Gang of Four

Mark Hall-Patch Illustration

Ironically, Dave Allen and I are talking grandly about the future of technology in music when a mysterious crackling comes over the phone, which neither of us seems capable of fixing or figuring out. On the state of the industry, he says, “Everything’s changing”; after being established in it for twenty-six years, and finally reunited with the original Gang of Four line-up, he’s in a very good position to judge.

Here are the Spark Notes: after answering an advertisement for “bass player wanted” in 1977 Leeds, Allen hooked up with Andy Gill, Jon King, and Hugo Burnham, and the quartet established the landmark post-punk band Gang of Four. Their seminal 1979 album, Entertainment!, is one of the crucial documents of the era, capturing a groundbreaking band at their hungriest. The record is striking for its angular, much-counterfeited guitar sound, and Allen’s dub-reggae influenced bass. Entertainment! perfected the aesthetic today’s post-punk revivalists are seeking to duplicate, a fresh hybrid of punk rock youthfulness and a dose of danceability. Since the first time he left the band twenty-four years ago, Allen has played in Shriekback (a band that strangely sold more records than Gang of Four) and started a web design company, Pampelmoose.

So why is it that when I told my friends, “I’m interviewing Gang of Four,” they all said, “That’s great! Er, who are they?” Well, it could have something to do with the fact that Allen parted ways with the band after their sophomore album, 1981’s Solid Gold, and none of the later material approached the envelope the first two albums pushed. But, says Allen, “it was something wrong before I left,” a combination of over-touring, ineffective management, and lack of guidance.

Although Allen doesn’t buy the comparisons, the popularity of modern rock bands such as Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party has marked a post-punk revival largely informed by Gang of Four’s sound. Rather than lamenting the theft of his style, Allen believes that “the opportunity that created reminded us, if not other people, about the band’s legacy.” Driven by this renewed interest, the original lineup reformed and have made a full return after nearly a quarter century apart.

They’ve already toured all over the world and released Return the Gift, an album of rerecorded songs from their earlier work. Return the they first signed with EMI three decades ago that left the masters in the hands of the company, a catch typical of the era. But now, says Allen, “Gang of Four owns the masters. We’re in control of our destiny, finally, after all of these years.”

So where does the band want to go? Though many cringe at the thought of their favourite reunited bands making music after years apart (the Pixies, anyone?), Allen feels that Gang of Four is still capable of making music that explores new frontiers. “The hard part would be Jon and Andy, because they were the two lyrical components, for them to sit and say, ‘What the hell? Where do we start?’” Though he kicks around a few ideas, including current events
such as the disaster in New Orleans, Allen admits that, after all of the changes he’s experienced (he’s been married for seventeen years, and is a father of teenagers), “I’m not sure what we want to talk about these days.”

Ever since Entertainment!, the provocative content of Gang of Four’s lyrics has garnered the members misleading reputations as radicals, Marxists, and socialists. The fact that they named themselves after a group of Chinese communists didn’t help, though Allen doesn’t feel his band ever specifically brought those ideas into play. “Gang of Four was always stateless… we left it wide open to interpretation,” he says. Fans of the band still recall one famous instance when Gang of Four walked off of a much-coveted spot on the BBC show “Top of the Pops” because the producers asked them to censor the word “rubbers” from “At Home He’s a Tourist.” Many regard this as a turning point in the band’s career, and the moment when mainstream commercial success eluded them for good. “We’re an odd beast, aren’t we?” Allen says, laughing.

The thing that sets Gang of Four apart from the plethora of late-‘70s punks was a personal touch that no other band approached. As Allen describes, the band wasn’t so much political as sociological in nature. They talked about the personal choices involved in society, the decision to either rebel or turn the other cheek. “Nobody [since] has managed to encapsulate in a song those kind of issues,” he says. “We’re a kind of island in a sea of mediocrity, really. And I say that with pride.”

But the United States is one issue he feels Gang of Four is incapable of avoiding these days. With “America being hell-bent on global hegemony,” the subject, he believes, aligns with the band’s universal approach. One reason he feels the reunion has been such a success is that the lyrics are “equally important and just as relevant as they were back then, because not much has changed.”

Whether or not this means Gang of Four will be as controversial today as they were during their first incarnation is irrelevant; Allen, an outspoken enemy of nostalgia, isn’t expecting to recapture anything except the power of the band’s live show. “None of us are looking back with our rosecoloured glasses on, trying to re-create what we were back then… we’re not those people.” On whether or not he’d play “Top of the Pops” now, he says, “Yeah. If they tried to censor us again, then we’d walk off again. It doesn’t matter. Our principles have not changed.”

Though that statement may be true, the question remains as to what exactly Gang of Four is fighting against these days, if anything. On one hand, Allen seems dissatisfied with a culture that sends messages such as, “you must join the iPod generation,” but on the other, his company, Pampelmoose, lists Nike as one of their clients. While he’s proud of how the band took back the masters from the behemoth EMI, Gang of Four “do play ClearChannel venues.” After observing how Pearl Jam fared against Ticketmaster in the ‘90s, Allen explains that he’s not interested “in fighting a battle on that scale.”

Perhaps these questions are immaterial for the Gang of Four of today. Allen says he enjoys the fact that modern audiences may be “just having a good time because we’re a really good, loud rock band,” and not buying into the band’s politics. However, the ambiguity of Gang of Four’s political maturation casts a shadow over where they can safely go in the future. Only time will tell.

But speculating about the future of Gang of Four isn’t a particularly interesting topic to Dave Allen. His attitude is simply, “what will be will be,” and the past, inevitably, isn’t that important. “I live for the moment every day, moving forward,” he says. “There’s no point looking back.”