In Memoriam: Andy Gill (1956-2020)
As both a committed political Leftist and a fan of post-punk, the tragic death over the weekend of Gang of Four guitarist, Andy Gill, is one that genuinely hurts. I was only able to see Gill perform live once: during the short lived original Gang of Four line-up reunion in 2005, but he was indisputably up for it, his guitar cutting screeching patterns through the collective psyche of the crowd. His guitar style was so unique and so angular, watching Gill play was like having some kind of otherworldly revelation pumped directly into your brain. I had always loved the Gang of Four‘s records, but to experience the band live was next level.
When people think about post-punk music, Gill‘s guitar is generally the first thing that springs to mind. His was an angular and dirty style, all heavy funk riffage and darting, precise daggers of feedback. While it was a style that came to be infinitely mimicked, particularly during the post-punk revival of the early 2000’s, it was certainly never bettered. And of course, Gill, like his band mates, was a man of firm democratic convictions. He was never overly showy in his playing nor sought to stand out. The whole idea behind the Gang of Four was that every instrument was to have an equal part in the band and the work was to be a collective effort. Gill‘s playing, in reinforcing the playing of those around him, wasn’t just brilliant on its own, but in the way that it helped to make everyone else in the group better as well.
Andrew James Dalrymple Gill was born in Manchester in 1956. While his hometown is probably the British city most strongly associated with post-punk thanks to the number of great bands and labels that emerged from it, Gill made his career in that most unlikely of British towns: Leeds. As music critic Alexis Petridis starts in his recent tribute to Gill:
Britain’s late 70s provincial punk scenes were seldom places for the faint-hearted, but few were as starkly polarised as that in Leeds. At one extreme, the city had a large National Front presence: Leeds has the dubious distinction of the giving the world its first openly Nazi punk bands, the Dentists and the Ventz. At the other, there were the bands spawned by the city’s university and the radical leftwing theory popular in its fine art department: the Mekons, Delta 5 and Gang of Four. The result was frequently chaos, “terrible violence”, as Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill put it. There were pitched battles on the university campus and at the F Club, the city’s main punk venue.
The membership of Gang of Four were of course, leftist university students. The band was formed by Gill along with bassist Dave Allen, drummer Hugo Burnham and singer Jon King. Together the quartet mixed together bracing instrumentals, hard Left politics and subversive (and often deadpan) humor to brilliant results.
The source of the band’s name is up for some debate. A member of the Mekons (who was close with the membership of the band) claimed he named the group after China’s internal subversive movement/ fall-guys the “Gang of Four” (which included Mao‘s wife), while it has also been said that the group’s name is a reference to the four structuralist philosophers within the Leftist Frankfurt School of political philosophy (references to which dot the band’s lyrical output). Either way, the band’s name proved to be evocative.
After releasing their debut single “Damaged Goods” (which was backed by arguably their greatest song, the disorienting quasi-noise experiment, “(Love Like) Anthrax”) on the Scottish indie label, Fast Product, the band were signed to EMI for their debut LP. The band signed to a major label with the goal of reaching a larger audience with the express stipulation that they would not compromise on the political or musical content of their music.
The group’s debut LP, Entertainment!, released in 1979 is a masterpiece and widely considered one of the key records of post-punk. The album is a perfectly cohesive whole that also contains songs that are stand-outs on their own. Sharply musical and subversively political without being sloganeering, the group made manic and edgy dance music filled to the brim with Lefty id prop. This was like a version of Adorno and Horkheimer‘s critique of the culture industry, except that you could almost dance to it. Gill‘s ferocious expansive-though-restrained guitar chops intertwined perfectly with Allen‘s active basslines and Burnham‘s drums to create something truly unique. And of course Gill also provided able backing vocals to lead singer, King, who got the band’s political ju-ju flowing.
Their 1980 follow-up LP, Solid Gold to me, is just as strong an album as Entertainment!, though arguably does not hold together as well cohesively. It is a collection of great songs, rather than a singular musical statement. That said, it remains just as clearly a classic. Following the album’s release, Allen sadly left the band to pursue other projects. While the band replaced him with another capable musician and soldiered on, the feeling wasn’t quite the same and their subsequent releases floundered.
Gill also transitioned, suddenly finding himself in-demand as a producer thanks to his capable work in self-producing the Gang of Four‘s early LPs. Over the years he would produce everything from the Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ debut album (which he apparently did not care for) to work by The Jesus Lizard, Killing Joke and the debut of Scottish post-punk revivalists, Futureheads. Gang of Four also continued in fits and starts, never quite reaching its previous heights (with perhaps the exception of that phenomenal 2004-2006 full original line-up reunion), shedding members as it went until, by 2012, Gill was the only original member left in the band.
RIP Andy Gill. He was often imitated but never bettered. His legacy remains as one of the most uniquely thrilling guitarists and songwriters to ever pick up the electric guitar. His passing leaves a gaping void, and like the passing of the Fall‘s only permanent member, fellow-Mancunian Mark E. Smith a couple of years ago, seems to signify the very end of the post-punk era.