In 1981, R.E.M., an unknown band from Athens, Georgia found themselves supporting Gang of Four on a US Tour. They had yet to make a record and what Gang of Four’s audience of agit-punk aficionados made of their hickory smoked Americana is lost to history. In 1985, they released their third album, Fables of the Reconstruction and by now, their Byrdsy jangle had secured them a place at the top table of college radio approved alt-rock. What must have come as a surprise to many of their newly found fans was that the record opened with “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”, where guitarist Peter Buck’s chiming Rickenbacker arpeggios were replaced with a harsh, atonal squall of noise. It sounded a lot – I mean A LOT – like Gang of Four. It had taken a mere four years for the penny to drop. Unfortunately for the Gang of Four, that was not an unusual occurrence.
The Problem of Leisure: A Celebration of Andy Gill and Gang of Four is a rarity in the space it occupies, inasmuch as it’s a tribute album that’s consistently good. These projects are often curated by people with the best of intentions, which turn into curate’s eggs almost immediately. Not so here. Some of the tunes are played straight, some are – whisper it – deconstructed, but at the very least, they’re all interesting.
The project was originally started by the Go4’s guitarist Andy Gill to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their debut record, Entertainment!, but following his untimely passing in February 2020, it was completed by his widow, Catherine Mayer. What a bittersweet task that must have been.
In the “play it like it is, we’re not worthy” corner, we have artists like Tom Morello and Serj Tankian, Helmet, Idles, and Everything Everything. In the “take it to bits and bolt it back together again” camp, we have Herbert Gronmeyer, La Roux, Warpaint, and 3D x Gang of Four featuring Nova Twins. Unsurprisingly, it’s the versions that stick closest to the template that are the most successful. Idles’ version of “Damaged Goods” manages to sound even more manic and unhinged than the original and might also be the best thing they’ve ever recorded. Hotei’s version of “To Hell with Poverty” starts like Eddie Van Halen jamming with Public Image Limited before settling into a relentless, aggressive groove. Former Bowie/Go4 bandmember Gail Ann Dorsey takes “We Live As We Dream Alone”, adds a soulful vocal, smooths off a rough edge or two, and makes a diamond.
Of the big-ticket artists on The Problem of Leisure, Gary Numan comes off best. His version of “Love Like Anthrax” matches the intensity of the original by swapping Gill’s savage guitar mistreatment with glacial synthesizers. Herbert Gronmeyer takes a slightly different approach, turning “I Love a Man in Uniform” into an ’80s, gay Eurodisco anthem. Disconcertingly, the vocal line sounds a lot like Jello Biafra. Weird. And great fun.
Flea and John Frusciante’s version of “Not Great Men” fares less well. Flea shows off his slap-bass chops, and Frusciante plays hard and funky, but the effect is somewhat dulled by what sounds like the Chipmunks on vocals. A shame, as Flea has a direct connection with Gill as he produced the Chili Peppers’ 1984 debut album. Everything Everything contribute a reverential but forceful version of “Naturals Not in It”. It’s helped by the fact that coming from the north of England like the Go4, vocalist Jonathan Higgs can get his mouth around the typically dour lyric: “Remember Lot’s wife / Renounce all sin and vice / Dream of the perfect life / This heaven gives me migraine.” Tom Morello and Serj Tankian have a crack at the same tune and while Morello plays the alt-rock guitar hero card with style and aplomb, Tankian doesn’t sound quite as convincing when he sings “repackaged sex keeps your interest” as the pale, English boys. It’s still a pretty exciting noise they make.
What no one could have expected was the Gamelan version of “Not Great Men” that concludes this collection. Did the band have a coterie of diehard fans in Indonesia? Big in Bali? Regardless, this is a superb version. I would pay good money for an entire album of post-punk classics played in the same style as this. That would have jaws dropping at hip 50-somethings’ dinner parties the whole world over.
Although some of the “hits” are missing from this project – there’s no “At Home He’s a Tourist”, “Cheeseburger” or “Call Me Up” here – and a few tunes are repeated, this is an outstanding release. It’s a broad and satisfying collection, and given the diversity of the artists – from Helmet to La Roux – it doesn’t sound like a malfunctioning jukebox. That’s quite an achievement. However, the sad news is that using R.E.M. as the yardstick, it’ll be 2025 before everyone wakes up and buys it.