How do I even begin to describe the English Post-Punk band Gang of Four? In the 1980s their music was part of the soundtrack of my insane, picaresque, and highly irregular life, where I quit college and ran off to serve in the United States Army, which took me everywhere and nowhere, often at the same time. It was a time when, while serving my country, I also danced, fucked, drank, and partied nearly every night, so music of course played an immensely important role. And few bands epitomized the insanity as eloquently and brilliantly as Gang of Four. The band’s music was noisy, punky, funky, and thought-provoking, but mainly it was just cool, kind of like my life in my early 20s; it made little sense to anyone, but that was the point.
Sadly, the band’s guitarist, main songwriter, and leader, Andy Gill, passed away on February 1, 2020 at the young age of 64.
So let’s kick off this essay about one of my favorite bands with my favorite song by the band, the first one I heard by them, and of course it was while acting badly that this magical event happened. First give this a listen and then read what I’ve written below. You must hear the band’s music to gain any cogent context to my essay.
Damaged Goods – Gang of Four (1979)
I can recall vividly the first time I heard this maddeningly vibrant and frenetic work of Post-Punk Funk genius. I was at a club in San Antonio called Rocky’s in early February 1983, and on that memorable night the DJ spun a series of crazy songs like this to rev up the crowd of slam dancers who’d taken the dance floor hostage by the sheer number of them. Just before he played this he played Wardance by Killing Joke and Pay to Cum by Bad Brains, two songs of similar fast-paced velocity and angry energy that got Doc Martens boots stomping like no other. Then came this song, with its killer intro where the bass and electric guitar’s nutty interplay kickstarts the jam, and then, a few bars later, the drums propel the band into slam dance nirvana. Rocky’s small dance floor was now packed with guys and girls flailing around as if they were epileptics who’d taken speed.
It was a cathartic moment, to say the least. I generally eschewed slam dancing for its thuggish and hyper-violent stupidity, but on this night I gladly joined the fray like a possessed demon; I was a young soldier in the US Army and had lots of pent-up anger to release with all my gusto. Or maybe some girl had rejected me. Or I temporarily lost my mind. Whatever the case, on that night I felt like slamming around with my fellow moshers with as much sweat and anger and vicious antipathy as I could muster. Since I was a tall, fit, strong, and confident fucker, just a few weeks removed from Basic Training, I was a formidable slam dancer. My memory is clouded about how violent the dancing got that night, but the next morning my hoops buddies at the Fort Sam Houston gym all noticed the copious bruises that covered my torso during a shirts vs skins game and I was a skin.
The irony is that the band, Gang of Four, was pretty much washed up at this point in 1983, although at that moment a new variation of the band, with only two original members, had a cool New-Wavish Disco-like dance track called “Is It Love?” that was popular at clubs, even though it sounded nothing like what made the band famous back in 1979 with its epic debut album Entertainment!. That album was one of the greatest records of its era, highly praised by critics and fans alike, and is now regarded as one of the seminal works of Post-Punk. It was still cool and relevant in 1983, at least to me, since the next day after that epic night of slam dancing at Rocky’s I sought out and bought it at a San Antonio record shop near my Army base. It remained on my active playlist all through the decade and well into the 1990s.
You want some more of this amazing band’s cool music? Here’s another epic tune from their 1979 debut. I can still feel this vibrating out of my orange-padded Sony Walkman headphones from back in the day. Again Gill’s scratchy guitar licks highlight this highly danceable track filled with thought-provoking social critique and Dave Allen’s kick-ass bass line. Singer Jon King growls about being a bored, married, middle-class bloke (at home he’s a tourist) who is looking to fuck a stranger down at the local discotheque where people celebrate the soulless, bland, boringly decadent capitalist lifestyle. You got your shit drink in your hand, a pack of rubbers in your top-left pocket if you get lucky, and all the while you’re dancing to shitty corporate music. Meanwhile your wife, who also feels like a tourist, is contemplating fucking a stranger too. Touché. Fucking brilliant, mate.
At Home He’s a Tourist – Gang of Four (1979)
To describe Gang of Four’s sound is rather difficult other than to declare it was influenced by Punk but also by Parliament-Funkadelic’s funky grooves. Guitarist Andy Gill stripped down his riffs and chords to scratchy, minimalist, detuned funk grooves, but with a hyperactive Punk edge, and his interplay with bassist Dave Allen’s overtly funky lines and drummer Hugo Burnham’s bouncy and frenetic beats created music that was often danceable and yet also induced aggressive feelings amid all that funky noise. That was it, no frills, no sweetness, no moon in June love-dovie shit. It was cool, minimalist Post-Punk funky noise, unpretentious and yet thought-provoking, with lyrics that denounced the English middle class existence as desperately dull, overbearingly repressed, and largely incapable of having much soul. Vocalist Jon King often sneered his parts with his thick English growl, equally desperate and often self-deprecating in his introspection as he lamented the stark and empty life he led amid the colorless society of 70s Britain.
At its best, Gang of Four’s minimalist sound, just the bass, drums, guitar and voice, with no multi-tracking or overdubs or any other studio trick, could be mesmerizing and yet ass-wiggling funky too. Gill’s insistence on laying down the guitar part like fragments of a conversation, with pauses and then a frenetic pulse of noise between Hugo Burnham’s drum beats, while Dave Allen’s bass sketched out the actual melody of the song, if that was what you’d call it, created a groove so electrifying and yet profoundly minimal that you found yourself hypnotized to its pulsing beat. Meanwhile the band injected its socio-political idealism into your brain with carefully-constructed phrases of alienation and irony-free dissent, stating, in effect, “I did what’s expected of me in a capitalist meritocracy system, embracing the process of social elevation through self-improvement and getting a higher education, and yet I’m more fucked than when I started.” Andy Gill and Jon King were shitty Marxists in that they had zero answers in their art, just questions and complaints, but they certainly created a sound that captured the very essence of their existential angst and disgusted self-examination.
I present Exhibit A of this breathtakingly cool minimalist rock art, the superb song Paralyzed from the band’s second album, Solid Gold. It is the very definition of the sound we old timers called “Post-Punk.” It’s difficult, in retrospect, to fully describe how radical and cool this all sounded back then, but, honestly, it still sounds pretty fucking vital 40 years later. This tune as much as any other by the band epitomizes the hypnotic brilliance of its simple yet profoundly masterful sonic delivery.
This wasn’t music readily available in the early 80s at mall record stores, nor did it get airplay on mainstream FM radio stations. I wasn’t even aware of it until 1983. By then the underground music scene was evolving into something else and banished the records by British Post-Punk bands that failed to evolve into the obscure import bins at hippie head shops.
I had to work my ass off just to find Gang of Four’s albums in San Antonio. I do recall that on the day I bought Entertainment I also found and bought the Psychedelic Fur’s new release Forever Now with its super-cool track Love My Way, ABC’s amazing New Wave dance-friendly debut The Lexicon of Love, Depeche Mode’s ultra-awesome Synth-Pop masterpiece Speak & Spell, and U2’s brilliant third album War with its lead single New Year’s Day that MTV introduced to America in February 1983. A great day for my music collection to say the least. I cannot recall a better single-day score than this one. Those five albums, along with Prince’s 1999 and The Time’s What Time Is It?, were the reasons the winter and spring of 1983 fucking ruled in my life. Oh, there’s more to why it was a glorious time, but this cool music was certainly the perfect soundtrack to all the crazy wild shit I did then.
Here’s another monster track, To Hell With Poverty, released in 1981 as a stand-alone single. Again the band’s funky sound plays its complementary role to Andy Gill’s stripped-down, scratchy, noisy, absolutely insanity-inducing guitar licks, and all the while you can imagine slam dancers bopping around wildly to its frenetic pace. Singer Jon King sneeringly implores his lover to join him in relishing the night with cheap wine while forgetting that, in a country of supposed wealth and opportunity run by maniacs, they’re two broke bitches working shit jobs, but to hell with it, have some fun, get drunk, dance, fuck.
To Hell With Poverty – Gang of Four (1981)
At Gang of Four’s center was guitarist and bandleader Andy Gill, who created a new Rock guitar archetype that influenced a whole host of bands in the past 40 years since Entertainment!’s debut in 1979. His twitchy, nervous, barely musical playing invoked a brilliant white noise that was surrounded by his bandmate’s insanely funky interplay. Call it White Punk-Funk. Not as groovy as black Funk, but certainly more cerebral and political. The Red Hot Chili Peppers (Gill produced their 1984 debut), Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys, Bloc Party, et al., paid homage to this sound, perhaps with their fans largely unaware of the source material, but, alas, that’s Rock & Roll; it’s all good, bro.
As I stated earlier, Andy Gill was only 64 when he died on February 1, a mere eight years older than I am. I am sad because in the 1980s the Gang of Four was seriously one of my favorite bands and played an important part as the background music to my crazy, nutty, weird, and insane life back then. In other words, perfect music for a nearly perfect (perfectly imperfect?) time. You had to be there to understand. Oh my, what a fly on the wall witnessed while observing me in 1983!
You millennials missed so much back in the dark ages before iPhones and apps for everything and Instagram and Amazon and Google and Facebook and all the horeshit that mostly makes your lives fraught with impersonal information overload, fake news and phony outrage over nothing, and zero true physical social interaction with humanity at large. Take away all the time you waste texting and Facebooking and TikToking and Redditing and all that bullshit; what would you do with your time, little millennial sheep?
Ah, what does an old fart like me know? The past is over, so why bother dredging it up? Well, because. Just because. Maybe there’s something to learn in remembering how it was before now. Just maybe. When I hear Gang of Four music I hear the faint echoes of my life well lived then, and how it influenced me to live well now. My true physical youth was long ago, but my brain remains young and vibrant even well into my middle-age years. I look, feel, and act much younger at 56 than 99% of my peers born around the same time. So I must be doing something right. I am not ready to give up on life or quit having fun. Writing about my past life isn’t the lament of some tired old dying fuck, it’s a goddamn joyful celebration of keeping that ebullient spirit within me alive for a hopeful and awesome future. Get it?
Here’s that New Wave Disco tune that was the band’s 1983 swan song. It’s actually cool. Andy Gill also sings lead while bassist Sara Lee kills it with a Bootsie-Collins-esque funk groove. And again, Gill’s guitar work is as masterful as it’s also understated. When I heard this in 1983 I had no idea it was the same band that recorded Damaged Goods until I asked the DJ, “Who made that record you just spun?” Handing me the album cover so I cold write it down (I always carried a small reporter’s notebook and a pen in my back pocket), he tried to defend GoF’s new sound after I was surprised it was by what I thought was a Post-Punk band: “They ain’t sellouts, man, they’re just trying to evolve.” Indeed. If Paul Weller could disband The Jam to form a slick Motown-esque soul group called Style Council in 1983, why couldn’t Andy Gill go all New Wave Disco with GoF? RIP, Mr. Andy Gill.
Is It Love? – Gand of Four (1983)