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Andy Gill RIP: The fury behind Gang of Four’s quizzical punk vision

Photo Credit: OneInTenWords.com, via Gang of Four
 
 

Andy Gill passed away this past weekend from pneumonia at the age of 64; he is remembered primarily as the guitarist for Gang of Four, a four-piece that formed at Leeds University in 1976. Gill, with Gang vocalist Jon King, is often seen as a central-but-somewhat-unheralded architect of the post-punk canon, bridging the gap between the punk movement of the 1970s and the new wave boom of the 1980s, with his distinctive guitar style and Gang of Four’s specific brand of melancholy dance-based rock music. But although the tone of Gill’s guitar was indeed sharp and incisive, Gang of Four’s music was expansive and quizzical; additionally, for a band often seen as political rhetorical and hectoring, Gill and Co. were far more interested in asking questions than coming to conclusions. Gill’s is a singular yearning legacy of picking things apart and building elaborate sonic puzzles comprised of simple elements.

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Gill and King both studied at Leeds University’s Fine Arts Department, stewing in its progressive milieu and soaking in the ethos of the Situationists, a radical avant-garde French consortium that, among other things, developed the theory of the spectacle in society: That in the modern world, commodities rule the people (instead of vice versa) and the accumulation of spectacles allows the average person to experience life via proxy. As Gill and King both began encountering rock and roll and punk simultaneously, the music they wound up eventually creating in Gang of Four was truly unique in the annals of rock: They loved the bracing realness of music but also used that musical space to interrogate every aspect of the musical experience, as it was in a sense every bit the spectacle that the Situationists had critiqued.

Gang of Four, its important to remember, were an almost immediate success: It wasn’t long after King and Gill found bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham that they had a slew of energetic tunes, a fervent local following, and, in quick succession, label deals with UK independent Fast Product and then EMI. If their records were a commodity, spectacle trapped in black pressed plastic, then it would be their ideas that would be smuggled into the minds of the unsuspecting by the type of corporation whose very existence the band aimed to call into question. Situationists like Guy Debord referred to this strategy as détournement, turning the slogans and propaganda of the status quo against itself: For example, Gang of Four’s EMI debut, Entertainment!, contained the song “I Found That Essence Rare”, a song whose title came to the band when they stumbled across the phrase in a perfume ad. Musically, it is one of the band’s most straightforward and appealing tunes; lyrically and thematically, however, it is a meditation on the cruelties of desire, the way we are trapped by the things that we want.

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Selling out, as a concept, has long been such a predominant focus of music culture; but oddly, Gang of Four never seemed concerned with the concept. In a sense, for Gang of Four, and for a lot of what would end up being post-punk and, eventually, “alternative” music culture, the ultimate form of selling out was falling in love, which in part explains the decisive anti-romanticism of these musical movements. Seventies punk is often regaled as having been a world that was open to female musicians and female fans, an antidote to the corporate stadium rock that gave listeners an alternative to the FM cooing of bands like Foreigner and REO Speedwagon. The truth is more complicated, though: Not only because ’70s punk would eventually lead to the no-girls-allowed treehouse fort called ’80s hardcore, but because it laid the foundation for post-punk’s anti-love-song rebellion.

Entertainment!’s final track was, in many ways, a harbinger for where Gill and Co. were headed with their muse: With “Anthrax”, the band showed that they were really investigating what exactly it was that a rock band did, and why. Why do songs have hooks? And why do pop songs always have to be about love? “Anthrax” is a strange formalist exercise masquerading as a rock song cloaked in screaming guitar feedback: The various instrumental elements, for example, never reveal themselves in passages whereby the band members are all playing in time; instead, each player’s part ends with a hand-off to the next part. The screaming guitar part ends, then the drums begin pounding, the bass begins, and then vocals and guitar exchange turns back and forth — it’s kind of like a song written as a diagram on a chalkboard more than musicians playing off of each other.

On top of this strange jigsaw puzzle, King pleads the helplessness of being in love’s throes; synchronously, Gill recites a spoken poem that underscores (and undercuts) the theory behind King’s bleat: “Groups and singers,” Gill recites, “think that they appeal to everyone by singing about love, because apparently everyone has or can love, or so they would have you believe anyway. I don’t think we’re saying there’s anything wrong with love, we just don’t think what goes on between two people should be shrouded in mystery.”

King and Gill were astute observers of the world around them and as such, they couldn’t help but point out the logical fallacies at the heart of the fantasy of romantic song. It was a concept that was in the air, and it caught on like wildfire. Two years later, Epping collectivist-punk project Crass released their Penis Envy album, which closed with the track “Our Wedding”, a parody of quote-unquote radio love ballads that presented love and marriage as the ultimate deal with the devil. “Never look at anyone, anyone but me / Never look at anyone, I must be all you see” coos Joy De Vivre, using her dripping falsetto to mask the tune’s threatening undercurrent.

Soon thereafter, antipathy towards love became de rigueur: The most successful single of 1983 was “Every Breath You Take” by The Police, a song that equated love with stalking; 1984, John Lydon of Public Image Ltd. masked his disgust with his own record label in an anti-love rant called “This Is Not A Love Song” that became his first post-Sex Pistols flirtation with chart success. In January 1987, Steve Albini’s Big Black released their final album, Songs About Fucking; in the liner notes, commenting on murder ode “Pavement Saw”, Albini wrote, “the male-female relationship, as a subject for a song, is thoroughly bankrupt.” Then, in the fall of 1987, American audiences connected with a tune by underground heroes R.E.M. called “The One I Love”, sending it to the Billboard top 10 and essentially ushering in the age of alternative rock.

R.E.M., being college rock favorites, were considered, by their adoring faithful, too intelligent for the mainstream. Thus “The One I Love” was a trick for those in the know who could get the irony of a song that pretends to be a love song when in fact it is an ode to love’s cruelties reaching the Billboard top 10. The success of “The One I Love” pitted it against the likes of George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” and INXS’s “Need You Tonight”, breathy and lusty thumpers — to the R.E.M. crowd, “The One I Love” was a Trojan Horse subverting the stupidity of the typical romantic or carnal yearning at the heart of popular music. People would call in to Casey Kasem and dedicate “The One I Love” to their squeeze based on the tune’s repeated line “this one goes out to the one I love” — the rubes.

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Gill and Co. may not have wanted to pen romantic ballads, but they were motivated by their love of pop and funk to get Jimmy Douglass to sit in the producer’s chair for the sophomore record; although Douglass was (and still is) a versatile producer who had worked with everyone from AC/DC to Aretha Franklin to Foreigner, Gang of Four wanted him because they were big fans of ’70s funk unit Slave, whose work had been helmed by Douglass to bass-drubbing effect. Running through their new material at Abbey Road Studios in early 1981 with Douglass, Gang of Four felt at the time that they were drastically shifting their music in a funk direction. Douglass may have shaken his head at the English boys playing their weird music, but he also gave their sound the space it needed: the result is one of the most unique-sounding rock records ever made. If Entertainment! Was an exclamation mark of a statement, 1981’s Solid Gold was a question mark writ large, as track after track found the group re-structuring the architecture of their songs to allow for the existential dread and philosophical questioning that their new material required.

It’s important to grasp where Gill was coming from, musically, and just how far he’d come in only a few years: He grew up idolizing 1960s guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, and was directly inspired in his guitar style by the hard r&b pub rock of UK legends Dr. Feelgood, led by the dynamo hammering of guitarist Wilko Johnson. Listening now to a Feelgood track like, say, “She Does It Right”, the basic building blocks of the Gang of Four sound are right there: The guitar is relentless and treble-happy, and the way that the drums and guitar play little games with dropping out and coming back in is classic Gang of Four.


On Solid Gold, Gill took the Wilko Johnson guitar attack and atomized it, taking that aggressive scraping assault and turning it inside out. The record’s magnum opus is “He’d Send In The Army”, a stark and brutal examination of a masculine lust for order and power anchored not by drums but by Jon King clanging on a metal chair with a stick. King’s metronomic device frees Gill to puncture his guitar attack with somber harmonics, building up tense energy that explodes at odd intervals. 


My first exposure to the song, and to Gang of Four in general, was their segment of the 1981 live music film Urgh! A Music War: Here, Gill’s steely determination and frantic slashing often resulted in his not even hitting the strings or making any actual sound: Sometimes, the most intense playing can be sheer silence, I realized watching this strange and mesmerizing performance. The song doesn’t end so much as run its course — the ugly emotional landscape of the song isn’t resolved, but is left hanging at the track’s conclusion.

Gill’s gift had become turning a song into a question that is never answered, while still delivering the goods in terms of great rock craftsmanship: Songs like “Paralysed” or “Why Theory?” float in circular grooves and the murk of ethical gray areas, following their initial themes into dark places and then letting those raw feelings just hang and fester. 


“Each day seems like a natural fact, and what we think changes how we act”, Gill sings on “Why Theory?”, and in a weird way this line is a kind of mission statement for the band and for Gill for their entire careers: That things are what they are, but thoughts determine actions, and it’s only by exploring those thoughts that one can deduce the root cause of the actions around us. Gill would spend the subsequent four decades creating music with a variety of different configurations of Gang of Four; he was the only constant member, and in recent years he was the only original member left (the Gill-led Gang of Four put out two albums, both at the very least interesting in the way that they attempted to reconcile Gill’s will to move forward with the audience’s need to hear shredding post-punk a la 1979).

Pretty much any song of his inevitably hit a point where Gill seems to be contemplating the ramifications of this rock monstrosity he is unleashing — these moments of reflection are just as crucial to the Andy Gill sound, to his contribution to music’s firmament, as a thousand hours of him scraping and shredding with piercing feedback. Ultimately, what made Andy Gill a remarkable musical force was the will to force ideas into the music, whether those ideas wanted to be there or not. He subverted his own music, and in doing so he continually made the challenge of artistic creation a metaphor for being a person in a complicated world filled with ugly truths and uncomfortable conclusions. If his music, and the music he made with Gang of Four, didn’t necessarily feel good, it always felt honest, and it was always looking for answers — and yearning for a new way of moving forward, because what we think does indeed change how we act.


Follow Daniel Brockman on Twitter @thebizhaslanded.