If Gang of Four had a dollar for every band that it influenced, the members wouldn’t necessarily be rich, but they’d probably be able to make a hefty down payment on a new house. In the last few years, bands such as Franz Ferdinand, the Rapture, Bloc Party, Radio 4 and Futureheads have all picked up major elements of the Gang of Four sound, R.E.M. covered its songs, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have joked that they ripped off the British band and deserve to be sued.
Gang of Four emerged from the British punk scene of the ‘70s with a sound unlike any other, a mixture of aggressively loud guitar that embraced noise as texture and favored a staccato rhythmic attack, funk-influenced bass and drums, and vocals that frequently functioned as dialogues about how human relationships are reduced to commercial transactions. Gang of Four’s 1979 debut, “Entertainment!,” remains one of the landmark albums of the last 35 years.
The band has been inactive for long stretches over the last two decades, but founding members Jon King and Andy Gill recently reconvened with a new rhythm section to record “Content” (Yep Roc), the band’s first studio album of new material since 1995.
(Original drummer Hugo Burnham and bass player Dave Allen, a key player on the band’s first two albums, both joined Gill and King when they first reunited a few years ago, but have since left to pursue careers in academia and digital technology, respectively.)
New bassist Thomas McNeice and drummer Mark Heaney step up to the challenge on the new album. Less strident and angular than “Entertainment!” and not quite as fiercely funky as its nearly as good 1981 follow-up, “Solid Gold,” “Content” nonetheless does a good job of playing to Gang of Four’s timeless strengths.
“The reunion tour (to play songs primarily from the first two albums) was meant to be a shortterm blast,” King says. “Andy and I had to relearn those songs. I had to re-encounter the young Jon King, which is disturbing in some ways.”
King says Gang of Four had very specific ideas about the role of each instrument when they began recording in the ‘70s and spotlights an unlikely early inspiration: the ‘50s Chicago blues recordings of the Muddy Waters Band.
“We each came up with our own parts, but there were certain things we didn’t want to hear. For example, I hate drummers using ride cymbals and making that splashy, washy noise. We want the instruments side by side, rather than layered. Splashes fill in all the gaps. Muddy Waters wouldn’t have let that happen. Chicago is (the) center of the great purity of all music. There would be no Gang of Four without that sound.”
The band’s feel for groove was built in from the get-go. King and Gill were art students at Leeds University, and visited America for the first time in their late teens as part of their studies.
“When I was18, hitchhiking around the Northeast, I was taken aback by the musical apartheid here, the black and white radio stations,” King says. “For me in my teens, everyone danced to reggae. It was British music, as far as we were concerned. And James Brown. You couldn’t go to party and not hear ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine.’ And that led us to Funkadelic and Chic and everything else. As a white band, we weren’t interested in playing genre music, ‘black music’; it would be pointless for us to do that. But we just naturally understood that the music should have that danceable vibe, because that’s what we were listening to all the time. And it’s what we weren’t hearing in a lot of the punk music at the time.”
The band’s early shows weren’t all well-received. Songs such as “Anthrax,” which opens with a minute of feedback and includes some of the more cynical antilove-song lyrics ever written, tended to divide audiences and mortify club owners.
“We quite successfully emptied rooms quite a few times,” King says with a laugh about the quartet’s early days. “You play a song like ‘Anthrax,’ and you’re asking for trouble. One promoter begged us not to go on stage after seeing our sound check. He thought he was getting a band to play ‘Desperado,’ and instead he got us. He said, ‘I’ll pay you, but please don’t play.’”
Not quite fitting into the pubrock scene with their abrasive sound and lyrics, not quite “punk” enough with their artstudent clothes and cerebral lyrics, the members of Gang of Four forged their own movement.
It was later dubbed “post-punk,” a term that King says was as much about sociology as sound: “I was working on a paper on Jasper Johns in New York in ‘76 and became friends with (future movie director) Mary Harron, who was then a fanzine writer and dating the drummer of the Patti Smith group,” King says.
“Andy came to New York to study, too, and we were staying at St. Mark’s Place near (punk mecca) CBGB and going there all the time. ... We were playing pinball with Joey Ramone. Everyone was in a band. What was interesting about New York bands is that they had all their 19th century French-poet imagery and skinny, clanky guitars. Richard Hell invented the look, which was heisted by the Sex Pistols. The U.K. scene picked up on the three chords and keep-it-dumb aspect, but not on the other stuff. And neither scene did any black music, no funk. It was still an enjoyable scene. The Buzzcocks were our friends and were a great pop-punk band, but none of them played anything that had a groove to it. The term ‘post-punk’ got coined a few years later for all the bands that didn’t fit in with that.
“But all ‘post-punk’ means is that bands were giving a nod and a wink to dance music.”