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18th July 2023

Gang of Four: “The thing that makes any city worthwhile is having loads of students”

Gang of Four vocalist Jon King sits down with the Mancunion to talk post-punk, student life, and Frank Ocean.
Gang of Four: “The thing that makes any city worthwhile is having loads of students”
Gang of Four @ Carry On Press

Every last Saturday of the month, Manchester’s infamous Northern Quarter haunt The Peer Hat hosts their leftfield club night, Heart of Glass. Drunken punters are crowded in two rooms that look like they can’t hold that many people, and definitely feel like they can’t hold that many people. The DJ only plays music from CDs, and the stairs are a trip hazard; it’s uninviting at best.

However, all its hurdles make it the charming and beloved night out that it is, and people find interest and joy in the frankly incongruous setup. They’re looking for a dance in the superficially undanceable, and it’s no wonder that Gang of Four’s classic ‘Damaged Goods’ is a Heart of Glass staple, with aggressive drums, an undulating bassline, an interrogative guitar part, and blaming, lamenting vocals from Jon King. “I can’t work, I can’t achieve. Send me back”; it’s the post-punk playbook, and has been replicated a million times, yet Gang of Four are the essence.

Never commercially successful, Gang of Four are something of a cult band, but one who is nevertheless accessing younger and younger listeners. King notes that the majority of recent Gang of Four audiences have been in their twenties. “I think that’s because of things like Spotify, and people don’t know how old you are. And our music was never commercial, and it was never easy listening, so I know it doesn’t sound like other stuff.”

Jon King recently joined friend and fellow musician Marriser Paternoster of Screaming Females in Bristol for a rendition of ‘Damaged Goods’, only to talk to an audience member later to find out that they thought the song was originally by IDLES. This speaks to Gang of Four’s elusiveness despite being so influential; Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers even joked to the band that Gang Of Four should have sued them for copying their style.

gang of four
Gang of Four @ Carry On Press

Gang of Four are out on their first major UK tour since the death of their beloved guitarist, Andy Gill. This comes from demand after the Grammy-nominated re-release of their music between 1977 and 1982. They’ve also had a successful stint in the US with their 1981 line-up plus David Pajo from Slint, who hasn’t attempted to replace the irreplaceable Gill but instead pays homage. “It’s certainly not a nostalgia show […] it’s always been spiky and dangerous and hopefully that’s what we’re about”, King previews.

Graduates of the University of Leeds in the 1970s, the band are familiar with Manchester, and played several times at the University of Manchester and “the Poly” (now Manchester Metropolitan University). “Manchester has always had a really strong part in my heart. I’ve loved it a lot. Some places you really enjoy, and the amazing thing about Manchester, then and now, is that it’s an amazingly creative place. It’s a great university with loads of students, and that’s the thing that makes any city worthwhile is having loads of students.”

gang of four
Gang of Four’s original lineup. Credit: Jay Schwartz

Gang of Four’s Entertainment! is often listed in lists of the top 100 albums of all-time. It’s never in the over-scrutinised top 10 that provides the most outrage, but often sits in the middle, and no one ever argues that they don’t merit this position. If bands are to be included on these lists, they have to have had an impact beyond their genre, and Gang of Four almost exist outside of music itself. Their lyrics are rooted in intellectual thought such as Marxism and particularly Situationism, the belief that someone’s personality and behaviour are influenced more by external factors than internal ones.

King appeared at The Factory (now Factory 251) with The Fall’s Mark E. Smith and Manchester legend Tony Wilson for what was billed as the first-ever conference on Situationism. “I remember being in Texas and someone said, ‘You’re very brave you know, to do this stuff here’. Karl Marx wrote a very good line and he was very good at nicking material as well. Like, in the Communist Manifesto, ‘A spectre is haunting Europe’, and ‘Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains’; he could really be working in an advertising agency.”

gang of four
Gang of Four @ Carry On Press

This influences King’s process of writing. “Nicking and using ideas from other people is always a good idea. When I write, to look at something and look at the exact opposite or something not the same, dialectics, you’ve got an interesting subject.” Gang of Four were used in my history seminars as a way to understand intellectual history; it proved very useful for a subject that is, by design, misleading and confusing.

What isn’t misleading, however, is how Gang of Four’s music is simply brilliant and very enjoyable. Those who choose to listen to the lyrics will learn something, but those out for a dance, like at Heart of Glass, will be equally nourished in a different way. The music holds a timeless, remarkably clean quality, the metronomic yet messy disco drums giving order to the thrashing abrasiveness of practically everything in front of it. The songs are bursts of almost involuntary energy punctuated by Gill’s fitful guitar playing and feel like a release of negative energy.

Gang of Four’s music is a cultural touchstone beyond their genre; more recently, they have found themselves in the sleeve notes on Run The JewelsRTJ4 and Frank Ocean’s Blonde. The latter was accessed from former Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen, who worked in California for Beats (the headphones manufacturer). “He knew Frank Ocean really quite well, and they were in the studio together, and we ended up on call. He was very polite and respectful, he said ‘Would it be okay if I used one of your songs?’, and of course, we were really quite flattered because I really like what he does.”

This timeless quality is, in many cases unfortunately, true of the lyrics as well. “It’s a great shame that words I wrote on Entertainment! and Solid Gold, and Songs of the Free seem to describe the world we have now. For example, ‘Guns Before Butter’, I wince at how close it is to all this shit that’s going on in Ukraine […] I think we’re living in a terrible time where young people are being crushed by old people. And I think it’s terrible that you have to pay university fees. And I think it’s terrible that all of the tax breaks go to old people and not young people. Like for example, why shouldn’t students get free bus journeys?.”

The post-punk prototype is of attacking privilege from a place of privilege, of educated assertions of social dysfunction, delivered straight and explicitly. King is now old enough to recognise that his lyrics still have clarity in 2023, and to know how severe this reality is for marginalised and oppressed communities. Gang of Four’s words relate to challenges in the present, and this is something that King has only come to terms with recently. “I broke the habit of a lifetime and go out after [a show] and talk to people, which I never used to do, I’m not really very friendly. But I was very touched when a lot of people who were conflicted about their identity said how the music had helped them get through, and I was very affected by that. I felt aware that it’s a bundle of work that I suppose means something.”

Gang of Four are the perfect example themselves of a dialectic; they have academic essays written about them, but when the last Saturday of every month comes, we dance and chant ‘Damaged Goods’ at The Peer Hat, basking in the ferocious energy.

Gang of Four plays the O2 Ritz on 4th October. You can get tickets here.

Alex Cooper

Alex Cooper

Head Music Editor and Writer for the Mancunion. Once walked past Nick Cave in Zagreb. Enquiries: [email protected]

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