Gang of Four was a big name in the post-punk scene of the late 1970s and early ’80s, yet the group’s influence lives on—bands such as Franz Ferdinand and Rage Against the Machine cite the English group as a big influence.
The band itself lives on, too: Although guitarist Andy Gill is the only remaining original member, the band just released a new album, and will be playing at Pappy and Harriet’s on Friday, March 27.
Gang of Four’s stripped-down punk/funk sound, often combined with political lyrics, made the band popular—and controversial. The first single, “Damaged Goods,” gained acclaim in Europe and the United States in 1978. In 1979, the group refused to play their hit single “At Home He’s a Tourist” over a disagreement regarding the word “rubber.” Soon after, single “I Love a Man in Uniform” was banned from BBC Radio.
During a recent phone interview, Andy Gill said Gang of Four never meant to be labeled as a “political band.”
“Gang of Four never really promoted a political agenda or a certain political party,” Gill said. “I think sometimes we get the political tag simply because we were realistically talking about people’s lives. We were clearly talking about people’s lives and the way different forces imposed themselves on people’s lives. It’s not like we had a big political ax to grind. I think the lyrics of Gang of Four come out observational, descriptive and realistic, as far as I’m concerned.”
BBC Radio banned “I Love a Man in Uniform” in 1982 because the country had entered the Falklands War.
“It’s kind of talking about a guy in the army, and it has sexual meanings and realistic meanings,” Gill said. “Of course, I didn’t think that would have particularly upset people, but because of the Falklands conflict, the British military was going into the South Atlantic, and the BBC issued a memorandum saying, ‘Stop playing this record, because we’re expecting loads of casualties.’ It proves the point in a way that it’s obviously political, because it’s upsetting the powers that be.”
The sound of Gang of Four was innovative for its time—and it’s still a unique sound by today’s standards. Gill said multiple influences helped shape that sound.
“When the band began, I was very aware that there was a musical apartheid. Rock bands were all white; guitar bands were all white; reggae bands were all black; and funk music was black,” he said. “… The stuff I liked and interested me was a combination of different things—for example, Jimi Hendrix, The Velvet Underground, James Brown, the Stax Records artists, West Indies reggae and all those things. It wasn’t my idea to copy any of those things, but I just wanted to make a musical language which incorporated whatever I wanted. It felt like starting with individual building blocks and bringing those sounds together.”
Gang of Four is, essentially, a completely different band today. Lead vocalist Jon King left the group in 2012 and was replaced with John “Gaoler” Sterry; original members Dave Allen (bass) and Hugo Burnham (drums) left the group within the last decase. The new album, What Happens Next, illustrates a departure from the band’s original sound. Gone is the sound’s old dance-rock sound; it’s been replaced with a darker vibe.
“All of the tracks were put together over a period of time, and it was quite painstaking,” Gill said. “We had sessions where I’d get everyone in the studio, and we’d work around tracks and try different vocals, different sounds and different drumbeats. We’d get a break-in, and I’d … change things around and cut things up. It was a lot of live recording, and it was painstaking in between.”
The album features appearances by Alison Mosshart, Herbert Grönemeyer, Robbie Furze and Hotel.
“It was fun to be working with the collaborators,” Gill said. “I thought Alison Mosshart would be great to sing on it, and I worked with her a year before on some TV production things. We also worked with Herbert Grönemeyer, who’s sort of a German star, I guess. He asked me if I wanted him to sing on it, and I said that would be great—and then I realized I had to write a song that worked with his voice, because he has a very specific kind of voice. It’s quite German, and it’s quite an emotional kind of ballad. … So I wrote ‘The Dying Rays,’ and I could hear his voice in my head as I was putting the song together.”
As for being the only original member remaining in Gang of Four, Gill said he’s OK with that.
“I feel very confident moving forward,” he said. “When the situations cleared, and I was solely responsible, it was quite a reinvigorating experience. I felt really driven to produce something great. I didn’t want it sound like old Gang of Four, and I started with a blank canvas to see where it went. I started writing songs, and I could see where it was going and pursued it in that direction.”
Gill said he’s honored that so many big-name bands have listed Gang of Four as an influence.
“It’s flattering that people look back over all of the things that we’ve done in Gang of Four and say very complimentary things about it,” Gill said. “At first, it was R.E.M., the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine, and then much newer bands like Franz Ferdinand. I’ve been listening to St. Vincent lately, and I was quite surprised when St. Vincent came out and said that I was her favorite guitarist. I was surprised and very delighted.”
Gang of Four will perform at 8 p.m., Friday, March 27, at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, in Pioneertown. Tickets are $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-365-5956, or visit pappyandharriets.com.