Who They Were: Gang of Four were an English quartet formed at Leeds University in 1977. Their original line-up of Jon King (vocals), Andy Gill (guitar-vocals), Dave Allen (bass) and Hugo Burnham (drums) stayed together until 1980, releasing a pair of titanic albums and a cluster of related singles before Allen left to form Shriekback. He was replaced by Sara Lee, formerly of Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen, which also featured Shriekback co-founder and stalwart member Barry Andrews, who was ex-XTC to boot. Gang of Four ground to a halt in 1983 after a tepid album without Burnham, then reformed at various times and in various configurations (including the original line-up from 2004 to 2006), all of which featured King and Gill until 2012, when the singer left for good and the guitarist soldiered on with a variety of solid supporting players. Sadly, Andy Gill died in early 2020 of a strange respiratory infection after returning to the UK from China; his widow later confirmed that she believes him to have been one of the earliest COVID casualties in her country. Gang of Four were notable for their spry and angular blend of punk and funk, for their incredibly smart and politically-trenchant lyrics, and for Gill’s truly unique guitar sound, a slashing, angular, brittle and metallic buzz of energy that I’ve never heard replicated by another string-bender.
When I First Heard Them: Sometime in 1982, most likely on Washington, DC’s stellar progressive rock radio station, WHFS, and then later on the dance floors of my favorite DC club, Poseurs, both of which regularly spun the closest thing that Gang of Four had to a hit single in the United States, “I Love A Man In A Uniform,” from their then-new third album, Songs of the Free. I actually was a man in a uniform at that point, so I enjoyed that facet of the song on its surface level as an arch radio/club singalong, but I also liked the wry and sardonic twist that Gill and King applied to that cultural trope, and ever-more deeply appreciated their lyrical and musical approaches as I delved into their back catalog. I never got to see them live in their original run, but I did see a King-Gill fronted incarnation of the group live in the late ’90s in Albany. Post-Gang, Sara Lee had gone on to popular success and acclaim as a session player with the B-52s, Indigo Girls, and many others, having relocated to New York’s Catskills region some years before. Lee was in the audience for the show I saw, and when Gill and King were apprised of her presence near the end of their main set, they called her onstage for a joyful and spontaneous reunion, after which she sang a pair of numbers from her time with the band. It was a great and memorable moment.
Why I Love Them: Gang of Four were a smart and political bunch of talented writers and players who had something meaningful to say about society, economics and politics, and they said it exceptionally well. As a musically-ambitious college student studying political science at the time, their music spoke perfectly to most everything that I wanted out of my beloved artists. Unlike a lot of other things I obsessed about in the early ’80s, their songs were (mostly) melodically acceptable and accessible enough that they could be played around folks who weren’t into the more extreme end of things, so it was a pleasant adjunct to have striking politics delivered over great, dance-floor ready beats, with burning and stabbing guitars smeared liberally atop the rumbling sonic beds. It all tasted good, and it was good for you, even if you didn’t consciously perceive what they were feeding you while you were dancing to them. I never stopped listening to Gang of Four, though I never quite enjoyed many of their latter-day works as much as I did their earlier ones. (One notable exception to that rule appears on my Top Ten list below). The strength, vision, and prescience of the Gang of Four catalog has been hammered home for me of late; here’s a quote from a post I wrote in March 2020 explaining why that’s the case:
I was in Florida as the pandemic erupted and the markets tanked, so as things began to shut down and I began to socially isolate myself, I found myself spending a lot of time outside walking by myself with my headphones on, looking at birds, and avoiding humans. My playlist for that trip had Gang of Four’s first three albums (Entertainment!, Solid Gold, and Songs of the Free) on it. They were a favorite band of mine in the ’80s, and their founding guitarist-vocalist-conceptualist Andy Gill had just passed away before we headed Southward, so that was an act of homage, on some plane. As I ambled and listened over the course of a few days, those three records somehow seemed to begin perfectly capturing the way that things are feeling right now, with smart songs about economics, societies, politics, communications — and their inevitable breakdowns. I suspect that after we come through all of this (whenever that happens), any time that I hear Gang of Four, my mind will be carried back to the Time of the Coronavirus Correction.
#10. “At Home He’s A Tourist” from Entertainment! (1979)
#9. “Capital (It Fails Us Now)” from Another Day/Another Dollar EP (1982)
#8. “Armalite Rifle,” B-side of “Damaged Goods” single (1978); later reissued on Yellow EP (1980)
#7. “The History of the World” from Songs of the Free (1982)
#6. “Paralysed” from Solid Gold (1981)
#5. “Call Me Up” from Songs of the Free (1982)
#4. “Ether” from Entertainment! (1979)
#3. “Second Life” from “Second Life” single (2008)
#2. “What We All Want” from Solid Gold (1981)
#1. “We Live As We Dream, Alone” from Songs of the Free (1982)