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Solid Gold Entertainment: Behind Gang Of Four’s Assault On Music
Christophe Ketels
Interviews

Solid Gold Entertainment: Behind Gang Of Four’s Assault On Music

With the albums ‘Entertainment!’ and ‘Solid Gold’, Gang Of Four pulled rock music apart. ‘We invented our own thing,’ Jon King tells Dig!

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According to Jon King, there are four stages to starting a band: Learn your instrument. Work out how to play it with other people. Decide what you’re going to play. Get on a stage and play it. “After that, it’s: who gives a fuck?” the Gang Of Four frontman tells Dig! Other thoughts that follow may also include: “Is it different?” and “Why am I doing this?” Taking these questions extremely seriously, the post-punk pioneers recorded two of the most future-shaping albums of all time, 1979’s Entertainment! and 1981’s Solid Gold.

Effectively drawing up a manifesto for themselves, Jon King, guitarist Andy Gill, bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham deconstructed the very notion of what rock music could do, with songs that not only commented on their chosen medium’s artifice, but which picked apart what it meant to live during what King calls a “shit show” of a time, when mass unemployment, overstretched health services, deep political divisions and an unnerving rise in racist ideology blighted what were once thought of as progressive nations.

“You need to make something about what life is like now,” King asserts. In doing so, Gang Of Four created two epochal albums that continue to speak to the moment, their aftershocks rippling through everyone from R.E.M. and Red Hot Chili Peppers to Run The Jewels and Frank Ocean (the R&B iconoclast sampled the group’s Love Like Anthrax for Futura Free, a song from his own genre-blind 2016 album Blond). “Artistically, we wanted to make sure that it was honest.”

“There’s nothing better than making a noise and getting drunk”

Gang Of Four’s taut, pigeonhole-defying sound improbably owed as much to English blues-rockers Free as it did to reggae, New Orleans funk pioneers The Meters and first-wave US punk bands Ramones and Television. But while London’s punk scene grabbed the headlines in 1976, Gang Of Four were ensconced in Leeds, studying fine art and trying to work out what would make their band unique.

Before forming the group, Jon King and Andy Gill, who had been friends since attending Sevenoaks School, in Kent, initially began writing songs together on acoustic guitar, trying to emulate Dr Feelgood, the English pub-rock outfit whose supercharged take on R&B inspired many of the UK’s punk groups. “They were kind of stupid and goofy, verse-bridge-chorus, verse-bridge-chorus, middle eight kind of things,” King says. “Like Elevator, which I slightly wince about now.”

During a formative trip to New York City, King and Gill spent every night in CBGB, the crucible of the US punk scene, catching early shows by Talking Heads, Ramones and Patti Smith Group – all then unsigned, all blazing a trail for what punk and post-punk music would sound like. Returning home, the duo expanded to a four-piece. It was initially “a lark”, King says. “There’s nothing better to do in the evening than make an incredible noise and get drunk – it’s really good fun being in a band. But then you sort of think: there’s something in this that makes me feel like it’s got a value to it.”

“We just invented our own thing”

After a short-lived stint with a jazz-funk bass player whose confident flurry of notes were “too good” for the fledgling Gang Of Four, King, Gill and Burnham settled upon Dave Allen. “Dave was an outstanding bass player who really got that punky side of things,” King says. “We wanted our sound to get more empty.” But compared to the supportive CGBG crowd King and Gill had encountered in New York, “There wasn’t a scene in Leeds at all.” Though the local polytechnic put on a night featuring Sex Pistols, The Clash, the Johnny Thunders-led Heartbreakers and The Damned on the same bill (“It was fantastic for a quid, and it was pretty much empty”), Leeds University showed no inclination towards supporting their own budding talent.

“They wouldn’t put us on,” King says. “They liked bands like Climax Blues Band and things like that… So the only way we could go on was to rent a decaying building in the centre of town – which is now really glossy and gorgeous. But back then the Corn Exchange was just falling apart, and we could promote our own show.”

There’s something fitting about Gang Of Four figuring out their deconstructivist take on music in buildings that were themselves awaiting demolition; an early photo pictures the group in front of their rehearsal studio, a boarded-up building crying out to be pulled down. “The centre of town was a huge housing development that was ruinous and falling down,” King recalls. It also helped that they were away from the media glare of the capitol.

“The good fortune was, we were ignored,” King says. While the tabloids were taking Sex Pistols to task, Gang Of Four – and their northern contemporaries, among them The Mekons, Buzzcocks and Joy Division – could hone their sound. “We just invented our own thing,” King says of the scene that eventually coalesced around them. “It was the North rebelling against this very southern-centric thing. And so we all emerged with what seemed like fully formed worldviews – it seemed to come from nowhere.

“If we had been in London and somebody had come along and seen us playing a song like Elevator, they’d have said it was a derivative version of Dr Feelgood – which, of course, it was,” King continues. “But we were learning how to be in a band, then learning about what we actually wanted to do… That was mixed in with this determination to do something that was worthwhile, because we were pretty unforgiving with each other. If anybody did something that was not the right thing, it would be stamped on by everybody.”

“I don’t want to write about girls and cars”

As the group fine-tuned the way they sounded, King re-evaluated the kind of lyrics he wanted to sing. “I started thinking, I don’t want to write songs about relationships. I don’t want to write songs about girls and cars and all that kind of stuff,” he says. “I’m not going to use imagery anymore. I didn’t like it in music; it shouldn’t have metaphors in it because that was other people’s writing.”

The breakthrough was Love Like Anthrax. Released on the group’s debut EP, 1978’s Damaged Goods, it exposed the artifice of the love song, with King singing as if poisoned by his emotions (“Only yesterday, I said to myself/The things I’m doing aren’t good for my health”) while Andy Gill intoned spoken-word improvisations that, in their various permutations, would comment on everything from the band’s recording equipment to why anyone would want to sing about love in the first place.

“The first proper Gang Of Four song was Anthrax,” King asserts. “We mapped it out without having played any of it. Like: a load of feedback, basically; some really sort of funky, heavy repetitive drum and bass parts; and then this sort of chant over the top of it, but doing different things at the same time.” In doing so, King and Gill realised they could “do something thrilling and really different”.

With King and Gill nailing their artistic vision, bassist Dave Allen secured the group’s breakout tour, supporting Buzzcocks in Europe. Major labels began to take notice. Having signed – and then dropped – Sex Pistols within a three-month period during which the band were dogged by controversy, EMI needed a hot new post-punk group to ensure they could hold their own in a vastly changing musical landscape. Disappointed with their experience with Fast Product, the Edinburgh-based indie that had released Damaged Goods, Gang Of Four decided EMI would give their music the best chance it had of being heard – and the band would get paid.

“There’s a romance and an idealisation of indie record labels,” King says, “but a lot of them are run by rogues.” Damaged Goods had sold 60,000 copies – more than enough to recoup the record’s £80 recording costs – but “we never got paid a penny”, King recalls. “Literally nothing… We wanted to make sure there was an effective distribution, but also wanted to be accounted to.

In the event, EMI wanted some accountability of their own. When Gang Of Four submitted the masters for their debut album, Entertainment!, the label thought they’d been handed a demo.

“It was a funny sort of music”

Released on 25 September 1979, Entertainment! sounded like nothing else in rock music. Now its influence pervades everything from indie rock to hip-hop and R&B. When they recorded it, however, in The Workhouse, a London-based studio owned by 60s pop hitmakers turned prog outfit Manfred Mann (later Manfred Mann’s Earth Band), Gang Of Four just wanted an authentic snapshot of where they were.

“We absolutely didn’t want to be a funk band,” King asserts. “There were bands like Average White Band, who actually were a pretty good funk band. And we were massive reggae fans, but didn’t dream of doing a reggae song. So though we kind of had that in our palette, we were trying to do something that wasn’t a funk record, and wasn’t a reggae record, and wasn’t a rock record – but it was in our back pocket… It was a funny sort of music. Obviously, it was white music, but it wasn’t ripping anyone off.” Eventually, Entertainment! would find a home on both college radio and black radio in the US.

Though the songs that made up the album had been precision-drilled through live performance, the group were unsure how to capture them in the studio. All they knew was that it had to be honest.

“I’m never sure how to define what that meant,” King says. “But when you listen to Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters – which is always a test of honesty, listening to Delta or Chicago blues – you hear their foot tapping. There’s that authenticity… We wanted to capture what we were like in a really old-fashioned way.” Seeking to record Entertainment!’s 12 tracks in as live a setting as possible, the group tried to avoid overdubbing or adding any effects. While the studio engineer tried to foist an “aural exciter” on them – a piece of equipment that, as “the essence of fakery”, would enhance inaudible frequencies to make the album sound more dynamic – King and co agonised over whether even using reverb was “fake or not”. After trying to jerry-rig their own echo effect by dangling a microphone over a toilet bowl (“It did actually sound really shit”), the group consented to the reverb.

“But what I think has given the record legs,” King says, “is the fact that it doesn’t sound like other stuff that was around at the time. And its dryness. There’s space in it.” Noting that Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant is “a fantastic record”, King adds, “The production was heavy metal. Essentially, it’s Black Sabbath with punk lyrics over the top.” Entertainment! “wasn’t metal. It’s spiky and dry.”

Indeed, Andy Gill’s choppy guitar chords flew out like shards of blasted metal, propelled ever forward by Dave Allen’s mutant-disco bass and the power and precision of Hugo Burnham’s drumming. Dubby without being synthetically spacey; relentless but also invigorating, the music provided the perfect soundbed for King’s insistent vocals – goading the listener to attention without ever sounding preachy. Though, through its very existence, Entertainment!’s music argued for cultural unity, the album also sought to expose capitalist deceit (Return The Gift), gender inequality (At Home He’s A Tourist) and media manipulation (5.45).

Opening cut Ether, meanwhile, with its cryptic closing chant, “There may be oil under Rockall!” ended up proving an eerily prescient conspiracy theory. “It’s one of those hilarious and improbable stories of modern history,” King says of his reference to the tiny island of rock, sitting roughly 200 miles west of mainland Scotland, to which the UK government has made a disputed claim since 1955. “It’s still purported to be a defensive thing against Soviet bombers flying over the Atlantic, but everyone – the Icelandic government and the Danish and the Irish – are convinced it’s just trying to grab the seabed. Rockall is the size of a semi-detached house.”

“We told them to fuck off”

Though EMI found Entertainment! perplexing, they thought they had at least one bona fide hit in I Found That Essence Rare. Encompassing King’s lyrical concerns, the song was also danceable and had something like a traditional structure – too traditional for the group, however, who blocked its release as a single.

“Essence and Glass were the songs that survived the verse-chorus-verse thing,” King says. “We all thought, Oh, this will give the wrong impression. We started off with Damaged Goods and Anthrax, which was pretty radical, but somehow we thought that Essence was most like what other people might do. We had total editorial control, and I think the label just gave up. It wasn’t deliberately self-destructive, but it turned out to be never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

The decision may have reduced their chances of getting into the charts, but when At Home He’s A Tourist made it into the UK charts, Gang Of Four were presented with another conflicting choice. Obliged to invite the group to perform on Top Of The Pops, the BBC nevertheless objected to King’s use of the word “rubbers” – slang for condoms – in the lyrics – a seemingly disingenuous decision at a time when Anita Ward’s thinly veiled Ring My Bell was going like the clappers at No.1. But arcane Musicians Union rules ensured the band had to re-record their song in order to mime to it anyway, so they booked a studio, King recorded a new vocal track that replaced “rubbers” with “packets”, and handed the tape over.

“The producer, a classic toff, said, ‘We would have liked you to have used the word “rubbish”,’” King recalls. “We all did a double take and said, ‘What do you mean? Then no one would know that we changed it.’” Having opposed I Found That Essence Rare’s release, the group were keen to take advantage of the nationwide exposure Top Of The Pops offered, but wanted people to know they’d been forced to compromise. “We wanted to not miss that commercial opportunity, but to make it obvious that we’d been censored,” King says. Locked in a stalemate, “We told them to fuck off.”

“I’d smash it to pieces and there’d be blood flying around”

It’s doubtful whether the BBC were prepared for Gang Of Four’s incendiary live shows, which had become as uncompromising as their studio recordings. Shortly after walking out of the Top Of The Pops studio, the group were touring the US, once again in support of Buzzcocks. “Any night we weren’t playing with Buzzcocks, we used to do our own double shows,” King recalls. “So in 30 days we probably played like 38 or 40 times… It was quite intense, and we got quite good.”

On 22 May 1980, the group descended on San Francisco’s American Indian Center – a fitting venue for a band whose debut album’s artwork offered a Situationist-inspired comment on the way Native Americans had been tricked into dispossession. “We were really chuffed to get a gig there at all, because Gill was obsessed with Native American culture,” King says. As the band performed in front of a poster of chief Sitting Bull emblazoned with the word “landlord”, the show was recorded for broadcast by local radio – and, capturing Gang Of Four on the verge of their US breakthrough, became heavily bootlegged. It has now been given an official release as part of the Gang Of Four: 79-81 box set.

“It was a warm up to the show which was our sort of great breakthrough in America,” King recalls. “It was probably one of the most intense shows we ever played. It was unbelievably hot, and we were on another level of everything that we were going to do.”

During a performance of He’d Send In The Army, which equated patriarchal behaviour in the home with the tyrannical behaviour of wartime generals, King battered a washing-machine lid. “At first it was just trying to make a very sharp percussive sound,” he says. “Initially we rigged up a bit of scaffolding pipe on steel wire, which I would then hit wit a chair leg or something. But everything has a meaning to it, and using consumer goods means something” – especially when they’re associated with the oppressive roles wives were expected to assume as domestic labourers.

“That became my all-time favourite live cut to perform,” King says. “It almost became a strange sort of performance-art funk piece. We’d pause and there’d be really long gaps – sometimes we’d play it without making any noise at all for, like, 20 seconds. We would stop, I’d be hitting some percussion thing with a hammer or a pipe, and Andy would be playing on the off beat on guitar. We often tried to put each other off.”

The band’s live shows only intensified form here on out. Before long, microwaves – salvaged from local dumps – replaced the washing-machine lid. “They sounded fantastic,” King recalls. “A microwave being smashed to pieces thrilled the audience and it became an extraordinarily important part of the show.” He’d Send In The Army evolved into “this very powerful, sort of improvised song with dropouts”, King continues. “And then visually you’d have this microwave and I’d smash it to pieces – the smashing of things that oppress us. Glass would fly all over; I’d very often cut myself and there’d be blood flying around.”

Almost turning on their audience as their live show developed, the group would “sometimes move forward together – not in a choreographed Shadows way – but we’d move toward the front of the stage; we’d swap positions and move around fast, and sometimes the audience would back away from us. It was sort of like being wind in a wheat field.” When members of the National Front and Leeds-based fascist movements tried to cause problems at shows, the band weren’t averse to mounting a defence. On occasion, they even targeted each other: after one gig, Andy Gill and Dave Allen came to blows during an argument over whether putting a foot on the monitor was “too rockist”. Meanwhile, Kerrang! named Gang Of Four the second-loudest band in Britain.

“The determination was to make something really heavy and propulsive”

A centrepiece of their live shows, He’d Send In The Army also closed the group’s second album, Solid Gold, released in March 1981. Graduating to Abbey Road’s hallowed Studio Two, where The Beatles had recorded most of their albums and Pink Floyd went stratospheric with The Dark Side Of The Moon, Gang Of Four teamed up with producer Jimmy Douglass – then helping fashion Ohio-based funk band Slave’s early 80s records – and set about making a “much heavier funk” record than Entertainment!

“We were delighted to get hold of Jimmy Douglass,” King says. “Funk was a really, really important thing, because we liked dancing – we danced all the time.” Released as the second single from Solid Gold, What We All Want exemplified their ambition. “Hugo and Dave had come up with this relentless grinding riff,” King explains. “They would be doing this powerful riff that was like [German experimentalists] Can and Slave mixed up in Dave’s playing. It gave that sort of propulsive thing that went on… I had friends in hip-hop bands that said it was sort of that proto-thing – it’s like sampling, but playing the sample. It doesn’t ever change. It just goes on and on and on, and you’re sort of improvising on top of it.”

Meanwhile, the herky-jerky Cheeseburger took a bite out of US culture while sounding a little like Akron, Ohio, new wave misfits Devo – whose “devolution” theory of music-making made them a distant cousin to Gang Of Four – crossed with William Burroughs-style cut-up lyrics. “Andy and I had been out shooting pool with a couple of redneck guys, and they were giving it all that and talking nonsense,” King recalls. “They were saying, ‘I move from one place to the next,’ ‘I hope they keep down the price of gas.’ I was remembering this rubbish that thy were coming out with, and it was really interesting to turn that into a song.”

Used to producing Slave, who would soon score a gold record with their Stone Jam album and scale the US R&B singles chart with the super-slick Watching You – the kind of boy-girl romance Gang Of Four refused to sing about – Jimmy Douglass “was a bit perplexed by working with us”, King says. “He was tremendous to work with – and I was quite surprised that he wasn’t more difficult with us. I almost wanted someone to say, ‘You’re not going to do this. It’s my way or it’s the fucking highway.’ This was a guy who absolutely knew everything about his discipline, and it was a joy – but he was very thoughtful. He was determined to make sure that it was what we wanted to do… And the determination was to make something really heavy and propulsive that could sit happily on black radio.”

“It was fantastic. We were incredibly close friends”

Closing out 1981 – and their unimpeachable first era – with the Another Day/Another Dollar EP, Gang Of Four pushed their heavy funk aesthetic to its furthest extreme with the EP’s opening cut, To Hell With Poverty! Recorded with producer Nick Launay, who not only shaped key early 80s tracks by Public Image Limited (Flowers Of Romance), The Slits (Earthbeat) and Killing Joke (Empire Song), but also went on to helm albums by Gang Of Four’s spiritual successors Yeah Yeah Yeahs (It’s Blitz!) and IDLES (Joy As An Act Of Resistance), the song “sounded exactly like I wanted it to sound like”, King says. “It really brought out the power and the noise of Andy’s guitar, the loud drums and the bass.”

By 1982, however, bassist Dave Allen had moved on, to be replaced first by sometime Talking Heads and Parliament cohort Michael “Busta Cherry” Jones, and then Sara Lee, instigating a period of shifting line-ups, hiatuses, reunions and re-recordings. Though King stopped performing with the band in 2012, Andy Gill led a Gang Of Four line-up through tours and one final album, Happy Now, until his death, from multiple organ failure and pneumonia, on 1 February 2020.

“All we wanted to do when we put out the Damaged Goods EP was get on the John Peel show,” King says. “That was our main objective.” With Entertainment! and Solid Gold, however, Gang Of Four laid the template for a new approach to music which is still being copied today. In doing so, the original line-up of King, Gill, Allen and Burnham forever enshrined themselves in rock history. “I’m very proud of both those records,” King says. “One is really dry and spiky, and the other has got that funk flavour without us being a genre band.”

Looking back over the legacy of the music they made together, however, King has one overriding thought: “What strikes me very strongly is what close friends we were,” he says. “We really enjoyed each other’s company… There are very few photographs where we’re not smiling and clearly involved in some kind of gag with each other. It was fantastic. We were incredibly close friends.”

And that’s a prerequisite for any gang membership – not least one with the tenacity and vision to forever upend all preconceived notions of what bands can do.

The Gang Of Four: 77-81 box set is out now. Buy it here.

 

Gang Four 77-81

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