Like so many people, I was shocked to read the news that Andy Gill, guitarist and founding member of the band Gang Of Four, had died. The news came out of nowhere. There had been no prior reports of illness, or hospital stays. No cancelled tours. It seemed as though one minute he was here, and the next, he was gone.
His passing is a huge loss to the world of music. As a member of Gang of Four, his contribution to music was seismic. As a band, they created a sound that had not been heard before, filling a vacuum that we were unaware existed. Aspects of their sound can be heard in several genres — such as punk, funk and dub — but had not been combined as Gang Of Four did, with such drive and sheer mastery.
Andy Gill’s guitar-playing defined post-punk music, and I am fairly certain that everyone subsequently playing in this guitar style is in fact emulating him; granted, never as well as Andy himself. His slashing guitar sound created a genre, defined a generation, and inspired many bands, such as: Pylon, R.E.M., Red Hot Chili Peppers, Translator and many more.
What made Andy Gill’s style unique for me though was that he knew when not to play. You would think as the lone guitar player in the group, he would be playing constantly — rhythm parts, lead bits, filling in every moment of silence — yet that is the opposite of his approach. His guitar playing was rhythmic, driving, powerful, and calculated. He allowed himself to drop out, so that other aspects of the band — the bass and drums or vocals — could be heard. This manner of playing did seem to be derived from dub music. A fine example of this sort of playing can be heard on Gang of Four’s song, “He’d Send in the Army.”
Another aspect of Gill’s guitar playing was his use of feedback. Widely associated with the sixties and hippies, feedback was not a commonly used sound in the late seventies among punk bands and post-punk bands. Andy Gill’s use of feedback was harsh and threatening; the sound peeling out of his guitar was absolutely frightening. The song “Anthrax,” which features Andy Gill’s feedback guitar, concludes the album Entertainment! with an air of menace.
Gang of Four recorded and released their debut album, Entertainment!, in 1979. I must have picked up a copy of that album sometime in 1980, and I have been listening to it ever since. It is a perfect record. And as with other perfect records, it always satisfies when you listen; in fact, it often actually changes your mood to be in a Gang Of Four state once you start to listen. The sound on the record is unique, with the band opting for a “dry” sound, using transistorized amps, and no studio tricks, such as reverb. That choice has made the record timeless. Although, live recordings of the band from this era suggest the studio album may not exactly portray the band in all their glory or power.
Having found myself in the world that Gang Of Four created so long ago, I have been playing their records for a long time, including in record stores where I worked, or on various radio stations that have been kind enough to give me a few hours to broadcast. The original band made a second record, Solid Gold, which is as fantastic as Entertainment!, but in its own way; it’s hard to beat that lead off song “Paralyzed!”
Following Solid Gold, the band went through personnel changes and continued to make records, but was always uniquely Gang Of Four, as Andy Gill was a member of the band from the beginning until his sudden and very sad end, announced on February 1.
Late additions to their catalog deserve a listen if you have not already done so. I found the album Content to be a fantastic record; it’s the last one to feature Jon King, founding member on vocals, along with Andy Gill on guitar. Just prior to that album, in 2005, all four original members re-grouped and re-recorded some of their early songs and released them as the album Return the Gift. I was happy they decided to do this for a couple of reasons. First, it turns out the band had never in fact made any money from their original albums; so by recording them in 2005, they were finally getting paid. Second, the band decided to tour in support of the album, and that brought the band to Portland Oregon to play the Crystal Ballroom.
Like so many of my fellow discerning music fans who reside in the Portland Metro area, I attended the Gang Of Four show at the Crystal Ballroom and I have nothing but fond and happy memories. I had never had the opportunity to see the band perform live before then. I was too young to have attended such legendary concerts as Gang Of Four opening for the Buzzcocks — and reportedly blowing them off the stage — at Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco. The show in Portland fulfilled all hopes. The band was hugely loud, powerful, and stunningly Gang Of Four. There is no other band that has ever sounded like them, nor will there ever be.
My thoughts go out to Andy Gill’s family, friends and bandmates, prior and current. I hope they can find peace knowing that Andy shared a wonderful gift with us all: his music.