feel into more and more pop trappings and they just fell apart but not before they scored a trans-Atlantic smash with "I Love A Man In Uniform" in 1982. After a compilation (A History of the 20th Century) stirred up peoples' interest, the two main forces of the band, singer Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill, stitched the group back together as the '90's began, using studio help-mates. After a successful tour with Public Enemy and two more records, the band called it quits, maybe for good this time.
Now, as the posthumous Michael Hutchence CD sees the light of day, Gill is taking on other production chores with a number of up-and-coming bands eager to catch some of that Go4 magic. In January 2000, I interrogated Andy from his home in England about the good ol' and bad ol' days where Gangs roamed freely.
NOTE: Though Gill is pessimistic about the chances of a Go4 reunion in this interview, sure enough it happened in 2005, with not only a tour but also a "new" record: Return The Gift where the band relives its old catalog.
Andy Gill passed away on February 1, 2020. We expect that the afterlife is now a noisier and more Marxist place.
Q: What was it that you originally heard that made you want to be a musician?
When I was a kid, just listening to the Beatles and the Stones. They were around when I was growing up and I pretty much got into that stuff. I remember when I was about 9 or 10, listening to "Satisfaction" and getting very excited about it. I would walk to school and sing it all the way and walk home and sing it all the way, thinking it was the greatest thing. I always liked music that had this strong, rhythmic side to it, which grooved. My cousin showed me how to play "Satisfaction" on the guitar. That's kind of what kicked me off with playing stuff.
Q: Did you listen to any American music that had an impact on you?
A lot of things that I liked growing up were American bands: The Velvet Underground and the Band, who were one of my favorite groups. James Brown, Funkadelic, I loved all that stuff. I was also very impressed with Hendrix, listening to him endlessly.
Q: Had you been to the States before Gang of Four starting touring?
Yeah me and Jon had been there. The first time I ever went to the States was the summer of 1977. Jon had possibly been there before that. I'd been to New York, staying with friends. I got to see some bands. I seem to remember the Dead Boys. (laughs) I also saw the Jam at CBGB's.
Q: What did you think of the New York scene at that time?
It was a good vibe there. You'd be at CBGB's and Joey Ramone would be propped up at one end of the bar and down the other end of the bar, there'd be John Cale. It was great really. It was an exciting time.
Q: What was it about that scene that intrigued you?
I don't think they were particularly an influence. We were aware of all of that when we starting writing stuff. That first Television album was great and so was the first Talking Heads record. There's a shared interest in avoiding the rock-guitar cliché for sure. If you think of the first crop of punk stuff, it was all just tedious guitars cranked up through Marshalls. In the wake of the Damned and the Sex Pistols, it was heavy metal but faster and not as well played. Certainly Gang of Four, Television and Talking Heads weren't interested in going down that road at all. So there was a kind of sparseness about the guitar stuff, it was more staccato with space around it. That's something that those bands have in common. Where we diverge is (in) the funky side of things in the sense that Television and Talking Heads (early on) weren't in that area. Gang of Four was from the get-go.
Q: Before Gang of Four, were you playing in other bands early on?
When I was growing up, there were a couple of different bands that I would play with in the local area around the mid-70's. There was one called the Bourgeois Brothers. (laughs) It was just simple, riffy guitar music.
Q: Ah, so you were into politics already!
No, I think that's overstating it. When you're young and doing those kind of things, you're throwing various things into the pot. Obviously, with the name Gang of Four, there's a certain element of irony and it's a little bit tongue-in-cheek. That's part of why that name works. But I don't think there was any political awareness at the stage.
Q: When the punk movement started up, what did you think of the bands?
I was quite into Dr. Feelgood. I was very into that minimal, stripped-down nature that kind of the barely suppressed violence of the dramatic presentation of their personas onstage. I thought they were incredibly powerful. That's what people called 'pub rock' then. In the mid-'70's, I thought they were extremely good and extremely influential on Gang of Four. When 'punk,' in the shape of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, broke on the scene, it was sort of like a development on that really.
When punk started, Gang of Four were already writing songs and doing stuff. By the time we came to make our first recordings in '77, we'd already assimilated the punk thing and got a take on that element. But we were never really 'punk.' People used to call us 'post-punk.' It was in the same way that Talking Heads was not a punk band so Gang of Four wasn't either. Obviously, it had some kind of relationship to punk but wasn't that in itself.
Q: Going to school in Leeds, did that have an effect on you?
Leeds certainly at that time ('76-'78) was, especially if you didn't have a lot of money, fairly bleak. I guess we had a boring student kind of existence. I think Leeds was not a very comfortable place to be. There was fairly constant strife between National Front representatives and people on the Left, which on many occasions broke out into street violence or violence in pubs.
Q: Did you participate in any of this?
Yeah, sure. Sometimes people from the National Front would attempt to do marches through the middle of town, people would come out to demonstrate and then the police would come out.
Q: How did Gang of Four actually come together?
Me and Jon King had known each other before Leeds University. We were both at Leeds doing fine arts and we started writing songs together. We then decided to turn it into a group. We came across Hugo (Burnham) who said he was a drummer. Then we put an ad out for a bass player and got Dave Allen. That's how we put it together.
Q: What kind of rapport did you have with Jon?
We'd been friends for quite a while and we talked about things all the time. We bounced off each others' view of the world. Jon has a great imagination and a great grasp of imagery and finding quite lateral, unusual ways of depicting situations. We were just entertaining ourselves, coming up with these things. Sometimes we'd sit around playing chess and drinking and writing songs all at the same time in extended sessions. That's the kind of thing I guess you can do when you're an art student! (laughs)
You don't have too many lectures to go to so you do all that stuff. They give you studios so you can go and rehearse there and you have a built-in audience. I think that's why you get so many musicians in Britain that have come out of an art school background.
Q: Sounds like a good deal. So the schools gave you a lot of leeway to work on your music?
Art schools, in university or college, provide you with some kind of studio where you're supposed to do your work in, whether it's painting or sculpture or whatever else. Of course, those things can very often double up as rehearsal spaces.
Q: Before you were describing Gang of Four as not really being part of the punk movement but being 'post-punk.' How did you see the band as being different from the rest of the music scene at the time?
If you at the Sex Pistols as a kind of archetypal punk band, it's not that different from Black Sabbath. It's rhythmically unsophisticated. It's really on-the-beat rock drumming. Same with the guitar- plug it in and turn it up to full distortion. The main difference is that you don't really have so much in the way of guitar solos, the singing tends to be more of a shouty-screamy kind of nature, rather than tune-orientated. But there again, it's not a whole lot different from a lot of your heavy metal acts.
Gang of Four was radically different from that. The guitar was very staccato, very stripped down, very repetitive, loop-based. The drumming was basically funky but not through copying various icons of black music. (It was) more through simply deconstructing the nature of drumming and where you place the beats. It was like starting from ground zero with the drumming. Hugo and I would argue endlessly about what the drum parts would be like. Anything that sounded like rock drumming, I would change. In conventional rock drumming, you just play the snares on the 2 and the 4 and the high-hats are either doing fours or eights and then a big fill or rollaround on the toms. In what we were doing, the tom parts were being incorporated into the drum pattern. Some tom beat would be thrown in somewhere in the bar. It would end up inevitably with some kind of syncopated, funky vibe that didn't sound like any of black music or Little Feat (laughs). It sounded like something else basically.
The same thing happened with the melodies. The tunes had vocals to it but it was very rhythm and phrase related. You could tell by listening to Gang of Four music that punk had happened. But it definitely wasn't punk music.
Q: Your playing was also unique. Usually a guitarist goes through the chord changes then does a solo after a chorus.
I think it was avoiding those cliched things- strumming chords, going through all these different bits of the song. The songs obviously had different sections but it wasn't, particularly early on, this bridge-chorus thing as you said. It was really trying to find new approaches to that and finding guitar parts that really worked with the bass, the vocals and the drums and was part of that, rather than something that floated above it. In the traditional rock hierarchy, you got the bass and drums providing some kind of bedrock and then the guitar does some stuff on top of that. We saw all the elements, the four voices of the band as working together to create this rhythmic groove.
Q: A lot of times, you wouldn't even play- you'd just drop out and let the bass and drums go on.
I've always loved music which has space in it and has room. All the stuff I really love is like that. Like old blues, there's a hell of a lot of space. Nobody's trying to be flash. It's simple and effective. It's something I always thought was very important. I used to call it an 'anti-solo' as opposed to a solo so you stop playing. It's exciting and it's thrilling when you hear that. Suddenly, you're very conscious of the guitar because it's not there. Suddenly, the drums and bass are right in your face. When it does come back in, it's thrilling because suddenly it IS there. (laughs) Just that simple kind of presence and absence are incredibly exciting. Also with dub reggae, which was something we were listening to a lot of at the time. You had that dead simple stuff and then the bass would drop out and you'd just hear the drums and the echoes and then the bass would come back in. That stuff me and Jon found pretty exciting.
Q: Another component of all of that was the lyrics. What kind of political outlook did you see the band presenting?
I've always felt that we were considered 'political' by default. I think a lot of time, we were singing about elements of everyday life in certain ways. It's quite observational. It was looking around our immediate world and the world further afield and drawing observations about those things. I don't mean in those very corny, slice-of-life type songs that Paul Weller and Blur and the Kinks and all those other mod guys did, much as I love some of the Kinks' greatest works. But not those sentimental, corny pastiches of working class life. That was definitely not our bag. It was nevertheless observation. Also, to be fair, we would talk about various Marxist writers like Walter Benjamin. If you mention someone like that, people are going to say "Ah right, they must be Marxists." But something like that is just one of many different elements in the pot.
I think people saw us as political because if you look at the overall spectrum of music, they strive to be as apolitical as they possibly can be. If anything in your songs makes any kind of social or economic or political idea or can be interpreted in those kind of ways, then everybody suddenly starts screaming 'Rabid Marxist!' at you.
Q: If those other bands were too sentimental about how they saw everyday life, how would you characterize the way Gang of Four portrayed things?
Whatever you say about Gang of Four, we were rarely cliched. It was fresh, from our own perspective. Jon and I would talk about stuff, argue about stuff. For the songs on Entertainment!, we'd sit there and Jon would have a few lines and then I'd throw in a few lines, we'd argue about it. We were going for pithy lines that summed up certain images, structures and relationships that we saw around us. Because we took it seriously, which a lot of people don't do, the whole lyrical side of things was extremely important in the whole set up. 95% of bands don't place very much importance on lyrics. Usually, it's all left up to the singer, the guy who writes the songs. We took it seriously and we weren't trying to copy anybody else. We were just starting from the ground up with it really.
Q: You were describing how the songs came about. Did Jon come up with most of the lyrics and you came up with the music?
I'd come up with guitar riffs and lines and musical sections of the songs and go through the drum sections with Hugo. Jon would sing stuff that he'd come up with some kind of vocal pattern and melodic thing and suggestions. We'd argue about it and come to some kind of resolution. Lyrically, I'd say Jon wrote the majority. If go through line by line and figure out who wrote what, it would be two-thirds Jon and one-third me.
Q: Early on, did you see that the band was accepted at all by the rest of the music scene?
Yeah, I think right from the word 'go,' some people really seemed to get it and some people really didn't get it. Because Gang of Four was quite radical and extreme in certain ways, some people REALLY loved it and really got it and were really enthusiastic. Other people hated it. (laughs)
Q: Did you find that there were other bands out there at the time that you felt close to in terms of what they were doing and what you were doing?
I think Talking Heads were pretty cool. Television was likewise at that time. Then there were bands that we used to like to play with live, like Pere Ubu. R.E.M. used to support us all the time. To a greater or less extent, you feel a certain amount of kinship with these people, even though they may not be that similar to you. They may have different takes on it. I mean, it would be very dull if we were all clones of each other. It's interesting the way that bands are very different from each other. They may have a lot of mutual respect for each other but they come out quite different in the end result.
Q: What about the audiences at the time? What kind of reaction or feedback would you get?
I don't want to sound too precious about this stuff. There was kind of a dialog going on. We'd do this stuff live, we'd do interviews in the press. I guess people would consider what we were going on about.
Q: Were you happy with the end result of the first album, Entertainment?
I think it's a very accurate representation of where the band was at. I think you pretty much get the whole picture there. It's not all one thing. There's a various of things going on. There are a couple of things that are quite poppy in their way, like "Glass." Or "I Found That Essence Rare" with the guitar that starts off dee-dee-dee-dee. It's easy for me to forget those ones when I'm talking about how things were stripped down the way I described it. But then you have songs like those that are very melodic. Which I think is quite good- they work well with the other tracks and it gives it a different kind of angle.
"Anthrax," I think is a cool track. It was just this idea to have these very simple elements, like the guitar is just going to do feedback and the drums going to play this weird pattern and they're just going to stop and they're just going to start. That's really its strength- to take the idea to a logical point and not get distracted and to avoid the frills and really just take to its conclusion.
"Natural's Not In It" is great and "Not Great Men" especially is my favorite. I love its directness, simplicity, the minimalism of it, the powerfulness of it. The guitar is so simple and spare through the whole track and it rocks.
Q: "Natural's Not It In" has this middle part with just the guitar playing as two voices chant back and forth. That seems like another example of what you're talking about with breaking down song structure.
Yeah, exactly, that's what I had in mind.
Q: What was the whole story behind the band not getting to perform a song on the famous British music show "Top of the Pops"?
"At Home He's A Tourist" was doing good business (as a single). Top of the Pops at that time figured that they were a family show I guess. We turned up and did the rehearsal. You're there all afternoon and evening, it's quite a long thing. At some point, their producer said "Look, I'm sorry but you can't use the word 'rubbers.' That's not permissible." At that stage, everybody mimed for the show. They said "You're going to have to go and re-record your backing track." This is with two hours to go until the show. We said "Fuck it, OK." So we went off and changed it to "packets"- the line was "Rubbers you hide/In your top left pocket." So, now it was "Packets you hide." We thought it was fine. But they told us "No, we want you to use the word 'rubbish' so that it's less obvious that there's been a change, a censorship." I think at that point, we told them to shove it. To tell you the truth, I think they were trying to get that reaction so that we wouldn't go on the show. They felt we were a bit too extreme for them all around.
Q: Did you think that you blew a big opportunity though?
Yeah, we were thinking "what have we done?" Ah well... no looking back! (laughs)
Q: Could you talk about your first U.S. tour and how it came about?
We recorded Entertainment! around May or June (1979) and soon as we finished that, we went straight off to the States. We didn't have a deal for the States at that point. We signed to EMI but it was for the rest of the world. We wanted to do another deal and get a bunch of money for that. It worked but the down-side was that it took quite a while longer to get. We toured around America, expecting to get a deal straight away but it took about six months. That meant there was a delay with the record coming out in America. Over subsequent records, it probably worked out reasonably well. One of the companies would pay for a video and the other one would pay for something else. It had its advantages.
So we went on tour in America in a little van, playing little clubs with a couple of hundred people. It sort of grew from there. Later on in that same tour, we did a bunch of gigs with the Buzzcocks.
See Part Two of the Andy Gill interview
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