THE NORTH- Gang of Four
This year marks the fortieth birthday of the iconic post-punk band Gang of Four – not to be mistaken with the Chinese communist political faction under the same name. Gang of Four appeared to be a breath of fresh air within the bleak post-punk musical landscape: fuelled with the fury of punk, they produced what can only be described as political punk-funk. Think Dr. Feel Good singing the entire Marxist Communist Manifesto in a steamy, dingy nightclub in Leeds.
First of all, it seems most appropriate to set a small scene: it’s January 1978 and Maggie Thatcher is perched on the edge of a regal armchair-come-throne; her perfectly quaffed hair as unmovable as the lady herself. She’s sitting opposite a World in Action news reporter, claiming that the British people are ‘afraid’ of being ‘swamped’ by immigrants, and, verging on the precipice of seeming like a National Front sympathiser, she says ‘at least’ the white nationalist party are ‘talking about the problems’. Thank God that the delicate issues surrounding immigration and racism were expressed by such an eloquent, non-racist and peaceful group of white men.
The National Front then went on to launch the ‘Punk Front’ in Leeds in 1978 that eventually lead to a whole host of racist and homophobic attacks. Leeds became a political melting-pot, which became the perfect landscape for its intellectually stimulated student population. The Gang of Four – made up of Alan Gill, Jon King, Dave Allen and Hugo Burnham – became the product of the leftist art school mentalities of Leeds at the time.
The gang’s debut, and most famous single ‘Damaged Goods’ was released in October of 1978. Watching a performance from 1983 from the German TV show Rockpalast, the band looks completely disjointed. Yet, it is this ordered chaos that makes the band so fantastic. Bassist Dave looks like a knock-off New Romantic Bowie, bopping his head nonchalantly to the music, whilst guitarist Andy casually strolls around the stage, commandeering the attention of the camera whilst he strums his guitar in repetitive motions. Drummer Hugo is wearing a headset with a microphone attached, almost as if he’s one of the venue technicians who got lost at work and accidentally got pulled in to playing in the band. Singer Jon looks like the fantastic love child of pouty Mick Jagger, the magically possessed Ian Curtis and Al Capone in his ghastly cream suit in Scarface. It’s a catastrophic recipe that yields an amazingly captivating performance. They really were like nothing else. In 2009, Jon was interviewed by Clash Magazine, and confessed the story behind the song:
‘We wandered, walleyed, through the sun-bright aisles of Morrison’s supermarket in Leeds, looking for a 2-4-1 bargains and generic baked beans. The hopeless in-store slogan at the point of sale was: “The change will do you good” meaning “change” as in money and “change” as in switch store. […] I found this good starter for words about a doomed relationship where leg-over had become, maybe, too much of a good thing. Or at any rate, a thing.’
The song acts as a demystification of capitalism through the very awareness of it, all through the lens of a failing relationship: ‘open the till, give me the change you said would do me good / refund the cost, you said you’re cheap but you’re so smart’. This post-punk music, grounded in theory notarized the band as some sort of groovy Aristotle. Their first album titled Entertainment!, which includes ‘Damaged Goods’ follows suit: ‘I Found That Essence Rare’ borrows its title from a tasteless slogan for a perfume ad, with the song summing up the desire for permanency in a world of isolation, oppression and despondency; ‘At Home He’s a Tourist’ relays how consumerism and large corporations dictate a person’s self-identity. It’s all very bleak in spirit, but groovy in sound.
They continued with this political energy through every subsequent album; their most recent addition is called What Happens Next?, released in 2015. It is an album from a band whose sole original band member is Andy, as they have now ushered in a completely new line-up, finished off with the sleek-looking John Sterry on vocals.
Mark Deming wrote a review for AllMusic on their most recent album and said that: ‘while there’s much [on the album] Gill can point to with pride, more than a few fans are likely to feel they didn’t get what was advertised’. The new album can be summarised as Gang of Four 9.0: it’s still politically galvanised, but with the mix of the new line-up, the new vocal collaborations with the likes of The Kills’ Alison Mosshart, and a new, somewhat Muse inspired sound, it seems like a distant cry from the funky energy that defined them from the beginning.
However, all is not lost, for we must pay massive respect to the band, who have been said to have inspired the formation of bands such as R.E.M, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and Nirvana. And who would ever like to imagine a world without ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’?