Gang of Four's Social Critique Still Relevant After All These Years

Post-punk since the '90s has been largely shaped by the music of two bands: Joy Division and Gang of Four. The furious energy, disciplined songwriting and angular guitar work of Gang of Four are clear and direct influences on the likes of the Faint, the Rapture and every band that has identified as “dance punk.”

From its 1979 full-length Entertainment! through its most recent album, 2015's What Happens Next, Gang of Four has produced an ever-evolving series of records that take aim at social ills and personal dilemmas with great humor and insight into the bigger-picture issues that affect us all. However, unlike many punk bands, Gang of Four has sagely not taken its direct inspiration from newspaper headlines.

“We've pretty much always steered away from, as you say, going with current topics and voicing opinions about current affairs or whatever,” says founding guitarist Andy Gill. “I think there's been one or two exceptions, but I don't think it's a very productive way to go. With the political aspects of Gang of Four, it's not a question of waving the flag or banging the drum for socialism or anything like that. The last thing that Gang of Four has ever wanted to do was tell people what to think. What we've come from is a much more descriptive [approach], searching for a type of realism reflecting the way our lives are like those of the people around us. I think you find a kind of universality in that. We try to put things together very often in a sarcastic, humorous kind of way, but talking about essentially serious things.”

There is nothing dour or downbeat about most Gang of Four music. Rather, the group sounds celebratory and even triumphant in its social critique. As a live band, captured best on the 2016 live album the Moment, Gang of Four has delivered a fascinating and powerful set of contrasts: angular yet explosive guitar work, Gill's stoic demeanor and the various singers' expressive stage presence, thoughtfulness of tone informed by sublimated disappointment and rage. Those feelings of frustration with society have continued through today.

“I think there was a time in the '70s and early '80s when I thought, and a lot of other people thought, things would generally get better and that the world would become less racist, less sexist, and that there would be progress on all fronts,” says Gill. “Of course, that's not how things have turned out at all. One is reminded that history is not a linear development and it goes around in some really weird circles. I think the idea that somebody like Donald Trump could be elected president in America would have been quite a stifling observation twenty years ago. I guess Trump makes Ronald Reagan look like a Democrat. Some of the things that have been going on in Britain — the turmoil of the Labor Party and the Brexit vote are extraordinary situations. It's sort of been coming for a while, and whatever happens next, the album is located in that strange nexus. Not in a direct way, of course, but in the atmosphere around London of the last few years.”

Gang of Four, with The Faint and Pictureplane, Saturday, October 29, 7 p.m., Gothic Theatre, 303-789-9206.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.