1956 – 2020
by Henry Cherry
When Andy Gill died at 64 on Saturday, the sound of revolution was momentarily stalled. Gill was the co-founder of the UK’s Gang of Four, an avant-funk off shoot of that country’s monumentally impactful punk movement of the late 70s. Across ten albums and a barrage of EPs and singles, Gang of Four is best known for their bouncing ecstatic protestations like “To Hell with Poverty” and “Damaged Goods” and their big break on American radio, “I Love a Man in Uniform.” Gill’s sawing guitar, songwriting and production lay at the heart of the band’s dramatically seductive sound. As such, the power of his death resides in the music Gill is responsible for, and luckily, that music remains. Even as Gill lay in the hospital, suffering from pneumonia, the musician continued to work on new music, editing and annotating mixes for a yet to be released Gang of Four recording.
It was Gill’s slashing guitar that first thrilled audiences, producing a daring counter balance to bassist Dave Allen’ swaying bass lines (a sound which Gill contended he himself taught to his bandmate.) The off-kilter beat ignited a burning energetic quarrel in singer Jon King that would have been unattainable without the guitarist’s polyrhythmic blasts. Announcing Gill’s passing, the band released a statement calling the late musician and producer “our great friend and Supreme Leader.” Without Gill, they were nothing.
Unorthodox, idiosyncratically aware, and antagonistic, Gang of Four took what at the time was the preternaturally overlooked sentiment of the people and placed it inside intelligent but also danceable music that brimmed with Gill’s fury and sonic ministrations.
On the “Damaged Goods” single, the first music released by the band, Gang of Four went full bore into art, humor, love and violence. Released at the height of England’s Winter of Discontent, which saw several strikes by truck drivers and trash collectors and grave diggers, it was the humanistic but artful sound of revolt. One song compared romance to anthrax. Another was named “Armalite Rifle” the weapon of choice for Northern Ireland’s most lethal era during the Troubles. From that release in 1978 until the original lineup’s initial break up following their least political album, 1983’s Hard, Gang of Four smashed every mold they were cast into without fully abandoning Gill’s marriage of sonic disruption to his civic beliefs. They were smartly poetic, tongue and cheek, full of chic grooves and wailing guitar. Gill’s sound was an ocean — tumbling, angular and unpredictable. “I suppose I would confess to a certain element of pride, especially as I wrote all the music and 90% of the words,” Gill said in an interview in March of 2019 with Louder, adding that, “we were kind of fearless-slash-stupid about what we felt we could or could not or should or should not do.”
To Hell With Poverty
Soon after the band’s dissolution in the mid 80s, Gill found work producing albums for other acts, overseeing music by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and The Stranglers. But it was the music he made with Gang of Four, his own sound, that Gill returned to every decade of his life after the band’s inception in 1976. A quick reunion produced Shrinkwrapped in 1995 and when they reconvened again in the early 2000s the band set about re-recording old songs on Return the Gift. From then on, the band continued to record until Gill’s death, though, eventually, he was the last of the original members still involved in Gang of Four.
There can be no remembrance of Gill without recognizing the impact of his music. For a young kid venturing out into a world dominated by the tastes of my older brother and his friends, Gang of Four was my first adventure toward possessing an individual musical identity. Theirs was a sound of contagions and inscrutability. Some part of me embraced that riddle at a time where the music was dominated by the short story sounds of Bruce Springsteen and the emblematic arena noise of U2. Burrowing into the music of Gang of Four, I found a peculiar unification of obscure influences previously lost to the cultural divide presented by the Atlantic Ocean. Before I knew Can, before I heard Public Image Ltd., there was the Gang of Four. At interschool dances, me and a friend would frequently pester those in charge of beats to play our copies of Entertainment! and Solid Gold, sometimes with success. A 12” release of “What We All Want” climbed up the British dance charts, as incongruous as that seems, and it remains a scratchy communicable kiss of free form post punk jangle. But it wasn’t just me. The post punk funk of Fugazi doesn’t exist without them, nor does most of the second wave of Dischord Records releases. But the ripples of Gang of Four filter deep into the sanitized bop of millennial band, Fun. Gill’s sound even treads into of the fury of Beyoncé’s defiant album, Lemonade, most definitively on her song “Sorry.”
Gill is survived by his wife, Catherine Mayer, a founding member of the UK political party, Woman’s Equality Party and former London bureau chief for Time Magazine. They were married in 1999. After Gill’s passing, Mayer posted on Twitter, “This pain is the price of extraordinary joy, almost three decades with the best man in the world.”
Never one to mince words about bad political ideas, Gill told writer Lisa Torem in a 2016 interview why Brexit was wrong. “The people that don’t like Johnny Foreigner and voted for Brexit, they don’t live in London. So I’m talking about the mythology of that perfect countryside where everybody knows each other’s names and every door is open because no one is going to come in and steal anything. And it’s all bollocks and it all leads to, and there’s a sweeping statement here — it leads to Fascism, you know.”
What We All Want
Henry Cherry is Jazz Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Mr. Cherry is also a photographer, writer and documentary filmmaker who lives in Hollywood. His work has appeared in Huck, PBS, OC Weekly, Los Angeles Review of Books, Artillery, and LA Weekly. A documentary film on master jazz musician Henry Grimes is in the works. For contact information go to his website: henrycherry.com