In Simon Reynolds' fantastic book Rip It Up and Start Again, the author asks the question, "What made me believe music could matter this much?" The answer is well worth any music fan's time discovering, but Reynolds' book, which is almost textbook-like in its approach to music history, explores his personal reason for why music matters, and that reason centers on the genre known as post-punk.
Each musical genre has artists who are synonymous with it — the Cramps and psychobilly, the Sex Pistols and punk rock, or Ornette Coleman and free jazz. For Reynolds' beloved post-punk, there is Gang of Four, and while there are other great post-punk bands, there is none like the four lads from Leeds, England, who burst on the scene in 1977. Gang of Four was designed to tear apart rock 'n' roll from the inside out, and the band did so in a manner that could only be described as cold, calculated, and cool as fuck.
Guitarist Andy Gill, vocalist Jon King, bassist Dave Allen, and drummer Hugo Burnham played stripped-down, heavily syncopated funk/punk with a determination and drive unlike any of their peers. On their debut recording, the 1978 EP Damaged Goods, Gang of Four brought an aesthetic dripping in irony, razor-sharp guitar tones, and measured blasts of pounding drums and bass. The vocal interplay of King and Gill added a dizzying layer to the sonic tiramisu of the band. The power of the band was, and still is, extremely palpable.
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Flash-forward to 2015. Gang of Four is back and coming to Phoenix for the first time in decades. Yes, it's true that King, Allen, and Burnham are no longer with the band, but as the band's principal songwriter, this is not an issue for Gill and his new crew. According to Gill, "I think the whole idea that you have to have the original guys to be authentic is a slightly dubious idea. I wrote all the music and maybe 40 precent of the lyrics. I definitely don't want to make comparisons between the current rhythm section and Dave and Hugo because it would be unfair, but I also think what we've got right now on stage is as good as we've ever been."
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On the band's latest record, What Happens Next, there is enough Gang of Four magic to please even the most jaded fan and keep him or her from lamenting the absence of King's iconic voice or Allen and Burnham's classic rhythm work. New singer John "Gaoler" Sterry channels some of King's urgency but also provides his own take on Gang of Four classics and new songs alike. Bassist Thomas McNeice, whom Gill discovered when doing production work on a tribute to late British radio icon John Peel in 2007, is one of the best bass players in rock music today. When combined with drummer Jonny Finnegan, the group rivals any lineup of Gang of Four's long history.
"I think on this idea of authenticity . . . there are quite a few bands who have exactly the same people who were in them at the beginning who are basically doing karaoke versions of themselves, or there are bands like Gang of Four who are continuing doing new things," he says. "It's the ethos of the spirit, not what the names of the guys are."
(Disclosure: New Times contributor Tom Reardon did not know at the time of his interview with Andy Gill that his band, the Father Figures, eventually would be added as local support to the Gang of Four bill.)