What year was it now? Because Gang of Four songs are back on the radio—well, their sound, anyway, rematerialized inside skinnier people—and Gang of Four what-kind-of-lives-are-we-living? lyrics are still so self-evidently relevant it's embarrassing—well, to us, anyway; to them, it's a credit to perception. And now Gang of Four itself is back on the road, reunited because apparently the world has finally stopped saving itself for them. Congratulations now on articulating a competitive sentiment as clear and permanent as certain songs by Chuck Berry. Anything you want, we got right here in the USA, but this heaven gives me migraines—the problem of leisure/what to do for pleasure? "Plus a change," sighs drummer Hugo Burnham, taking time off to tour from teaching at Boston's New England Institute of Art. "Everything is different, but the song remains the same."
Not the players, naturally: they were young and student-y when Gang of Four played Beatles covers for confused skinheads in Leeds in 1979, but their cut-to-strips guitar and dub/funk rhythm section—and their deadpan agit-crit lyrics; really, they didn't have any weaknesses then—won them synonymity for "post-punk." But these are angular times for popular pop now—der Franz, the Killers, Bloc Party, all discovering that there are six separate little strings inside a guitar chord—and for a band that inherited the word "angular" ("It's used a lot with us—God knows what it means," says Burnham. "Well, what it means is sonically sharp edges, not rounded edges—sharp corners.") the way the Ramones inherited "buzzsaw," there is justification both personal and political to take the old show on the road. Because everyone else is copying them but missing all the most distinctive parts; because the new kids have angular guitars but the flattest philosophy and personality and lyrics: "I say, don't you know? You say, you don't know" (itsy-bitsy-teenie-weenie, etc.). And because, says Burnham: "We're better. I defy anyone to say we're less than spectacular when we're firing on all cylinders. That doesn't mean they're not good. Just that we're better. And the bastards are selling millions of records, and we never did."
Plus later in conversation he said "cunt" (in reference to a band mate) and "nut" (in reference to what he would give to appear on NPR with Terry Gross), so aren't you already on his side? Pioneers that got scalped, as the saying goes: when our Hugo got purged from the Four in 1983, he was directed to pick up his drums at a rehearsal studio in New York City; when he got there, all the good parts had already been stolen, so he went out and got a job. To this day, his band is still in debt to their old label; they're touring in one big bus, sleeping next to equipment but happy that one member of the band didn't make it back for 2005: that invisible fifth—the company accountant, laughs Burnham. "Triumphant return" is a mouthful, but . . . unlike the New York Dolls or the Sex Pistols, Gang of Four are totally (and literally) still alive as a band and an idea for a band. Burnham remembers the moment he first heard der Franz's Gang-y "Take Me Out" on his radio and had to pause everything else: "What . . . the . . . fuck?" he said at the time. ("See? Exactly!" says Chuck Berry from 1964.)
"We didn't date ourselves politically. We were dealing with big-picture ideas, and none of that has changed—individual emotions and fears don't change—and the same things are still with us, if not worse." At the college where he teaches—where he gets demos from his students that he sighs and describes as "loud bad music, but I'm older than their dads—what do I know?"—he can't understand why he's the only one in the auditorium upset about anything: "It's wrong to say it infuriates me, but it distresses me that there aren't more students involved in activism—they're too busy enjoying the fruits of consumerism, which is all-enveloping, and focusing on getting into the corporate structure, and climbing up other people's backs to get there. But it's their future that's being manipulated and destroyed."
But you wouldn't know it from der Franz or the Kaiser Chiefs or the Killers (who actually are basically Erasure), who have made careers out of the songs Gang of Four thought too boring to even write: "'I want to be in love, I'm in love, I'm out of love, I hate her, how fast can I drive?'" says Burnham. Does it feel strange to come back and share space with the ghost of your own career? No, says Burnham—it's just being loved, being continuously loved. And maybe there's some pride there too: to come back after 25 years, grab the toys from the kids and show them how Daddy does it. Which is what all the reunited bands say, but Gang of Four is the first one that really deserves it: "I'd like to go onstage with any of these acts and show them how to do it properly," laughs Burnham. "People are rather subtlety-challenged—I say that in a loving, embracing way."
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GANG OF FOUR WITH MORNINGWOOD AND MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN AT THE HOUSE OF BLUES, 1530 S. DISNEYLAND DR., ANAHEIM, (714) 778-BLUE. FRI., OCT. 21, 7 P.M. $20-$22.50. ALL AGES.