I should have known better. I rationalized my choice to see Gang of Four (pick your epithet: Gang of Gill, One of Four, Gang of One…) thinking sure, this is in no way actually Gang of Four, but still, I’ll get to see Andy Gill playing guitar, and that can’t be bad. Ooooooh, brother, YES IT CAN.
I’ll backtrack—when the current Go4 tour was announced, I was pretty excited. I’ve seen Andy Gill and Jon King with a no-name rhythm section before, and it was always still a worthy show, despite how dreary most of their new music post-Songs Of The Free has been (how myopically Dunning-Krugerish does a band have to be to name its mediocre comeback single “Don’t Fix What Ain’t Broke?”), because Jon King is a fucking living sparkplug, and even as he aged he remained one of the most kinetic and magnetic frontmen in rock music. So I was amped about the new tour because I somehow missed the news that King exited Gang of Four a few years ago and the band is now effectively Andy Gill and the Pips. But even still, if I was going to see an expensive Go4 cover band, it was a Go4 cover band with Andy by God GILL in it, and it’s been a fair few years since I’ve seen him brilliantly torture a Stratocaster into emitting jagged shards of perfect, poisonous hate-noise, so why not just go anyway? “How bad could it be?,” I thought.
Then I heard What Happens Next, the first Go4 album with new singer John “Gaoler” Sterry. The AV Club‘s Annie Zaleski compared it to Stabbing Westward and God Lives Underwater, and if that’s not enough of an indictment, I don’t know what the hell to tell you. Sterry is a fine singer, and in a band in which he wasn’t a replacement for JON FUCKING KING, he would not offend, but Sterry isn’t actually the vocalist on about half of the record, nor does he even sing on its best material. Guest vocalists are handed a lot of the throat duties, and the best song features German actor/singer Herbert Grönemeyer. But the album’s great crime isn’t that the “band” continued without a crucial member—they lost a lot when they lost founding bassist Dave Allen to Shriekback, but they still managed at least some enduring material—its crime is that it’s tepid and unoriginal, two things nobody ever needed from Gang of Four, but if we’re to be honest, apart from some promising moments on 2011’s Content, tepid and unoriginal are mostly what their studio recordings have delivered for the last 30 years. Go4 have been on cruise control for decades, perpetually trading on the brilliance of Entertainment! and Solid Gold.
Apologies for the crappiness of my phone camera. I blame Apple.
And yet I went to the show. Because I’m a dumbass. Despite the merits of Sterry’s singing voice, as a frontman he’s all posturing and no charisma. I spent the first half of the band’s set right up front and directly in the line of fire of Andy Gill’s amps, waiting to be fucking perforated by the glorious missiles of angular clamor they’d hurl, but even HE sounded blah. Much credit is due to the rhythm section, especially the drummer, and if he and the bassist should ever decide to move on from the tribute band scene, they could probably do something amazing. But tempos were sluggish overall, robbing the band of all the fiery urgency that was its calling card. Songs that should have brought the house down like “Damaged Goods” and “At Home He’s a Tourist” sounded like early ‘90s shit bands covering those songs in slow-motion. The new material they did could have been discarded—NOTHING about those songs is worthy of the band’s name or legacy, both of which Andy Gill seems bent on narcissistically shitting all over. Had that music been the product of a band by any other name (or any other guitarist), nary a soul present would have cared. This is no new beginning for Gang of Four. This is the violation of Gang of Four’s corpse.
Words I never thought I’d find myself writing: Gang of Four is a fucking awful band. Here’s a reminder of why they once mattered.
Previously on Dangerous Minds
Entertainment: Gang of Four, live in Zagreb, 1981
Dialectics & disco: Post-punk Marxists Gang of Four get funky on ‘Dance Fever’
Gang of Four’s ‘Not Great Men’ played by Javanese gamelan ensemble