Gang of Four Have Been Taking the Piss Out of Pop Culture Since 1979
They once offered fans vials of blood, and re-recorded covers to fuck their label, but do they still have a place in the PC Music world of 2015? We interviewed Andy Gill.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
“His main point is that he doesn't think musicians should get paid,” says Andy Gill, laying into his ex-bandmate turned digital music guru Dave Allen, now an artist relations specialist at iTunes. “He thinks music should be free. And when you actually push him on that, he comes up with things like, ‘Earn some money on ringtones.’ Literally.” Sniggers ripple across Andy’s new band members. “So what better person to work for Apple, having come from Gang of Four,” he concludes of his ex-comrade, “although so briefly.”
I’m in Andy’s Farringdon home, where Gang of Four are practicing in the studio basement for an upcoming US tour to support their new album What Happens Next, the first ever record to include only one original member. Right now, he's taking shots at former bassist Dave Allen, and when it comes to Gang of Four, you need to understand their divisive past before you can even contemplate their future.
To be fair to Dave Allen, that last "briefly" dig at him lands slightly off the mark. The bassist, who quit suddenly during a 1981 US tour, played on both Entertainment! and Solid Gold, the two Gang of Four records the world at large cares about. But that’s only half the story. The band helped define post-punk with their tetchy, funked-up tunes, and without them there’d be no R.E.M., no Nirvana, and (just for karmic rebalance) no Red Hot Chili Peppers. However, what nobody admits is that Gang of Four—as crucial and radicalising as their best stuff is—were never quite as good a band as they were a metaphor. And that’s where Dave Allen’s part really comes in.
It all started in 1977 when two aspiring intellectuals, Jon King and Andy Gill, emerged from an art school clique in Leeds that included a young Adam Curtis and the Bourne films director-to-be Paul Greengrass. Despite the band’s impeccable timing amidst the blossoming punk movement, they never quite fit the mold expected of them. Even against a backdrop of the creeping National Front—who had Thatcher’s ear and were spawning offshoots like Leeds’ “Punk Front”—Gang of Four always rejected basic, self-righteous sloganeering. Instead, they shone a light on our complicity as consumers, with bright lyrics echoing the Italian political theorist Gramsci and the social revolutionary crew Situationist International.
The buzzword around their classic songs like “Damaged Goods” (above) and “Anthrax” was "demystification." The former track characterised a breakup in terms of “change” and profit, just like any transaction. While in “Anthrax,” as one speaker pumps out a hostile ode to cynicism, Andy commands the other to deconstruct the bogus institution of popular love songs: “These groups and singers think that they appeal to everyone by singing about love, because apparently everyone has or can love,” he deadpans. “Or so they would have you believe, anyway.”
But somewhere between the band’s early signing with EMI in 1979 (which the band claim was a self-satirising metaphor for how corporations always co-opt rebellion) and the hostile departure of their rhythm section, the lines began to blur between lampooning the music-industrial complex and simple personal failures. Now, in the last five to ten years, Gang of Four’s rocky reformation path seems to represent the desperation in mid-life revolutionaries to resurrect their youth; and the band itself, once a practising collectivist unit, has managed to demystify little more than the gap between communist theory and petty human nature. Although, neither irony is lost on them.
The strangest thing Gang of Four did after resurfacing in 2005 was to release Return the Gift, a finely tuned set of covers of their own early material. This has two accepted explanations: one, thanks to his experience producing bands like The Futureheads, Andy Gill was equipped to make the songs sound less charmingly austere and more brutally professional, apparently recapturing their lively gigs. But, mainly, it was a shrewd legal move: by releasing Return the Gift, they effectively smuggled back their copyright from an oppressive EMI, who allegedly short-changed the group on royalties. Basically, everyone, including Gang of Four, agrees that the band recorded Return the Gift purely for the money. And that makes perfect sense.
But it’s not quite so simple. It feels absurd saying it, but the fact this reunion was so crudely profit-motivated is precisely why you can’t write it off as a total cash-in—even if that was the band’s intention. We live in an age of retrograde reconstruction: not just band reunions but 90s throwbacks, Instagram filters, anniversary reissues and all sorts of cultural re-enactment, right down to this year’s ingenious revival of Stars in their Eyes. Given Gang of Four’s relentless dissection of such trends, it’s easy to see 2005's Return the Gift as a sorry-not-sorry subversion of pop culture. As Simon Reynolds says in Retromania: “Return the Gift seemed to be saying: ‘You want a Gang of Four resurrection? Here you are, then, exactly what you secretly crave: the old songs, again.’”
The band aren't oblivious to this. In 2011, they named their next release Content to implicate themselves as "content-creators," and masterminded the £45 ‘Ultimate Content Can’, which promised unprecedented access to the group via sachets of Jon and Andy’s blood, as well as scratch-and-sniff scents of sex, sweat, and labor. The gesture echoes their very first label, Fast Product, who went through a Warholian phase at the height of pop art prankster culture of selling bags stuffed with compost for 70 pounds a pop. The message was clear: when it comes to consumerism, you can take the piss or you can take the money, but if you’re smart you’ll take both. (Today’s parallel would be PC Music, whose hyperreal product-worship satirises consumer culture while indulging it in the extreme.) Like Andy Gill explains, “It’s almost like, ‘Okay, nobody's paying for music anymore, so what do you want, blood?’”
Shortly after Content, founding member Jon King left the group, and its follow-up, the forthcoming What Happens Next, is just Andy Gill plus replacements. Believe it or not though, it's one of their straightest records in years.
This will be their ninth album in three and a half decades, and while only the band, their parents and Simon Reynolds have listened to all of them, interest has never quite sagged to “wait they’re still going?” levels, à la Maximo Park or the BNP. With a conveyor belt of guest singers (notably Allison Mosshart and Herbert Grönemeyer), the prickly record dissects identity in the age of celebrity, social media and UKIP nationalism. You might respectfully call bullshit on Andy’s insistence that it’s the best work he’s ever done, but as political records go it’s largely on-point. Jon King’s replacement, John “Gaoler” Sterry, flitters between intimidation and seduction, without totally avoiding lyrical glibness: “False memories / Fake history / Next to talk of racial purity,” goes the slightly ham-fisted opener “Where the Nightingale Sings.”
Here, in Andy's basement, I'm listening to the band prep these tracks for the live show, and they sound rugged but functional. We take two staircases up to his open-plan living room, a decidedly bourgeois den of beat-up settees and sophisticated rugs. He wears his shirt halfway unbuttoned and takes charge to answer most of my questions, without seeming bossy. The others sit still and don’t anticipate queries about joining an internationally revered postpunk outfit any more than I expect to be asked what it’s like interviewing bands for Noisey. After a briefing on the new stuff, talk expectedly turns to the band’s early days and the old members, and that’s where things get hairy.
The beef seems to be less financial than reputational. Back in the day, the original four members would take 25 percent of the cash each, and would share tour budgets equally between band and crew. This was communism in action, and for a while—despite the press’s unfavorable (and inaccurate) characterization of the band as peace-loving puritans—it cemented their status as generally sound guys. But over time, Gang of Four’s ideal micro-society disintegrated. Andy’s main niggle relates to credit for who wrote what—he claims responsibility for most of the rhythm section’s good bits, which the rhythm section obviously disputes. Near the end of Paul Lester’s 2008 biography, Damaged Gods, the band descend into a cacophony of shit-stirring, mutual character assassination and petty quibbling over credits. So I take it with a pinch of salt when, asked if there’s any part of Gang of Four history he’d like to correct, Andy wants to settle some scores about that aforementioned former bassist Dave Allen.
Allen grew up in a resolutely working class family in Kendal. While not as alienated from the band as some press suggests, there was certainly class animosity when he joined, with Andy and Jon’s grant-assisted uni schooling leaving behind their smart but non-intellectual bandmates. As the songwriters argued into the night, Dave and Hugo would tend to leave them to it, and a divide emerged. In 1981, when Dave departed, it was likely thanks to a combination of exhaustion (the party line), intellectual bullying (Dave’s later claim), and his routine hibernations into coke-fried depression, which everyone admits can’t have helped.
Today, Dave pays his mortgage working for Apple, having transferred to Artist Relations when Beats, his old employer, was bought out. According to Andy, Dave’s professional leverage as a Gang of Four legend is exaggerated. “When we started the band, Jon and I were very keen to follow a kind of collective model,” says Andy. “We kind of forced the other two to take 25% of it. And we bent over backwards to try and represent ourselves as an equal creative collective, to the extent that we were actually being totally dishonest, because that wasn't the situation at all - Dave Allen didn't contribute a single idea at any point. And you can imagine how Apple must've thought when they got him on board, ‘We need someone really credible from a really credible band, so we can explain to the public that it's cool to rip off musicians.’”
Presumably Andy considers Dave’s part in the reunion record Return the Gift a bit of a contradiction, then? “Yes,” he nods. “That regrouping of the so-called original four was probably slightly money-driven—and,” he adds, “going on the road was not the most fun I've ever had. Dave is a snake in the grass, a pain in the arse. Always whispering something in Hugo's ear, saying I'd said something bad about him.” He sighs. “He was always trying to foment some sort of disharmonious situation.”
Tired, Andy gazes out his ornate floor-to-ceiling windows. Dave Allen declined to comment for this piece, and it’s sort of hard to blame him. I think of the line from Animal Farm, George Orwell’s allegory for communism’s failure to deliver a utopian society: “And the creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
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