(Legendary Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill died yesterday, February 1, 2020, after a short illness. Here we revisit our fascinating 2011 interview with him.)
It’s impossible to recall a more deliciously snide clash of sound and vision than that which opens Sofia Coppola’s 2006 period drama Marie Antoinette. As the doomed Austrian princess, an opulently bedecked Kirsten Dunst licks icing from a lavish confection as Gang of Four‘s acerbic “Natural’s Not In It” tears through the scenery, Jon King caustically sneering, “The problem of leisure / What to do for pleasure.” Breaking the fourth wall, Dunst smirks disdainfully at the camera as if to say, “Fuck you, I get the joke.”
Of course, in Coppola’s philosophical universe, even the buildup to the violent overthrow of the Ancien Regime can be broken down into a dissertation on teenage disaffection. Conversely, to Gang of Four, everything—vacation, housework, getting laid—was always politics.
“I personally rather liked it,” confesses GOF guitarist-vocalist Andy Gill. “There are a lot of films you can make about Marie Antoinette and about that period, and she chose to make a film about how artifice is everything. Not a lot happens in that film, it’s very subtle. It was very interesting to me that she used the songs like that.”
The Leeds-hailing quartet (who along with Wire, The Fall, PIL, Cabaret Voltaire and Magazine arguably invented the jagged, discordant dance-rock aesthetic still codified as “post-punk“) not only got a post-millennium shout-out from Coppola, but also found their name rolling off the tongues of every preening cool kid band from Brooklyn to Glasgow, and their grooves unmistakably embedded in the Zeitgeist-defining records of Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Futureheads, The Rapture, Yeah Yeah Yeahs—we could go on. The original four members—King, Gill, drummer Hugo Burnham, and bassist Dave Allen—slyly reformed, decisively stole the show at Coachella 2005, and went on to tear up venues from Detroit to Dublin, gleefully smashing microwave ovens on stage as part of their signature critique on the disposable consumer culture they’d prophesied on their early records.
Gill observes of their revivified relevance, “We were doing festivals in Europe, and what we noticed was that when we played some of the old songs like ‘Return The Gift’ or ‘Ether,’ not just lyrically but also musically, they felt so now and so current.”
It’s all a bit odd, as back in 1979, GOF seemed to be floating outside the trendoid acceptance radius, even as the critical establishment fell all over itself in praise. Indeed, while “fashionable” punks were storming the proverbial barricades, they were sitting around reading Gramsci and Walter Benjamin—even their name is a Maoist pun. Yet, for all intents and purposes, the most treasured indie band accessory of the new century has been the ability to replicate Gill’s jarring guitar style—or for the DJ set, the savvy to know why it’s cooler to spin “To Hell With Poverty” than anything by, say, The Buzzcocks or Joy Division.
On Content, their first record of new material since ’95, the current Gang (Gill and King, along with two newbies, bassist Thomas McNeice and drummer Mark Heaney) return to Marx and dialectics. Though there’s nothing quite as direct as their fiery manifesto “Capital (It Fails Us Now),” they make easy critical work of such topics as the vapidity of modern leisure (“Send me a photo of you on holiday”), our existential bemusement in a consumerist society (“Who am I when everything is me?”), the equivocal modern morality (“Jailers get Valentines…”), our quotidian anesthetization (“When I get up I take a pill”), and in general, the sinister yet banal corporate branding of just about everything.
Depressingly, at a time when Gill notes, “There are so many parallels between now and then,” and that, “we’re living through the worst collapse of capitalism since not 1929, but maybe 1979,” their penchant for stinging social critique has not been even vaguely adopted by the current generation of acolytes.
Gill compares the apoliticization of youth to an extended celebration of free-market ideals, resulting from the end of the Cold War, which, it must be noted, was still in full force when GOF were first arriving on the scene: “The collapse of Communism is an incredibly recent thing. It was like, ‘Capitalism has won!’ And now we stride into a happier future.” iPhones have replaced ideology.
But for those unconcerned with the trenchant decay of contemporary values, the metallic-funk grooves here are utterly ferocious, the band adding a gleaming modern sheen while hardly sacrificing a whit of their aural and ideological venom. Veritably annihilating the notion that punk rock is a young man’s weapon, GOF’s rhythmic force on Content (get the double entendre?) is as feral as anything coming out of the grubbiest indie clubs, and stratospherically more accomplished. Indeed, Andy Gill’s savage riff on the scowling “I Party All The Time” would probably make Jimmy Page seethe with jealousy.
But Gill insists that, for all the new-generation adulation, Gang of Four’s core mandate/mission remains ultimately the same as it ever was.
“Where does one get one’s ideas from? I think that’s been Gang of Four’s overriding theme,” he enlightens. “And of course, they’re all human constructions, these ideas. It’s the subject matter of a lot of songs on this record, and it continues to be kind of an obsession. We watch TV, we read books, we listen to pop music, we talk to each other, and out of that all these ideas develop. And I think what we do is part of that evolution of ideas. It’s our ongoing interpretation of the culture.”