Few artists covet the role of the obscure innovator. Spawning a movement and receiving fawning accolades from your musical progeny holds little attraction if you can't pay the rent or put food on the table. So what do you do when audiences catch up to your style — more than 20 years after your heyday? For bands such as Gang of Four, Mission of Burma and Wire, sitting back and complaining about nicked riffs and stolen concepts isn't nearly as satisfying as returning to the stage and showing the now-receptive audiences how it's done.
Since the rise of Franz Ferdinand and other bands such as Bloc Party, Radio 4, The Rapture and Erase Errata, the tremendous influence of Gang of Four, Britain's seminal punk-funk band, looms ever larger in popular music. Known for spewing acerbic lyrics about the failures of capitalism and the inequities of power — both personal and political — the band twitched and lunged over Andy Gill's fractured guitar bursts and bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham's taut yet swinging rhythm section. By fusing the anger and sonic dissonance of punk with R&B dance grooves that owed no small debt to Parliament/Funkadelic, Chic and James Brown, Gang of Four created a compelling hybrid that blurred lines everywhere: Did you pogo to it, shake your ass or both?
With the release of the masterful Entertainment! (EMI) in 1979 and the almost-as-good Solid Gold (Warner Bros.) in 1981, the band established its legacy and lasting influence. From the perfect singles “At Home He's a Tourist” and “Damaged Goods” to the unrelenting disco beat and slap bass on the raging “To Hell With Poverty,” Gang of Four seemed poised for a string of great albums. Yet after two brilliant records, the band began to drift as first Allen and then Burnham left the fold. (Allen went on to form the art-pop group Shriekback.) To Gang of Four fans steeped in the style of the first two records, watching singer Jon King mime the no-bones-about-it disco of “I Love a Man in Uniform” on TV in the early '80s was a bit much. And just like that, the band faded from view.
Now, nearly 25 years after the release of Solid Gold, Gang of Four has stunned fans by reuniting with the original lineup and touring both England and North America. (Two Gill-King partial reunions occurred in the early and mid-'90s, which resulted in the albums Mall [Polydor, 1991] and Shrinkwrapped [Castle, 1995].) The band has also finished re-recording songs from its first few albums — 28 tracks in all — for a remix project including the likes of Massive Attack; Yeah Yeah Yeahs; and The Futureheads, a band that Gill produced.
The response from the first few gigs, which focused mainly on material from Entertainment! and Solid Gold, has been a bit overwhelming, Gill says. Gang of Four's two-night stand at The Fillmore in San Francisco, for example, drew sold-out crowds of older fans and younger scenesters curious about a group that serves as the genetic blueprint for so many indie- and dance-rock bands.
“The response of the people was brilliant,” Gill says. “People seemed glad to see it. It's a good feeling. Nervous would be the wrong word, but I so didn't want to not do it justice. It's very much about doing something because it feels fresh to us.”
But with Burnham and Allen living in the United States, getting the original foursome back together proved to be a bit of a challenge, he says. “It's been kicking around for a few years,” Gill says. “There have been different reasons not to do it — you've got to make a pretty serious effort. There was a general feeling that it was a good idea; I think what pushed it along was when I mentioned it to a manager. He went, ‘What? Yeah, absolutely, let's do it.’ Before I knew it, he had the ball rolling. Sometimes, it takes someone outside the band who is enthusiastic.”
When Gill looks back at the band's development, he remembers a group open to the “physicality” of funk as well as punk's raw energy. “It's partly so many things that I liked, that Jon liked,” Gill says. “We had very catholic tastes, from old reggae to The Band to the Velvet Underground. There was an unspoken rule that if you did something, it couldn't sound like something else — you could mix it all up. You don't necessarily hear Jimi Hendrix in there or Bob Dylan in there.”
That desire to take the sound of their influences and twist it into something new included approaching their instruments with a different mind-set. Gill's jarring guitar work is the most obvious example of the willingness to disassemble the standard way of doing things. “I wanted the attack of the guitar,” Gill says. “I wanted it to be a rhythmic and expressive instrument.”
With that idiosyncratic style now in vogue and with so many bands overtly referencing Gang of Four's music, further expanding the confines of what is considered dance music, Gill says it was time for the band to make a reappearance. But the band has also been cautious about not doing its legacy justice. “That's added a lot of impetus to it,” Gill says. “There's a lot of people talking about Gang of Four out there — we thought that maybe we should do it again for ourselves.”