I first became aware of Gang of Four in 2002, when the Scottish indie band Idlewild covered ‘I Found That Essence Rare’ for a John Peel session. Aged 17 at the time, if asked I would usually declare Idlewild my favourite band. Their blend of art school reference points, plaintive spikiness and boyish refusal of the clanging machismo I’d been expected to conform to throughout my teenage years was a highly appealing package. I had a ludicrously tight girl’s crop top embossed with the band’s logo that I wore with pride. Little did I know how much that cover version would change my world.
In Gang of Four, I discovered the source of everything that had grabbed me about Idlewild, supplemented by a searing critique of capitalist alienation and the dull compulsion of patriarchy. It was a year after Bush and Blair declared war on Afghanistan; a year before they did the same in Iraq. Along with millions of others, a political consciousness was awakening in me – a sense that there was something fundamentally wrong about the power relations and priorities of my society and that it didn’t have to be this way. There couldn’t have been a more perfect time to walk into the Stockport branch of HMV and take a punt on a £16 CD reissue of the Gang’s peerless 1979 debut LP Entertainment!
The cynical machinations of militarism and colonialism, the contorted commodification of modern romance, the nagging alienation of a mass mediated, sensation-seeking consensus that had deluded itself history was over; everything that was niggling me vaguely was suddenly given fiercely intelligent and electrifying musical form.
There is a reason why I’ve chosen to open an obituary of Andy Gill with such a personal anecdote. In its own small way, I hope it demonstrates something that I have always argued about the band he led – something that cuts against the grain of established opinion on them. Again and again, Gang of Four have been celebrated or castigated for what’s perceived as their combination of archly cerebral leftist theory with a visceral, spasmodic and entirely original fusion of punk, funk and dub. Either it’s been held that they achieved such a delicate balancing act with aplomb; or that ultimately the band’s potential to connect was hamstrung by that perennial supposed no-no of mixing politics and pop. But what if the band’s real achievement was to expose the apparent divisions of art and politics, emotions and intellect as one more ideological trick – in short to provide an object lesson in the claim of another post-punk visionary, The Fall’s Una Baines, who once declared in an early interview that ‘politics is life’?
Gill was absolutely central to this seamlessness. How could anyone not be moved by the heart-wrenching bewilderment of his strained vocals on ‘Damaged Goods’, as it dawns on the subject of the song that the wonders of love and lust are as cancerous with capitalist values as anything else in this fallen world? Is it really possible to neatly separate art and politics, emotion and intellect in Gill’s glum rhetorical opener to ‘5.45’ (‘How can I sit and eat my tea/with all that blood flowing from the television?’)
The same could be said of Gill’s much lauded and much imitated guitar playing, which cuts through all of Gang of Four’s output in nerve-jangling staccato bursts. Its power is not in spite of but because of Gill’s familiarity with a rich tradition of Marxist aesthetics, one which has long recognised that artistic form, ideology and human feeling are deeply interwoven. Form shapes how we experience and understand the world; radical content demands radical form, and in Gang of Four’s music the two were fused to unforgettable effect.
At the close of the 1960s, attending the prestigious Sevenoaks School on a scholarship with future Gang of Four co-vocalist Jon King, Gill encountered an art teacher called Bob White who introduced them to the currents of cultural and political change pulsing through that revolutionary decade. White didn’t patronise his students; by treating them like adults he ensured that what he taught them was intrinsically bound up with their emergent teenage self-discovery. Later, when the pair went on to study art at the University of Leeds, this dissident curiosity would be sculpted into theoretical rigour by yet more sixties radical tutors who had by the 1970s begun ‘the long march through the institutions’. It gave Gill and King the gift of reason as well as fists in the frequently violent clashes between young leftists and the rising fascist tide of late 1970s Britain – or reasoned fists, if you prefer. At the band’s very first gig, Gill smacked an obnoxious racist skinhead in the face with his guitar. Such an attitude soon transferred to their music. ‘We had a greater clarity of thought [than many of their peers] but what we were doing was from the gut’, Gill once recalled.
As one of the first truly post-punk bands to emerge the year after punk’s 1977 peak, Gang of Four were hugely influential even in their own time, let alone in the decades that have elapsed since. Setting the bar for many other post-punks, they tried at first to stay true to punk’s DIY values by signing to Bob Last’s conceptualist indie Fast Product. But as with their label mates the Human League, the Gang were soon taken by the heretical move of signing to a major in the hope of subverting from within. They were amongst the first to do so, pioneering not only post-punk but also its chart-busting second phase in the form of the New Pop of the early eighties. It was a decision that Gill was central to.
This was entirely in keeping with his puckish character. Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, Gill took seriously yet black-humouredly the anguished recognition of Bristol post-punks The Pop Group that in a structurally unequal capitalist society, ‘we are all prostitutes’. Despite the band’s socialist commitments, Gill maintained a provocative fascination with a Vichy French coin that he’d once discovered (later to appear on the cover of Gang of Four best of compilation A Brief History of the Twentieth Century). On it, the rallying cry of the French Revolution – ‘Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood’ – has been replaced with ‘Work, Family, Country’, revealing the endless ability of the powers that be to co-opt dissent. Implicitly, though, what the coin also revealed was the need for the Left to engage in this back and forth struggle on the terrain as it existed rather than from some imagined point of purity. Always, the subjects of Gang of Four songs are dealing with the difficult realities of their situations rather than preaching from the sidelines: think of the brutalised soldier in camp classic ‘I Love A Man In Uniform’; the housewife seeing through the sham of idealised marriage in ‘It Is Not Enough’ or the ‘washed-up’ protagonist of ‘Paralysed’.
Over time, this necessary awareness of needing to start from the bad new days (in the words of Bertolt Brecht) evolved into a justification for a straightforwardly market-based approach to music making – not to mention a move away from the Gang’s radical roots. ‘Being in a band is by its very nature an entrepreneurial thing’, Gill claimed in 2008. In the aftermath of that year’s global financial crash, the band were critical of austerity – but Gill was quick to add that ‘in no sense are we interested in banging the drum for socialism’.
It would be easy to criticise such apparent ‘sell-out’ gestures. Yet to make a moral judgement on Gill’s shifting attitudes would be to miss the point. After all, what had the Gang demonstrated so compellingly in so many different ways? None other than Marx’s famous dictum, often quoted but rarely fully digested: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already…’ In short: we make the world but it makes us, too. Living through decades of profound defeat for the Left was bound to shape Gill in some way. Many lost faith; Gill’s position was predictable if depressing.
Perhaps, then, Gill and his work can teach us another valuable lesson about art and politics. We live at a time where individualism, the cardinal virtue of capitalism, has even colonised much of left-wing culture. Nowadays, so many seem to believe that the world can be changed one person at a time, both through their own conduct and through ‘calling out’ that of others. Popular culture is narrowly valued on its perceived wokeness; the dread shibboleth ‘problematic’ hangs over everything; and what doesn’t conform is ‘cancelled’, meaning that those who don’t like it can simply pretend it doesn’t exist. By contrast, ‘Gang of Four songs were so often about the inability to have clean hands’, as Gill once observed.
Ultimately, what matters is not so much Gill’s gradual de-radicalisation as the cultural and political legacy of his work, which has continued to be a vital touchstone for successive waves of leftist cultural producers. This is a rare achievement. It – and the life that was responsible for it – should be celebrated unequivocally.