Lost in the after-suck of the Impeachment trauma, the impending Oscars, Brexit etc, is the loss today of Andy Gill, one of the most important artists of my life. As a tail-end Boomer, many of my peers and both my siblings had musical influences from the late-sixties/early-seventies, like Janis and Jerry and Jimi. Artists who taught them to think beyond the material, and, more importantly, that rebelling against the status quo…when the status quo is not good enough…is an essential part of the human experience.
Well, in 1978 or so, my group of friends and I rebelled even against those influences. We were the first “punks” in our school, and while there was plenty of music to choose from within that genre, there were two post-punk bands that, to me, were by far, the most influential. First there was xtc, whose brilliant songwriting and studio acumen still thrill me. Intricate, poppy, and more to do with the existential angst of being a teenager in love, they filled me with songs I’ve whistled, hummed or danced to for decades. They connected me to the sad, happy, loving side of myself.
But, then, of course, there was that not insignificantly-sized piece of my brain that was quietly angry, rageful, even. And for THAT there came a Marxist Disco band from Leeds called Gang of Four. They played punk music with a sincere R&B groove – which was my way in. Their two main members were a very tall singer named Jon King, who shook like a tree in a hurricane on stage, and a grey-eyed guitar player, Andy Gill, who seemed so angry while playing, he would sometimes miss the strings…his arm making jerking motions up and down…as if afraid he would break everything if he touched them…all the while staring out at you…DARING you to get as angry as him…daring you to revolt with everything you have. At their live shows they would jump, sweat, writhe and seethe…not in a sexy, funky way. No, more like they were so pissed off, they had lost control of their bodies. After the first time I saw them, I knew I’d had one of the most cathartic experiences of my life. That was 1981. The last time I saw them before Jon King left the band, was in 2010, maybe? Just as great, just as angry.
Of course, this non-stop performance energy taught me, as a musician myself, that you never get to take a second off when on stage. You fight to keep the crowd in it and, unless you literally can’t breathe anymore, you don’t stop. I like to think it’s this credo that is partly responsible for why I’ve had so much fun playing with the nubile thangs all these years – knowing I/we were giving everything we had on any particular night, whether for a sold out Metro, or one drunk guy in Santa Barbara. I always felt safe knowing that when they left the venue, they knew they’d experienced something.
More importantly, Go4 were intelligent…their lyrics, and the way those lyrics meshed with the music…they had something to say…something about how there was more to life than getting laid or getting rich. That WE got to decide what was and wasn’t important in how we lived our lives. And that there were things worth fighting for…both for other individuals and for society. No…it wasn’t an ultra-sincere group of kids doing acid, sitting around in a circle singing “…smile on your brother, everybody come together…”. It was a bunch of angry and disaffected kids jumping up and down screaming “at home he feel’s like a tourist, at home feel’s like tourist, he fills his head with culture, he gives himself an ulcer!”
So, thanks, Andy, for giving me so much when I was a wee lad of fifteen or sixteen…stuff that lasts deep within me even now. And know that, just as you instructed us to do in “Damaged Goods”, we’re kissing you goodbye. Rest in Peace and thanks.