Gang Of Four is one of the most radical, and radically important, rock groups of the last 30 years. Their music, starting with 1978’s ‘Damaged Goods’ EP, offered a danceable solution to the problem of where four-piece guitar bands could go next after punk. They also provided the perfect answer to the question: how to be polemical without being po-faced, ponderous, banal or doctrinaire?
Four young men in their early twenties who convened in the late ’70s in Leeds, they were the first white rock group to come up with the idea that using contemporary funk and reggae rhythms might be an interesting way forward for rock’n'roll, a way out of punk’s cul de sac. With Andy Gill slashing away on guitar over the Dave Allen/Hugo Burnham rhythm section while Jon King declaimed over the top about love as disease or the torture of prisoners in Northern Ireland like a deranged demagogue, Gang Of Four were like Wilko Johnson of Dr Feelgood jamming with Parliament-Funkadelic produced by Lee Perry as a Radio 4 newsreader intoned balefully in the background.
More than anything, Gang Of Four were about visceral, high energy, maximum impact rock’n'roll. They made you dance and they made you sweat just as they made you think. That exclamation mark at the end of the title of their 1979 debut album Entertainment! – incidentally, one of the greatest debut albums ever made; in fact, one of the greatest long-playing records, period – was no accident or sleight of design. Nor were they rentagobs or rabble-rousers. They managed to inveigle complex ideas into powerful songs that were provocative yet simply thrilling. The music on that debut long-player was born out of a specific time in history, the result of a series of very specific circumstances and conditions – social, economic, emotional, political, musical – and yet it remains as true, as resonant, as relevant, as universally applicable three decades on as it was the day it was released.