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Addresses: Management-- Polar Union Ltd., U.K., in association with Metropolitan Entertainment Inc., USA, 7 N. Mountain Ave., Montclair, NJ 07042.
"Gang of Four are probably the best politically motivated dance band in rock & roll," declared Rolling Stone' s David Fricke in 1980. Emerging in the waning days of the British punk revolution, the group set intensely analytical lyrics--usually about the omnipresence of political forces in everyday life--to a hard, spare music consisting of dissonant, edgy guitar patterns and a funk-influenced beat. The Gang's distinctive sound and unconventional messages raised the hopes of critics and discerning listeners, though many felt that the group never lived up to the promise of their first recordings and performances. After a series of personnel changes, the band broke up in 1984; two founding members reunited for a 1991 Gang of Four album, Mall, and a new tour. Both garnered impressive reviews. According to some critics, the music world had taken a decade to catch up with Gang of Four; the band's dance-oriented message music seemed as timely as ever.
Singer Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill had been friends for years before deciding to form a band. The two studied in the fine arts department of the University of Leeds in northern England as did a circle of postpunk musicians who would later comprise such bands as the Mekons and the Delta 5. Gill was a devotee of sixties guitar giant Jimi Hendrix, whose psychedelic blues, hard rock, and noise were decidedly unhip in the punk days. King told Melody Maker that "Andy wore a black armband at school the day Hendrix died," an admission that clearly embarrassed Gill.
Drummer Hugo Burnham was an English major at Leeds who at one point formed a theater group influenced by the writings of Karl Marx--the nineteenth-century German philosopher and cofounder of communism--but grew tired of "preaching to the converted," as he was quoted as saying in Melody Maker. Gill and King, leftist intellectuals themselves, had been collaborating on songs for some time before they decided to put their group together; they found Burnham and a bass player--a hippie named Wolfman--and began performing in 1977. They took their name from a political faction associated with the widow of Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse-Tung. Although they knew little about Maoism, King admitted in a 1982 interview with Musician, "it was suggested because it was a good name for a band."
Wolfman never quite fit into the band's tensely political groove; his tendency to meditate during sound checks caused the band to consider a replacement. Salvation came in the form of Dave Allen, an experienced professional who had been transformed by the musical atmosphere: "Until the New Wave [music movement] happened, I was looking for a band that was like [rhythm and blues musician] Stevie Wonder turned heavy," Allen admitted to Melody Maker' s Mary Harron. Allen gave up a comfortable living as a session player to travel to Leeds and find a place on the burgeoning new wave scene.
Allen's bass playing proved a supple foil for Gill's guitar playing, though at first Allen's approach created conflicts: "During the first gigs," the bassist told Harron, "Gill kept saying, 'Can't you tone it down? You're playing too many notes.'" The result of the band's synthesis, however, was a distinctively funky rhythmic structure that provided a counterpoint rather than support for the guitar and King's vocals and melodica--a toy-like combination of harmonica and keyboard.
After the raw energy and unfocused rebellion of the punk years--most famously represented in England by the Sex Pistols--the scene was ripe for music that expressed the anger and intensity of punk in a more subtle and musically sophisticated form. As Jon Pareles noted in the Village Voice, Gill had been forced "to rethink his role" to help the group find its rhythmic focus. "As propounded by the early Ramones [an American punk band], punk was utterly redundant: power-chorded guitar doubletiming the bass and drums and voice. Gill recognized that continuous strumming merely doubles what's already implicit in bass and drums while swaddling the band in constant harmony. His solution: liquidate most of the harmony, and--in true dialectical style--strengthen the groove by defying it."
By "dialectical" Pareles meant the Marxist ideal of bringing opposing forces together, something the Gang attempted both musically and lyrically. The dialectical process also came through in their interviews: the band constantly argued, debated, and pondered virtually everything. Chris Brazier of Melody Maker enthused that "it's so good to come across a group that is unequivocally socialist, intelligently and openly so, and that sees the importance of rock as a direct communicator." The disagreements between band members made for stimulating interviews, but would lead to more serious conflicts later.
After playing around and recording some singles for a small label, the Gang did something that seemed in conflict with their politics: they signed a contract with a major record label, Britain's EMI. In 1979--after waiting for Gill to complete his exams at Leeds--the group recorded their first LP, Entertainment! The ironic title referred to a line from the song "5:45," in which a viewer of television news observes that "guerilla war struggle is a new Entertainment!" The album was filled with bitter and incisive sentiments. Songs like "At Home He's a Tourist," "I Found That Essence Rare," "Contract," and "Damaged Goods" presented what Rolling Stone' s Greil Marcus called "cut-up situational accounts of the paradoxes of leisure as oppression, identity as product, home as factory, resident as tourist, sex as politics, history as ruling-class private joke." The album--released in the United States on the Warner Bros. label--was carefully produced by Gill, King, Rob Warr, and Rick Walton, with a spare, driving sound. Rolling Stone' s Jon Savage called the record "an impressive, efficient and provocative debut, with at least one classic, the superb 'I Found That Essence Rare.'" Rolling Stone would include Entertainment! on a 1989 list of the top one hundred records of the eighties.
Gang of Four spent most of 1980 on tour in the United States and Europe. Their performances--intense and physical bouts with moody lighting--impressed some critics even more than did the recordings. Tom Carson of the Village Voice concluded that "live, this young English band comes up with rock and roll urgency to match their intellectual commitment." Fricke, reviewing a New York show in Rolling Stone, admired the Gang's "highly developed rhythmic muscle." After the tours, the quartet returned to Leeds and wrote some new songs. They released a single, "To Hell With Poverty"/"Capital (It Fails Us Now)," and Warner Bros. put out an EP, Gang of Four, which contained four tunes recorded between 1978 and 1980.
In 1981 the Gang put out a second album, Solid Gold. Like Entertainment! the album was uncompromising, spare, and analytical; such songs as "Cheeseburger," "He'd Send in the Army," and "In the Ditch" exposed the paradoxes of warfare, work, and leisure. Van Gosse's Village Voice review described the record as a difficult but necessary antidote to feel-good rock: "Gang of Four embody a new category in pop, which illuminates all the others, because the motor of their aesthetic is not a 'personal creative vision.' It is a social theory and world view which expresses itself organically in their sound. Solid Gold informs us about us: it is profoundly political because its style is critical." Adam Sweeting of Melody Maker found the LP "lower key and more considered than Entertainment! " and remarked that "with Solid Gold, Gang of Four have deliberately steered away from the abrasive polemics of their earlier material. They've gone instead for more of a cohesive feel."
The tour following Solid Gold exhausted the band; the rigors of travel took a particularly large toll on Allen, who left the group during the tour. Subsequent press suggested animosities between Allen and his former bandmates, particularly King, whom Allen described as having become politically "liberal," that is, more moderate. The remaining members found a temporary replacement in American bassist Busta "Cherry" Jones, a sometime player with such respected American funk-rock collectives as Parliament and Talking Heads. Jones learned the Gang's songs in a marathon week of rehearsals. "That week was very intense; we got very close," Jones revealed in Rolling Stone. "Playing those tracks and hearing the lyrics, I fell in love with the music. And the guys got a glimpse of being broader in ambiance--a whole new idea of what their songs could do." King noted that by the end of the tour "it was like we'd been playing with him for years. Now the [Rolling] Stones are trying to steal him from us." The Stones--a legendary British band mounting a typically enormous and expensive tour--succeeded. Jones was therefore unavailable for the Gang's next project.
King, Gill and Burnham enlisted Sara Lee, an old friend of King and Gill and veteran of British guitarist Robert Fripp's musical project the League of Gentlemen. "We did want a woman" to help put the band's feminist politics into practice, King told Musician' s J. D. Considine. Lee turned out to be a good vocalist as well as a talented bassist, and her vocals helped to give the tunes on the group's next effort-- Songs of the Free --a melodic and accessible quality. "Call Me Up" and "I Love a Man in Uniform" were the first radio-friendly songs the Gang had put on vinyl, and though the latter was banned from British radio shortly after its release--because England was at war in the Falkland Islands--the group enjoyed some commercial success. Songs of the Free received mixed reviews. Sweeting called it "an uncomfortable album of transition," but Pareles, writing for Rolling Stone, felt it was "by no means a pop sellout." King admitted to Considine that the group "definitely wanted to move towards using melody more in the songs," and this approach no doubt seemed to some listeners like a musical version of the softening that had worried Allen.
In 1983 King and Gill fired Burnham, much to the drummer's surprise and disappointment, before recording a new LP. Hard was an attempt to create an even more commercially viable sound; though Burnham was succeeded by Steve Goulding on stage, the group utilized drum machines along with banks of keyboards and the harmonies of several female backup singers on the album. The single "Is It Love" fared reasonably well in clubs and as a rock video. This time, however, the critics didn't pull any punches. " Hard is largely a string of wasted opportunities," opined Melody Maker' s Lynden Barber, who added that "the Gang simply sound old. " For Greg Tate of the Village Voice, Hard' s compromises in sound, though substantial, were less offensive than the compromises in content; Tate noted that the band's "insincerity" this time led to "insufferable meaninglessness." Fricke called the album "a bland offering of Manhattan disco with dashes of postpunk cool."
"The Gang of Four have called it a day, due to musical differences," Melody Maker reported in March of 1984. The group held a farewell performance at London's Hammersmith Palais, a show that Barber found disappointing except for the Gang's brief reunion with Allen and Burnham during one of the encores. In 1984 Mercury released a live album, Gang of Four at the Palace, which memorialized the Hard tour's stop in Hollywood. 1986 saw the release of The Peel Sessions Album, a collection of rawly rendered material recorded from 1971 to 1981 for British radio. Melody Maker dubbed the album "a perfect and classic nostalgia trip into the world of gaunt cynicism."
Andy Gill spent the next few years producing--he worked with American funk-rockers the Red Hot Chili Peppers on their debut--and writing music for films like The Karate Kid. But the revival of funk rock and the monster success of rap in the late eighties suggested to Gill and King that a new Gang of Four project might be well suited to the times. The Gang of Four had finally become available on compact disc (CD) after the 1990 Warner Bros. release of a collection entitled A Brief History of the Twentieth Century; in 1991 Gill, King, and some new collaborators put out an album of new material for Polydor records entitled Mall. The record manages to bring the hard political funk of classic Gang records into sync with the sound of the rap era without the mid-eighties compromises of Hard. "Don't Fix What Ain't Broke" was a driving dance anthem, while "Satellite" was an edgy but tuneful ballad. In addition, Mall contained songs about communication problems, the Vietnam war, and the paradoxes of consumer culture.
Guitar Player declared Mall "a stunning album recapturing the best aspects of [the group's] past incarnations," while Dave Levesque of Rhythm & News called it "a thoroughly enjoyable piece of funk-drenched rock 'n roll." The band's tour for the album, on a bill with rap superstars Public Enemy, was also well received: Variety called the Gang set "a pleasantly surprising mix of old and new" and noted that "Gang of Four's sociopolitical point of view remains relevant some seven years after first breaking up." Even so, the low sales of Mall led Polygram to drop the group. Whatever its eventual fate, though, Gang of Four have achieved an important niche in the annals of alternative music for their powerful social criticism and skillful mix of funk, punk, and rock.
by Simon Glickman
Gang of Four's Career
- Selective Works
- Entertainment! (includes "5:45," "At Home He's a Tourist," "I Found That Essence Rare," "Contract," and "Damaged Goods"), EMI/Warner Bros., 1979.
- "To Hell With Poverty"/"Capital (It Fails Us Now)" (single), EMI, 1980.
- Solid Gold (includes "Cheeseburger," "He'd Send in the Army," and "In the Ditch"), EMI/Warner Bros., 1981.
- Songs of the Free (includes "Call Me Up" and "I Love a Man in Uniform"), EMI/Warner Bros., 1982.
- Hard (includes "Is it Love"), EMI/Warner Bros., 1983.
- Gang of Four at the Palace EMI, 1984.
- The Peel Sessions Strange Fruit (U.K.), 1986.
- A Brief History of the Twentieth Century Warner Bros., 1990.
- Mall (includes "Don't Fix What Ain't Broke" and "Satellite"), Polygram, 1991.
- Guitar Player, June 1991; October 1991.
- Melody Maker, May 26, 1979; October 6, 1979; November 3, 1979; February 28, 1981; March 7, 1981; August 8, 1981; May 22, 1982; July 10, 1982; June 25, 1983; September 17, 1983; March 3, 1984; April 21, 1984; December 6, 1986.
- Musician, October 1982; October 1991.
- Rhythm & News, July 1991.
- Rolling Stone, May 29, 1980; July 24, 1980; September 3, 1981; July 8, 1982; October 27, 1983; November 16, 1989.
- Variety, July 29, 1991.
- Village Voice, October 1, 1979; May 19, 1980; April 29, 1981; July 27, 1982; November 8, 1983.
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