Gang of Four's Andy Gill: "We Didn't Want to Talk Down to People From Atop Our Soapboxes"
Photo by Leo Cackett
In a just world, we would hear Gang of Four's "Damaged Goods" on American classic-rock radio as often as the Clash's "London Calling." Both songs take cues from varying aspects of the British day-to-day (a Morrison's supermarket slogan and BBC Radio's wartime broadcasts, respectively), and each puts enough post in its punk to make them the radio-ready, reggae-funk hybrids they are. Most crucially, both of these tracks roared pretty damned loudly in a roaring period in rock history.
But if the world were just, we likely wouldn't have a Gang of Four or a Clash. A world without injustice simply couldn't cultivate bands like these, which came along expressly to fight the good fight.
As they barreled down the 101 Highway from Vancouver to San Francisco between gigs, Gang of Four's Andy Gill — the sole remaining member of the original lineup — seemed just as cognizant of the world's imbalance now as he was back when the band first struck up in '78. Gill is also duly proud of the way in which the Gang went about being loud.
"We didn't want to talk down to people from atop our soapboxes," he recalls. "We weren't about slogans and rah-rah and all that claptrap. We wanted to be a little smarter than that and to have a little more fun."
The band has earned a reputation for its clever approach to socially conscious music-making. It was using irony to punch up its lyrics long before that became the pervasive mode.
"In those days, irony was still a tool, a device. As was its big brother, satire. And it's a whole lot more fun than hitting people over the head."
"OK, maybe not more fun," Gill laughs. "But it was certainly more effective.
"The point of great art is to show you something you haven't seen before. And that generally requires a little finesse."
A little finesse only gets a band of outlaws so far when it makes it its mission to stand up against the hypocrisy of authority. More than once, Gang of Four has found itself running afoul of the law.
"We were in [the Northwest British town of] Carlisle, where [founding bassist] Dave Allen apparently was well-known to the authorities," Gill remembers. "In fact, I think Dave bested 'em on a couple of occasions, which is not something you do to cops anywhere, let alone a small city in England. So when our tour brought us back, they were waiting — with roadblocks!"
Did they think the Gang were with the IRA or something?
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"No, not terrorists — drug smugglers, which these days is just as bad. And it took a night behind bars before everything was sorted and we were allowed to be on our way."
Some might consider it criminal the way legions of bands have co-opted Gang of Four's rallying sound and claimed it as their own. Others could say that without the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Babyshambles, and Franz Ferdinand carrying on the Gang's angular tradition, many might not know of the group at all.
Gill is understandably uninterested in this argument, for or against, though he does tune in to new sounds. Specifically, Gill cites Son Lux and Jack Garratt as a couple of artists doing "exciting things" with music these days.
And Gang of Four has kept pace as well. The band's eighth studio album, What Happens Next, racked in January, features a range of new sounds not typically associated with the typically stripped-down band.
"After [vocalist] Jon King left, I decided it was time to try a few of the other collaborative ideas I've had kicking around," explains Gill. "Once we recruited John Sterry, that all became possible."
The Gang's latest incarnation also features Alison Mosshart of the Kills and Dead Weather, German musician Herbert Grönemeyer, Robbie Furze of the Big Pink, and Japanese guitarist Tomoyasu Hotei.
While What Happens Next tempos down the Gang's customary four-on-the-floor sound, coming in a little thicker than the band's prior seven offerings, there remains the erudite bite that's always been associated with the legendary name.
Gang of Four
8 p.m. Thursday, October 29, at Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $20. Call 954-564-1074, or visit cultureroom.net.
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