by John Dougan
Formed in 1977 by Leeds University students Jon King (vocals), Andy Gill (guitar), Dave Allen (bass), and Hugo Burnham (drums), Gang of Four (along with the Fall, Mekons, and Liliput) produced some of the most exhilarating and lasting music of the early English post-punk era of 1978-1983. Fueled by the fury of punk rock and radical political theory, Gang of Four successfully welded the two in an inspired display of polemics and music that addressed the vagaries of life in the modern world (including love and romance) as matters of political inquiry. Despite the fact that this sounds rife with the potential for being long on rhetoric and short on groove, such was not the case. What made Gang of Fours polemical clangnroll so compelling was that it worked as harsh, bracing, and ultimately liberating rock & roll. With Allen and Burnham combining as a formidable and frequently very funky rhythm section, Gill didnt play guitar as much as emit thick wads of semi-tuneful distortion, while King sang in a dry, declamatory fashion similar to that of the Falls Mark E. Smith. The rhythms were stripped down and jagged; at times Gill would dispense with guitar solos entirely and play non-solos, which were (surprise!) silence. Song titles sounded like the titles of radical political essays: At Home Hes a Tourist, Damaged Goods, Its Her Factory, Love Like Anthrax, To Hell With Poverty, all of it openly challenging the audiences preconceived notions about rock music, performance, the cult of celebrity, and the nature of politics. And in doing so, GOF conveyed rage, confusion, and loss of identity as well as any band of its time.
After three consecutive sensational albums, as well as a handful of EPs and singles, Allen left in 1982 to form the more danceable and less overtly political Shriekback, while Gill, King, and Burnham recorded the misguided radical soul/R&B record Hard with veteran American producers Ron and Howard Albert (whod previously worked with Stephen Stills Manassas and Firefall). A near total disaster, Hard signalled that the end was nigh. Gill and King, who by this point had final say-so on the bands musical and political direction, sacked Burnham, and the now Gang of Two released a so-so live album (At the Palace) and called it quits in 1984. But legends die hard, and Gang of Four experienced a mini-renaissance in the early 90s with the release of two excellent collections (A Brief History of the Twentieth Century and The Peel Sessions Album). King and Gill put together a new Gang of Four and released the tepid but not disgraceful Mall in 1991. Another reunion, from 1995, yielded Shrinkwrapped. Three years later, a double-disc compilation — 100 Flowers Bloom — surfaced on Rhino, and the original lineup reconvened in 2004 to tour extensively and release 2005s Return the Gift, featuring re-recordings of their early material. They have always remained, to the ears of those opened wide by punk rock, an extremely important band.