“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.