“A lot of people think it’s their own little secret,” Andy Gill, the cult hero guitarist behind Gang Of Four’s uber-influential post-punk abrasions and the man who helped make radical politics danceable, said in 2015. “But there’s lots of them out there.”
There certainly are. Great musicians encapsulate their age; the very best echo endlessly onwards, and Andy Gill, who died today (February 1) aged 64, has been reverberating along the baseline of alternative culture for 40 years. R.E.M., Tom Morello, St Vincent, Carrie Brownstein and James Murphy are just some of the acts and musicians who have acknowledged their debt to Gang Of Four’s spare grooves and Gill’s cranky, cut-throat style – attacking his instrument with an unhinged precision. Flea cited the band as a key influence on early Red Hot Chili Peppers (Gill produced their debut album), Kurt Cobain claimed that Nirvana started off as “a Gang of Four and Scratch Acid ripoff” and Gill’s music was as pivotal on the early ‘00s funk-punk revival as Wire’s was to formative Britpop, both in America (The Rapture, LCD Soundsystem, Radio 4, We Are Scientists) and at home (Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, The Futureheads, whom Gill also produced).
“It’s funny,” Gill said. “It does seem to kind of resonate. It seems to get around. I think so many people have gotten things from Gang of Four or caught a vibe from it.”
Gang Of Four caught their own vibe amid the late-‘70s post-punk intellectualism which grew out of punk’s unrefined splatter. Gill was born in Manchester in 1956, but formed the band in 1976 after meeting singer Jon King at Leeds University, where they studied under Marxist-feminist scholar Griselda Pollock and Situationist avant garde art historian T.J. Clark and bonded over shared interests ranging from Dr Feelgood to the Frankfurt School of social theory. Accordingly, their wiry, stripped-down punk sounds were infused with politics from the off – the souring fling described in their 1978 debut single ‘Damaged Goods’ has been read as a metaphor for the turning tides of British society in the ‘70s, and set them alongside The Clash, The Au Pairs, This Heat and The Fall as frontrunners in music’s new wave of political radicalism.
Their confrontational stance wouldn’t help their career. The band walked off Top Of The Pops rather than change a condom reference in their second single ‘At Home He’s A Tourist’ – their first for EMI – and the BBC banned the song, focussing instead on pushing Duran Duran. But more than their British post-punk contemporaries such as Wire, The Pop Group, PiL, The Cure and Joy Division, Gang Of Four seemed to tacitly acknowledge that disco had happened, and it was their nods to dub, reggae and dance music – and Gill’s punk pilfering of the funk upswing – that made 1980’s debut album ‘Entertainment!’ an enduring and influential classic.
Where much post-punk was wilfully barbed at the gates as if to put off casual interlopers, Gang Of Four welcomed fans of the groove as much as the John Peel acolytes and the Marxists drawn to the album’s anti-capitalist artwork and lyrical attacks on the bourgeois state. Once inside, however, visitors swiftly became entangled in Gill’s wild threads of demented discord.
A second album, ‘Solid Gold’ followed in 1981, tackling themes of warfare and wage slavery, but already Gang Of Four were dislocating. Bassist Dave Allen left in 1981 and by fourth album ‘Hard’ in 1983 only Gill and King remained from the original line-up, pushing their sound in more commercial pop and disco directions. After an eight year hiatus, Gill and King reunited to record two further albums in the ‘90s (‘Mall’ in 1991 and ‘Shrinkwrapped’ in 1995), but it wasn’t until the 2004 reunion of the original Gang Of Four, in the middle of a funk-punk resurgence largely inspired by ‘Entertainment!’, that they garnered the full respect they deserved, with their seventh album ‘Content’ hailed as a triumphant return of their brittle early bite.
Gill and King parted company once more at the end of the album’s tour leaving Gill to oversee two more Gang Of Four albums as the only remaining original member, ‘What Happens Next’ (2015) and ‘Happy Now’ (2019), which were widely accepted as honouring the band’s formidable legacy. That his dedication was tireless was made evident by the tribute paid by the band to their “genius… Supreme Leader” – Gill, they revealed, had been listening to new album mixes and planning a tour from his hospital bed.
Ultimately, Gill’s legacy is of the little secret that spread throughout music, whispered through generations until its time came to shout. “Gang Of Four knew how to swing, I stole a lot from them,” Michael Stipe said of the band. His fellow looters are legion.