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...Full Circle, Not Four Square: An Interview with Dave Allen of Gang of Four

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[7 June 2005]

"It's been a long time, I shouldn't have left you..." So, Gang of Four decided to come back with the original gang of four, rerecord some old tunes, do a tour, and change your world.

by Dan Nishimoto

Establishment of another state, or subversion from within? That is the Western question. Down either route, few bands have sustained both integrity and independence in the face of the music (industry) machine: Fugazi, Crass, and the Ex represent one end of the spectrum; Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, and Nirvana the other. However, it is telling that two of these groups are viewed by the mainstream as being on the fringe, while another two dissolved within ten years. The industry makes it clear: don't fuck with capitalism.

In a fitting turn, the influence of each group has been monumental. Each of the aforementioned has demonstrated a degree of "success" via its respective path, and countless bands have taken cues. After all, that idyllic balance is irresistible to many burgeoning artists. Additionally, the increasing availability of the Internet and digital media has only precipitated both the amateur and veteran artist's nosedive toward complete control. Simultaneously, mega-corporations merge, forming a firmer affront to creative independence. In short, artists today have more ability to pave their own avenues, while the big boys have more power to close them.

While this highly polarized frame is reductive of the complexity of options available to an artist, the following is certain: amidst this 21st-century brouhaha, few musicians have paid equal attention to the musical and ideological blueprints left by our model gang of six. However, does one necessarily implicate the other? Are the two inseparable? A certain gang of four gives a resounding, "Affirmative!"

Gang of Four is in a position to make such an assertion. The band burst out in 1977 with an aggressive snarl and a knowing smirk, immediately setting itself apart from the UK punk scene. Go4's debut album Entertainment! turned marketing slogans ("Another Day, Another Dollar") and clichés ("To Hell With Poverty!") upside down, dealing diatribes on the modern world: commodification of culture ("Ideal love a new purchase"); social disconnect ("I'm thinking that I love you / But I know it's only lust"); manipulation of public discourse ("No weak men in the books at home"); and, ah, war ("I hear some talk of guns and butter / That's something I can do without"). More immediate perhaps was the music: Go4 ripped rhythm & blues from the stolid clutch of rock 'n' roll, and reinterpreted it as "white boy angular funk". The band wanted to get the word out and major labels saw the pound/dollar potential, so a union was formed. However, corporate backing sealed the fate; the band would form, fold, sorta reform, then fold again over the next decade and a half.

While the original line-up -- Dave Allen (bass), Hugo Burnham (drums), Andy Gill (guitar), Jon King (vocals) -- was last seen over twenty years ago, Gang of Four has nevertheless remained in de facto existence through the continued homage paid to its "punk-funky-jerky-something-or-other" sound (Gill produced the first Red Hot Chili Peppers LP, while Franz Ferdinand contributes to Gang of Four's new disc). While accolades abounded, probity hardly entered the picture. With that, the four lads decided to return to happily thumb its "To Hell with _____!" attitude in the face of the mainstream. In promoting the current US leg of the tour with Radio 4 and an upcoming double-CD, Allen spoke with PopMatters about the band's past and how it connects with the present.

PopMatters: You met Andy and Jon through an advert for a bass player. What were your first impressions of them? Why did you want to make music with them?

Dave Allen: My first impressions were not actually of them; I met Hugo first. And he reminded me of a small, punk rock Elton John! He had divey old hair and horn-rimmed glasses. And he's a robust lil' fellow, so he reminded me of Elton (laughs)... I don't think there was anything about the people that made me want to make music with them; I just was young and keen and wanted to make music, period. And so it was one of those fortunate circumstances where the four of us came together, and the chemistry was right, and we made some great records.

PM: It's appropriate that you met Hugo first, because one of the standout qualities of [the first incarnation of] Go4 is the rhythm, the interplay between Hugo and yourself. How did you two write your parts?

DA: Actually, it was never just the pair of us, it was three of us: Andy, Hugo and myself. And Jon having some input, a little less. I think it was a collision of styles that made the songs what they were ... Andy was pretty good at conducting, if you will; he'd kinda say, "Well, why don't you ride on the hi-hat here, or hit that tom there, see how that sounds." He's a producer today; I think he always had a good ear for that. I'd wait 'til Andy and Hugo had worked out their discussion slash argument about it, and then I'd start dreaming up new bass lines.

PM: Each member brought something different to the group. What did you bring?

DA: I brought more musicality to the group cos I had been playing the longest. My approach to bass playing was inspired by Black-American music. I was the "funky" bass player, if you like. I brought a completely different feel to what became our white-boy angular funk. Punk-funky-jerky-something-or-other, as they call it! (laughs)

PM: I was reading an old interview with Andy. From what I gathered, there was an equality of importance placed on each part of your music: meaning, you guys placed an equal amount of interest in the drum parts, the bass parts, the guitar parts, the lyrics. What drove you guys to approach writing with this amount of attention?

DA: I just think it's part of our make-up as artists. As Jon and Andy, they were [fine] artists ... we always had a lot of attention to detail, we definitely wanted to differentiate ourselves from the punk rock scene. We had not a lot of interest in being seen as a punk rock band. That didn't seem very exciting to us ... We wanted to make sure we created a sound that was somewhat removed from the three-chord, cartoon-like punk rock bands that were out there.

PM: When you guys first got signed, you recorded with EMI, which was already a fairly powerful conglomerate at the time.

DA: Global arms manufacturing company.

PM: Yes. Please describe the band's relationship with the label: how did the label treat the band, based on its politics? How did the band view the label and its goals?

DA: Ok, first of all: we had a very high friction relationship with the label. We refused to do a lot of things that they wanted us to do, and we saw no reason to do them. We were happy to sign a record deal, because at the time there was no Internet to work with, so the means of distribution was in the hands of these companies ... We felt it was a necessary evil to have a deal where we could get our copies of this record into as many peoples' hands as possible. We weren't deliberately trying to spittle on our career by being isolationists. We wanted to broadcast our music to as many people as we could possibly reach. We didn't fit comfortably within the EMI set-up, nor the Warner Brothers one. I think that's fine, you're not meant to have a cozy relationship with your record company, especially these days. I think record companies are totally redundant. But bands still choose to sign with them. I find it odd, but that's just the way it is.

PM: You guys are working on a new record, correct?

DA: What it is: we took about two-thirds of Entertainment! and a third of Solid Gold and rerecorded it with the current line-up; the original line-up, the 2005 version. And it sounds frickin' amazing. And the other side of this coin is the double-CD: we gave all the backing tracks to Franz Ferdinand, the Futureheads, Massive Attack, No Doubt, Dandy Warhols, you name it ... The Yeah Yeah Yeahs did a cover of "Love a Man in Uniform". So, they've all done their versions and it's coming out as a double-CD during the tour.

PM: Are you releasing this CD independently?

DA: Our own label. We just picked up distribution for it through V2.

PM: How did it feel to revisit this material nearly a quarter-century later?

DA: Well, I think the band is just as relevant, if not more so, than when we were around the first time. Go4 has always operated in opposition to everything, and I think that's a really good place to be, given the state of the world. And nobody else picked up the flag ... It's been very intriguing and I've had a really, really good time.

PM: What struck me early on about Go4 was the variety of bands that cite you as an influence. I first learned of the band through the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I next learned that REM cited you guys as an influence. To me, they are worlds apart. What do you think is the source of the wide appeal of the band?

DA: Umm, I really think, without sounding ironic, we created something that was so unique, that has never been effectively copied. We've also been a band of incredible integrity, through our politically charged lyrics, and the fact that we were highly respected for creating a whole new musical genre. Over the years, that has remained steadfast. For example, we're always in the Top 100 Albums of All Time, blah blah blah. That doesn't hold a lot of water with me; I can't stand nostalgia, for one thing. I think the credibility of the band has remained so wonderfully intact over the years, it really seemed we ought to be here doing this.

PM: Considering the number of bands that have reunited in the last ten years alone, many fans and critics have been skeptical about the sincerity of a reunion. However, one could also look at the phenomena as being a validation of a group's critically hailed, but commercially unsuccessful work; case in point being the Pixies, Cocteau Twins, Mission of Burma, etc. Where does Go4 fit in this conversation, if they fit in at all?

DA: I don't think they do fit into the conversation. Again, it goes back to legacy of the band. I think it's very different to these other bands. I know that when we play Coachella [the first date of Go4's North American tour], we're on the same bill as Bauhaus, and all that ... and I don't know what the reasons for them reforming are, and it's fine, it's none of my business. But for Go4 to reform, it has more to do with the political landscape, if you like -- I mean the personal political landscape -- that our relevance is very intact. And I think we're kinda required more now than we were back then ... I certainly don't want to be lumped in with those other bands that are coming back. I have no idea why Bauhaus is coming back!

PM: There have been a number of bands that have taken music cues from Go4, and yet not many have taken moral or ethical cues. What is your opinion on that?

DA: The biggest gulf between any of these bands that apparently sound like us, I think anyone with a critical ear would understand immediately that these bands are not that similar ... Unlike Go4, they don't have much to say ... They're not doing what we did. The way we put it, they're not working in opposition. Because that's what Go4 always did and always will do. So, if you're not working in opposition, you're collaborating ... I think the artist's place in the world is to be disruptive and challenging and [to] create thought. A musical artist's job is not to get on MTV at the first chance.

PM: What does Go4 hope its audience will get from the reunion?

DA: Well, there are two answers ... What's really important to me is attracting a new audience. And that's what we've done very well in the UK and Europe. I'd say two-thirds of the audience is brand new, who couldn't possibly have been there when we were first there. Secondly, I want to challenge the audience ... We play with an intense ferocity onstage, I doubt any of the other bands could keep up, really (laughs). I think it's important for folks to understand. I think when they come and see the show, they're gonna get it 100% and realize, "Jesus Christ, this is not Franz Ferdinand". (laughs) They're very good live! I'm not knocking them! What they do live and what Go4 does live is night and day, years apart. So, it doesn't matter (laughs).


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