Last Man Standing: Andy Gill on continuing Gang of Four
Through his work with Gang of Four, Andy Gill is a guitar hero who has inspired everyone from St. Vincent to Franz Ferdinand. When vocalist Jon King quit in 2012, most presumed the group was over. Gill explains What Happens Next
It’s a question that would baffle even the most eager connoisseurs of pop music trivia. What links Gang of Four, prime movers of post-punk, and Dolly the sheep – the first mammal ever to be cloned from an adult cell? The unlikely answer involves a tour manager turned biotech entrepreneur named Simon Best and seminal Edinburgh independent record label Fast Product.
It was Best who commercialised the cloning technology responsible for Dolly in the late '90s, making millions for The Roslin Institute that pioneered the process. Some 20 years before, as a jobbing sound engineer, Best had recommended a group of students at the University of Leeds to Bob Last, founder of Fast Product. The band was The Mekons, still touring to this day, and then good pals with Gang of Four.
It’s a story that Andy Gill recalls fondly when The Skinny calls him one freezing Sunday evening in January. With a much-anticipated new album, What Happens Next, out on 2 March, 36 years after the group’s debut, it’s hard to believe they thought their chance had once gone. “We were all feeling a bit passed over,” he laughs. “It was Andy Corrigan, who was the singer in The Mekons at the time, who told Bob: ‘You shouldn’t be mucking about with The Mekons – it’s the Gang of Four you want.’”
“I didn’t want to have a situation where I’ve gone, 'okay, goodbye to the old singer… and hello to the new singer,’ ta da!” – Andy Gill
That timely intervention led to the 1978 release of a stellar EP, Damaged Goods, which won the group a deal with EMI. Gang of Four would go on to release seven albums over the next three decades. They pioneered a stripped-back sound built on robotic drums and bass, like a Krautrock-inspired Chic, over which Andy Gill’s guitar would chop in and out with bursts of freeform noise. When combined with the chant-like vocals of Jon King, whose lyrics ranged from Marxist critique to social realism, it was an intoxicating mix.
Along with contemporaries such as Public Image Ltd, Gang of Four incorporated funk and dub influences at a time when guitar music was rapidly evolving from the snarling three-chord thrash of punk. Gill’s riffing would echo down the years and inspire everyone from The Edge to Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party and St. Vincent – the latter recently proclaimed him as her favourite guitar player ever along with Marc Ribot.
The 59-year-old’s minimalist, often abrasive style was forged in an era when convention dictated more was always more. While Genesis and Pink Floyd were reaching for outer space, Gill was listening to The Best of Muddy Waters and dreaming of emulating the style of Canvey Island’s finest duck walker, Wilko Johnson. “Seeing Wilko and Dr Feelgood was a real lightbulb moment,” he recalls. “He never stopped looking at the audience and didn’t spend much time looking at his guitar – I duly noted that. That robotic, machine-like thing the whole band had, that sort of riffing – it was almost like an electronic take on Steve Reich or something.
“I always think of the guitar as being part of a larger instrument, which is the band,” he continues. “What I always find uninspiring is when guitarists treat the rest of the band as a background over which they show off, so the guitar playing isn’t part of the intrinsic sound that the bass and drums and other instruments are making. The sort of image I had in mind was that everything was side by side – the drums had to work around the guitar riff, which had to work around the bass riff, which had to work around this semi-chanted lyrical thing, which worked around the drums – each element had to work with the other parts of the band.”
This blueprint would be built with fantastic results on 1979’s Entertainment! and Solid Gold two years later, and its influence is still apparent on the latest Gang of Four album. But there are two crucial differences between the new record and those that preceded it. There are a wider range of outside collaborators working with the band than ever before. And there’s no Jon King.
While original bass player and drummer Dave Allen and Hugo Burnham returned for a brief mid-2000s reunion, they played no part in 2011’s Content. There were a few quips that Gang of Four had become Gang of Two, but that number was further reduced when King left the group in 2012. Gill, whose partnership with the vocalist stretched all the way back to when they ran the Leeds University film society, must have been disappointed to see him leave.
“Yes and no,” he responds after a short pause. “We made Content with the explicit purpose of doing a lot of live stuff. The commercial reason for touring back in the old days was to help sell the record. And now the commercial reason is the other way around, you make the record to help the touring. We had done very few gigs, a couple of weeks in North America and a couple of weeks in Australia, when he said ‘well, I think that’s me done’. So that was a disappointment, as we weren’t doing what we had said we would do in terms of playing, and all touring stopped from that point on.
“But… I think sometimes his enthusiasm was not there, perhaps sometimes – you can tell I’m carefully choosing my words here! – the lack of enthusiasm didn’t help the creative process. I think, from that point onwards I knew I wanted to make another record and embrace those opportunities very enthusiastically. I felt a number of doors had opened up." There was no question of whether Gill would make another Gang of Four record. “I told Jon, ‘well, you know I’m going to be continuing, don’t you?’ He said ‘that’s your decision.’ I didn’t have to think about it for a second.”
Gill could still call upon the services of Glaswegian bassist Thomas McNeice, who has played with Gang of Four since 2008, but questions remained over who could fill King’s sizable shoes as frontman. “I wanted to have other guests and collaborations, partly because I felt like doing that for some years. I didn’t want to have a situation where I’ve gone, 'okay, goodbye to the old singer… and hello to the new singer,’ ta da! It would have been a bit odd and also put pressure on whoever came in. I thought, this is the time to do what I’ve been thinking about, and work with different people.”
Thus, new singer John 'Gaoler' Sterry is variously joined on vocals on What Happens Next by the likes of Alison Mosshart from The Kills, Robbie Furze of The Big Pink and Japanese guitar hero Tomoyasu Hotei. Perhaps most intriguing is the presence of German actor and musician Herbert Grönemeyer, who, although relatively unknown in the UK, is a major Central European star.
“He’s an old friend,” confirms Gill. “Most people in this country know him from Das Boot, but in Germany, he’s their biggest selling rock star by a million miles. I was introduced to him about 20 years ago, and he volunteered as soon as I mentioned I was getting involved with a lot of different people. He’s got a really extraordinary voice.”
Many of the songs on What Happens Next explore the idea of identity in the 21st century, a natural choice for a group always known for being politically aware. “All across Europe there is an identity crisis,” Gill ponders. As an adopted Londoner, he views multiculturalism and the growth of the city favourably, but worries that the capital’s dominance comes at a cost to the rest of the UK.
The artwork for the new album is a dual image of the building that defines London’s recent boom more than any other: the Shard, the neo-futuristic, 87-storey skyscraper that dominates the Southbank. It was a deliberate choice, says Gill. “I’m personally in favour of striking modern architecture, and I think the Shard is rather brilliant; but at the same time there’s something slightly threatening about it. You look at it sometimes, and think it’s like a modern-day pyramid stretched upwards, and then other times, you think that right at the top of the Shard there is probably some psychopathic derivatives trader snorting a bag of cocaine and looking through his binoculars at the minions below.”
Although he is the last one standing of the original Gang of Four, Gill is in no mind to slow down and is already planning another album. His motives are simple, he insists. “I just enjoy it; if something gets in my head I make little notes, and the next thing I know I’m down in the studio busting something out. In other words, it still comes naturally and it’s hard not to, in a way. I do feel sort of grateful that I’m able to continue what it is that I do.”