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Members include Dave Allen (left group, 1981), bass; Hugo Burnham (left band, 1983; graduated from Leeds University), drums, vocals; Andy Gill (graduated from Leeds University), guitar, vocals; Busta Jones (replaced Dave Allen, 1981), bass; Jon King (graduated from Leeds University), vocals, melodica; Sara Lee (replaced Busta Jones, 1982-84), bass, vocals. Later recordings included assorted session players. Addresses: Management--Little Big Man, 155 Ave. of the Americas, 6th Fl., New York, NY 10013, phone: (646) 336-8520, fax: (646) 336-8522, website: http://www.littlebigman.com. Website--Gang of Four Official Website: http://www.gangoffour.co.uk.
"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 hard, spare music with a funk-influenced beat. The Gang's distinctive sound and unconventional messages raised the hopes of critics and discerning listeners, although 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, and the band's dance-oriented message music seemed as timely as ever. All of the original members reunited in 2005 for the release of Return the Gift and a subsequent tour.
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. Gill was a devotee of 1960s' guitar giant Jimi Hendrix, whose psychedelic blues, hard rock, and noise were decidedly unhip in the punk days.
Drummer Hugo Burnham was an English major at Leeds who at one point had formed a theater group influenced by the writings of Karl Marx, the nineteenth-century German philosopher and cofounder of communism. 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.
Wolfman never quite fit into the band's 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 new musical atmosphere. Allen gave up a comfortable living as a session player to travel to Leeds and find a place on the burgeoning new wave scene, and his bass playing proved a supple foil for Gill's guitar. 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 for King's vocals and melodica---a toy-like combination of harmonica and keyboard.
Focused Energy into Tight Tunes
After the raw energy and unfocused rebellion of the punk years, 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 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. 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."
Moved to the Majors
After 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 the group recorded their first LP, titled Entertainment!, an album filled with bitter and incisive sentiments. 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, released in the United States by Warner Brothers, 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." Rolling Stone would include Entertainment! on a 1989 list of the top 100 records of the 1980s.
Gang of Four spent most of 1980 on tour in the United States and Europe. Their performances, which were 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." After the tours, the quartet returned to Leeds and began writing 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. Van Gosse's Village Voice review described the album as part of "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 felt 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. 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. 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 legendary Stones finally succeeded, and 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 a 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. The album garnered 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 told Considine that the group had "definitely wanted to move towards using melody more in the songs."
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." Fricke called the album "a bland offering of Manhattan disco with dashes of postpunk cool."
Gang's Fire Burned Out
"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. The year 1986 saw the release of The Peel Sessions Album, a collection of material recorded between 1971 and 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 1980s 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 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 track "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.
In 1995 Gill and King produced the Gang's follow-up, Shrinkwrapped, with a number of session players. While it wasn't enough to declare a full-scale comeback for the band, the record did receive some accolades. Writing in All Music Guide, Jack Rabid noted that "Singer Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill not only make up for that tepid album [Mall], but exorcise the lifeless ghost they left off with over a decade ago, Hard, and reclaim their spot as one of the most original, subtly bracing, innovative, and unique bands around."
Despite the album's modest success, the band went back on hiatus, but the years to follow would see a renewed interest in their musical legacy. The double-disc compilation 100 Flowers Bloom was released in 1998, and within a few years bands like the Rapture, Radio 4, and Franz Ferdinand were borrowing heavily from Gang of Four's sound while introducing a much younger audience to the funky collision of dance music and rock and roll.
In 2004 Gill, King, Burnham, and Allen rejoined for an extensive tour that would bring them through their native England and hit the United States at 2005's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, the country's premier summer pop showcase. As Gill--who had recently come off of producing the Futureheads' (another young band with a Gang of Four-esque sound) debut album--told the National Post's Mike Doherty, "The scene [was] set" for a reunion.
While part of the group's decision to reform was inspired by those younger bands aping the post-punk style, Allen, for one, wasn't terribly impressed by the new torchbearers' output. He told Doherty, "The one thing that none of these bands have ever borrowed is the lyrical content--the ability to deconstruct the life we live and rebuild it and sing about it. ... Equally, these bands are just as conservative as the world that they're operating in."
With the reunion of the original members, Gang of Four released 2005's Return the Gift, a collection of songs from the group's first three albums, re-recorded and then remixed by a cadre of current alt-pop artists. Involved in the remix project were Hot Hot Heat, No Doubt's Tony Kanal, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the Dandy Warhols, further illustrating the Gang of Four's far-reaching influence on modern rock.
by Simon Glickman and Ken Taylor
Gang of Four's Career
Group formed in 1977 in Leeds, England; signed with EMI Records in 1978; released debut album, 1979; performed and recorded until breakup in 1984; Gill and King reunited with new lineup for Mall, 1991, and Shrinkwrapped, 1995; reunited with original members Burnham and Allen for Return the Gift, 2005.
- Selected discography
- Entertainment! EMI/Warner Bros., 1979.
- "To Hell With Poverty"/"Capital (It Fails Us Now)" (single), EMI, 1980.
- Solid Gold EMI/Warner Bros., 1981.
- Songs of the Free EMI/Warner Bros., 1982.
- Hard 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 Polygram, 1991.
- Shrinkwrapped Castle, 1995.
- 100 Flowers Bloom Rhino, 1998.
- Return the Gift V2, 2005.
- 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.
- National Post, May 11, 2005.
- 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.
- "Shrinkwrapped," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 30, 2005).
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