gang of four and the art of social criticism | Characteristics






From the videoconference window on my laptop screen, Jon King looks unassumingly like some sort of administrator. He wears a dark crew neck sweater over a dark oxford shirt, a clean, neat collar. It sits in the corner of a white room, flanked by a narrow doorway and shelves filled with vinyl three-ring binders of different colors, each labeled neatly and evenly. On the surface, everything about his presence seems orderly. But King, now 66, has been the frontman of Gang of Four since the seminal post-punk band formed in Leeds, UK, in 1976. And when he speaks, the spirit of his voice is the same as that of the group. 1979 debut album Entertainment! Even through a small laptop speaker, I can hear an avant-garde poet, an angry leftist revolutionary, a romantic and egalitarian dreamer.

With their disco-punk grooves and anti-capitalist ideals, Gang of Four has always reminded me of the famous quote attributed to early 20th-century activist Emma Goldman: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution. The band’s Dadaist sound and aesthetic set the bar high for what radical music could be. Although King may not have the name recognition of many rock celebrities, the music of Gang of Four created a ripple effect that touched an amazing variety of music that has come since.

“When we were playing in LA – I’m thinking Reseda Country Club – a naked man jumped out of the audience and grabbed me,” King recalled. “It was 1983 or something. … It was Puce! There’s a picture of a naked Flea hugging me on stage.

This abrupt encounter, without Flea even extending the courtesy of putting on a tube sock, ultimately led to Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill producing the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ debut album. Years later, the funk-punk sound that RHCP was then developing resulted in Grammys, platinum records and stadium tours. The Peps are far from the only group to work closely with Gang of Four. In 1981 and 1982, a then little-known band from Georgia called REM opened several dates on the Gang’s US tours. And the bands that have openly taken inspiration from the Gang of Four philosophy are countless.

Gill, who died in 2020, honed a serrated edge guitar style you hear echoes of in Fugazi’s Ian Mackaye and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello. Kurt Cobain has cited Gang of Four as a major influence on Nirvana. Funky post-millennium Brooklynites like Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Rapture and Liars are all taking pages from the book of Gang of Four. Additionally, Frank Ocean and Run the Jewels have both sampled tracks from Entertainment!

But like many critical darlings, King & Co.’s credibility never translated into commercial success. Perhaps the lyrics were too esoteric and philosophical — or the sound too aggressive and harsh — for some audiences.

“We were always like The Velvet Underground, I guess,” King says. “Everyone knows us, but it’s not like you’re going to get platinum albums with that stuff.”

King and Gill co-wrote and helped produce the above Entertainment! and its 1981 sequel Solid gold. Both were re-released last year as part of a box set on Matador Records, Gang of four: 77-81. This Grammy-nominated collection also features demos, live recordings, and a King set-up booklet.

To celebrate the release, Gang of Four are once again touring the United States. Drummer Hugo Burnham is the other original member alongside King. Bassist Sara Lee, who was in the band from 1981 to 1985, is also on board. Following Gill’s passing, the current incarnation is rounded out with a new guitarist from a generation of artists deeply influenced by the King/Gill/Burnham sound: David Pajo of legendary Louisville, Ky., post-rockers Slint , who release solo material as Papa M and has toured with numerous bands including Interpol and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

“Andy was my great buddy for so long,” King says of his late partner. “So we wanted something to pay homage to that.”

Scrolling through King’s lyrics and new box notes, fans get a glimpse of a unique spirit. It brings together the cultural critique of a Marxist revolutionary, the avant-garde subversive tactics of French situationist theoreticians and the patient parsimony of cinema’s darkest authors.

“On the box, there’s a song called ‘In the Ditch,’ which is on Solid goldKing says. “Just before I wrote this song, every household in the UK received a book called Protect and Survive.”

The dark book, satirized in song, was a guide to surviving a nuclear attack and what to expect from radioactive fallout. He offered pointless advice, like whitening the windows and hiding under a table covered in laundry bags.

“I honestly thought it was, like, a weird gag,” King said, his eyes rolling back. “It’s crazy to think that hiding under trash bags full of underwear is really going to come in handy when [a bomb] land.”

Such Vantablack humor is a hallmark of King’s work, but our 45-minute chat reveals a warm character with plenty of loves and interests you might not expect. Uninvited, he introduces me to his passion for music, especially storytellers like Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan, and Jimmy Webb, who wrote “Wichita Lineman.” King is respectful when speaking of the masterful tune, made famous by pop and country hero Glen Campbell.

“You didn’t necessarily know what the song was about, but you knew the lineman was telling an authentic story from his heart – the loneliness of his life.”

Christopher S. Washington