As pioneers of the eclectic fusion of rock, dub and reggae that succeeded punk in the late 1970s, Gang Of Four need no introduction. Despite forming at the height of punk in 1977, it was their debut album, 'Entertainment!', released two years later that firmly placed them on the map as one of the most innovative outfits to emerge from that era.
Three albums and five years later the band split up, commercial success proving quite elusive in comparison to the critical acclaim they'd enjoyed from day one. In the early part of the previous decade, Gang Of Four enjoyed something of a resurgence having been cited as a major influence by the likes of Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand, and at the end of 2004, the "classic" line-up of Jon King, Andy Gill, Hugo Burnham and David Allen reformed for several shows, mostly centred around the twenty-fifth anniversary of 'Entertainment!'.
Since then, Burnham and Allen have left the fold to be replaced by Mark Heaney and Thomas McNeice, vocalist King and guitarist Gill still remaining the dominant focal points. Contact met up with Gang Of Four recently before their headline show at London's Electric Ballroom and found them in a philosophical, if straight-talking mood.
Are you looking forward to headlining The Electric Ballroom again after so many years?
Jon King: The last time we played here must have been thirty years ago.
Andy Gill: The Electric Ballroom was actually the first venue we ever played in London.
Jon King: We'd been playing up in the north for about two years and then just after the 'Damaged Goods' EP came out we got our first gig in London which was The Electric Ballroom.
Andy Gill: The line-up that night was us, The Human League, Scars and The Mekons. It was a Fast Product night.
People still refer to 'Entertainment!' as your definitive record. Do you ever feel as though that album is something of an albatross in many ways, as people tend to pass over the other work you've done as a result?
Jon King: If you're lucky enough as a musician to create something that has some kind of a lasting value. I mean, The Stooges made 'Raw Power', Jimi Hendrix made 'Electric Ladyland' and Miles Davis made 'Kind Of Blue'.I'm putting our record up in great company here - but seriously, if you're fortunate enough as a musician to have made something that has a life that extends from one generation of musicians to another and inspires others to create something interesting and different then I see it as a great compliment and privilege.
When you look at bands like Bloc Party for example does that make you feel proud of the legacy you've helped create?
Andy Gill: Well, The Velvet Underground probably spawned 10,000 imitators and in a way, it sometimes feels a bit like that. People like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers have openly admitted to being influenced by us and even stealing bits of our music. When I listen to the likes of Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, The Futureheads and The Rapture I can hear Gang Of Four in so many ways. I don't want to dwell on it too much other than to say I think we should be entitled to a royalty share.
Jon King: I was talking to Flea from the Chilli Peppers recently and he actually said he was surprised we hadn't sued them over their blatant plagiarism of our music! We did the Royal Festival Hall show last year which Massive Attack curated. They're wonderful guys who make great music but even they were shocked we hadn't taken them to court either over their first album as it contains so many samples from our tracks. My initial response was "Why would we? You're a great band". I think you should only sue crap bands; ones who tarnish your work rather than highlight and improve upon it, not that we'd ever sue another artist anyway.
Do you feel that Gang Of Four didn't get the recognition you deserved first time round, certainly in a commercial sense at any rate?
Jon King: Well, we were as big as you could possibly be without having a radio hit. We played 6-10,000 seat venues in America so we must have made some kind of impact back then. I think when people talk about the commercial aspect they mean did we make any money out of it, and while we obviously didn't achieve the same levels of wealth that the likes of U2 did from the same era, we still gained a lot of widespread recognition and acknowledgement for our work so I couldn't say we've been cheated in any way either.
Would you agree that Gang Of Four were also very ahead of their time, in terms of making progressive music and fusing different elements together whereas many of the punk bands of that era actually ended up sounding quite derivative?
Jon King: I think that's right, yeah. When we started we were more influenced by New York bands.
Andy Gill: I'm not sure I'd agree with that.
Jon King: Well for me I was definitely more into the likes of Chic, Funkadelic, Jimi Hendrix, The Velvet Underground..British punk was just totally irrelevant to me whereas New York's underground scene seemed to constantly evolve and stretch itself. The only British band I can honestly say influenced us would be Dr Feelgood. They were a hugely important band from my perspective.
Andy Gill: That's where I'd disagree. I think we were just as much influenced by Bob Marley and various reggae tracks as we were any of those. As much as I love the work of Jimi Hendrix and The Velvet Underground, they had no influence on our sound whatsoever. To me, Gang Of Four was generally an original construction that had as much to do with Shakespeare as it does any specific genre or era of music. A lot of our songs are dramas set around conversations between characters within them, and that comes straight from something like 'King Lear', or a split screen in a Jean-Luc Godard movie. Loosely, there are elements of music that is inspired by people like Funkadelic or Parliament but the way the songs are structured, definitely not. We're not being totally dismissive of punk rock either. I think punk gave new bands an opportunity whereby if you had an original idea you could follow it and not worry about what anyone else thought.
Jon King: The key thing I would say is that there was a kind of musical apartheid in the late 1970s and it seemed like you were only meant to play either "white music" or "black music". The people who tried to crossover, particularly most white guys playing "black music" seemed to miss the point entirely and just knock out embarrassing cod reggae. The thing for us was that we wanted to put together something that contained the interesting flavour of rock, told interesting narratives and could be funky.
When you initially reformed in 2004 it was the "classic" line-up of Hugo Burnham, David Allen and yourselves. Since then, the other two have left. Do you see either of them working with you again in the future as part of Gang Of Four?
Andy Gill: Probably not, no. David Allen wasn't our first bass player so shouldn't get all the credit for the basslines that became part of our sound. That's not taking anything away from either him or Hugo - their contributions, particularly on 'Entertainment!' were absolutely vital, but all the ideas behind Gang Of Four both musically and lyrically were generated by Jon and me. I think David was quite fortunate in a way to be in a situation where the songs were pretty much there for him. In hindsight I actually think he could have made more of his time with us.
Jon King: He left our band to form Shriekback, and while we've always got on well with David and supported him in whatever he's done, I think if you listen to what they did and where we went next you can see his musical ambitions and directions were a lot different to ours. I honestly believe our current rhythm section is as good if not better than any we've had in the past. That's not being detrimental to any former member of Gang Of Four but it's certainly the most intense rhythm section I've played with. The classic line-up to me prior to the current one would be the one just after David left with Sara Lee in it. The key thing with any band is where the ideas come from, and in our case everything from the writing to the production and even choreography has come via Andy and myself. I value everyone's contribution but to me, David wasted an opportunity with us by leaving to form Shriekback.
Andy Gill: Exactly. If you want to judge David Allen's musical career judge it on Shriekback because he wrote the music in that band.
Finally, will there be any new Gang Of Four material?
Jon King: Yes, we've already recorded a new album. It's going to be called 'Content' and it comes out in the autumn.
The album 'Content' will be available from mid-September via Pledge Music.