They play a stripped-down mix of punk rock, with strong elements of funk music, minimalism and dub reggae and an emphasis on the social and political ills in society. Gang of Four's later albums (Songs of the Free and Hard) found them softening some of their more jarring qualities, and drifting towards dance-funk and disco. Their debut album, Entertainment!, ranked at #490 in Rolling Stone's The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. David Fricke in Rolling Stone 1980 said "Gang of Four are probably the best politically motivated dance band in rock & roll."
Gill's unique guitar sound had a forebear in the playing of Wilko Johnson, the frenetic guitarist with archetypal British pub rockers Dr. Feelgood. Gill's skeletal, staccato, aggressive guitar has proved an enduring influence in turn. Jon King's threatening on-stage dancing, while equally idiosyncratic, has proved less easy to imitate. Paul Morley described the band's music as "a kind of demented funk, incredibly white but also, because of political commitment and defiant sloganeering, very dark, and ultimately as close to the depraved edge of the blues and Hendrix." Critic Greil Marcus found his first viewing of the group's performance so shattering that he left after their set rather than risk having the impact of the deeply political Gang of Four's songs dampened by the pop-punk of Buzzcocks.
The Gang's debut single, "Damaged Goods" b/w "Love Like Anthrax" and "Armalite Rifle", was recorded in June 1978 and released on 10 December 1978, on Edinburgh's Fast Product label. It was produced by the Gang and the Fast Product honchos Bob Last and Tim Inman. It was a #1 indie chart hit and John Peel radio show favourite. This led to two outstanding Peel radio sessions, which, with their incendiary live performances, propelled the band to international attention and sold-out shows across Europe and North America. They were then signed by EMI records. The group's debut single with this label, "At Home He's a Tourist", charted in 1979. Invited to appear on top rated BBC music program Top of the Pops, the band walked off the show when the BBC told them that they must sing "packets" instead of "rubbers" as per the lyrics of the song, as the original was too subversive for this TV slot. The single was then banned by BBC Radio and TV, which lost the band support at EMI, who began to push another band, Duran Duran, instead. A later single, "I Love a Man in Uniform", was banned by the BBC during the Falklands war in 1982.
Critic Stewart Mason has called "Love Like Anthrax" not only the group's "most notorious song" but also "one of the most unique and interesting songs of its time". It's also a good example of Gang of Four's social perspective: after a minute-long, droning, feedback-laced guitar intro, the rhythm section sets up a funky, churning beat, and the guitar drops out entirely. In one stereo channel, King sings a "post-punk anti-love song", comparing himself to a beetle trapped on its back ("and there's no way for me to get up") and equating love with "a case of anthrax, and that's some thing I don't want to catch." Meanwhile, in the other stereo channel (and slightly less prominent in the mix), Gill reads a deadpan monograph about public perception of love and the prevalence of love songs in popular music: "Love crops up quite a lot as something to sing about, 'cause most groups make most of their songs about falling in love, or how happy they are to be in love, and you occasionally wonder why these groups do sing about it all the time." The simultaneous vocals are rather disorienting, especially when Gill pauses in his examination of love songs to echo a few of King's sung lines.
According to critic Paul Morley, "The Gang spliced the ferocious precision of Dr. Feelgood's working-class blues with the testing avant-garde intrigue of Henry Cow. Wilfully avoiding structural obviousness, melodic prettiness and harmonic corniness, the Gang's music was studded with awkward holes and sharp corners."
In 1981 the band released their second LP, "Solid Gold". Like Entertainment! the album was uncompromising, spare, and analytical; such songs as "Cheeseburger," "He'd Send in the Army," and "In the Ditch" exposed the paradoxes of warfare, work, and leisure. Van Goss, in a Village Voice review said: "Gang of Four embody a new category in pop, which illuminates all the others, because the motor of their aesthetic is not a 'personal creative vision.'
A troubled American tour saw the departure of Allen (who later co-founded Shriekback, Low Pop Suicide and The Elastic Purejoy); he was replaced briefly by Busta "Cherry" Jones, a sometime player with Parliament and Talking Heads. He left to work with the Rolling Stones and was replaced by Sara Lee, who was Robert Fripp's bassist in "The League Of Gentlemen". Lee was as good a singer as bassist, and she helped give the band's third studio album ,"Songs of the Free", a more accessible quality. Although "I Love a Man in Uniform" from the album was the band's most radio-friendly song, it was banned in the UK shortly after its release because Britain was at war in the Falklands Islands. Lee later joined The B-52's. A year later Burnham left the band after the release of Songs of the Free.
1986 saw the release of The Peel Sessions Album, a collection of rawly rendered material recorded from 1971 to 1981 for British radio. Melody Maker dubbed the album "a perfect and classic nostalgia trip into the world of gaunt cynicism."
Like the Velvet Underground before them, the influence of Gang of Four on later musicians is far greater than their original record sales might suggest. Their angular, slashing attack and liberal use of dissonance had a significant influence on their post-punk contemporaries in the States. Gang of Four went on to influence a number of successful funk-tinged alternative rock acts throughout the 80s and 90s, although few of their followers were as arty or political. Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers has stated that Gang of Four were the single most important influence on his band's early music. Andy Kellman, writing in Allmusic, has even argued that Gang of Four's "germs of influence" can be found in many rap metal groups "not in touch with their ancestry enough to realize it". While many musicians have been inspired by the band's groundbreaking punk-funk musical style, they have rarely emulated the Situationist-inspired socio-political observations in Jon King's lyrics.
Recently the band has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, initially due to emergence of new post-punk-influenced bands such as The Rapture, Liars and Radio 4, and then the rise of Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party, which led to the renewed patronage of the NME. The original Burnham/Allen/Gill/King lineup reformed in November 2004. In October 2005, Gang of Four released a new disc featuring new recordings of songs from the albums Entertainment!, Solid Gold and Songs of the Free entitled Return the Gift, along with an album's worth of remixes.
Gang of Four plan to release a new album this year; it will be their first new material in over fifteen years. However, this material will not feature the original rhythm section - on May 6, 2008, Dave Allen announced via his blog that he and Burnham had left the band. They are pursuing other interests and unable to focus solely on Gang of Four.
|US Modern Rock||Billboard Club Play||UK Singles Chart|
|1979||"At Home He's A Tourist"||-||-||58||Entertainment!|
|1979||"Damaged Goods"/"I Found That Essence Rare"||-||39||-||Entertainment!|
|1981||"What We All Want"||-||30||-||Solid Gold|
|1982||"To Hell With Poverty!"||-||38||-||Another Day/Another Dollar|
|1982||"I Love A Man In Uniform"||-||27||65||Songs of the Free|
|1983||"Is it Love?"||-||9||88||Hard|
|1990||"To Hell With Poverty!"||-||-||100||A Brief History of the Twentieth Century|
|1991||"Don't Fix What Ain't Broke"||14||-||-||Mall|