“We were on the verge of civil war,” Jon King remembers of the era from his home in Camden Town. “You had this great split between progressive forces trying to accommodate different people in a way that respected each other. But by doing that, privileged people were going to lose something or other, whether material or psychological.”
King, then a student at Leeds University studying painting, once found himself at a protest. “There was a march through Leeds by these fascists, so we demonstrated against it. I got truncheoned down by a mounted police officer, who was obviously on the side of the fascists.” Out of such a pressure cooker arose King’s band, Gang of Four.
If the aforementioned details seem vaguely familiar to our current predicament — some 40 years later and an ocean away — it also speaks to why the seismic force that is Gang of Four’s music remains vital decades later.
You can feel that urgency anew in the “Gang of Four: 77-81” box set. It contains the band’s outright agitprop classic, 1979’s “Entertainment!,” the criminally eclipsed follow-up “Solid Gold,” a taut live show from 1980, early singles and a cassette of their first demos. The box also features two fan buttons, a hard-bound book of photos and lyrics and exact reproductions of the rejection letters the band received upon sending out its early demos. It’s an obsessive, ludicrously hefty valentine of a box set to the group’s heyday.
A tribute album that foregrounds the band’s late guitarist, “The Problem of Leisure: A Celebration of Andy Gill and Gang of Four,” is also slated for release in May. Sporting furry cover art from Damien Hirst, its roster features folks whose more-famous bands were ancillaries of Gang of Four: members of Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Massive Attack all contribute. It’s not even close to the first time that Gang of Four has experienced a renaissance, with reunions and reappraisals coming every few years or so. A late iteration of the band helmed by lone original member Gill released a glut of 21st-century music (one EP featured a photo of Ivanka Trump on its cover), and he also licensed music to an Xbox ad. The latter was a bold move for a band whose lyrics once ranged from “Ideal love, a new purchase, a market of the senses” to “Guerrilla war struggle is a new entertainment.” But rather than prompting a backlash, these exhausting excavations and cash-ins rarely dented the band’s legacy.
Plenty of new bands continue to look to the Gang of Four template: shouted verses that could double as protest chants, sinewy rhythmic underpinning, enough space to pull a lorry through, and a singular guitar tone that came to define “angular” for all subsequent generations.
Taking their name from the four notorious Chinese Communist Party officials accused of treasonous crimes during the Cultural Revolution, Gang of Four came up with fellow bands like the Mekons and Delta 5. “I remember literally Googling ‘political punk’ and they popped up,” Victoria Ruiz, the frontwoman for punk band Downtown Boys, says via email. “Naming your band Gang of Four made us having an album called ‘Full Communism’ almost seem tepid in comparison.”
Gang of Four’s lyrics and imagery critiqued colonialism, capitalism and consumerism. They were an influence to bands ranging from R.E.M. to Fugazi, though now their aggressive sound is reflected in similarly energetic followers: ’80s punk-funk, ’90s rap-metal, and ’00s disco-punk all have a through line back to them. But in the past few years, their influence has evolved and widened. Now you can hear strains of the group in the art-rap of Clipping and Run the Jewels, while the guitar feedback from Entertainment’s “Love Like Anthrax” rumbled through Frank Ocean’s “Futura Free.”
“I grew up with it,” Run the Jewels rapper/producer El-P writes via email. He first heard the band’s debut album as a 10-year-old in Brooklyn, gravitating to the ferocity of the drums and guitar, even if little else made sense to him. “As I evolved the record kept unlocking itself further for me. By the time I was a teenager, I understood that this was a political and philosophical record. By the time I was an adult, I actually understood some of those ideas. I fell in love with the record again and again.” He sampled the spiky “Ether” for the boom-bap of Run the Jewels’ “The Ground Below,” his way of sharing the music with a new generation of listeners.
Ruiz thinks that the band remains relevant because they transcended the confines of what “punk” and “politics” could be. “I loved how they were kind of nerdy with this propagandistic aesthetic,” she says. “But they were also about ‘everything can be meaningful and important’ . . . and making poetry to the music, too.”
Clipping member William Hutson agrees, writing via email: “I’m thinking of how quaint a lot of ’70s and ’80s punk probably sounds today, as if the band had all the answers. Gang of Four had a more literary perspective, still fiercely political, but more inward-looking and personal, which ages much better.”
“The only reason we’re having a conversation now is that we didn’t sound like anybody else,” King says, bristling at the idea of being labeled punk. “The Sex Pistols were fun, but they weren’t original. It’s boring to listen to now.” King befriended Gill when both were teenagers. And when King got a research grant to write about Jasper Johns his third year at Leeds, Gill tagged along with his friend to New York City in 1976. The two Brits arrived at ground zero of punk, spending every night at CBGB and seeing the likes of the Ramones, Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and more before their debut albums had been recorded. Upon returning to England, the two friends decided to have a go at it themselves.
“It’s hard to overplay how the randomness of being an art student in Britain led to being in a band,” King says. “Practically everyone in a band had been in art college. All I wanted to do was be an artist. I didn’t want to be in a band. But we all wanted to make a difference.” King says the political themes of Gang of Four stem from seeing how blues artists grappled with death and violence, citing Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Fattening Frogs for Snakes” and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave is Kept Clean.”
The influx of Afro-Caribbean immigrants to Britain also inspired the nascent band. They were active participants in Rock Against Racism, a political and cultural movement that directly confronted the burgeoning fascist movement in Leeds and elsewhere. And King fondly recalls “blues dances,” illegal house parties boasting huge sound systems, close dancing to dub reggae and ganja clouds. So when a melodica wanders across songs such as “Not Great Men” and “5.45,” that connection is made explicit. King took particular inspiration from Bob Marley: “His genius was to make songs that were about oppression and difficulty sound great and catchy.” And that lesson carried over to his band. “Gang of Four didn’t only write about politics as we usually frame them,” El-P says. “They did that, but they wrote about the politics of their heart, too. I think that’s what makes them great: being able to take on the world and themselves at the same time.”
No matter if you’ve listened to “Entertainment!” hundreds of times, its concussive tunes remain undiminished. Recorded without reverb, it’s dry to the point of sounding like vacuum-sealed saltines. Hugo Burnham’s drums and Dave Allen’s bass spasm in tandem like a muscle cramp, confident and nervous in equal measure. One might imagine Andy Gill’s guitar strung with concertina wire, so razorous is his sound, inspiring generations of guitarists to bring the noise. He’s a minimalist at heart, but a miscreant, taking the choppy upstrokes of Nile Rodgers and making them sound like a table saw cutting through sheet metal.
Looking back at that time, King is struck by the camaraderie of the band, which began to strain soon after this era. Allen was the first to depart, in 1981, and Burnham left two years later. “What really shocked me was the photographs from that window of that time,” King says. “The four of us were a crew. We weren’t very nice to each other, but we loved each other.” Bittersweet was King’s long, at times contentious, relationship with Gill. In the process of putting the box set together and considering another string of reunion shows, Gill died in February 2020 of what was originally reported as pneumonia, though his wife suspects he might have been an early casualty of the coronavirus.
“We were a yin-and-yang team,” King says of Gill. “You could almost define what the other person was like by saying it was the opposite of the other. After Andy died, it was funny to hear our music on the radio so much.” King pauses for a moment at the memory before continuing: “It still doesn’t sound like any other stuff. Andy’s greatest guitar work is on those two albums and the early singles. It was incandescently great. Nothing after was as ambitious, as reckless as that.” That sense of abandon and determination guarantees that the next era of social strife might once again find Gang of Four as its soundtrack.