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Over the Wall – #19

December 15, 2010

This time, one of the most influential groups of the era, bar none. One whose early work set a standard so many have followed, but few (even the band themselves) ever matched.

Edition #19 – But All With Strings Attached: Gang of Four.

What comes to mind nowadays when one encounters the term post-punk? On account of the term being construed largely as a genre-signifier, and the tastes of indie bands in the early/mid 2000s, it’s likely the sound of Gang of Four. One of the most influential groups of their time (especially in terms of how said time is perceived today), Gang of Four managed the synthesis of styles that characterised much of the early post-punk period in a such a way as to crystallise a sound that’s never gotten old.

The group was formed in 1977 by three art students at Leeds University: Andy Gill, Jon King, and Hugo Burnham. With the recruitment of working class chap Dave Allen a short time later, their signature sound began to take shape. Drawing on their initial rock and punk influences, plus Allen’s funk leanings, they developed an austere hybrid which was in line with a larger broadening of punk into realms of dance music at the time. What set the Gang of Four sound apart though, was how precise it was. They found a remarkable balance between elements, with Burnham’s unembellished drumming and Allen’s heavy bass providing the bulk of the sound, while Gill’s clear, thin guitar chopped and squealed over top and King’s tense vocal presence intoned lines with the grooves. It’s served as a monolithic inscription for so many groups to follow since, and has, essentially, become a genre in-and-of itself.

Gang of Four’s participation in cultural/political discourse of their time was also in line with a larger punk broadening thereinto, but, in this respect, too, they stood out. Naming themselves after a group of Chinese officials who, after Mao’s death in 1976, were ousted from power and blamed for the disasters of the Cultural Revolution, was a provocative move at the time. But nothing Gang of Four did was just simple provocation, unlike much of punk’s political approach then or now. Much of pop politics in and after punk was basic, reactionary provocation, and still today many bands are, neither musically nor politically, as radical as they appear. Gang of Four were art students who were familiar with Marxist analysis and critique, and their band was born out of tensions: those of a largely conservative university town, wherein many regular, working class folks had no concern for what students thought; and, those of conscious artists working in an industry-dominated system of culture. These tensions left little room for idealism in the band’s outlook, and thus they weren’t looking to get out of, nor break down consumer society, nor change the world through political rock and roll. They were, more accurately, a product; an acknowledged commodity of late seventies England, with its prevailing conservatism, festering race conflicts, and increasing consumerist lifestyle. The inherent contradiction of being a politically-aware pop band was, of course, not lost on Gang of Four. Nor, though, was it an impediment for them, because they accepted it wholly.

Their iconic first release, “Damaged Goods” b/w “Anthrax” and “Armalite Rifle,” came out on Glasgow label Fast Product in 1978 and was an immediate underground success. It caught the attention of both listeners and the industry, and the band were signed to EMI in 1979. The move to a major label was, of course, a controversial matter at the time, but, Gang of Four side-stepped the usual mire by simply disconnecting themselves from any purist ideology. As Jon King explained in an interview with Simon Reynolds (found in Rip it Up and Start Again): “…the point for us was not to be pure. Gang Of Four songs were so often about the inability to have ‘clean hands’. It just wouldn’t be on our agenda to be on a truly independent label, as if such a thing could even exist.” The band may have accepted the reality of their situation, but that didn’t mean they were going to fit easily into it. In 1979 they were poised to have their first mainstream success with “At Home He’s a Tourist,” the first single from their debut LP, Entertainment!, but, when they walked away from a performance on Top of the Pops because of censorship (references to sex and condoms proved too much for the broadcast standards of the day), the single was banned from play. Burnham said in an interview (also in Rip it Up…): “…it felt great…but, in retrospect, walking off Top of the Pops essentially killed our career.” If Gang of Four had done nothing else but Entertainment!, though, they’d have accomplished something few groups ever do: a perfect album. As close to one as anyone gets, anyway. It remains one of the absolute classic records of its time, and has been a massive influence on subsequent generations, but, it was only a moderate success upon its release, leaving the band to think that it fell short of its potential. Time has proven otherwise, though, and it remains, for many, the best thing the band has ever done.

After touring and gathering acclaim through 1980, the group released their second LP to growing international audiences. Solid Gold, their anticipated 1981 sophomore LP, was discordant, bleak, and heavy. Although it, too, remains a classic, it’s always been in the shadow of Entertainment!, and in many ways it’s never quite stacked up. Furthermore, it marks the point where the band’s decline begins, as Dave Allen left after its release (going on to form Shriekback) and took with him an irreplaceable fundament of the Gang of Four sound. Sara Lee was recruited as bassist and backing vocalist for the next record, Songs of the Free, which was released in 1982. It was a slightly more commercial-sounding effort, led by the undeniable “I Love a Man in a Uniform,” which was unfortunately banned shortly after its release because of Britain’s war in the Falklands, stopping its success short. Hugo Burnham then left the band in 1983, going on to play as a session drummer for a number of groups before joining Allen’s Shriekback for a while. That left King, Gill, Lee, and a drum machine to make Hard, with hired big-name producers, in 1984. Panned pretty much across the board since its release (though not always fairly), Hard isn’t an awful record by most standards, really, but, for many listeners it was just too far a departure, with its slick production and softer angles.

Most tellings of the story basically end there. Listeners and labels had lost interest, and King and Gill broke Gang of Four up in 1984. They reunited, though, as a duo in the early ’90s. The records they made in that period: Mall, Electro, and Shrinkwrapped remain quite obscure in comparison to their earlier works, and all received pretty much the same sort of response that Hard did years earlier. And that’s always been the problem with Gang of Four: their debut set a standard that, seemingly, none of their other records could live up to. By the early 2000s, a whole lot of new bands were trying for said standard, though, and the sounds of ’79-80 were en vogue. In 2004, at the apex of this revivalism, the original Gang of Four lineup reunited and toured around until 2006, when Allen and Burnham once again stepped out. During that time they re-recorded a number of their classic tunes and released them as a best-of entitled Return the Gift.

King and Gill have kept the band going with other players since 2006, and released a new record, Content, to many of the same old criticisms in 2011. Whatever elusive spark Gang of Four had in the early days has long passed to other groups, along with the sound they crafted. The revivalist dance-punk of the 2000s, too, has now gone, but, the essential Gang of Four records, after more than thirty years, remain as essential as ever.

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