Welcome to the second installment of our exclusive two-part conversation with Leeds, U.K. post-punk icons Gang Of Four, represented by singer Jon King and drummer Hugo Burnham. We learned last time what the Marxist funkateers picked up from organizing political demonstrations and seeing early punk bands in the student refectory as Leeds University students. We also learned what a “refectory” is. (According to Burnham, it’s “English for ‘big bloody dining room.’”) In fact, we learned what a delightfully broad sense of humor both gents shared, in contrast to the perceived cold, angsty image their brittle polemics may exude. This time, they explain the unique chemistry of the original Gang Of Four lineup—including bassist Dave Allen and late guitarist Andy Gill—as well as the arduous path undertaken in releasing the incredible new box set ‘77-’81.
As for that box set? It’s a wonder. The music alone justifies the premium pricing. The remastering job by Abbey Road is lifelike. Every instrument sounds three-dimensional, and the dynamic Czech Republic pressings pack a 30 megaton wallop. Wrapped in some of the most elaborate, beautiful packaging in all of Christendom, ‘77-’81 is the best musical investment you’ll make all year. The hardbound book ought to be issued on its own, once the vinyl box set sells out its limited run. The rewards are hard-earned and plentiful.
Please enjoy our custom playlist of Gang Of Four essentials, many drawn from the box set, as you read.
I’m struck by Andy making a noise like a man throwing a Stratocaster down a staircase. Later, I found out, “Oh, he’s listening to Wilko Johnson!” And Hugo, you’re a drum dynamo. I think you’re one of the greatest drummers to come out of that time, other than someone like Topper Headon.
HUGO BURNHAM: I think you have great taste. [Laughs.] Dr. Feelgood, the whole band was a strong influence on us, going back to stagecraft. You can see videos of them, and you can see pre-echoes of the way we would move onstage, as well. Andy borrowed significantly from Wilko, but what a great source. I mean, we borrowed from lots of things, which were the ingredients to making our own thing. But they were extraordinary, and it is about stagecraft. So many bands are like, “There’s no difference between us and the audience.” Well, there’s a massive difference. Doesn’t mean you can stop the audience getting up onstage. But you are there to entertain. You are the focus of the room. And how you deal with that may differ. But this is a performance. And stagecraft matters.
JON KING: If you see old footage of James Brown, every tiny moment of every tiny song he did, he was in control of his voice, his musicians and what he was doing with his body. And he invented a style of dancing that was as brilliant as Nureyev or Nijinsky. The guy was an utter physical god of that scampering way of dancing. Of course, there are other musicians who have emulated that. Everything that Mick Jagger does is a version of James Brown.
BURNHAM: James Brown and Tina Turner.
KING: Yes, her too. The only thing I came up with was there was a great bit. I don’t know if you ever saw James Brown. It was an exhausting show to watch—it went on and on and on. But there was a little bit where he would pretend to collapse on the stage. Then he’d sing, “Please, please, please, please!” Then someone would come on, and they would put a cape around him and help him off, as if he was having a coronary or something. Then he would run back on again.
There was a little while where I used to do that onstage, as well—a little gag for the musicologists. Jim, our guitar roadie, would stand at the side of the stage, and I’d be singing whatever it was. And I’d drop down with the mic and shot and shake. Jim would come over and put the coat around me. [Laughs.]
Famously, you borrowed from funk, rhythm and blues and even disco. But you played those rhythms a lot harder.
KING: Hugo and I were talking about this earlier this week. We were remembering how we collectively came up with the song “Return The Gift.” We always did stuff in the rehearsal room. And Andy came up with the minimum number of notes you could come up with that you could call a riff, which is two notes. [Sings the song’s two-note riff.] It qualifies as a riff, but it’s only two notes. So, that’s a starting point. What Dave and Hugo did, which was totally genius, was throw in all this stuff that took it into the direction of funk and disco.
BURNHAM: Dave’s bass was very fluid in a way, in that song. Even though it’s chunky, it’s fluid. Then the drum part was Clem Burke’s disco style. And the two-note riff, which the Buzzcocks did once or twice, or the two-note guitar solo. We didn’t do any guitar solos. We did what we called “anti-solos.” It was the drop-out, again driven by our love of dub reggae, which is literally about dropping things out of the main riff.
We toured with the Buzzcocks quite a lot. They were very good and generous with us. It all started with a gig at Ilkley College Of Art, which is about an hour away from Leeds on the way to Manchester. Dave was doing most of the booking at that moment, calling social secretaries and things. And he kept pushing them: “C’mon, give us a gig now! Give us a gig now!” “Well, all right. Come over when the Buzzcocks are playing!” That was the night the Jam were playing the refectory at Leeds University, which is what everyone in town was going to. So, everyone was coming this way, but we were going that way!
We turned up, pulling up with all our equipment and the Buzzcocks’ manager Richard Boon and a couple of the crew were there. “Who are you?” “Oh, we’re the support act.” “No, you’re not!” “Yes, we are!” “No, you’re not!” “Can we be?” “OK, then.” [Laughs.]
We opened the show, and I think we played for half an hour. We did our thing and banged it on. Almost a week later, Dave got a telegram from the Buzzcocks, saying, “We’re doing our first national tour. We’ve got six shows, beginning in London. Will you come with us?” It was with the Slits and John Cooper Clarke. We ended up in London with the lot. Then we ended up in Europe with them. It was our first trip across the border. Again, it was a lot larger shows than we would have been playing on our own. They were really helpful to our careers.
Then in 1979, a week after recording Entertainment!, we left to come to the States for the first time, again with the Buzzcocks. I think we did eight shows with the Buzzcocks and about 18 on our own.
So, we owe them a hefty debt of gratitude, definitely. Two-note guitar solos included. [Laughs.]
We should talk a bit about this box set. Hugo, you told me Jon is primarily the driving force behind it.
BURNHAM: He is, indeed. We all worked on it. Jon and I particularly worked long and hard on it. But Jon was the driving force. It was Jon’s masterwork, really. We had been talking about doing something like this as a result of getting our copyrights back from Warner Bros. in the United States, due to what is known as the 35-year rule. We had been in the black. We were being recouped from Warner Bros. for more than 20 years. [Chuckles.] And we told them, “You need to pay us more money.” This was a deal we signed in 1980. Almost everything now is digital and streaming, and the deal doesn’t reflect the current times.
We came to them with the 35-year rule and said, “We have the option to leave, but we’ve got a good history with Warner Bros. Please talk to us. Please make us an offer to stay.” It really just confirmed that it wasn’t the Warner Bros. of the past—“Warmer Bros.,” as George Clinton called them. We decided that we needed to find another partner to work with. There were a few suitors, and Matador was the most wonderful of them. That gave us the opportunity to say, “What can we do now to completely control, creatively, without them?” We decided to do this box set, focussing on the original lineup. That ‘77 to ‘81 period was when we felt the strongest work had been done, if not the strongest of a strong body of years.
We really started the hard work in August or September of 2019, before Andy passed actually. Then it probably took a year to get it all nailed down. And then, of course, it was supposed to originally come out last December during the 40th year anniversary of Entertainment!’s release in the United States, which was February of 1980, even though it had come out in ‘79 in the rest of the world and the U.K. But then COVID happened, and they manufactured it in Eastern Europe. Hey, what can you do? It just came out, and we’re delighted by it, very happy with it. It’s a great piece of work. We put a lot of energy into it. We put a lot of people into it.
Luckily, a lot of people were very happy to contribute, whether it was words or sharing old memories and photographs. Most of the people have the records, but the book is a spectacular thing. It’s really an important part of the box. It’s not just about all the music. It’s about the time—what was driving us, the things that related us to or experiencing while we were writing the songs, what was going on.
So, COVID delayed this box set?
BURNHAM: Yes. We were very lucky. We had manufacturing delays, and Jon would have gone to Abbey Road for the mastering, just for the crack as much as anything else. You just couldn’t do that. You had to trust the people to do things. We were both actually going to fly into New York in April of last year to spend time with the record company and sit down with the art director, things like that. You can’t do that. You have to trust the technology that has been letting us down this afternoon. [Laughs.]
KING: I haven’t been in the same room with anyone from the record company. Right at the moment, I’m working on finalizing the CD version of it. It’s not going to be like the box set. It’s going to be a four CD pack with the book. Every part of the box set was manufactured in the Czech Republic because of the economics of this. There are very few places in the world that press vinyl. Yet, the demand for vinyl is soaring. There’s only plant in the U.K. that I’m aware of that does quality vinyl pressing. This Czech Republic place is outstanding and can do this type of quality boxing manufacture, as well.
BURNHAM: And the cassette!
KING: Now look at The Guardian’s interactive map of the worst places in the whole world to be, in terms of COVID, there’s the Czech Republic. If you go online, there’s different colors showing how bad it is. Central Europe and the Czech Republic are certainly the worst. The death rate is terrible. It’s really affecting the manufacturing plant. It’s really, really serious. The U.K. and U.S. have pursued a really imaginative and successful vaccination program. As of today, half of all adults in the U.K. have been vaccinated now, below the age of 18. That’s incredible. But in the Czech Republic, where people are dying very tragically in large numbers, it’s something like 3% of the population who have been [vaccinated].
It’s not necessarily been an economics thing, but it’s been quite a conundrum. As Hugo said, I only live a few miles North of Abbey Road. That’s where we recorded Solid Gold. But you can’t go through the front door. You can’t even deliver a parcel. You have to leave them on the doorstep.
All that stuff you’re saying about the Czech Republic, Jon? It sounds like it would be great grist for a modern-day Gang Of Four song.
KING: The only country I was ever tempted to have in a song was Switzerland. I’ve always had a book where I just write down sentences and words that I like. It might be a line in a song or the title of a song. I found a pile of a few of these pages the other day, and one of the suggested titles of a song was “The Idea Of Switzerland.” I think it would be a pretty bad title for a song, though. The idea of Switzerland has been on my mind a lot in my life. And it’s really, really a dull place. [Laughs.]
HB: Good God!
KING: It’s got beautiful mountains, and it’s really clean.