To call someone a “Marxist pop star” is to describe an impossibility. A pop star is a myth made real, a mutant collision of art and commerce. Talent, personal charisma, and material success become one and the same — the purview of those who have over those who don’t. Marxism, conversely, seeks to destroy the notions of earned privilege. History, society, and culture are built by a vast majority whose individual talents are coerced and repressed. In the words of Andy Gill and Gang of Four, “it’s not made by great men.”
Gill, who passed away on February 1, personified this contradiction. Gang of Four reveled in the sheer fun and cheeky sneer of rock and roll, even while acknowledging that its trappings had become yet another pose to be consumed and metabolized.
As British punk appended a “post” in front of it and its visceral howl morphed into a serrated sonic blade, the groups that carried it forward in the late 1970s sought to refine its conceptual rebuke of postwar capitalism. The Slits, the Fall, the Pop Group, Mekons, Delta 5 — all were stunning in the ways they put their own unique spins on this project. But none more so that Gang of Four.
“The decision by a bunch of students at Leeds University to name their band Gang of Four was a provocative gesture,” writes Simon Reynolds in Rip It Up and Start Again. “The name was a derogatory term for the four top leaders of China’s Cultural Revolution Group … Gang of Four weren’t actually Maoists, or even card-carrying Communists, but they were definitely products of the left-wing university culture of the seventies, which even more than the previous decade was defined by student militancy.”
While they might not have been Maoists, the band’s militancy was certainly imbued with the notion that some sort of “cultural revolution” was necessary. None of the objective social realities percolating through the “original” generation of punk — a stagnant economy, the rampage of far-right groups, and an overall sense of a foreclosed future — had gone away. If anything, the violence of capital had become mundane, wormed its way into every crevice of daily life and human interaction.
Gang of Four’s rejection of this came in the form of an erudite but distinctly nonacademic engagement of critical theory. The lyrics and music were cerebral and complex, bearing not just the mark of the Situationists, but of theorists like Walter Benjamin, Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse.
Their debut album Entertainment!, without a doubt one the greatest of its era, showed how intellectually stimulating and dynamic this project could be. Its cover was bright red — in the lower righthand corner, three stock movie photographs of a cowboy shaking hands with a Native American.
“The Indian smiles, he thinks the cowboy is his friend,” the text reads. “The cowboy smiles, he is glad the Indian is fooled. Now he can exploit him.”
This same provocation ran through the album’s content. This was pop music wielded against itself. The tightly wound mixture of rock, punk, dub, and funk was skillfully composed, but it was also jagged and acerbic, like trying to dance in a moving concrete mixer.
On Entertainment! no part of life or culture was beyond the corrupt reach of capital. The restraints being pushed against in these songs was commodity and routine itself, all its crushing alienation pouring out in songs like “Natural’s Not In It” and “At Home He’s a Tourist.” War permeated every moment of relaxation in songs like “5.45” and opener “Ether.” Even love and lust were skewered as mere products sold in “Anthrax,” “Contract,” and “I Found that Essence Rare,” which contains the lyrics that may most accurately capture the thrust of Gang of Four’s critique: “See the girl on the TV dressed in a bikini / She doesn’t think so but she’s dressed for the H-bomb.”
At the center of it was Gill’s guitar — crunching, razor-on-metal, aggressively deconstructionist, finding a perfect balance between precision and chaos. He shunned solos as decadent trash that distracted from the actual content. But the early records also showcase Gill’s radically democratic instincts coming into conflict with his urge to conduct. Gill would tell bassist Dave Allen to “not play so many notes” during rehearsal and recording sessions, while drummer Hugo Burnham would hurl his drumsticks at Gill out of frustration.
After some balance was finally found, there was a minimalist equality achieved between all the musical elements. Though Gill’s guitar strung things together, it would never have worked without the metronomic drums, the robotic funk bass, or the vocals from Jon King that would often bounce in and out of the instrumental cues.
“The guitar isn’t the instrument; the band is the instrument being played,” Gill would tell Vintage Guitar many years later. “Many of the guitar parts in [our] songs, if you try and play it on its own, for the most part it doesn’t make a whole heap of sense.”
If this created a sense of estrangement, then that was on purpose — Gang of Four were, after all, big fans of Brecht. But there is also something infectious in this music. Listening to it one moment you wonder where all the heart has gone. The next you find yourself gyrating and jerking along with the propulsive sonic assault.
Entertainment! and its follow-ups Solid Gold and Songs of the Free are rightly looked at today as creative monuments in post-punk. They are tense, unsparing artifacts of radical anxiety in the early years of Thatcherism. As the decade progressed, that anxiety became quotidian. Gang of Four continued to put out recordings, many of them quite excellent. Gill’s sound pushed further in the direction of danceability, each release leaning into it more and more, producing a kind of decayed dub-disco laughing at its own demise. The stinging disdain for the false optimism of capital, however, never faded.
Though the critical acclaim and exposure of their early years would never really return, the “post-punk revival” of the aughts saw Gang of Four cited as a major influence. Evidence of Gill’s angular jerkiness was heard in Bloc Party, Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, and a great many other groups as rock music started to get interesting again after the doldrums of the late nineties.
The End of Happiness
Fast forward to 2011. Three years after the Great Recession and Gang of Four — now reunited for the second time — release Content. It will be their last full-length with vocalist Jon King. Gill would keep going as the group’s soul original member, but he had no intention of letting it become an empty shell, a band touring out of sheer nostalgia.
Content is a tip of the hat to the band’s “classic” sound — scratching treble and high-pitched wails, sarcastic spits directed at a way of life that is crumbling. But with the departure of King, Gill seems to enter his most experimental phase. His final two albums under the Gang of Four name take his experiments in electro-dance even farther.
When Happy Now was released in April of 2019, it was at a time when everyone had fully accepted life on the other side of the looking glass. The album cover features a line drawing of Donald Trump, a severed bird’s wing, and a teddy bear. The task of making reality even weirder so as to engage the listener’s critical faculties is even more difficult in the Trump era. But Gill gets it right.
Happy Now sounds like the moment when you realize the dance club is actually a jail cell. The fame and fortune you’ve strutted under suddenly shows its real face, thanks you for your support, and then locks the doors. The rhythm around you is suddenly clouded by confusion.
It is probably the most stridently didactic album Gill has worked on since the band’s return in 2004. References to World War III and samples of Trump are there, at once easier to hear with Gill’s guitar taking a backseat to the various electronics. A slew of guest background vocalists come through, adding to the feeling that this less a band making a “statement” than the ambient noise of a panicked world.
“I’m sure it will be tempting for people to say it’s about Brexit or Donald Trump or right-wing politics in Europe,” says Gill in an interview with XSNoize:
I know in a way some of those things play into it, but I think there’s a general kind of anxiety which is quite contemporary, where people worry that they are not fulfilled, or they worry about their state of mind and whether they are happy. There is a kind of a happiness industry where people try and supply things to help you figure out if you are happy and fulfilled … It’s the tenth Gang of Four album, and it felt in a mock-ironic way to pronounce some sort of arrival that we have arrived at the land of happiness.
As if most mass-marketed music isn’t sold to us with just that promise — a promise it and every other commodity is fundamentally unable to keep, particularly as crisis makes itself at home all around us.
If any credit could be given to Gill, it was his observance of this utterly toxic pillar upon which stardom rests. Maybe it’s impossible for a Marxist pop musician to break our addiction to a music that can be so coercive and manipulative, but who else is going to take up that mantle?