Andy Gill, the hugely influential guitarist for Leeds, England post-punk innovators Gang of Four, passed away on February 1 from pneumonia at age 64. Especially on Gang of Four's early singles, their 1979 debut LP Entertainment!, and 1981 sophomore album Solid Gold, Gill purveyed a scathing tone and slashing rhythmic quality that mirrored the radical lyrical content about Marxist philosophy, capitalism's faults, and personal politics he and vocalist Jon King laid down. As I wrote in a 2005 feature when the original Gang of Four lineup made their triumphant comeback:
While Go4 drew sustenance from punk's catalytic anger, they paradoxically opened up its rigid structures and tightened the rhythm section in a way that made James Brown's seem sloppy. Dub's spacious production techniques, emphasis on bass, and melodica usage also informed Go4's approach. While Allen's überfunky bass lines tunefully led the way, Gill rhythmically sprayed caustic, angular guitar chords like a cross between PiL's Keith Levene and Jimi Hendrix. Burnham's drumming managed to be both militaristically disciplined and funky as hell. King's yelped lyrics trenchantly delineated personal politics and critiqued social and political issues with rare wit.
As a guitarist, Gill was one of rock's most influential, inspiring bands such as Minutemen, Fugazi, R.E.M., Mission of Burma, Savage Republic, Big Black, bIG fLAME, Erase Errata, and the Rapture. Nearly any group claiming "post-punk" as a catalyst for their existence owes Gill and Gang of Four a major debt. That being said, Gill's singing voice, to be charitable, was limited. However, his pitiless deadpan delivery precisely fit the mood of tracks such as "Paralysed," "Armalite Rifle," and the snide spoken discourse about love songs in "Anthrax."
When Gang of Four smoothed out their sound on 1983's Hard, Gill attempted to convey "soul" vocally, but the results were mostly flat. The Gill-sung boudoir ballads "Is It Love?" and "Woman Town" are tough to stomach for those who were electrified by earlier GO4 burners such as "Not Great Men" and "To Hell with Poverty." The consensus was that Gang of Four started to decline after 1982's Songs of the Free, and I agree. But still, they had one of the greatest runs in rock music from 1979 to 1983.
I remember in the summer of 1981 the absolute elation my brother and I felt when we learned that Gang of Four would be playing in Ann Arbor, Michigan, just before the release of Solid Gold. One problem: My brother wasn't 18 yet, so we had to procure a fake ID to get him in. That we did, but it was a nail-biter gaining entrance to the Nectarine Ballroom.
When Gang of Four began their set with "Paralysed," it struck us as a bold gesture, as Solid Gold wasn't out yet—plus, the song is unbelievably tense and methodical. Instead of busting out of the gate with a familiar banger from Entertainment! such as "Damaged Goods" or "Ether," the band were testing the audience—which was gutsy and admirable.
I can still feel my nerves tingling during "Paralysed"'s fraught silences, Hugo Burnham's ominous rimshots, Dave Allen's juggernaut bass ballast, and Gill's surgical, sulfuric punctuation. I still recall how singer Jon King and Gill recklessly bounded around the stage, possessed by their galvanizing deconstruction of rock. I vividly remember the shock of Gang of Four closing with a boisterous cover of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane."
As GO4 began to shed original members over the decades, their records lost much of the power of their peak-era material. Nevertheless, at their best, Gang of Four proved themselves to be one of the most intellectually stimulating and revolutionary rock groups ever—a perfect meshing of the cerebral and the physical. Gill's stealthy guitar attack and compositional cunning were a major part of that. RIP, Andy Gill.