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Gang Of Four

As sharp and cutting as a razor-blade slicing through a map of Communist China (they’d taken their neo-Marxist moniker from the Orient), GANG OF FOUR were the thinking man’s punk band; Andy Gill’s rifling staccato guitar chopping through every twisted funk rhythm. Lyrically, they were also pretty incendiary, although their radical political agenda rarely descended into heavy-handed preaching or took precedence over the music.
Formed in 1977, Leeds University students Andy Gill and Jon King (vocals) had both performed in high school bands in Sevenoaks in Greater London, while drummer Hugo Burnham (also a Leeds Uni grad) and bassist Dave Allen (a truck-driver from Cumbria!) fashioned a line-up that lasted a couple of LPs. When punk rock was at a crossroads with many acts swerving into “oi”, “alt/indie” and other genres, the adventurous GANG OF FOUR attacked from a different funk-punk bow, releasing their debut 45, `Damaged Goods’ (b/w `Love Like Anthrax’ and `Armalite Rifle’) – for Bob Last’s Fast Product label – at the close of ’78.
Duly signed up to E.M.I., the quirky quartet’s first platter for the major, the bouncing `At Home He’s A Tourist’, hit the Top 60 and should’ve really reached a lot higher but for a BBC ban due to the use of the lyric “rubbers” (aka contraceptives). In the autumn of ‘79, their debut album ENTERTAINMENT! {*10}, cracked the Top 50, a startling showcase for the band’s adrenaline-fuelled post-punk sound. From the stuttering, staccato riffs and puncturing rhythms of `Ether’, `Natural’s Not In It’ and `Not Great Men’, to the aforementioned 45s, plus the confrontational `Guns Before Butter’, `I Found That Essence Rare’ and `Return The Gift’, this set was indeed, “entertainment!”. For CD re-issue buffs, there was the inclusion of a cover of The VELVET UNDERGROUND’s `Sweet Jane’.
Benefit gigs on the Rock Against Racism tour aside, and a splendid one-off 45 for EMI’s Regal Zonophone (`Outside The Trains Don’t Run On Time’ b/w `He’d Send In The Army’), 1980 was posted awol on the GO4 manifesto, that was until their follow-up set, SOLID GOLD (1981) {*7}, a record mixing down Gill’s patented feedback assault but coming in for some critical stick. `Paralysed’, `Why Theory?’ and both sides of the previous single redeemed its grooves, but by comparison to their glorious debut, the American-ised `Cheeseburger’ (very TALKING HEADS) proved beyond most home-grown fans.
Although he played on the landmark `To Hell With Poverty’ 45 (duly released that summer), Dave Allen left the band acrimoniously; he later formed his own outfit, SHRIEKBACK. His replacement, after US promo tour commitments were filled by TALKING HEADS bassist Busta Cherry, was another American: Sara Lee, formerly of JANE AIRE & THE BELVEDERES.
Thereafter, GANG OF FOUR favoured a more conventional approach. Although not necessarily align with HEAVEN 17, ABC and the like, SONGS OF THE FREE (1982) {*6} was more funk – less punk. Also notable for its barbed comments on army life and the Falklands conflict, `Call Me Up’ and `I Love A Man In Uniform’ – another single blacklisted by Radio One – dud 45s left old fans grumbling and new fans unwilling to part with the readies. Still, `It Is Not Enough’, `I Will Be A Good Boy’ and `We Live As We Dream, Alone’, more or less saved it from the bargain bins.
Following the defection of another original, Burnham (who’d subsequently session for BRYAN FERRY, SAMANTHA FOX, et al), GANG OF 4 – or er… 3 – moved further towards a slick funk/Philly sound on album number four, HARD (1983) {*5}, a soft-ish record employing a cast of studio professionals and female backing singers. With diminishing artistic and commercial returns from the likes of spawned 45s, `Is It Love’ and `Silver Lining’, the Marxist pop group finally split in mid-’84, leaving behind a schizoid live parting shot, AT THE PALACE (1984) {*4}.
While Gill subsequently relocated to America and concentrated on production work (he also issued a one-off single, `Dispossession’ in ‘87), renewed interest in the outfit towards the end of the decade saw a GANG OF FOUR re-formation, although Gill and King were the only original members involved in the project. The result was a one-off album for Polydor Records, MALL (1991) {*3}, featuring a cover of BOB MARLEY’s `Soul Rebel’. Their bosses soon lost interest after it failed to sell in quantities required; there was more grief for GO4 the following year when, despite their best efforts in supplying the soundtrack for the Labour Party’s 1992 campaign, the Tories romped home yet again.
The duo initiated yet another reincarnation of the band in 1995 for the SHRINKWRAPPED {*5} set, although sales were again disappointing. With everybody and their adolescent dog citing early GANG OF FOUR as inspiration (from FUGAZI to RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE), it wasn’t surprising Gill and King took it on themselves to definitively re-form, and sign straight to a major label no less. RETURN THE GIFT (2005) {*6} was an understandable attempt to perfect the cream of their back catalogue which so many bands had ripped off over the years.
With a proper GANG OF FOUR in place, in terms of size and quantity (Messrs King and Gill were joined by bassist Thomas McNeice and drummer Mark Heaney), 2011’s CONTENT {*7} was helped, in part, by fan donations. Thankfully registering with post-punk rather than Yankee dollar funk, caustic highlights from the set were `She Said “You Made A Thing Of Me”’, `Who Am I?’ and `I Can’t Forget Your Lonely Face’. As far as reformations go, Gill and the often-overlooked King, were back on track – just that in Britain: “Outside The Trains Don’t Run On Time”.
It was hard to see GANG OF FOUR continuing after founding member Jon King and Mark Heaney took their leave, but continue they did, adding similar frontman John “Gaoler” Sterry (in 2012), drummer Jonny Finnegan (in 2014) and a string of guest singers, namely Alison Mosshart (of The KILLS), Das Boot actor Herbert Gronemeyer and Robbie Furze (of The BIG PINK), for WHAT HAPPENS NEXT (2015) {*6}. In a week that also saw the release of a “comeback” set from angular rivals The POP GROUP, GO4 had added impetus to succeed. Pity, because they lost; economical digital dance rhythms were not rewarding enough for fans looking for a return to staccato attacks and grinding funk. The Mosshart connections, `Broken Talk’ and `England’s In My Bones’, had the edge over the likes of `Where The Nightingale Sings’ and `Dead Souls’ (featuring Hotei), but all ‘n’ all, the set didn’t quite click into gear.
Encompassing most of their best bits from their early days and combining glorious grooves from recent times, LIVE… IN THE MOMENT (2016) {*7} – recorded the previous year at London’s Islington Assembly Hall and New York’s Irving Plaza – GANG OF FOUR saw the importance of documenting this stage in their career. As live CD/DVD albums go, it was more a case of memory/mind over matter.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Oct2013-Oct2016

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