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Gang Of Four on their political roots, new box set '‘77-’81’ and more

When Leeds, U.K.
post-punks Gang Of Four first appeared on American shores in 1980, they were simultaneously startling, exciting, fierce, warm, familiar and yet shockingly new. They were clearly unthinkable without punk, yet they didn’t play standard-issue Ramonesisms in a leather jacket. They were as angry and leftist in their politics as the Clash, but they seemingly came to destroy rock ‘n’ roll, not play it—a frequent threat of early punk that flashed less and less literally as time marched on. Guitarist Andy Gill handled his Strat like a man who delights in cranking his amp to Metallica volume, then hurling his guitar down a staircase. 

Drummer Hugo Burnham resembled a skinhead thug in his 1460 Dr. Martens and Number Two crop but is now a university professor. He locked in with bassist Dave Allen on a series of muscular funk and disco grooves—hardly expected beneath Gill’s anti-guitar heroics. Jon King practically crooned his erudite polemics atop this angular clang, occasionally tooting the melodica he picked up from dub master Augustus Pablo. And the entire band indulged in the instrumental dropout and abrupt silences of dub reggae in their arrangements, elements as startling as any other in their arsenal.

The original Go4 lineup only lasted four years, a period chronicled in a new, crucial box set ‘77-’81, for Matador Records. With Gill’s brusque, staccato guitar bursts silenced by his death Feb. 1, 2020, the remaining three from the original quartet decided it was time to anthologize their brief history. First two LPs Entertainment! (rated his 13th favorite album of all time in a list in Kurt Cobain’s journals) and Solid Gold are remastered from the original analog tapes, sounding like they had a shower, a shave, two cups of coffee and a cigarette. There’s also a frighteningly taut concert album, Live At American Indian Center 1980, accurately reflecting how delightfully jarring they were to fresh American ears. Additionally, there’s a 90-minute cassette included of demos and outtakes, a collection of non-LP singles and a 100-page hardbound book detailing their history. 

Thanks to the miracle of Zoom, Alternative Press was able to speak with King, still a U.K. resident, and Burnham, currently an associate professor at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts. The pair were relaxed, jovial and self-effacing in their humor, frequently laughing and finishing each other’s sentences. We begin as King recounts a fateful backstage meeting with future Ministry leader Al Jourgensen.

JON KING: He came backstage when we were in Chicago years and years and years ago, when he was 15. Then he came backstage at a festival years and years and years later, and he was very generous and complimentary. He said to me, “If it weren’t for you…? You taught me how to set up Ministry.” And I was shocked I’d given anybody any good advice ever in my whole life. The other shocking thing was I’d been friendly with someone backstage! [Laughs.] 

I think you’ve helped out a lot more people than Al. Older folks here in Austin, Texas, talk about how Gang Of Four played Club Foot the night Ronald Reagan was elected. And you guys were pissed, as anybody with any sort of decency would have been. It went right into your performance.

KING: The really terrible thing is that Reagan is now a really attractive character with really sensible policies. [Laughs.] He’s now a dangerous liberal. At least he who shall not be named is now out of office. There’s that.

BURNHAM: I do remember that night very well. Mostly after the show. Austin was always a lot of fun.

I’m very happy seeing the music coming back again through this box set and seeing this thing being assembled with love and care. It feels like we need the original Gang Of Four more than ever, now.

KING: Every era needs someone to say something or other about what life is like. I was talking to a journalist the other day, and he referenced that I’d said I thought that “God Save The Queen,” even though it was an amazing, great, fun single, was musically boring. Not to say that I didn’t and don’t still have huge affection for that thing. It brings back the time. But it didn’t, strangely enough, say as much about the time as, say, Miles DavisKind Of Blue said about life in that time in America. Or Robert Johnson. I think there are acts out there now. But as it said in the book, we were pretty involved in stuff.

BURNHAM: We were. We were involved before we were a cohesive band. It was a very fractious time. We were art students—and other students—in a Northern city that was really falling apart in some ways, not unlike the rest of the country. The Labour Government had really messed things up, opening up doors not just to the Tory Party under Margaret Thatcher. But that whole election, far-right groups like the National Front and the British National Party ran legitimate candidates, which was mind-blowing. So we were against this. We couldn’t help but be against this. 

KING: We spent a lot of time on the back of trucks at demonstrations and playing. It’s one of the things that’s very different now to then. It’s the absence of that type of thing. I haven’t been aware of that type of thing for a long time. Having huge numbers of people turning out, it becomes a carnival of progressive ideas. You get to entertain everybody by getting a flatbed truck and getting some generator on the back and making a noise. Then there’s that group sensibility we all had. We were all involved. It wasn’t a commercial activity, and I don’t think it made any difference to anyone’s music sales. But the idea of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism was a really big thing at that time. 

And for a young punk-rock kid of the time, it was easy for me to relate to Gang Of Four because I’d already had the example of the Clash. And very famously, Greil Marcus referred to you as the “thinking man’s Clash.” It is easy to see that you were what the Clash would have been, had they gone to university other than art school.

KING: Well, actually I went to art school in university! [Laughs.] I think it’s hard to understate what art school meant because you had a lot of time to yourself. There’s very little structured teaching. When I look back, I think I only had six hours per week of any kind of interaction with a member of staff. The rest of the time, you’re left to your own devices. So it’s hard to think of a British band, from the Rolling Stones through to whatever, who didn’t go through art school. Practically all of the punk scene went through it. Paul Simonon, for example—classic art student and a great bass player. 

BURNHAM: Glen Matlock. You can find at least one member of every English band, pre-punk as well as punk, who was in art school. Because you had the time to create art, to play and drink and rehearse. 

Tony James very famously said, “You’d get your grant at the beginning of the year and buy an amplifier.”

BURNHAM: [Laughs.] Yeah! Right! What we did was get out grants at the beginning of the year and drink it. Then we’d go steal our amps.

KING: Yes. That’s actually true. Leeds was a very unusual place, which is, of course, why we went there. It was an A-list concert venue: Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Paul McCartney, the Who, Roxy Music. The Stones played in the refectory hall.

BURNHAM: “Refectory” is English for “big bloody dining room.” [Laughs.] 

KING: The Stones played to 1,000 people in the refectory. Led Zeppelin played there. I saw Bob Marley there. Hugo and I were both there. It was a dream come true. These are the acts that would be headlining these days at Glastonbury. Not only was that on the A-list tour itinerary, [but] down the road was the Polytechnic, which is a more outcome-oriented place to study. They also had an art department. It was only half a mile away. They paid even less attention to what anybody did. Green Gartside, who obviously formed Scritti Politti, I always have a joke about his attitude to concept art, which he somehow connected to his course: He just laid in bed until 3 o’clock. [Laughs.] 

BURNHAM: Leeds Poly, which is now called Leeds Beckett University, had its own venue which was quite a lot smaller. Again, it was like a gym and a dining room. But that was where the Anarchy tour played—the first place they were allowed to play without being banned. The acts that came from there during our time there: Frank Tovey, [aka] Fad Gadget, Marc Almond

KING: Scritti Politti, Mekons, Delta 5. We all sat in this pub… 

BURNHAM: In between the two… 

KING: The two places. So the venue at the Polytechnic, I think, was about 500, wasn’t it, Hugo?

BURNHAM: Yeah, it was quite a bit smaller, maybe 300 or 400.

KING: But we saw things like the Stiffs Greatest Stiffs tour there and Jonathan Richman

BURNHAM: No, no, no, the Stiff tour went to the university. The Poly was the Ramones with Talking Heads

KING: Oh yeah! The Ramones and Talking Heads are playing about a 400-capacity room, which is quite lovely. We saw the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned and the Heartbreakers for one pound, which back then was the equivalent of two dollars. Even though this is obviously in ancient times, it’s now like seeing those four bands for about six bucks. It was a great learning place because you’d watch all the bands. Before we were a band, we were all mates. But you saw them all and saw how they approached stagecraft.

Like Jonathan Richman, for example, did a completely unamplified show. Which is a difficult thing before 400 people. You could hardly hear a thing. [Laughs.] But he was in complete control of the crowd. It was a really interesting way to approach it. The quieter he got, the more you had to pay attention to what he was doing. The other extreme was the Ramones. When they were being quiet, [it] was that nanosecond between one song and then the other.