How Gang of Four’s Andy Gill Transformed Rock Guitar

How Gang of Four’s Andy Gill Transformed Rock Guitar

Sixty-four-year-old Andy Gill, who co-founded the post-punk band Gang of Four in 1977 and remained its lone original member when he died of pneumonia on February 1, was arguably the most influential rock guitarist since the psychedelic era.

Hear us out: We’re talking not about namechecking or dorm-room poster sales, but about the actual, dominant transformation of musical language. Over four decades ago, Gill maxed out the treble dial on his unfashionable solid-state amplifier and raised rhythmic hell, generating a new archetype for how a guitarist can function in a rock band. (Gang of Four also forever changed the way rock audiences dance, though that’s an argument for a second essay.)

Today, Gill’s version of guitar anti-heroism abounds — in post-punk revivalists like Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, the Rapture and Protomartyr, sure, but also in the noisier corners of the jazz and classical avant-gardes and the more abrasive strains of electronic dance music. Perhaps most important, Gill’s footprint is encountered easily in the workaday music world. Go club-hopping this evening in a cosmopolitan rock scene of your choosing and be prepared for an onslaught of hip-shaking punk-funk chicken-scratch — only without Gill’s distinctive sonic presence and incisive, reggae- and dub-derived use of space.

On Gang of Four’s best-loved recordings, especially their landmark 1979 debut LP, Entertainment!, Gill’s sound comes across as a very clever innovation, documented well enough. Live, however, in a good-sounding venue, he was a forcefield. Imagine Jimmy Nolen, of James Brown fame, filtered through the DIY tumult of punk and the action-painting machismo of Jackson Pollock and you’re in the ballpark. Or, if you like, think of the guitar-as-drum notion of Bo Diddley passed through European art-school learning.

Art school was crucial, but Gill and company arrived at a series of great ideas — book-smart kids doing R&B; a collectivist business model; a name inspired by the Cultural Revolution — more organically than it might seem. By the time Gill had made it to the university haven in otherwise rough-and-tumble Leeds, he’d absorbed a thorough government-funded arts education and immersed himself in an everyman’s history of American and British pop, rock and soul. Wilko Johnson, of the pub-rock champs Dr. Feelgood, was an especially trenchant influence, a rhythm guitarist with an oddball technique and an imposing mien. In a highly recommended 2019 interview, Gill cites his appreciation for the Velvet Underground as well as the Band, and offers an anecdote that says pretty much everything about the contrarian quirks that made Gang of Four click: When the Sex Pistols’ notorious “Anarchy Tour” hit Leeds in 1976, Gill skipped it, opting instead to see A Bigger Splash, the biopic of sorts on painter-celebrity David Hockney.

Contrarianism, in fact, remains key to understanding what Gill hatched with the vocalist Jon King, bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham. Their instinct to swim upstream, even among bohemians, was paramount, and not unlike the spirit of the diverse New York punk scene Gill and King experienced firsthand during the mid-’70s. “Damaged Goods,” “Anthrax,” “To Hell With Poverty,” “At Home He’s a Tourist” — in place of punk’s void-filling riffs, these songs invested in atmosphere and/or groove. And whereas so many other punk-rooted acts tumbled forward in one headlong rush, Gang of Four reflected an interdependent unit in a way you might connect to Afrobeat.

Lyrically, Gang of Four continues to confound. The intersection of punk and politics has often meant catchwords, or at least a pointed invitation to revolt. Fabulously cynical and self-aware, Gang of Four’s words come off like a cross between a leftist lecture, a shrug and satire; the game is rigged, they seem to be saying, so why not dance?

By the early to mid-1980s, Gill’s legacy was decided, but he forged ahead with his life in the arts, even as bandmates delved into careers beyond music. In and out of his group he gathered notable credits as a producer — Michael Hutchence, the Chili Peppers, Killing Joke, the Jesus Lizard — and he remained at the helm of Gang of Four through dry spells and reunions and lineup shifts. Gang of Four’s most recent effort, Happy Now, came out last year, and Gill was said to have been listening to works-in-progress and planning a tour from his hospital bed. With his passing, one of the finest bands of the post-punk era, and one of rock and roll’s canniest inventions, is laid to rest.

Evan Haga is a senior manager of programming and editorial at TIDAL.  

Image credit: Rovi

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