With Gang Of Four returning with new album What Happens Next last week (2 March), Andy Gill has written Q a guest column examining authenticity, wondering if he’s even authentic himself…
Most weekdays as I stroll through the market next to my studio in London I’m confronted with questions about authenticity. Stallholders hawk everything from “authentic” Vietnamese and Korean street food (tasty and reasonably true to those cuisines) to so-called designer clothing closely resembling gear available in mid-range high street chains that itself copies catwalk creations. One bloke sells a substance he insists is “real balsamic vinegar”. It is of a colour and consistency you might expect but gives off a distinct whiff of creosote. The lesson of the market would seem to be that authenticity is synonymous with quality—but only if the authenticity is authentic.
That’s something I’ve had in mind during the past two years as I composed and recorded the new Gang Of Four album, What Happens Next. I have always been aware that that the authenticity of the album would be questioned. I am, after all, the only remaining original band member, a Gang Of One. I knew some diehards would take that to mean that Gang of Four had lost its authenticity, and they would be right if an unchanging line-up and sound were the guarantors of authenticity. In those terms Poison, ZZ Top and Motley Crüe are authentic; Smashing Pumpkins, The Fall and Motörhead are not.
Only two of those bands, Smashing Pumpkins and The Fall, have ever achieved the kind of authenticity that interests me, by pushing the boundaries of musical form. Nobody stays in The Fall apart from Mark E Smith, because Mark E Smith is an argumentative malcontent. But what he gets up to as a musician is eye-catching. And he directs everything to do with the Fall, mustering an ever-changing cast of characters into a band that, for as long as he is part of it, remains the Fall.
Some bands are defined by one person. INXS continued after Michael Hutchence died, auditioning for a replacement via a reality TV show that highlighted a reality it was meant to obscure: that INXS without Michael wasn’t viable. That’s not to say Michael didn’t get something from the rest of INXS. Andrew Farriss in particular was a great writer. But Michael with his huge voice and charisma was the star.
Gang Of Four was never a star vehicle. We defined ourselves against stadium rock, rejected received wisdoms about music and prided ourselves on working as an artistic collective. People came and went—certainly they went, Dave Allen first midway through an American tour, then Hugo Burnham a year later, and that opened the door to great collaborations, for example with Sara Lee and then with Gail Ann Dorsey who is still involved in the project and has provided an astonishing vocal for What Happens Next. In 2005, despite my misgivings—and yes, at least in part for the dosh—Gang of Four “reunited”: Jon King and me and Hugo and Dave. Management kept telling us “you’ve got to do it; people will pay double to see an original act”. That lumpen definition of authenticity pushes up ticket prices for bands parading unchanged line-ups even if the band is effectively performing karaoke versions of old hits, balsamic vinegar with a whiff of creosote.
During the Gang Of Four reunion we re-recorded tracks and called the resulting album Return The Gift. There was, as I say, a financial motive (and no shame in that in an industry that too rarely pays artists for their output) but we also looked to do something different and interesting with the tracks: I wanted to record them so they sounded as if they were being played live, which in our case meant explosive. I also wanted to see what these songs would be like if expertly produced. The sound on Entertainment! is cool, but it’s also the result of a producer (me) who at that time didn’t fully understand the technical side of a studio control room.
In those early years, we didn’t worry much about technique; it was about achieving ground-breaking outcomes. We had the most anti-nostalgia ethos you could imagine. It was about inventing new languages, finding a musical form that hadn’t really been used before. What we came up with wasn’t like punk or disco, though we incorporated little references to those things, which in itself made this new kind of language. Our lyrical concerns, our subject matter, this was new to music too. From that perspective, Gang of Four’s 2005 reunion was the least authentic thing Gang of Four ever did, contradicting Gang Of Four’s animating progressive spirit.
It was that spirit that drove What Happens Next. I never tried to replicate the past but to keep pushing forward, taking risks, doing what Gang Of Four has (almost) always aimed to do. Jon left in spring 2011 and that in some ways made things easier: we wrote some great tracks together—typically I’d create the music, then he’d come in with lyrics and then I’d refine or add to the lyrics and the song would emerge—but we had come to know exactly where the other would go with something. Working with John “Gaoler” Sterry as a new frontman and in collaborations with great musicians such as Alison Mosshart, Robbie Furze, Hotei and Herbert Grönemeyer has proven exciting and revitalising.
Is the result real Gang Of Four? Of that I am certain and it has been great to see how many enthusiastic critics and music-lovers agree. There will be literalists who continue to protest, one not four, new not old. That last observation at least is true—and in Gang of Four terms truly authentic.
For more head to Gangoffour.co.uk.