Having resisted the urge to reform many times, this year saw the four original members together again for a series of international dates, and entering the studio to re-record some of their best tracks for a new album entitled 'Return the Gift'. To cap an amazing comeback, they were awarded the Inspiration Award at 'Mojo''s annual honours ceremony, and are looking forward to playing the whole of their seminal album 'Entertainment!' at the Barbican as part of this year's Don't Look Back season.
"I find it quite exciting because some of the songs we just haven't done live," says vocalist Jon King, whilst discussing the Barbican show. "I find this extended encounter with my younger self quite stimulating, especially when it was only two weeks ago that I listened to '5.45' for the first time in 15 years. Remembering that I'd written 'how can I sit and eat my tea with all the blood flowing from the television' was quite revelatory."
Andy Gill and King formed Gang of Four when they were both Leeds art students in the mid Seventies. In 1976, when King won a grant to research Jasper Johns in New York, Gill went too. Whilst in New York they began hanging out in punk haven CBGB's where they met Richard Hell and saw Television and The Ramones. Coming back to the UK they persuaded new bassist Dave Allen that what they had witnessed was far more interesting than "spiky haired, cartoonist punk-rock figures playing three chords and ripping off The Stooges."
The earliest inspiration for Gill's unique guitar technique was the jagged staccato blues playing of Dr. Feelgood's guitarist Wilko Johnson. An unlikely combination of art-punk and pub rock led the way to a new sound that refused to follow clichés. It was an ethic that put them at odds with right-wing skinheads who became an unwelcome part of their fan base. "People weren't quite clear what punk rock was all about at that time," states drummer Hugo Burnham. "You had to be very specific about what you stood for, and we didn't want to be the soundtrack to their bullshit."
"It was a pretty bleak time," states Allen. "We played a gig at a working men's club in Barnsley during the miners strike. The music journalist Greil Marcus was scribbling notes whilst outside there were flames and miners fighting with police. He was scared out of his mind."
At an early gig in Carlisle the band shared the bill with a stripper. During a "theoretical discussion" the girl suggested that they were all in the entertainment business, and that she'd get more money stripping than a 9-to-5 job. Her views made it on to the cover of "Damaged Goods" and inspired the name of their debut album. Suddenly, as the band were on the cover of the 'NME' and the brink of success, King got cold feet and quit.
"I don't think I really enjoyed it at the time," he says. "It was a complete obsession and a passion. It was very intense but I'm not sure there was much visceral pleasure involved. I always used to be quite envious of bands like the Dr Feelgood in the sense that they were a bunch of blokes who went out and had a fantastically good time with each other. I'm not saying that we didn't have fun, but it was something I found quite troubling. It's clearly obvious that I didn't want to be famous, and I did a very good job of it."
King rejoined and in 1978 the band were signed to EMI. Although there were jeers among the art-punk fraternity, the band were offered £30,000 with higher royalty points, and complete artistic control over their music.
"It's always been about our attempt to be populist, and that's one of the reasons why we signed to EMI," says Gill. "You can listen to Gang of Four and it would be a perfectly understandable to say its quite difficult music. But we were occupying the space between stuff that appeals easily, and playing with the ideas of it."
"Andy and I had a extreme view about what we wanted," King continues. "We didn't want the music to be shrouded in mystery. We wanted every instrument to sound like itself, instead of double tracking guitars or harmonising the vocals. It was that pursuit of authenticity that Andy and I were looking for. So, apart from a bit of reverb we wouldn't use any tricks."
The contrasting nature of all four members of the band meant that they argued frequently. But the disputes remained outside the studio. "When we were younger we were all trying to score points," says King. "But as musicians all we wanted to do was to make something that sounded great, and we became obsessive about it."
"It's our dynamic that sets us apart from all the pretenders," says Allen. "It's inspired by Hugo and I pummelling away on drums and bass, and Andy sending out shards of guitar, whilst Jon's firing out thought-provoking lyrics. It also answers the question of why we're back, because no one has proved to me that they're capable of doing what we did. It sounds arrogant, but when we play live it still blows minds because the songs are still potent."
It's this self-belief that makes 'Return the Gift' such a dynamic tour de force. A double package, the first CD sees tracks such as "Damaged Goods", "Natural's Not In It", and "Anthrax" re-recorded with passion and integrity. The second CD features remixes from the likes of Ladytron, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Hot Hot Heat, The Rakes, The Others, and Dandy Warhols. "We just put the word out," King says. "There were layers of reasons why we did the re-recordings, but one was that we could hand over our tracks and let new acts we rated do something interesting with them."
'Return the Gift' is out on 10 October on V2; Gang of Four play the Barbican, London EC2 on 26 SeptemberReuse content