Gang of Four Takes an ‘Anti-Retro’ Approach on ‘What Happens Next’

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Released way back in 1979, Gang of Four’s Entertainment! didn’t sell by the truckloads when it originally came out. But it did have a lasting influence. Pitchfork, the snobby online music site devoted to all things indie, has called it one of the best albums of the ’70s and proclaimed it "caustic and bursting with disgust for unethical capitalism, opportunist politicians and consumer society, among other things, but it's also crafted with amazing pop sensibility — and is, of course, remarkably danceable."

The album has influenced acts such as Bloc Party, R.E.M., the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, the Rapture, Franz Ferdinand and LCD Soundsystem. Guitarist Andy Gill, the sole remaining original member of the group, says he intended for the disc to become a game changer.

“Personally, I did know [the album was monumental],” he says. “I was much ridiculed for it as well. I clearly remember saying to [singer] Jon King, ‘One day they’re going to be teaching this stuff in college.” He just said, ‘You’re fucking mad.’ I remember saying to our manager at the day, ‘This is like the Left Bank in Paris in 1915. This is inventing massively influential new language.’ He fell to the floor in hysterics. And quite rightly so.”

One of the things that distinguished the band’s sound right from the start was the jagged guitar riffs. While plenty of punk bands distorted their guitars to the point that they sounded harsh, few retained a sense of melody. Gill provided a real balance.

“The thing I consciously thought about was how much I liked rhythm guitar and how much I liked rhythm and groove in general,” Gill says when asked about his stylistic approach to the instrument. “A lot of that guitar playing from the Eric Clapton school that so many people subscribe to didn’t do very much for me — the warm tone and valve amps and the sustained guitar feel. I don’t know how much of it excited me or got me going. Whereas a lot of the guitar on the Stax records or the Motown stuff or Keith Richards blasting away with riffs like ‘Satisfaction,’ which got under my skin in a big way when I was 10 years old.”

Gill says he likes “playing with odd rhythms” and that his guitar riffs sound like some kind of Morse Code.

“I like that staccato thing,” he says. “I liked playing one little clipped note rather than a big chord. The guitar joins in with the drum kit. It was me trying to make some kind of Swiss watch. The guitar had to work around the drums. Elements of the drums had to be carefully positioned so when the high hat hits, I was either with the guitar or there was a gap where there was a guitar. When the floor tom hit everything had to be positioned so that every construction worked and it made a whole. Listening to one thing on its own doesn’t make sense.”

The first album without singer Jon King, Gang of Four’s new album What Happens Next rocks as hard as ever. It features collaborations with Alison Mosshart from the Kills, Robbie Furze from the Big Pink, Gail Ann Dorsey, German superstar Herbert Grönemeyer and Japan’s Hotei.

Gill hasn’t entirely altered his playing style on it. “That thing about rhythm still pertains,” he says.

“I think with this record, I very much threw caution to the wind if there ever had been any caution and said to myself to throw out any rules,” he says. “I think people will be queuing up to say this is not a Gang of Four album. The one thing that’s consistent is that every record is different. There are a lot of bands that think they’ve plowed a furrow and they’re going to stick to it. They have their genre and sound and that’s what they do. They don’t want to stray from that path. The point is that it’s doing things that haven’t been done before. It’s doing something afresh. It carries on with each record. You’re not going to look back and do that again. You’re looking forward.”

He says the record is very “anti-retro.” In some instances, he plugged the guitar straight in the computer and put whatever digital plug ins he felt like. Originally, the album’s first track, “Where the Nightingale Sings,” had “a lot of guitar stuff going on.”

“The more I started to delete things, the more important it was when the guitar actually did play,” Gill says. “We wanted to leave it to basic drums and vocals so when the guitar comes in, it really makes an impression. As the record developed, there was a lot of taking things out.

With regard to the new album, Gill has said, "The focus is more on universal issues, like how individuals behave in certain ways or how our world is constructed, than local issues or current affairs. Gang of Four is anything but parochial." Well-versed in neo-Marxist politics, the band has always written about social issues to that approach isn’t anything new.

“There’s always this notion that we’re political and it’s always something you need to define,” Gill says. “I’m not sure that Gang of Four ever talked about local issues. We tended to talk about looking at ourselves and our friends and other people and trying to figure out what makes us act like we act. Is it economic pressures or social things? Are we doing things because we feel uncomfortable if we did them in a different way? I suppose you could say those are personal politics. When I say global, it doesn’t just pertain to people who live in Britain. It pertains to everyone.”

The concerts will be the first in the States to feature new singer John "Gaoler" Sterry.

“He’s been working with me now for two and a half years,” Gill says of the vocalist. “We’ve been playing live. I thought I was going to have start auditioning people. I didn’t know what I would do. He turned up by accident. I wanted someone to help me out and needed someone who had a better voice than my croaky old voice. Someone who would hit the correct notes properly. He was working with me like a session singer for a while. I got to like him. He’s been great. We’ve been to China and Japan and Britain. All over. It’s going down very well. Quite a few of the reviews have said that Gang of Four is a band with a reputation and whoever sings had better be damn good. Someone used the phrase that he owned the record. I was very pleased to read that. He put in some great performances and he’s great live too.”

Gang of Four, Public Access T.V., 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 10, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., 216-321-5588. Tickets: $25,

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