Gang Of Four are finally on their first tour of Australia. After 33 years of on-again off-again existence in numerous incarnations – but always featuring singer Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill – the Gang are back in business (again) behind their new album Content, bringing their revolutionary brand of funked-up no-wave noise to the Southern Hemisphere. I felt privileged to catch their show at The Gaelic.
Maybe you’re wondering why you should care about these geezers? Well, Gang Of Four defined a crucial era right after the punk explosion. Along with Public Image Limited, they were one of the first bands to incorporate influences from dance music – disco, dub, funk and reggae – into the constricted world of guitar-based punk, while at the same time stripping rock down to something that resembled experimental art. They folded body-rocking beats into a minimal and sometimes disturbingly dissonant sound-scape of angular guitar noise and echoes, while King let loose with spine-chilling screeds and sarcastic spoken-word rants about the absurdities and horrors of modern society. It was a furious, hypnotic brew, a powerful and seminal formula that inspired everyone from REM to Nirvana, and continues to shed an influence on Bloc Party, The Rapture, Metronomy and countless others.
So anyway, this was the second time recently that I’d seen a legendary UK postpunk outfit on tour with new material here in Sydney, after the Wire gig at Beck’s Festival Bar during Sydney Festival in January. That was a pretty disappointing show; Wire played well, but it was nowhere near as epic or explosive as I’d hoped. (And frankly they were blown off the stage by openers HEALTH.) With that on my mind I approached the Gang Of Four gig with a grain of salt.
When I arrived, openers I Heart Hiroshima were on. Fittting they should open for Gang Of Four, as Andy Gill produced their latest album, The Rip. Being new to the scene in here in Oz (I recently migrated from the States), I hadn’t heard these guys before; they’ve been called one of Australia’s best up-and-coming bands, and after seeing them I have to agree. They displayed a brittle, edgy but nicely melodic take on the neo-postpunk phenomenon, complete with inventive and often epic song structures and haunting male-female vocal duets. Not too sweet for its own good, combining influences in pretty fresh ways, it was intriguing – I’ll be checking these guys out again soon.
While waiting for Gang Of Four, I noticed there were plenty of geezers in the crowd. Some of them proper oldies. Well, we’re all getting old, aren’t we? Good on ’em for still going out with shaved heads and black T-shirts to catch a gig on a Tuesday night. And 33 years is a long time to wait for your favorite band to come to Australia.
When the headliners hit the stage, there was no mistake they meant to put on a show. Though they’re both geezers too (both in their 50s), Gill and King came with sharp casual jackets, cool haircuts and energy to burn. They were all over the stage – dancing, tumbling around, pulling faces, making weird sarcastic poses – and impressively they kept it up the entire show. (Does the music industry test for steroids?) The playing matched this hectic energy, with the rhythm section (made up of two newer, younger guys) rolling and popping and Gill’s guitar scraping and screeching as much as ever. No acoustic sideshows for these guys, and it didn’t sound quaint or dated at all. What We All Want was an early highlight – its hard, bouncing disco bass and repetitive no-wave chants kept smoldering, kept building in intensity and got the place rocking.
I wish I could say they sustained this high, but sadly for me that was not the case. In fact they lost me a bit. They kept the set list alternating between the classics (Anthrax, To Hell With Poverty) and the new stuff, which was probably wise. As is usually the case when classic bands tour, the new material wasn’t up to snuff. Some of it was quite poor. It Was Never Gonna Turn Out Too Good was an absolute cringe; its Auto-Tuned vocal was I think was meant to be sarcastic, but in the context sounded just as daggy as most songs with Auto-Tune effects. (And the new album’s title, Content, suffers from the same misplaced irony. I know, I know, it’s meant to be a bitter statement about generic art and culture like their classic album titles Entertainment! and Solid Gold, but at some point it just became generic full stop, and the computer-generated tin can on the cover is poorly designed to boot – it looks like a cheap party flyer. Irony fail.)
The more I heard, the more it kind of sounded all the same. Even the classics got dragged down. And the on stage antics became tiresome. Honestly, if I blurred my eyes, Gill and King seemed a lot like a postpunk Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, what with the wrinkles and the haircuts and the suits and the straining manic energy. That was a depressing vision.
A hardcore fan or a purist might take issue with me. And look, the band brought the goods as advertised, it’s obvious they haven’t sold out one bit, and they kicked up an impressive storm of sound. There was nothing particularly wrong, and it was often very right. When they broke into Natural’s Not in It during the encore, I was just about ready to forgive. But, especially considering the less-than-essential new material, there was nothing life-changing here, and I found myself wondering whether younger generations would be convinced by the package as a whole.
We’ll see if >strong>Gang Of Four finds it in them to make their new music matter as much as their vanguard work – and maybe they’ll be back Down Under again in more timely fashion.