There’s nothing wrong with being cute, well-dressed, and easy to get along with. But agreeability rarely makes for great music, and if there’s one difficult band currently being emulated by a bunch of easy ones, it’s Gang of Four.
While band-of-the-moment Franz Ferdinand and the opportunists in its wake are heavily hyped — in an insult to both dance music enthusiasts and rock fiends — as “music to get rock fans dancing,” Gang of Four, formed by students in 1977 Leeds, England, barely made rock music at all, much less dance music. The original quartet etched out two albums of beguilingly tilted political songs, more alien to hoary old rock ‘n’ roll conventions than even the Sex Pistols. Furthermore, the Gang’s individual personalities were as cantankerous as their collective music, befitting a band named after the cadre of rascals who tried to seize power in mid-’70s China.
“It used to be completely volatile,” says bassist Dave Allen, long the odd man out after quitting the band in 1982, dissolving the original lineup. “Take a rehearsal — any rehearsal back then. If there was a disagreement about a certain part in a song, it could well turn into a full-blown argument. I mean, really heady aggressiveness.”
They’re calmer now, and also, inexplicably, together. In one of the oddest developments yet in the nostalgic oughts, popular demand has reunited the long-fractured Gang of Four. “We concluded that if it could be put together properly, it would be worth doing,” Allen says, “given the fact that everyone is talking about us in every single article everywhere.”
So late last year, the Portland, Oregon-based Allen trekked to London and met singer Jon King, drummer Hugo Burnham, and guitarist Andy Gill to rehearse for their full-blown reunion tour. January’s UK dates were wildly received: “The Furious Four Storm Back,” announced the Daily Telegraph headline; the snarkier Guardian, while describing the Four as “Physics lecturers battling the male menopause,” nevertheless called the music “tantalizingly oblique” and “spartan yet thrillingly visceral.”
Oblique definitely fits — not to mention several other adjectives from the deeper end of the thesaurus. The word “brittle,” for example, while often tossed off by rock journos, is absolutely embodied by Gill’s shattered-glass guitar. But here’s the thing about the Gang of Four’s sound that seems to have reverberated down to twenty-year-olds twenty years later: what the band did with funk. By 1978, British punk’s evolving experiment had caused bands to toy with Jamaican dub, but Dave and his mates went a step further. “Reggae — like Steel Pulse, even the early Wailers — is what inspired a lot of my bass playing in the beginning, working off-beat with the drums,” Allen recalls. “But then I got into Bootsy Collins and Parliament/Funkadelic, and it was really refreshing to realize that Jon and Andrew and Hugo were totally into that as well. We were very influenced by what we called ‘American black music.'”
Though the Gang of Four continued in name after Allen’s departure — Gill and King re-teamed intermittently for a dozen years — the band’s most influential use of the groove can be charted over the course of the two on which he played. 1979’s Entertainment! is completely uncooked, Allen’s bass lines pulsing beneath Gill’s seesaw riffs in a hypnotic, bizarrely catchy manner; the follow-up, ’81’s Solid Gold, employs Jimmy Douglass, producer of the funk band Slave, for a more integrated groove. The two albums drew a template for bands ranging from Fugazi to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to some current bands savvier than your average MTV parade. “In college, basically there’s just certain records you know you’re supposed to hear, and sometimes those records take a while to get into,” says Anthony Roman of New York’s Radio 4, Gang disciples and current tourmates. “But when I heard Entertainment, I immediately liked it — it was so rhythmic and stark and cold.”
“Entertainment, in a way, was very poppy,” adds John Davis of Washington DC’s Q and Not U. “But Solid Gold started to strip that pop away for some very dark, serrated music. What got me about Gang of Four is just the sort of primal nature of their music, but it’s also very intelligent.”
Indeed, Gang of Four, in its original incarnation, is dance music only in the sense that Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On is make-out music — sure, you can dance, but if that’s all you do with it, you’re missing at least half the point, the very point that many Franz Ferdinand-era bands either don’t get or choose to ignore.
The fact is that Gang of Four’s groove is meant less to incite dance fever than to evoke the inertia of watching TV, or the repetition involved in a dismal job. “Politically, we were very aware of what was happening at the time in the UK,” Allen explains. “Basically, you had a very right-wing regime with Mrs. Thatcher, going hell for leather privatizing all the public companies that we already owned, you know, trying to sell ’em back to us. It was just a type of horrible depression where if you were a student, the chances of leaving and then getting a job were pretty much nil. We have a great deal of responsibility when it comes to Jon’s lyrics — I just don’t know of any other band that’s that committed to how they express their political views.”
With a voice that manages to sound both desperate and impassive at the same time, King observes the mechanics of commercialized, industrialized lives in cutting poetry that feels oddly relevant to the right-wing, economically challenged predicament of the United States today. Entertainment‘s “At Home He’s a Tourist” contains the nauseating gem of a couplet He fills his head with culture/He gives himself an ulcer, which dwells so neatly on info overload and sedentary lifestyles that it’s more applicable to the Internet now than it was to TV at the time. And a line from Solid Gold‘s “The Republic” would make an apt slogan for the Democratic Party’s leadership: Action is none of my business/Better take smaller chances.
On the Gang’s current US reunion tour, however, all that aggression will be directed outward; politics within the band seem to be more tractable now. “Around each other, we’re incredibly sane these days,” Allen says. “That just comes with growing up. Three of us have kids. I’ve got three kids of my own, and I’ve learned how to negotiate the family crises over something stupid, like ‘He took my water bottle!'” He starts cracking up. “It’s just that wonderful word, ‘maturity’. We’re way beyond all the crap.”