ART & CULTURE : Gang of Four returns

The Guardian:

In the first week of January 1979, Gang of Four’s ‘At Home He’s a Tourist’ stood out in the singles chart like a Trotskyite at the Conservative party conference. The song concerned the relationship between pop, sex and capitalism and was by a band dubbed “rock’s most famous Marxists’’. Gang of Four were due to appear on Top of the Pops. However, a jittery BBC asked the band (named after the leadership faction of the Chinese communist party) to tone down their lyrics, particularly changing the word “rubbers’’ (condoms) to “rubbish’’.

“So we decided that we wouldn’t move,’’ chuckles vocalist Jon King. “We would mime really badly and make it really obvious that we were taking a stance.’’ The BBC promptly decided that such revolution would not be televised, leading DJ John Peel to sarcastically declare: “Obviously we can’t have young couples fornicating in front of the television because of Gang of Four.’’ “We were banned more than the Sex Pistols,’’ says King, who subsequently saw their cheeky single, “I Love a Man in Uniform”, banned during the Falklands conflict. “A memo went round the BBC,’’ he remembers, “which we have seen, saying, “Do not play this record, because we’re expecting casualties’.’’ When the band turned up to perform on a TV show they were asked to play something else because of the song’s apparently seditious message.

GO4’s career never recovered, but 25 years on, censorship is again a hot issue and punk’s radical dance faction is having the last laugh. This month, the original foursome reunite for five gigs that will celebrate their position as rock’s most currently influential band. Franz Ferdinand, Futureheads, the Rapture, Bloc Party and Radio 4 are just some of the countless new groups that have taken up the Gang’s trademark jerky, punky-funky assault. “My teenage son played the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ latest album,’’ says King. “On one song I had to do a double take. I thought, `Is that us?’.’’ King and guitarist Andy Gill are back at the Fenton pub in Leeds, where they used to plot to expose the failings of consumer capitalism (and, Gill admits, get “rather pissed’’). With puke green walls and Buzzcocks on the jukebox, the pub hasn’t changed and neither, it seems, have Gang of Four.

Although Gill no longer wears high-necked “windcheaters’’ that somehow seemed metaphors for the strangling forces of capitalism, King admits to ``feeling angry again’’ and talks of overly commercial pop groups as “collaborators’’. However, unlike in 1979, the gathered drinkers are no longer targets for the rightwing National Front.

“They turned up here because they knew this was where all the lefties came,’’ smiles King. “There were chairs flying. It was like a lot of those things — quite frightening but actually rather funny. This big lesbian woman did a lot more damage to them than we did.’’

Gang of Four’s struggle began in 1977 just up the road, at Leeds University. Art students King and Gill hooked up with English student/powerhouse drummer Hugo Burnham. Bassist/graphics student Dave Allen was recruited after Burnham put up an ad for “fast rhythm and blues players’’, a secret code for punk.

The early GO4 were adventurous and DIY. They built a PA system from speakers once used to broadcast propaganda from bomber aircraft, which they found in an army surplus store. Their pioneering sound was stumbled upon as Gill attempted reggae and came up with a unique feedback-ridden racket once described as “pigeons crashing through a grand piano’’. Gradually, they developed a manifesto: “No corny lyrics, no obvious melodies and no change of key’’. The music industry monitored GO4 once they became the first unsigned band to appear on the cover of the music magazine NME, which, they say, provoked Cliff Richard to berate the paper’s editor. In 1978, the Damaged Goods EP appeared on Fast Product. Then GO4 signed to EMI, after issuing a list of demands including creative control and the then unusual claim of ownership of their songs. Eyebrows were raised but Gill explains that “we wanted to be heard and also the idea of being on the same label as Cliff was quite funny. With our agenda it made perfect sense to be on EMI.’’ In fact, Gang of Four weren’t straightforwardly political, taking ideas from the 1968 Paris student uprisings rather than from ideological dogma. The artwork for their debut album, Entertainment!, featured a smiling cowboy shaking a Native American’s hand with the caption: “He is glad the Indian is fooled. Now he can exploit him.’’ It was a potted education in capitalist evil.

Eventually, the band were stymied by traditional rock’n’roll mayhem. Allen left following 1981’s Solid Gold album after “going loopy’’ because he was taking “too much coke’’ to help him cope with stagefright. A year later, Burnham was fired after a row which the drummer now says “felt like a family feud’’. King and Gill made three further albums but lost impetus.

However, their influence grew. Talking Heads’ David Byrne copped and then exaggerated Jon King’s jerky moves and outsize suits. One night, King was onstage with Gill in LA when a naked fan leapt out of the audience. This turned out to be Chili Peppers’ bass player Flea. Gill would later produce his band’s debut LP. When he recently produced the Futureheads, he was amazed to find that guitarist Barry Hyde knew every Gang of Four song, “note by note’’.

Finally, after a “groundswell of opinion’’, the four members were coaxed into reuniting in a room in London in November 2004, the first time in 22 years. “It was quite charming actually,’’ says Gill. “Same old humour, same old squabbles.’’ Meanwhile, songs which they are rehearsing again sound eerily prescient: “Cheeseburger” predicted McDonald’s globalisation; “Capital (It Fails Us Now)” anticipates the credit boom; several espouse the then fairly radical idea that a woman’s place is not necessarily in the home.

King is adamant about one thing — Gang of Four have never been in it for the money. The members are committed to careers in webcasting (King), web music distribution (Allen), teaching in the US (Burnham), and music production (Gill). There will be no new material. However, a planned tribute-style album will see fans like Franz Ferdinand and Hot Hot Heat remixing the original recordings. King is pleased that the Ferdinands and Futureheads have adopted a similar “reckless, oppositional’’ stance. However, curiously, few bands have ever gone as far as covering GO4. “Why bother,’’ asks Gill with a wry smile, “when you can make a career out of sounding like us?’’