Andy Gill, Gang of Four (1956–2020)
Andy Gill, a founding member of the pioneering post-punk band Gang of Four, passed away in London on February 1st. Gill and his bandmates were musical pioneers who influenced countless artists over multiple generations – from R.E.M. to Fugazi to Massive Attack to Sleater-Kinney to St. Vincent. There was also a style revival of sorts in the early 2000s when bands such as Bloc Party, Radio 4 and Franz Ferdinand liberally borrowed from the Gang of Four sound. And yet Gang of Four was a unique entity offering up a complete package seamlessly interconnecting politics, music and visual art.
While working on the Red Set: A History of Gang of Four, I had numerous opportunities to interview Andy Gill. He was always thoughtful (to the point of supplying email follow-ups to questions I had asked him weeks earlier) and it became obvious that, as with the other members of the band, Andy had spent a great deal of time thinking not only about music, but also about why he was doing it, what was he trying to say, and how the group’s work fit into the larger culture. As veteran music critic Greil Marcus once said of the band: “The world is never dead to them. The world is speaking to them.”
Andy Gill was born in Manchester but grew up in the town of Sevenoaks in Kent, twenty miles south of London. It was at the Sevenoaks School art department that the ideas behind Gang of Four began to simmer. Not only did Gill meet future Gang of Four singer Jon King, but he also encountered a number of highly innovative students – including future Mekons members Mark White, Kevin Lycett and Tom Greenhalgh, as well as aspiring filmmakers Paul Greengrass and Adam Curtis. Both Gill and King have spoken highly of the challenging and unconventional environment in the art department, where it was not enough merely to generate works. “You were not directed and rarely aware of being taught something,” recalled Mark White. “Opportunities were there for you to discover and ‘own’ yourself.” Equally significant, the department also acted as a setting for the curious and progressive students to play records for each other.
It was during this period that Andy started learning to play the guitar. Immediately he discovered that he was not motivated to learn songs composed by other musicians. Andy formed a couple of small groups including one with his brother, Martin, and another with King – perhaps tellingly called the Bourgeois Brothers. Even at this young age, Gill developed an interest in a diversity of music, absorbing a spectrum that included genres like funk and reggae, as well as such individuals as Jimi Hendrix and Erik Satie. At the same time, Gill demonstrated a mischievous tendency to upset the applecart. Mark White clearly recalls Andy ruffling feathers when he played a reggae-style version of “Jerusalem” at a school assembly. One thing that Andy didn’t like was the state-controlled radio of the day. While admitting to some solidarity with John Peel’s pioneering show, Andy was miffed that the program was on in the middle of the evening, “when any sensible young man would be in the pub.”
Gang of Four really got off the ground when Gill and Jon King went off to Leeds University. While there, the duo encountered such pioneering instructors as Tim Clark, Griselda Pollock and Terry Atkinson. This was a period when a lot of ideas about art being created solely by ‘great men’ were being challenged. “We ended up with the most radical – politically radical – art department in Western Europe, probably the world,” remembers Jon King. The two also became interested in a variety of Marxist theorists and the work of the Situationist International. Andy would later downplay some of this influence, telling me that blues pioneer Muddy Waters was a greater inspiration than thinkers like Louis Althusser and Walter Benjamin. What does seem certain is that both Andy and Jon devoured a multitude of films while at Leeds and developed a particular and interest in the unconventional output of Jean-Luc Godard. Andy also took a minor in Shakespeare, as he was attracted to the drama and tension of stage presentations.
While at Leeds Jon and Andy took a trip to New York City – in part financed by Gill misappropriating grant money he had been given to study gothic architecture in France. The timing of the trip turned out perfectly. Gill and King stayed with journalist and future filmmaker Mary Harron, who had ties with the early punk scene in the city. While they took in museums by day, by night they teamed up with Harron to investigate a variety of up-and-coming acts at CBGB. “Everybody was friendly, interesting, approachable,” Andy told me. “We had fascinating conversations and it was a fantastically liberating thing that their sort of musical stars didn’t have to be a hundred meters away on a distant stage or inaccessible … that people were like you and you could have fascinating conversations with them, and you could do that stuff too.”
While studying at Leeds Gill and King met Hugo Burnham and Dave Allen. Previously, Jon and Andy had tinkered with a couple of projects, but Burnham’s commanding drumming and Allen’s wiry bass playing contributed to a distinct sound and identity. While Hugo had not played for several years at this point, Dave Allen was already an experienced and skilled musician. Allen’s interest in the band Can and in Captain Beefheart clearly molded the band’s somewhat unusual rhythmic style. Andy and Jon went from writing quirky songs to developing challenging and thought-provoking material. While not necessarily avant-garde, the new output the group developed in the late 1970s was lyrically and musically unconventional – both catchy and not easily digestible in a single listen. The duo’s background in arts, and Andy’s interest in Shakespeare, clearly informed the group.
Andy and Jon mistrusted overly complex art forms and were constantly trying to strike a balance between predictability and unpredictability. There was a sense that music, and art in general, should not require a formal education to understand. As with dub reggae, there was the notion that everything could be so tightly assembled that even with the absence of any instrument the songs would maintain their individual power and identity. Andy in particular was interested in an equality of sounds – where the bass, for instance, had as much space and volume as the vocals. As with his use of thin and brittle sounding transistor guitar amplifiers, this was another way to challenge, or perhaps to expand, the norms of rock music. While clearly influenced by such guitarists as Jimi Hendrix and Wilko Johnson, Gill also developed a unique playing technique that was somehow both jarring and rhythmic. There were trebly bursts of abrasive noise, but the momentum was always crucial. Together as a unit, the group developed a style that had not been heard before. It was clearly rock music but everything had a catch or an attached question.
Much has been written about Gang of Four’s 1979 debut album Entertainment!, as it has become one of the most influential albums recorded in the last forty years. It was both punk and not punk, and it sounded unlike any other record. The sonic palette lacked echo and reverb by design, as Andy was looking to avoid the big ‘rock’ sound of conventional records. The lyrics were also highly unusual and were often presented by layering multiple voices in a single song. Following a howling guitar introduction on the song “Anthrax,” the vocalists seem to engage in a dialogue – with King singing and Gill speaking in an overlapping monotone voice. Listeners are reminded that lyrics have a point of view and that stories have multiple sides. King and Gill, both enduring fans of the Band, recall that this method of storytelling was influenced by that group’s use of several singers. The overall feel of Entertainment! is one of alienation and uncertainty – moments of connection are fleeting and we are tourists in our own lives.
A lot of what could be heard in the group’s early records was also being played out on stage. Gill would stare at the audience as if challenging patrons to consider what concerts were and why they were attending. There was also an intentional instability at work, as Gill, King and Allen would dart about, sometimes colliding, making it difficult for audiences to focus on a single aspect of the presentation. King would come off as euphoric while Gill seemed like a weighted anchor. As with the recordings, one was often reminded that this concert was a presentation – the musicians on stage were characters playing roles. While some found the group’s songs analytical and impersonal, one could argue that the fictions they created asked questions about how we live our lives. I’m not sure that there is anything more personal than that.
Perhaps Andy’s most enduring song is “Paralyzed,” the opening song from the group’s second album Solid Gold, which was released at the dawn of the 1980s. As with many of Gang of Four’s most intriguing songs, links are established between our personal lives and economics. Following a guitar introduction that lacks a particular direction, Gill as narrator, dryly states, “Blinkered, paralyzed/Flat on my back/They say our world is built with endeavor/That every man is for himself/Wealth is for the one that wants it/Paradise if you can earn it.” Here is offered the voice of an unemployed worker who has run out of options. He is a person who has bought into the idea that hard work will bring rewards. When I asked Andy if this song was specifically about the Thatcher era he responded, “It’s capitalism in a nutshell, but then the flip is that: but what if I can’t do that? What if it goes wrong for any number of reasons? There is the theoretical position and then there is the actual facts of human lives – it’s a juxtaposition of those two things.”
Gang of Four would go on to record only two albums in their original configuration. Dave Allen left following the ironically titled Solid Gold album, and after the third outing, Songs of the Free, Hugo had a falling out with the group. Gill and King continued on into the mid-80s and, following a hiatus, reunited for two unique and underrated albums in the 1990s – Mall and Shrinkwrapped. At the time, Jon and Andy were considering suburbs and impersonal non-spaces as well as delving into modern-day confessionals in the form of talk radio and “reality” television. Over the latter half of the 90s, Andy set up a recording studio in his home and worked with a variety of artists, including his close friend Michael Hutchence and the band Killing Joke. The original members of Gang of Four reunited for a short period in the mid-2000s and Gill and King, joined by Thomas McNeice and Mark Heaney, recorded a superb album in 2011 titled Content. Following King’s departure in 2012, Gill recorded two more albums, What Happens Next and Happy Now, under the Gang of Four banner.
It is probably fair, or maybe an understatement, to say that the original members of Gang of Four have had their differences over the years. All four members of the initial group were distinct musicians and strong individuals. Perhaps this was the very thing that led to the group being in a near constant state of flux. When interviewing Gill and King, I also noted a definite difference in their approaches to music making. It seemed evident that Gill viewed music making as a process – something that could be constructed over time in a studio. In contrast, King thought the group was best when their recordings were minimal and focused on the group’s hard-hitting live sound. Perhaps this was the dialogue, or disagreement, at the heart of Gang of Four.
When I was interviewing Gill for the Red Set project, he agreed that the song “Natural’s Not In It” was the keystone of the group’s output. The song suggests that we should be wary of ideas and institutions that are presented to us as being “natural.” Andy noted that this was a topic he and Jon thought a lot about. “The thing of laws and rules and culture being a manmade thing, being a human-made thing, and ideas about what’s appropriate for a woman to do or not do is nothing to do with whether it’s natural or not. It’s a construction – it’s an ideological construction which suits different people in different ways.” Of course, the key to this statement is that, as fabrications, these notions and traditions that we often consider to be normal are in fact changeable. The world is ours to alter.
At the risk of being sentimental (something Andy would most definitely frown upon), I’m also reminded of Andy repeating the refrain “each day seems like a natural fact” in the song “Why Theory?” While the clear intention of the lyric is to prompt us into questioning the origins of our ideas and opinions, the line now seems to have an added resonance. I feel like I’m also being reminded to not take friends, family or even relatively good health for granted. For all of the weighty ideas and disagreements, Gill and his band mates didn’t forget to have some drinks, dances and laughs along the way. Condolences to Catherine Mayer, Martin Gill, Jon King, Hugo Burnham, Dave Allen and the multitude of good people who have made up, or been fans of, Gang of Four.
Jim Dooley lives in Ottawa, Canada and has written several articles examining the history of reggae music. Jim is also the author of the Small Axe Guide to Dub (Muzik Tree, 2010). His most recent book is Red Set: A History of Gang of Four.