Live Music + Gig Reviews

Gang Of Four @ Royal Festival Hall, London

20 June 2008

Like The Velvet Underground, cult band Gang Of Four have had a much bigger influence than their modest record sales would suggest.

Since they created their highly innovative post-punk funk sound about 30 years ago with their classic debut album Entertainment!, they have inspired the likes of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against The Machine, Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party. And with their first new album since 1995 expected later this year, the leftfield Leeds guys showed they can still rock the boat with their contribution to Massive Attack‘s Meldown.

Named after a group of French structuralists (rather than the Chinese Maoists or SDP founding fathers – yes, really!), the Gang Of Four’s music is as radical as their politics. Dissonant, menacing, yet strangely compelling, they take their subversive sound to the edge, with great grooves that take over your head rather than your body, as befits such an intellectually challenging band. Their angrily ironic critique of capitalism and postmodern dissection of popular culture is as lyrically uncompromising as their jagged, stripped-down musical style.

After leaving the scene in the early eighties they returned in the early nineties, still with Jon King on lead vocals and Andy Gill on guitar, though with a different rhythm section. The original bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham returned a few years ago, only sadly to quit again last month. However, their two excellent replacements are more than up to the job of supporting King and Gill, besuited agitators occupying the stage like confrontational demagogues.

King hasn’t lost the aggressive urgency in his voice or his unique way of moving around, crouching down and shuttling across the stage like a demented crab. Gill’s distinctively spare, angular guitar style, with its staccato riffs and distorted chords, also remains electrifying. Gill sings a few of the songs, while King sometimes plays melodica as well as percussion. Like the music itself, chat between songs is minimalist, as the band show they remain as tight as ever, producing extraordinary effects from surprisingly basic sounds.

A lot of their better-known material is played, such as At Home He’s A Tourist, a disturbing account of existential estrangement – “He fills his head with culture/He gives himself an ulcer” – the can’t get no political satisfaction song What We All Want, the anti-capitalist To Hell with Poverty and the anti-military Guns Before Butter. However, current single Second Life stands up well to the ground-breaking material from their earlier period.

During He’d Send in the Army King performs his old agit-prop stunt of destroying a microwave with a baseball bat, which still comes across as a highly effective percussive political statement. Before playing I Love a Man in Uniform (which was banned during the Falklands War), Gill jokes that they turned down an offer for it to be used as part of an army-recruiting campaign – humour has always helped Gang Of Four’s polemics from becoming too strident.

After playing as an encore their first single Damaged Goods – surely Gang Of Four’s finest three minutes, with its memorable lines “Your kiss so sweet/Your sweat so sour” – the band all come to the front of the stage with their arms around each other. There is no mistaking their appreciation of the audience’s warm response. Hopefully the quality of this strong live performance will be replicated on the new studio album.

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Gang Of Four @ Royal Festival Hall, London