Singer Jon King on keeping Gang of Four alive after guitarist Andy Gill dies – Daily News
Singer Jon King knows the simple fact that the influential English post-punk-funk group Gang of Four is on tour in the United States this month is a small miracle.
The four original members have gone their separate ways and reunited several times over the decades since Gang of Four formed in Leeds in 1976.
King had stopped talking with his childhood friend guitarist Andy Gill over a decade ago, when Gill, against King’s wishes, continued to tour as gang of four despite being the only original member remaining.
When Gill passed away in early 2020, that might have been it. But the music was still as fresh and relevant as ever, King says.
“I was involved in the production of the box set,” King says of the 2021 release “77-81,” which earned him a Grammy nomination for its art design. “It was a labor of love, and it was something I wanted to do the best I could for our fans.
“Of course, part of that process involved doing something that a lot of musicians, myself included, don’t often do, which is listen to our own music,” he says. “And it seemed like the music deserved a release.”
King, drummer Hugo Burnham and bassist Dave Allen were still on good terms, and at the time Gill was still alive. The box set’s arrival in March 2021 rekindled the idea of touring if a replacement for Gill, whose jagged, angular guitar riffs were distinctly his own, could be found.
“We wondered who would be able to do this and someone suggested David Pajo, who is just a god guitar player, who really reveres Andy’s work,” King said of the American guitarist who has played with bands such as Slint, Interpol and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. . “He immediately set about showing that he would respect the work and add his own flourishes to it.”
As the pandemic lockdowns lifted, King, Burnham, Pajo and former bandmate bassist Sara Lee embarked on a US tour that brings the band to The Roxy in Los Angeles on Saturday, March 19.
“I was a little anxious beforehand about how it might be,” King says. “I wondered if it would work well, and in fact the audience was really hungry for the live experience.
“I think the hunger kicked in, and they knew the material and they wanted it to work.”
King, whose lyrics typically focused on non-mainstream rock fare such as politics, economics, social ills, and war, wondered if the music would still resonate with audiences.
“Unfortunately, I think the music is really relevant,” King says.
When King and Gill began writing songs together, working with acoustic guitar and tape recorder, they were fans of English band Dr. Feelgood, the New York and London punk scenes, as well as reggae and funk music.
Like most young musicians, they first wrote songs that reflected the lyrics and music of popular genres of the time, he says.
“It’s pretty easy as a musician to learn to play 12 bars, things like that,” he says. “One of the original demos (included in the box set) is ‘Elevator’, which is iconic of the early stuff, and it’s verse-chorus-verse-chorus. It’s written like ‘Sweet Jane.’
Quickly, however, Gill and King headed into unfamiliar and original territory.
“I wanted to write songs that were more like watching a movie,” King said. “With ‘Anthrax’, we plotted the song without actually playing a note. I had written the lyrics. (Andy) said, ‘Well, I’ll bang on the comments and Hugo and Dave will come up with a heavy beat.’
“It was quite an eye opener to do this stuff,” he says.
When Gang of Four reunited with their original lineup in 2005 for Coachella, it was the first time since 1981 that the four founders had played a show in Southern California. And the group remained together until 2011, when creative differences increased again.
“Obviously, it’s not uncommon for singers and guitarists to jam,” King says with a laugh.
But this time, the split was no laughing matter. Gill planned to tour as Gang of Four; King was adamant he wasn’t.
“We had a very catastrophic argument about it,” King says. “I thought, why not just shoot as Andy Gill, the Andy Gill experience? You’re a wonderful player but Noel Gallagher wouldn’t have come out as Oasis, Jimmy Page wouldn’t have come out as Led Zeppelin, or Johnny Marr wouldn’t have come out as Smiths.
“So I was very upset about that, because of course I wrote all the words and I didn’t think that was the right thing to do,” he says.
“We were great friends. We are brothers. I’ve known him since I was in my mid-teens and my wife had known him since she was 11. Our lives were totally intertwined.
He thought that in time they could mend their relationship. Then Gill died in February 2020, officially from pneumonia and organ failure, although in an interview his wife said she suspected it might be an early case of COVID-19the group led by Gill having toured China at the end of 2019.
“I had hoped we would have a reconciliation,” King says. “But it was not to be.”
The tour so far has been wonderful, says King, with fans embracing Pajo’s playing as a worthy substitute for the irreplaceable Gill.
“Halfway through the first song, everyone realized he was playing with total integrity,” King said. “The first night was just great, and I think the audience was thrilled with it as well.”
The songs also connect with fans.
“I didn’t write songs like the news,” King says. “But there are songs in there like ‘Ditch,’ for example, which was a response to the threat of nuclear war, which is horribly fresh now.”
In its original form, the group was active in organizations such as Rock Against Racism and other causes.
“Now we have Black Lives Matter,” he says, referring to the flags the band hangs on stage each night, which include that organization’s flags as well as American, British and LGBTQ flags. (A Ukrainian flag has been ordered but hasn’t arrived yet.) “And we’ll be in Texas in a few days where they’re doing amazing things to restrict women’s rights.”
King ticks off songs from the tour setlist and how they connect more than four decades later to contemporary issues.
“You have ‘No Great Men,’ which is about people like Putin,” he says. “And then ‘He would send the army.’ They have, unfortunately, a tragic relevance.
“I didn’t write about the specific issues of the day, which would make it very dated,” King says. “It’s a shame, actually, that these issues continue to stir people’s emotions.
“But it’s great to dance and have a strong guitar. All of these things are important.