Let's not mince words here. Entertainment!, the 1979 debut album from Leeds, England, band Gang of Four, is one of the best post-punk albums born across the pond. In fact, scrub that. It's one of the best punk albums (period) that came from anywhere. Somehow soulful and also mechanical in that sexy, Berlin-esque way, the band wrote progressive lyrics that are as timely today as they ever were. It's a bona fide classic, and they continued to put out quality material over the following 30 years.
Things have changed, though. Despite the occasional reunion of the original lineup (including singer Jon King), the current lineup features only Andy Gill from that classic foursome. In 2015, Gang of Four released What Happens Next, which began as a collaborative effort (Gail Ann Dorsey, Alison Mosshart and Herbert Grönemeyer pop up to sing on various tracks) but actually changed direction during the recording when John “Gaoler” Sterry, formerly of London band Gaoler's Daughter, wandered into the studio and ended up singing on multiple tracks. He's now Gang of Four's vocalist on a full-time basis, and that has taken some longtime fans a bit of getting used to.
“If you have a different singer, that's a speed bump for a lot of people to get their heads around,” Gill says. “I don't want to repeat the sound of Entertainment!. I don't want to keep going over old ground. That's never been Gang of Four's style. It is about moving forward, it's not about repeating a formula, it's about looking at things afresh. That's always been my feeling and it's the way I go. The reception that I see is very positive. I think the first six months of Gaoler singing, there's a certain amount of, 'Oh, he's too young, he doesn't fit in.' I don't really care what age somebody is in the band. It's an interesting quirk.”
Naturally, it's taken the current lineup (completed by bassist Thomas McNeice and drummer Tobias Humble) a bit of time to settle. But, as Gill says, McNeice has been in the ranks for a good decade, with Gaoler joining in 2012.
“I think you do need that kind of period of time to bed things in, to find out what their strengths are and all of that,” Gill says. “I think What Happens Next was not as good a record as this one, partly because I was feeling my way, and when I started that record, I had the idea that it could be collaborations. Herbert Grönemeyer singing, Alison Mosshart, Robbie Furze.
“After I recorded several things and then Gaoler wandered into the studio, I started working with him. So that was a little bit of a transition. But now, I don't want to do those collaborations. I think one of the main differences here is that I was very determined to work with other people in the studio, other producers. Music is often at its best when it's collaborative.”
The new album he's referring to is HAPPY NOW, which will be released in the United States on March 1, and it follows last year's Complicit EP. Not only is it musically fascinating, an accomplished slab of work, but the lyrics are typically insightful. The Complicit EP featured Ivanka Trump on the “cover” (they still included art despite it being download-only). This time, they have a song called “Ivanka: 'My Name's on It.'?” Clearly, the shitshow we're currently living in is having an impact on the band.
“I think it is inspirational,” Gill says. “We're in interesting times, and that sometimes means not necessarily the best times. We found ourselves in those positions before, in the '80s, if of a different kind. I think you don't always live in the best times, and I think I didn't particularly want to just take shots at Donald Trump. He does a great job of displaying his unpleasantness on his own, without help from me. I think the thing that was interesting about Ivanka was that here was this wonderfully overblown act of nepotism — he gives his daughter an office in the White House and gives her various roles, including being an apologist. I didn't have to do anything, I just had to note down what he said and there's your song. This Shakespearean drama is taking place in front of us and you just have to take a few snapshots of it.”
The title of the new album, stylized in upper case, seems to be a statement, and also a question. Popular vote and Russian interference aside, the election went the way of Trump. Ditto Brexit in the U.K. The people made this mess. Are we happy now? Gill says that the title is both a statement and a question, adding, “It would be a bit crass to put HAPPY NOW and then a question mark.”
As the Gang of Four prepare to arrive on these shores for a short U.S. tour, Gill considers the old songs that he thinks Gaoler sings best in the live environment.
“There's a few that I think he does well,” he says. “I think he's great live and does it justice. There are a couple of songs from Shrinkwrapped, like 'I Parade Myself,' which is one of my favorites, and I think he does it really well. You could pick any of them. 'To Hell With Poverty,' 'At Home He's a Tourist' — he does them well and puts everything into it.”
The West Coast, the East Coast and Chicago were early adopters of the Gang of Four, Gill says, so he enjoys coming to L.A. This is a mini tour — the band will be back in the fall for a longer stay that will include some of Gill's favorite spots in the South. For now, they're performing two local sets — on Feb. 4 at Marty's on Newport and Feb. 6 at the Roxy. The guitarist says they'll be mixing the sets up.
“We always do five or six songs from Entertainment!, and we'll do four or five songs from the new album, and some old favorites in between,” Gill says. “One of the things that we all enjoy is the way we can do a song from literally 40 years ago, and then you do one from last year, and they complement each other. They sit next to each other. It's quite odd but works really well.”
After that, more recorded music, and more touring.
“When we finalized the album, I had 17 songs and I picked the 10 I thought worked best together,” Gill says. “So I've got nearly another album ready and I'm going to be finishing that off. After America, we have a week off in London, then we're doing Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand. Then back after that and doing festivals and stuff. Busy busy.”
Gang of Four play at 9 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 4, at Marty's on Newport, and at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 6, at the Roxy.