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“Art meets the devil via James Brown”: The everlasting impact of Gang Of Four’s Entertainment!

“Art meets the devil via James Brown”: The everlasting impact of Gang Of Four’s <i>Entertainment!</i>
Graphic: Libby McGuire
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In the immediate months before Gang Of Four was about to make its incendiary debut album, Entertainment!, guitarist Andy Gill recalls, “I remember saying to Rob Warr, who was our friend and managing us at the time, and the others: ‘Do you realize how important this is? Do you realize that this is going to change the musical landscape? Do you realize that they’re going to teach this in schools?’ And they’re like, ‘You’re mad, you’re fucking mad,’ and just basically laughed at me.” As it turned out, “I kind of was right, but everybody else thought I was being stupid and crazy.”

In fact, it’s astonishing how many artists still point to Entertainment!—released 40 years ago this week—as a direct influence: everyone from R.E.M. to Red Hot Chili Peppers to !!! (Chk Chk Chk). It’s maybe even more surprising considering that the album was a debut record. Gill and Jon King, Gang Of Four’s original lead singer, started out as art students in Leeds in the ’70s. “Jon and I had been kind of fooling around writing songs,” Gill recalls. “Being art students, it means you have a lot of time on your hands, and I remember we lived in a house in Leeds. I was in a bedsit at one end of the corridor and he was at the other end of the corridor and I’d have out my guitar, and we’d make up some words, then play some chess, drink some gin…”

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Then a fateful trip changed the pair’s musical direction. Gill remembers, “In the summer of ’76 we went to New York and stayed on the floor of basically someone that we’d never met before.” That person was “friend of a friend” Mary Harron, who then wrote for Punk magazine—years before she began directing movies like I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho. That summer, says Gill, “We went to a lot of these music clubs at night, especially CBGBs. Very often we went there when there was really nothing happening, we’d just kind of hang out at the bar. Joey Ramone would be on your left and somebody from Velvet Underground on your right, and you’d just get into normal conversations with them. We got very friendly with Patti Smith’s band… also a couple of the guys in Television.” The main lesson for Gill after spending a month immersed in New York’s fledgling punk scene “was that anyone can do this. The important thing is that you just need to have some ideas. And I had plenty of those. So coming back to Leeds, I said, ‘I want to take this seriously, Jon.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, okay.’”

While Gill and King kept working on songs, they had to flesh out a rhythm section. “So we got in with Hugo [Burnham] who happened to have a drum kit, and he had a transit van, which made him like gold dust. We thought he was silly because he liked Queen and Elton John, but we let him in anyway because of the transit van,” Gill recalls. “Then we had a bass player that eventually we didn’t like very much, because he kept improvising, playing too many notes, so we found somebody else, who turned out to be Dave Allen.”

L-R: Andy Gill, Hugo Burnham, Dave Allen, Jon King backstage, 1979
L-R: Andy Gill, Hugo Burnham, Dave Allen, Jon King backstage, 1979
Photo: Virginia Turbett/Redferns (Getty Images)

Now that the band’s lineup was set, “Jon and I spent our time talking about what it was we wanted to do, what our lyrics were about. Some of the early songs, the lyrics are so jokey, you don’t really think it’s Gang Of Four.” But “you don’t have everything scripted from day one, right. You don’t sit down with a piece of paper and list, ‘These are the 20 things that Gang Of Four’s going to be, and these are the 20 things that Gang Of Four’s not going to be.’ Those things kind of develop over a year or two or three.” Over those few early years, the band played out quite a bit, winning over various local live audiences with its lean, jagged punk, which notably incorporated influences from funk, ska, and dub. Gill remembers, “I think we were quite lucky, that although there was a buzz about Gang Of Four from quite early on, no serious record deals chased us, which gave us more time to figure out some of the things. Consequently, I think Entertainment! is a snapshot of a band in a certain period of time.”

The first menacing bass strums of “Ether” announce that Entertainment! will launch a sparse, alien brand of punk music. The song uses a call-and-response narrative between King and Gill to describe Her Majesty’s Prison Maze in Northern Ireland: “white noise in a white room.” As Gill describes the band’s suggestive political bent: “I guess there was an idea going around that The Clash were kind of political. Y’know, I never saw it. Like, really? I’m not sure I get that. And when you actually look closely at what the Gang Of Four lyrics were that Jon and myself wrote, it’s never pushing a political point of view—you should think like this or make a decision according to these lines or vote for this party—it was never any of those things. We actually tried to steer clear of that kind of propagandizing. The reason being, if you try to describe a situation accurately, you don’t need to tell people how to deal with it. If you describe what ‘x’ has occurred, therefore ‘y’ happens, you don’t need to spell out how people should respond to that.”

Then the immediately affecting riff of “Natural’s Not In It” hooks the listener for good, hung on a hypnotic guitar riff and an unfurling series of couplets about the search for happiness when the odds are stacked against you: “Fornication makes you happy / No escape from society… This heaven gives me migraine.” The track is one of Gill’s own favorites on the record, especially his guitar part: “It’s all just one riff, basically. The guitar just does variations on one riff. It doesn’t go anywhere, it doesn’t try and do a chorus, it doesn’t go off and do a middle eight. It says ‘I’ve got a riff and I don’t need anything else.’”

Gill explains how these Entertainment! tracks all sound of a piece with their sprawling barrenness—the negative space of each beat is as powerful as what they contain. “Having been a producer for so many bands myself over the years, I know that producers can sometimes get a little carried away. ‘I can hear a little keyboard part over here,’ or plugging in a string section. Number one: We were not hugely experienced. We couldn’t afford that. It was a very down-to-earth studio. It was far from glamorous. It had a kind of dry sound. There was this thing in the ’70s where people used to put carpet up on the wall and it kind of deadens the sound. It means you don’t get a lot of reverb in the room, or echo, and the sounds all need to be crystal clear. Which actually really suits Entertainment!, because each high hat, each beat, really speaks.”

The track is followed by Gill’s other favorite, “Not Great Men,” which was the last song written for the album. “We went off to Wales for some reason, because somebody had a barn that we could rehearse in, and put that song together. Rhythmically it’s funky, y’know, the way that each beat of the drum works around the guitar, and the guitar is simple, and the bass works around that, and the vocal is simple, and this simple phrase is repeated, and that’s the way it all works together.” The song’s narrator observes that there are “no weak men in the books at home,” but that history overall is, as repeated in the chorus, “not made by great men.”

That blockbuster three-song start is followed by the cleanup hitter of “Damaged Goods,” one of the rare Entertainment! songs to focus primarily on interpersonal relationships, by way of sexual politics. When speaking about the band creating the album, Gill notes, “We were sort of talking about our own lives and our friends and trying to kind of explore how economic and financial constraints push you in certain directions in life and can explain why you do certain things, where you go, what you do, when you fall in love, sexual relations. And nobody really talked about that before. When people talked about sex and love it was gazillions about love and or sex and lust, but never in the kind of analytical way that we did. I think that was very fresh.” The song depicts King trying to untangle himself from an unhealthy relationship: “Your kiss so sweet / Your sweat so sour,” raging, “You said you’re cheap but you’re too much” until he triumphantly kisses his lover goodbye for good.

The record goes on to call out how bikinis share a name with the site of a nuclear weapons program: “See the girl on the TV dressed in a bikini / She doesn’t think so but she’s dressed for the H-bomb” (“I Found That Essence Rare”). The scathing “At Home He’s A Tourist” perfectly captures disassociation from society: “He fills his head with culture / He gives himself an ulcer,” calling out “the rubbers you hide in your top left pocket.” That line wound up forcing the band to storm off the set of the popular British TV show Top Of The Pops, which invited them on the show after the song charted, but wanted them to change the word “rubbers.”

Interest from Top Of The Pops is just an example of the near-immediate attention the band received after Entertainment! was released—especially on the heels of its own popular “Damaged Goods” single, which led to two John Peel radio sessions and a slew of big live gigs. Still, Gill says, “Instant success, I think that we got that in America, but not in Britain. When it first came out, we got these mystified reviews, quite a lot were fairly negative. British music is not like American music, obviously; the stuff that I liked growing up was not The Beatles. I did like the Stones, but people I really liked tended to be American like The Band, Bob Dylan, Motown, James Brown, Velvet Underground. My tastes were not particularly British, and I don’t think Gang Of Four sounds particular British—Maybe it does to Americans, I don’t know. It’s not like the Jam or Paul Weller, who just sounds so British. So there was a split, and I think that’s why we played [the U.S.] much more because Americans seemed to have a much better acceptance of what it was we were doing, less so in Britain.” And some of the groups they played with helped spread the Gang Of Four influence throughout the States: “People often say, ‘Oh, R.E.M. really borrowed a lot from Gang Of Four,’ but that’s because we played together so often. R.E.M. was our support band for like two, three years. Michael [Stipe] says, ‘I stole a lot from Gang Of Four.’”

The album ends with “Anthrax,” kicking off with an almost violent solo from Gill, as the song equates romance with “a case of anthrax, and that’s some thing I don’t want to catch.” A relatively new guitarist at the time, Gill describes his process then as very straightforward: “I didn’t want to use any pedals, I didn’t want it to be too distorted, but bright and toppy and trebly, and rhythmically just precise.” His overarching approach of keeping things simple but smartly arranged helped solidify the success of Entertainment! into a unified yet jarring listening experience. “The way that the thing was constructed was that it would be totally to the point, rhythmically interesting and exciting and would grab you,” he says.

The result was boldly honest, galvanizing music that has connected with countless listeners and artists over the last four decades. In his biography of the band, Damaged Gods, Paul Lester quotes Chili Peppers’ Flea as calling Gang Of Four “the first rock band I could relate to… Those Limeys rocked my world.” INXS’ Michael Hutchence stated, “They took no prisoners. It was art meets the devil via James Brown.” Even Bono called out their “corporation of common sense… a smart bomb of text.”

After its debut, the band released three more albums in less than five years, all on Warner Bros. Solid Gold came out in 1981, the same year Dave Allen left the band, to be eventually replaced by Sara Lee, who also sang on tracks like “I Love A Man In Uniform,” on 1982’s Songs Of The Free. Hugo Burnham departed next, leaving just Jon King and Andy Gill to release Hard in 1983 before taking a break until 1987. Since then there have been various iterations: Burnham and Allen have both returned at times, as has King as recently as 2012. Gill continues to tour with a new lineup that sounds startlingly like the original, with vocalist John “Gaoler” Sterry, Thomas McNeice on bass, and drummer Tobias Humble. The band continues to put out new music (see: Happy Now, released earlier this year), keeping the musicianship intact while fleshing out its arrangements.

With Gill’s enthusiastic new bandmates eager to get these classic tracks across, Gang Of Four live shows remain as explosive as they always were. And Gill remains confident about his musical mission: “Don’t copy the past, y’know? The past is the past. Just figure out where you need to go.” Solid advice. But to figure out where they needed to go, many musical generations have used Entertainment! as a road map.