“The end of the cuckoo clock phase”: a conversation with Gang of Four

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed Andy Gill and Jon King of Gang of Four [first and second from right in the above picture] about Content, their first album of new material in 15 years. The article appeared in the Guardian but there was so much interesting stuff that I didn’t have space for that I got permission to run an edited transcript here.

A thumbnail sketch by way of reminder. King (vocals) and Gill (guitar) met in the Department of Fine Art at Leeds University and formed Gang of Four with Dave Allen (bass) and Hugo Burnham (drums) in 1977. Their music was fierce, precise, self-questioning and allergic to cliché, and their debut album, 1979’s Entertainment! is a post-punk masterpiece. R.E.M., U2 and Nirvana, among others, loved them. They split in 1984, partially reunited for two albums in the 90s, and fully reconvened in 2004 when it seemed that every other new indie band wanted to sound like them. Allen and Burnham have since resumed their day jobs but Gill and King are back on the frontline.

“I sometimes think it would be great if we didn’t have to explain ourselves because at the end of the day that’s why we write the songs and go on stage,” Gill told me. “It’s there to speak for itself. But I’m quite happy for me and Jon to shoot the breeze with you.” Phew.

Are you still as angry as you were 30 years ago?

ANDY GILL: Anger’s a funny concept. We’re a bit cooler emotionally about what we discuss. People often say are you still angry? Well was I angry to begin with? The songs are very carefully constructed and they are the product of the two of us firing off ideas at each other. Jon might say this particular bunch are criminals and point his finger at them but one of the things about Gang of Four as a unit is our complicity in the big picture. For example the financial crisis — it’s very popular to rail against the bankers but they are only a very small part of the reason. He’s got a house, I’ve got a house, we’ve taken part in the borrowing and everything else. I think you can sense us investigating possibilities in these songs.
JON KING: One of the things we talked about years ago when we were doing the compilation album A Brief History of the 20th Century and we used a French franc on the cover was this notion of collaboration. The question is would we or would we not have been a collaborator? You like to think you’d have been on the good side but those questions are tough to answer. You don’t really know. What will happen when it comes to the crunch?

So you’re not writing songs from a position of moral superiority? You’re implicated in the system you criticise?

A: That’s what we talk about – what’s the range of alternatives? It’s very easy to pretend that you’re on the side of right and say look at them doing the bad things – the government or the toffs or whatever that may be. But I think it’s quite radical and progressive to see where we all stand, you and me, in relationship to the issues.

Back in 1979 you came across as intensely stern and rigorous. Were you like that in private?

A: I think we had our moments. We were trying to figure out what we were doing. Obviously we were in an art department [at Leeds University] with some very good new radical people: Tim Clark, Terry Atkinson, Fred Orton. It did all come together. Leeds at the time was a bit weird – there was tangible fear and paranoia in the air and it was quite a violent place. But also we were 19, 20 — running around, getting drunk, going to parties, going to clubs virtually every night.
J: However bad you thought in your paranoia things might be, they turned out to be. When I saw the Red Riding Quartet on television it felt incredibly true. When we did gigs there was always the possibility of a fight breaking out because we were seen by the NF as the enemy.
A: There were also right-wing skinheads who liked us anyway and we’d say, ‘Go away, go away!’

Did you set out to needle and annoy people?

A: We do the stuff that we do and I think we’re aware how some of those ideas may be taken by some people. But I think the point, even moreso now than then, is that it’s a fractured world and you’re never going to appeal to everybody. We always divide opinion and that’s great. We’re not trying to be The X Factor.
J: If we didn’t needle someone we’re not doing our jobs very well. When some of the stuff we’ve written hasn’t worked is when we’ve been too consensual. I see this [album] as a sister piece to Entertainment!

The title, Content, is as loaded now as Entertainment! was then…

J: You’re a journalist and I’m a musician but we’re both now in the same bucket of being content providers, along with film-makers and dancers and everyone else in the creative industries. It’s a description that’s uncomfortable.
A: It’s very similar to Entertainment!, which also is inviting a conversation: what is this entertainment thing? What is the music industry?
J: And that’s why we put the exclamation mark on it. It makes the gag obvious.

People don’t tend to think of gags in the context of Gang of Four…

J: We used to share an office in London with the Pop Group and the Slits and Mark [Stewart] was always unbelievably serious. We took ‘entertainment’ seriously but we did want to be an entertaining band. I wanted us to be as emotionally engaging as Dr Feelgood. When you went in there you got a blast of pure, full-on rock’n’roll joy and that was what we wanted to be. Up in Leeds, Green [Gartside of Scritti Politti] was one of our mates and he wanted to be an intellectual. That was an explicit, transparent project. What I value about what we do is that there’s these ideas that we can have a conversation about but then you go, ‘What a fantastic gig!’, you’re covered in sweat. I love that feeling.

I’ve never been sure how to read the sleeve of Entertainment! Was it meant to be tongue-in-cheek?

A: It’s definitely streaked with humour.
J: There was a TV Series in East Germany and it was an Eastern Bloc take on the western with an alienated cowboy hero and an Indian. And that picture was our edited version from a TV Guide. What happened was from an East German Communist perspective this guy was seeing all this capitalist exploitation. But actually it’s both funny and seriously true. Of course the cowboy did meet the Indian, they did shake hands, and he did exploit him.
A: I think lots of stuff that we do is funny, pushing it slightly too far, but at the same time truthful and serious. Even the name Gang of Four. We were driving around in a car in Leeds and we went past a newspaper billboard saying ‘Gang of Four on Trial’ and Andy Corrigan out of the Mekons said, ‘That’s a brilliant name for a band!’ What was appealing was the nerve of four young white students calling themselves after this group of people on the world stage. It was an act of chutzpah.
J: Wikipedia at one point said that we’d named the band after the big four French philosophers: Baudrillard, Foucault, etc. I thought that was fantastic and I was quite disappointed when someone [corrected it]. Wikipedia’s such a brilliant postmodern construct because it’s all based on quotations from unreliable sources which are then requoted.

Was it weird always being referred to in the press as Marxists? I get the feeling it was more complicated than that…

A: We did try to point that out. We did say that we’d read Gramsci and Walter Benjamin but not much Marx and we didn’t really consider ourselves Marxists.
J: I remember doing an interview with this guy in America who said: ‘You call yourself Marxists and yet you own all this equipment. Isn’t property theft?’ I imagine he’d spent weeks and weeks coming up with this killer line to crush me. I said, ‘Well first of all, we don’t call ourselves Marxists. And secondly, that thing you just said isn’t a Marxist idea anyway. It was Proudhon.’ But the headline in the piece was ‘Jon King denies he’s a communist.’
A: If you were to analyse the mix there’d be 1.5% post-Marxist thought…
J: 20% Dr Feelgood… One thing that was influential, and it did come through in our faculty in Leeds, was the Situationist International.… It was an incredibly clever way of communicating to people that we’re all involved on a game of meanings that change all the time.

You emerged during a period of intense political engagement. Do you miss that at all?

J: People who say that back then it was rigorous and engaged and now it’s not like that, it’s insulting to young people. I’m proud that my daughter went on [the tuition fees] march.… I think there’s so much fantastic music now, from Lady Gaga to Plan B to Laura Marling, but the conundrum of commercial music is it’s totally withdrawn from any description of life. There’s total disengagement, and I find that interesting.
A: We’ll see what happens. The late 80s, the 90s and the early 00s were a time of easy money and milk and honey so it does feel a little bit more like it did in 1979.
J: You know that great soliloquy in The Third Man when Orson Welles is up there and he’s saying the Renaissance, wars, poisoning — you get Michaelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. Switzerland – 400 years of peace and you get the cuckoo clock. Well, maybe we’re at the end of the cuckoo clock phase.

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“I’m singin ’bout a king”

How to write a musical obituary: work fast, and let sorrow and rage carry you through. Martin Luther King was killed on April 4; this was debuted (in a 15-minute version) at a festival in Long Island on April 7. In that tense historical moment, with riots raging in 110 cities, Simone’s question: “What’s gonna happen now that the king of love is dead?” had real and terrifying force. It can be hard to apprehend how much was it stake, how much worse it could have been, but this song makes it palpable.

And this, with a video which doubles as a potted history of the civil rights movement, was Public Enemy’s response to Arizona voters’ persistent refusal to recognise Martin Luther King, Jr Day (even though Governor Fife Symington III supported it). I love this song to bits, but given recent events, it is very strange to hear such a thrilling record about going to Arizona to assassinate an elected official.

Let’s talk about class

Talking about class and pop music immediately puts you in some uncomfortable company. Going by my recent experience on Twitter, as soon as you express any disquiet about the increasing number of up-and-coming musicians who arrive with ample wealth and connections, you get lumped in with the most troglodytic, books-are-for-ponces veteran of the Blur v Oasis wars and told that class is irrelevant. The gist of the response from several other writers was, to paraphrase Noel Coward, let’s not be beastly to the posh.

Twitter steamrollers nuanced debate so I want to unpack my thoughts here. The trigger for the debate was someone posting a link to a four-year-old Telegraph story which salivated over the £2.45m home of future Vaccines guitarist Freddie Cowan and his well-connected mother Fiona Cowan. You could reasonably raise an eyebrow at this kind of advantage without necessarily wanting to storm the Winter Palace. This revived discussion of a polemical piece in The Word magazine last December (not available online), in which Simon Price complained about the “Toff Takeover” of pop, pointing to the expensive educations of Eliza Dolittle, Florence Welch, Mumford & Sons, et al. He concludes:

The route to fame of entertainers like Eric Morecambe or Sandie Shaw now seems to belong to a different universe to that of Michael McIntyre and Laura Marling.… Does it matter? I would argue that it does, and for two reasons. The first is that it’s a regressive step for social democracy if the 93 per cent of is who didn’t go to a private school are no longer getting a fair shot at success. The second is that it’s bad for pop. If music – along with sport, the traditional ‘escape route’ for the poor – is shut off, where is the next Johnny Rotten or Jarvis Cocker going to come from? Nicky Wire of Manic Street Preachers – one of the last truly working-class bands to break through – said it best: ‘Music shouldn’t be a gap year.’ Right now, that’s precisely what it’s become.

It’s useful to define our terms. I’ve been told that middle-class music journalists have no business raising the issue, as if the middle class is monolithic, and a teacher on £25,000 a year is much the same as someone with a £2.45m maisonette. When you’re talking about fees at top private schools and relatives in high places, “middle class” isn’t a helpful description. We’re really talking about a very narrow stratum of society. In the 60s and 70s, rock was sufficiently alien to the wealthy elite that those who chose that path usually did so by rejecting their background rather than capitalising on it. Now, being in a band is just another thing that rich kids do. (I’m maddened by the weirdly essentialist argument, favoured by the Daily Mail but also many on the left, that the worst thing a privileged musician can do is be left-wing, as if that would be somehow inauthentic. Well hooray for the “inauthentic” activism of the relatively privileged Joe Strummer, Pete Seeger and Penny Rimbaud.)

To repeat Simon’s question: Does it matter? Well yes, because this development isn’t just a coincidence. It’s dishonest to pretend that every aspiring musician is on a level playing field. Areas like TV and journalism are increasingly dominated by those with the money to work as unpaid interns for months (not to mention those with the right connections), and music seems to be going the same way, in part because the relatively generous benefits system that allowed the likes of Jarvis Cocker to subsist during Pulp’s pre-Britpop wilderness years is a thing of the past. If pop music, always one of the most meritocratic and socially mobile occupations is changing like this, how bad must it be in other lines of work?

The Daily Mail, of all places, responded to The Word article by pointing out that some local authorities spend as little as £1.15 per child on music provision in state schools, and even that may soon be slashed to zero. Music lessons, equipment and rehearsal space all cost money. Michael Rose, conductor of the Bedfordshire Youth Orchestra, warned: “If funding is lost in this way music lessons will become the sole preserve of the middle classes.” (Perplexed by this outbreak of egalitarianism in the Mail, I was relieved to find normal service resumed with a snide dig at Joe Strummer in the last paragraph.)

So do wealthy people automatically produce inferior music? Of course not. I don’t want to have a record collection without, say, Nick Drake. I think tension and a sense of being an outsider create the best music and that can stem from any number of factors, not just socioeconomic ones. And there are clever (if often misunderstood) ways of interrogating privilege from up close. There is no better 2010 lyric about the troubling allure of wealth than this verse from Vampire Weekend’s Taxi Cab: “When the taxi door was open wide/I pretended I was horrified/By the uniformed clothes outside/Of the courtyard gate.” There’s a world of envy, guilt and fascination in that pretended. But entitlement and complacency – the sense of going through life without touching the sides – are the enemy of good art, and I hear them in a lot of young bands. Pop should be a dizzying Babel of voices – it will be much poorer if singer after singer has the same kind of accent, the same frame of reference.

Ultimately, talent will out. Freddie Cowan’s brother Tom is in the flamboyantly posh Horrors, and I like them just fine. Who knows? Maybe the Vaccines will prove to be more interesting than they appear. Just don’t tell me that class doesn’t matter.

UPDATE: A smart and speedy response from Christian Ward, who sharpens the useful distinction between class and privilege.

UPDATE: An interesting, more personal blog on a similar theme by James McMahon at the NME.

UPDATE: I originally named Brian Eno alongside Nick Drake as a musician from a wealthy background because he attended a fee-paying school but that was (embarrassingly for such a big Eno fan) inaccurate, or at least oversimplified.

Jared Lee Loughner and the problem with conspiracy theories

We know Arizona shooter Jared Lee Loughner is crazy but a lot of people are currently invested in deciding whether his craziness swings to the left or the right. Concerns about the toxic nature of political debate in the Tea Party era are real and valid, but the attempt to pin Loughner’s killing spree on people that you disagree with isn’t just unsavoury and symptomatic of the cowboys-and-Indians polarisation that is wrecking US politics – it’s false.

On one side there’s conservative howler monkey Pamela Geller, who declares Loughner “a certified lefty nut”. (Her website advertises her latest book, The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America, which of course plays no part in cheapening debate, denying the legitimacy of elected officials and fostering violent paranoia.) She is careful to note that one of his favourite books is The Communist Manifesto but somehow neglects to mention that another name on his reading list is Ayn Rand, who is homaged in the title of Geller’s very own blog. But why nitpick when her stuttering argument collapses completely in the face of Loughner’s final berserk ramble? The ramble is also the shaky foundation for the opposing case, put by Hatewatch’s Mark Potok, who uses it as evidence that Loughner is indebted to the far-right Patriot movement of the 1990s. I don’t want to compare Potok’s measured tone to Geller’s bilious bullshit but he also glosses over the facts that don’t fit and looks for intellectual coherence where none exists.

Read this part of Loughner’s rant and tell me where you’d place him on the political spectrum. “In conclusion, reading the second United States Constitution, I can’t trust the current government because of the ratifications: The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar.” I’d say somewhere between deluded and batshit.

But it’s not unfamiliar. Conspiracy theorist thinking appeals to both left and right, and can forge strange alliances. In the 90s, you’d find rappers and militiamen alike clutching copies of William Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse, a book about secret societies, government plots and UFOs. Angry, lonely, disempowered young men are especially drawn to conspiracy theories because it makes them feel like vital combatants in an epic struggle.

So when Geller quotes the Twitter stream of Caitie Parker, a former high school friend and bandmate of Loughner’s, as part of her “lefty nut” theorem, I see something different. “he was a pot head & into rock like Hendrix, The Doors, Anti-Flag,” writes Parker. And separately: “As I knew him he was left wing, quite liberal. & oddly obsessed with the 2012 prophecy.”

Apart from confirming that you should never trust a serious Doors fan, this just makes me think of certain kind of young man who reads a lot of books, smokes a lot of weed and comes up with some far-fetched theories (his reading list includes such counterculture favourites as Herman Hesse, Ken Kesey, Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley), only in this case intensified by real mental illness. As Salon’s Laura Miller writes: “A young man whose slide into paranoid schizophrenia has been noticed and addressed probably would favor literature in which maverick truth-tellers are labeled as insane or criminal by self-serving authority figures.”

In this autodidactic stoner cosmology, the government is always up to something nefarious so it figures that during the Bush administration this would have tilted to the left, and the under Obama to the right, without any great philosophical adjustments necessary — the Tea Party thrives on the kind of rebel rhetoric once dominated by the left. To assign him to one side or another is at best mistaken and at worst fraudulent. Laura Miller again: “By studying Loughner’s book list for clues to the political leanings that somehow ‘drove’ him to commit murder, commentators are behaving a lot like crazy people themselves.”

But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from Loughner’s twisted logic. Conspiracy-theorist thinking is always out there, and normally it does no harm except to anyone who’s unfortunate enough to sit next to a true believer at a party. Sometimes (see the Wu-Tang Clan) it makes for some terrific music. But occasionally, if the brain chemistry and the cultural mood are both out of whack, it turns into something truly dangerous. The message of the political assassinations of the 60s is not that there are plotters everywhere, but that even lone gunmen are creatures of their culture. Mainstream paranoia-mongers like Glenn Beck and, oh yes, Pamela Geller stir the pot of fear and conspiracy because it’s lucrative and it works, but sometimes they dislodge something nasty from the bottom and it floats to the top. Conservatives can call Loughner a “lefty” all they like, but right now they are the ones stirring the pot with reckless glee.

UPDATE: In a fundraising email, the Tea Party Express calls Loughner a “liberal”. This is one day after the Tea Party Patriots wailed: “To see the left exploit this for political advantage – some people have no conscience. It’s genuinely revolting … I think it sinks to the level of evil.” I’m sure the Tea Party Patriots will be calling up the Tea Party Express right away to express their disgust.

Note: For a primer on conspiracy theories in US politics, especially on the right, you have to read Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics. For an entertaining and thorough takedown of several conspiracy theories, David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories is unbeatable. Sarah Hepola at Salon has written a good piece about the history behind Drowning Pool’s Bodies, the song Loughner used in his YouTube clip.