all words: Jason Mogavero
all photos: Amanda Barrett
Gang of Four are one of Those Bands. They’re a cornerstone, an essential bit of musical DNA whose absence would’ve left rock music an entirely different, and far less interesting, animal. They emerged from the ashes of punk, carrying on its mission while understanding that something new needed to be built from it. Gang of Four did just that; they married Andy Gill’s choppy, minimalist, forceful guitar work and a funk-influenced rhythm section – a sound that would influence countless bands afterwards – with singer Jon King’s confrontational, Marxist-theory-soaked lyrical yelps.
They took the piss out of everything: the base pleasures of consumerism, romantic love and its deification in popular culture, even the notion of nobly serving the military (“You must be joking, oh man you must be joking!” they said on their BBC-banned single “I Love a Man in Uniform”). Age-wise, the crowd at Wednesday night’s 9:30 Club show was as diverse as you’d expect for a band of Gang of Four’s stature. Old guard fans who easily could’ve seen the band at their first U.S. shows mixed with kids born many years after the band’s first album. So, have rock’s favorite contrarians gone back on their staunch anti-capitalism for a phoned-in cash cow tour?
To hell with that. Gang of Four are as great and vital as ever.
They opened with the band’s brand-new new single “You’ll Never Pay for the Farm” from their just-released album Content, a song whose fiery energy and detest flowed perfectly into their classic “Not Great Men” from Entertainment!. The whole set’s pace was similarly and perfectly measured. The best of the new material, like “I Party All the Time,” sat comfortably alongside all the classics that were catnip to the crowd. “Damaged Goods,” “To Hell With Poverty,” “Anthrax,” “Ether,” “Why Theory?,” “At Home He’s a Tourist” – they were all there. Which should come as no surprise – Gang of Four wouldn’t take 35 of your bucks and not deliver.
From the first note, Gill and King (backed up by bassist Thomas McNeice and drummer Mark Heaney) proved that they haven’t slowed down or been tempered by age. “Less is more” isn’t an axiom that Andy Gill applies solely to his musicianship. For the entire set, his face was frozen in a flinty, implacable squint (see here) and his body language was controlled and stately, showing a calm that belied his ferocious, knife-like guitar work. His expression never changed once. It didn’t need to. Countering this was King, whose dancing was as jagged, spastic, and hyper-energetic as it was back in the day. One can only hope to be half as fiery as these guys are when reaching one’s mid-fifties.
In the age of Ke$ha, with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, Gang of Four got a full 9:30 Club crowd to sing “Love will get you like a case of anthrax and that’s something I don’t want to catch.” Those acerbic old cads probably couldn’t have been happier.