Latest release: Content (Yep Roc)
Content, the new album for post-punk pioneers Gang of Four, has been released for a little more than two days when my calls goes through to frontman Jon King. He apologises that I’ve caught him in the middle of shaving, and for a moment I have a vision of the middle-aged, slightly gaunt singer standing in his bathroom wearing just a towel, with his face half covered in shaving cream.
“Sorry about that,” he says amicably. “Just as well it was that, and not anything else!”
Without pausing too long to think about whatever else he could have possibly been up to, I suggest instead that a new album from the Gang of Four is long overdue.
“Well… I guess,” he replies. “I hadn’t really thought that we would produce another album at all. Five years ago when Andy [Gill] and I and the other two guys from the first two albums decided to get back together again, certainly the idea was to just have some fun playing the old tracks from those two albums. But I hadn’t really thought that I would get back into writing again… it just sort of became an automatic thing. When Andy and I fire ideas off each other, having enjoyed working and playing some classic stuff and then thinking about things that we might do that were different in the future, it sort of became an automatic process. There’s never been a plan as such behind what we do and don’t do, and might well have been that we didn’t do anymore records.”
“That wasn’t really a very good answer, was it?” he adds, laughing self-consciously.
He may not be great at talking about exactly why the album came about, but there’s no doubt that given the current state of the post GFC world and the increasingly vapid music climate, it’s time for Gang of Four to get people thinking again.
“Now, I’m not a politician and I’m not a journalist or a social commentator. I’m a musician,” King says. Then, with a sigh, “We’re living in incredibly difficult times, times when the difference between the privileged and the rest of us have never been more extreme. Last week in Britain, 70 billion pounds was distributed to bankers, and there’s a million people — kids — under the age of 25 out of work. There’s sort of a real disparity between those things.”
Despite his own protests, there are many who would argue that a social commentator is precisely what he is, considering the very nature of his lyrics and the socio-political angles Gang of Four has always taken with their art. After all, they were once described by Rolling Stone as “the best politically motivated band in rock n roll’.
“I suppose what I mean really is that I don’t try to persuade people into a point of view,” King concedes. “I’m sometimes as confused as anybody else as to how to be and how to get by in a relatively positive way.”
What he does with this confusion is direct it into addressing issues and ideas. The power of ideas has always been at the core of Gang of Four’s philosophy. King remains as frustrated as ever that even now, thirty years after his band’s first album showed the way forward for guitar-based bands in the wake of punk, popular music remains as vacuous as ever.
“The things you talk about with your friends and colleagues, and I talk about with my buddies, aren’t only about whether a girl meets a boy and has a successful or unsuccessful relationship,” he says. “Or we don’t just talk about dancing all night and we don’t just talk about those usual corny subjects in commercial pop music. And not being a commercial band, we can sing about what we like. And I’m sort of disappointed that so little of modern life seems to leak into lyric writing. I was doing a round table thing at the BBC last week and there was a track came up and the chorus went “nothing is stranger than love”, and you think, surely people can write about something else. Surely there are other subjects to be written about. Writing about politics is boring, I think, but writing about modern life is incredibly interesting.”
At a time when the British punk movement was about to be pushed aside by the vacuity of New Wave pop, Gang of Four’s Entertainment! was comparing love to anthrax and addressing the plight of political prisoners in Northern Ireland, all to the sound of Andy Gill’s angular guitar and danceable funk and reggae-inflected beats.
“You see all this stuff around you which is just so offensive,” the singer says. “Like, a song from way back when called “5.45” is about sitting eating your tea in front of the telly and there’s some terrorist attack on the TV, and you know the price of your compliant, easy life is all this stuff that goes on somewhere else. So many of the things that make us comfortable are at the expense of something else. And you hit the remote and watch something that’s more entertaining, but at the back of your mind you feel that sense of unease about it. And you then you think: “Is that it?” I always think of that great scene in The Deer Hunter when Robert de Niro and his buddies are on a hunting trip and they’re trying to find something or other that makes their dreary lives make sense, and a guy just holds up a bullet in front of his friend and says “This is this”. I always thought that was a great bit of writing.”
Great writing is part of what made Gang of Four so influential, one of the truly great and unique cult acts of the 1980s. Both REM and U2 took many of their cues from Gang of Four; Red Hot Chili Peppers liked them so much they virtually ripped off their sound and even got Gill to produce their first album. But just as important as the music for King and Gill was the visual aspect that went along with it, the dynamics of live performance and the art and imagery that accompanied their albums. To many, the digital age is the ultimate threat to creativity. Illegal downloading not only robs artists of income but the growing popularity of buying music as single tracks in digital form threatens to make the concept of album art and packaging completely redundant. It is as if music and art of all kinds has finally become nothing but a worthless commodity.
“I find it [is] very easy for creative people, all creative people: film-makers, journalists, artists, whatever… to feel that we’ve all got to surrender and do what the technologies have led us to do,” King says. “That we’ve all become anonymous concept providers, despite whatever it is we’ve spent our lives trying to learn how to do. All the money goes to the evil Apples, who soak all music for vast amounts of cash but don’t invest a penny into it, like a cartoon version of the worst record company that’s ever existed. Or the Facebooks, where if you like this, you’ll like that. All this kind of stuff where you’re constantly being monitored and tweaked and fed-back to and stuff. And then of course, from a creative perspective, you’re not allowed to make any money from what you do, or make a living from it because the consumers — that shit word — will be swapping your creative efforts, whatever it is: a film, or whether it’s a piece of music, for nothing! They won’t pay for it. So, to a certain extent, your creations become valueless.”
Of course, Gang of Four has struck out against this belief in their own inimitable fashion.
“As creative people, we don’t have to agree with that,” King declares. “We can say, let’s make something that is genuinely valuable, means something, but can’t be digitally cloned. So we don’t have to surrender to this. Having the luxury of not being a commercial act means I’m not trying to chase a million track sales. It’s not part of our agenda. So I don’t regret the fact that there’s a million iTunes deals to be done, because our audience is far too smart and discriminating anyway.”
A recent online competition allowed fans to spread a free and legal stream of Content in its entirety with as many social network pages, blogs and messageboards as they could. The one who seeded it the most was awarded the prize of something that certainly couldn’t be digitally recreated: the staggering Content special edition. The Ultimate Content Can comes as a steel box with a series of books including a collection of Rotoscoped photographs of the band members expressing various emotions, lyrics, an art piece by King and Gill depicting the last 40 years of human history and a scratch and sniff booklet that “reflects the key areas of human activity”. For some reason, it also contains phials of each members’ blood. It apparently also has a copy of the album on CD in it somewhere. And much to Jon King’s delight, some of Content’s art has been commandeered by political activists in Italy.
“One of the books inside the metal box […] has this big fold out poster of a whole series of like 20 drawings and illustrations all with rhyming couplets on them,” King explains. “And one of the drawings is like a toilet-wall graffito of Silvio Berlusconi with an erect penis, ejaculating, and the line calls him the new Mussolini. Funny little drawing, it’s meant to be toilet-wall graffiti, and that was on the cover of La Repubblica two days ago in Italy and it’s being used by the political opposition to try and bring down Berlusconi. So I’m hoping that I might, um, play a part in bringing down the president of Italy. And you can do that in art and culture, almost by mistake. Everyone can do it!”
From their early days, Gang of Four was subverting populist imagery as part of their agenda to get people to think. Their debut — still regarded as one of the best 500 albums of all time — was adorned with illustrations depicting familiar, day-to-day situations accompanied by dark, sardonically humourous captions.
“It’s the power of an idea,” Jon King says. “With the Entertainment! cover, this idea of an iconic image of a cowboy and Indian shaking hands, which we’ve all been taught to enjoy from mainstream Western movies, is fundamentally a deceit. Because the process was really to give smallpox-infected blankets to the Native Americans, and shoot them.”
The use of some of the band’s current art in such an aggressively political way only emphasises King’s belief in the power of ideas, although he dismisses with a laugh any suggestion that there was any deliberate objective in attempting to bring down a government with such an illustration.
“It wasn’t part of the objective, doing those illustrations, to bring down the president of Italy, let me tell you that! That would be ridiculous. [But] It’s been seen quite a lot on social media, that image [of Berlusconi]. It’s helping people crystalise what they’re thinking and they’re saying, ‘Look, even people outside Italy think this as well!’ But I do think it’s got to be funny. Again, I’m not a politician. I’m not trying to sell a line.”
To support their first album of new material in 16 years, Gang of Four is on their first ever world tour. Even though half the band is now well into their 50s, they are relishing it.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” King says. “I’ve never ever been to Australia. I think I’ve been to New Zealand for about 36 hours once. I’ve got some really great Australian buddies over here. The Australians in my contact are uniformly excellent. So I’m really, really looking forward to it, and we’ve never played there either, obviously. And I’m glad that we can go out and we’ve got a set that mixes classic tracks and half a dozen new tracks asnd it’s a lot of fun. We have a short-list of about 40 songs that we really love, [and] we play probably 16 – 20 of them in an evening.”
Even the prospect of playing large festival dates like Soundwave that are dominated by heavy rock and hardcore bands and potentially filled by crowds who’ve probably barely even heard of them doesn’t seem to faze him.
“Andy and I were talking about this the other day. There’s quite a lot of heavy rock bands on this Soundwave. Maybe we’ll just cop a lot of beer cans,” he says with a chuckle. “I’m quite good at avoiding flying bottles!”