By Jeff McCord
It’s one of those moments that has grown larger than life in Austin. From all of the people who have claimed they were there over the years, you would think Club Foot’s 900 capacity had expanded to 10,000. But I was there, at the newly renamed Club Foot. It was election night, 1980, one that did not go well for Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan had just been elected president hours earlier. When the Gang of Four walked on stage that night, one of them – I remember it being Andy Gill – sneered “You have a new president. Arrren’t you lucky?”
Entertainment!, the Gang of Four’s debut album, released 14 months earlier, had barely left my turntable. It remains on virtually every critics’ best album of the seventies list to this day. Even in an era where punk/post-punk was demolishing everything, the Gang of Four’s debut was bracing, vital and devoid of cliché. One of the big reasons for that was guitarist and songwriter Andy Gill.
Gill, who died from pneumonia on February 1 at age 64, met Jon King at Kent’s selective Sevenoaks School. They were both members of the school’s ‘Art Room’ (as were Tom Greenhalgh and Mark White of the Mekons). They absorbed everything, from Karl Marx to Jean-Luc Godard, and eventually, New York City’s mid-seventies scene coming of age at CBGB. (Jon King tells how he and Andy made that early trip to New York in an interview I recorded for my program Left Of The Dial back in 2005. You can hear it here).
It was the NYC trip that inspired them to form the Gang of Four. From the beginning, their music was uncompromising. Their lyrics, which infused Socialism, philosophy, Situationism, economics and cultural analysis into three-minute rock songs King sang while pounding a microwave with a baseball bat, would have relegated them to the radical fringe.
But Andy Gill made them much more than that. Fashioning a sound both minimalist and propulsive, Gill detonated guitar bursts like hand grenades. He spit splinters of notes over the throbbing funk of the rhythm section (originally Dave Allen on bass and Hugo Burnham on drums, though many others would play the parts over the years). There were no solos, and lots of actual holes in the music. Gill could be percussive, make his guitar wail, but other times he sounded like a buzzsaw cutting piano strings. He could stop the band dead in their tracks. On songs like “Ether”, “At Home He’s A Tourist”, “Paralysed”, Gill reaches a spiky symmetry, but elsewhere he seems bent on destruction.
Entertainment! was like nothing heard before, especially for those who missed their independent 1978 ep, and it quickly won converts, including R.E.M. and a young Kurt Cobain. The original blueprint remained for the second album, Solid Gold, laid out nearly as perfect as their first. As personnel changed, the band would fill in their spaces and sand off some edges – more background vocals, 80’s drum sounds. Yet even their most radio-friendly success, “I Love A Man In A Uniform”, still sounds like them. They would break up in fits and starts – first in 1984, again in 1994. They reunited the original lineup in 2004, but it didn’t last. King and Gill would work together until 2012 when they split for good. Gill would continue for a couple of more interesting records, but they were Gang of Four in name only.
Gill also produced, not just for quirky acts like the Balancing Act, but also for the Gang of Four-inspired Jesus Lizard, Killing Joke, even the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He also auditioned for a Mick Jagger solo tour (which never got off the ground). But it was the fiery and provoking polemics of the Gang of Four that kept Gill going.
Election night in 1980, the band took the stage in front of young Austinites facing an uncertain future. Caught up in the evening’s proceedings, they washed it all away with a frenzied, barely restrained celebration of all they stood for. I remember little snapshots of that night, the gleeful look of the audience, Burnham’s locked-tight fury on the drum kit, King’s intensity on the mic and weird percussion, contrasted by his windy melodica.
But mostly, I remember Gill. His extended feedback intro, in darkness, to “Anthrax”, the way he slammed his guitar into mic stands or anything available, really. Or how he roamed the stage like a caged animal, constantly surprising by hijacking the music, jutting in with angles and edges. When tension would build to the extreme, he’d find another way to take it higher. It was his gift, really, and his band’s, to all of us. On a night that could have gone down in infamy, they rescued us all.