Hugo Burnham, drummer for England's controversial Gang of Four, carries around a tattered copy of a comic book, "Marx for Beginners." "I thought it was about time to find out when people asked me: 'Are you or are you not a Marxist?'"
The question is a recurring one for the rock collective from Leeds whose aggressive left-wing stance and radical funk has earned them a lot of press in England -- much of it misunderstood here, they feel. Jon King, the Gang's talkative vocalist, insists that it's difficult to transcribe British politics. "A lot of the things that put us on the left in England are thought of as reasonable ideas in the United States: wanting an elected second house of Parliament, freedom of information, a freer press. In England, that puts you in a very radical spectrum, while in America you take it for granted, they're mainstream ideas enshrined in your Constitution."
"You're in touch with Moscow if you say that in Engand," adds guitarist Andy Gill. The group is rounded out by bassist Dave Allen and in the dressing room of the Bayou (where they performed Sunday night), one sensed a bit of the art-school milieu that brought them together. Gill is the fragile intellectual, King the voluble theorist, Allen the cautious listener and Burnham the earnest joiner. Conversations are cyclical, with King tending to dominate and Gill punctuating the others' statements with asides.
The Gang of Four aims at political catharsis through what one associate of theirs described as a "dance floor dialectic," but even that proposition is open to argument King: "She believed in a theory of high art." Gill: "She believed in that? She believed in 'pop music as trash'?" King: "Yes, like it was 'an enjoyable trash' sort of thing." Gill: "You mean, 'Hey, but come on guys, it's just fun,' right? AAYYAAAH!"
One senses a jovial watchdon quality in talking to the group. As with most bands, they are quick to explain what they are not, suggesting what they are by a process of elimination. For instance, Allen rejects the "Che Guevara, political band, agitator image," insisting that "people miss the ironies. We don't take ourselves that seriously."
King agrees that the term "political band" is a misnomer leading to false conclusions. "Obviously we borrow from the Marxist tradition, but we also borrow from a lot of other sources. It would be wrong for us to be called Marxists, which is a misunderstood term. An important part of putting over a serious idea, I think, is not to really beat someone around the head. . ." "Isn't it?" interjects Gill, and there's a five-minute delay while they thrash that topic around without coming to a conclusion.
The Gang's first album, "Entertainment" ("Guerrilla war struggle is a new entertainment" they claimed on "5.45"), offered provocative songs that were less agit-prop sloganeering than stern pronouncements on racism sexism, class distinctions and general cultural oppression. "Ether" is summed up as looking at "the dirt behind the daydream." "A lot of what we're about is not governmental politics," says Gill. "We talk about all kinds of systems of domination, in our personal relations especially."
Their recent follow-up, "Solid Gold," extended the band's attempt at a cultural revolution built around a unique synthesis of ryhthm-heavy music and sparse proletarian profundity, a winning combination of party time and party line. This time around they avoided a lyric sheet because, according to Burnham, "too much attention was being directed at the lyrics at the expense of the music. The music is as radical, or left-field, as the ideas behind the lyrics. We are first and foremost musicians, not politicians using music to push our politics or ideals. We're musicians with specific ideas. We make records, we write songs, we tour. However much you like or dislike the idea of rock 'n' roll, we're very much a part of it."
Adds Allen, "There are good things in the rock tradition. We're trying to restructure it by personal example rather than by making a big noise about it." Although there's an obvious irony in the band's connection to two major multinational recording companies (Warner Bros. here and EMI in England), they point to a very intense organizational management controlled by themselves. "We're created an autonomy around ourselves," says King. "It's music that might enrich the life rather than pass the time as you go down the highway, like the Van Halens of this world."
The Gang's organization extends from collective songwriting to breaking down rock hierarchies: The Gang rooms and eats with their crew. "It's no big deal," admits Burnham, "but it seems the right thing." The Gang is also active in Britain's fledgling Rock Against Sexism movement, which seeks to overcome the music's stultifying attitude toward women.
Burnham: "We sometimes get 'Why don't you have a woman in the band? You should be a mixed band.'" Gill: "I never heard that!" Burnham: "Well, then you're deaf. . ." Gill: "Right." Burnham: "You'd almost expect sex of a mixed band, with men an women in it. . ." Gill: "Unless they were heterosexuals and homosexuals. You stand corrected. . ." Burnham: "I'm not corrected at all. You're just a naive pedantic wanker. . ." At which point the boys in the band engage in a playful tatto number on their own drummer. Gang warfare is not always a war of words.