Last Saturday, the world lost another much loved musician and producer. Alex Maiolo reflects on his first discovery of the late British guitarist, Andy Gill, as a teenager in the mid-eighties, and how he came to love, respect and befriend his band, Gang of Four.
Before moving to the progressive enclave of Chapel Hill, I grew up in Greenville, North Carolina. There were good guitar shops, great record stores, and while the town has a conservative side, one of the best art schools in the region is there, and that certainly influenced things. Greenville had some of what I needed, but not enough of it, and I eventually left. It is, as we say in the south, “a good place to be from.”
The university often played art films. A friend told me they were showing Urgh! A Music War, which consisted of performances of bands all lazily considered ‘New Wave’. I mean, what do Gary Numan, The Go Go’s, UB40, The Police, Au Pairs, and Echo & The Bunnymen really have in common, other than mainstream America wasn’t listening to most of them at the time? I already loved The Bunnymen, and XTC, who were in the film, and I definitely liked some Police songs, so I decided to go.
Well into it, one of the many bands I didn’t know came on the screen. A guy was hitting something with a stick while the other three stood motionless. There was a lot of quiet space, while the guitarist banged out some harmonics. He looked really, really annoyed. Then, as if someone flipped an “on” switch, they launched into the song, bouncing around the stage like they had been connected to the mains.
Then… a break.
More stick hitting.
Each time they broke back into the song they ramped it up a notch. I recall thinking “ok, well that rhythm section is really good at this sort of…funk…thing they are doing, but that guitarist can’t play very well at all. He’s just hitting some random strings and making a racket.” I was 16, and even though I liked a lot of the new bands, still had fairly conservative thoughts on what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ musicianship was.
As the performance rolled on, I started to think maybe I liked what that guitarist was doing. Wait, maybe I actually loved it. No, I really loved it. And then, just like that, it was over. Who was this band? The name had been listed at the beginning of the performance, but I’d missed it. The credits were no help, I couldn’t rewind it, and I couldn’t just look it up on the internet. It was 1985.
Thankfully the film came back around for another showing, and I went. I knew more of the bands by then, but still hadn’t figured out who the guys with the stick player and the deconstructivist guitar genius were. I was excited to find out. Midway though the film I had to pee. Badly. “No, no,” I thought. “These performances are only two or three minutes long, and it will be just my luck that I’ll miss that fucking awesome stick group.” So there I sat, cross-legged, with my bladder about to burst, for what seemed like an eternity, waiting for this band.
And then they came on. Gang of Four, performing ‘He’d Send In The Army’. OK, I’d heard of them, but thought they were something entirely different, like Spandau Ballet, the second iteration of Scritti Politti, or some other “smooth” band. As I watched, I was completely enraptured by this fucking performance I was seeing. They weren’t just playing punk rock, completely devoid of cliché they were making art on stage. I was overcome by all of this, trying desperately not to piss all over myself. It was over in two minutes and I ran to the bathroom as 999 hit the screen.
As luck would have it, my local shop had a used copy of Solid Gold, which I bought, kicking off decades of plays, and providing a secret society handshake that allowed me to find My People in an uncurious world. While Entertainment! deservedly tops the critics lists, Solid Gold remains my favorite. The back cover features a medieval sketch of a beheading, with the caption “I hope they keep down the price of gas,” which perfectly summed up budding bougie priorities during the Reagan/Thatcher years. I understood why early punk rock was considered low brow, what with the gobbing and slam dancing, but this newer form of it was exceedingly smart, and led me to bands like The Slits, The Pop Group, and Magazine. This was music that changed the course of peoples’ lives.
The band was often described as avowed Marxists, by an army of pedantic fans resembling Rick, from The Young Ones, but upon deeper inspection, it’s clear that they were, above anything else, critics of the hypocrisy so rampant in modern society. I asked original bassist Dave Allen about it one time and he said, “mainly we just wanted to point out that everything you do has repercussions.” They were the prole art threat that made some of us think that maybe capitalism was indeed failing us, while barking out all sorts of mysterious Britishisms we Yanks couldn’t begin to understand. What is an Armalite rifle, where is Rockall, how does one become ‘blinkered’, and what the hell does it mean to ‘cob off?’ They asked, ‘is your leisure time private?’ well before cybersecurity was being discussed. All the best bands were censored by the BBC and they were no exception.
While they’ve consistently had admirers, including massive groups like R.E.M., and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, it was around the turn of the millennium, when the dance punk stylings of The Rapture, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, LCD Soundsystem, and countless B and C Level versions of those bands were ruling the clubs, unknowingly helping to write the script to Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me In The Bathroom, that a new generation assigned god-like status to them, and deservedly so. Gang of Four started as art school students trying to fuse weirdo pub rock, like Dr. Feelgood, with Funkadelic, and Situationism, but what they ultimately created was a script that countless bands have been reading off of since. Yes, they had their contemporaries but, as with Kraftwerk, they can claim the Year Zero title. All funk-post-punk vectors lead back to them.
Had Andy Gill been in any other band it probably would have been a disaster. It clearly wasn’t in his skill set to play blues licks in some Dire Straits knock-off, but easy as it is to wave off his bursts-of-chaos as technically unproficient, I’ll pose this question: how many people can play masterfully within the pentatonic scale construct, and how many can do what Gill could? Perhaps Steve Albini, Keith Levene, or Rowland S. Howard, but let’s just say it’s a very small club, while the former is distressingly huge.
Most guitarists speak Latin while Gill spoke in tongues.
Why theory, when you can have absolute freedom from it?
Shortly after the post-punk revival of the early 2000’s, the original four reassembled to take a victory lap. These days I consider Dave Allen a friend, have worked with him on a project in Denmark, and we’ve downed more than a few drinks together, but we’d just met around then. As a big thinker, I was used to seeing him sit on panels, trying to make sense of the music industry’s paradigm shift, so I wasn’t surprised to run into him at South by Southwest. He mentioned he would text me a date and time where I should be at a parking garage at the corner of 7th and San Jacinto. As promised, it came a day later, and before I knew it, I found myself at a guerrilla gig that was in no way sanctioned by the festival, who don’t take kindly to that kind of thing. I’m too young to have seen them the first time around, but there I was, watching punk rock legends, now in their 50’s, playing one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life.
In a goddamn parking garage.
That night I walked away with two impressions: true artists will always push boundaries, and symbiosis is real.
Without Jon King, Hugo Burnham, and Dave Allen working in complete sympathy with Gill’s un-playing, and vice versa, there was no Gang of Four, as such. He needed them to properly convey this thing he’d helped invent, they needed him, and the sum was so much greater than the individual parts. Not long after that they parted ways, yet again. As a gang of one, Gill assembled versions with other capable musicians, but to say it lacked the magic is an understatement. Even then, though, he was utilizing the band to criticize endless war, and troll Ivanka Trump.
When one remaining member chooses to push a band past its obvious end point, a legacy is almost always sullied. It’s testament to how utterly revolutionary Gang of Four was that theirs remains firmly intact. 40 years after Entertainment! redefined what is possible in music, the thing that grabs the first-time listener’s attention, and gets them in the door, so they can fully absorb the marvelous groove that the band is banging out, and appreciate their lyrics, is the discordant guitar. Gill not only knew how to play, he knew when not to, which made his parts jump out even more. Some things just grab your attention immediately, like someone plunging a shiv into your chest, or Andy Gill’s shrill guitar.
He wasn’t just good at his craft, he wasn’t just unique, he was radical.