Gang of Four. Photo by Jason Grow

Gang of Four drummer Hugo Burnham recalls reading a quote from his former bandmate, guitarist Andy Gill some years ago. Burnham had parted ways with the group in 1982, only to return for a brief stint between 2004 and 2006.

Fast forward to 2012 — Gill and Gang of Four vocalist Jon King announced that they would no longer work together, leaving Gill as the only remaining original member still performing with the iconic Leeds, U.K. post-punk outfit.

During an interview around that time, a writer asked Gill about moving forward with a new lineup. His reply, as Burnham recalls, was that Gang of Four is more than a band, it’s an attitude and it’s about ideas. “I don’t even need to be in the band for it to be Gang of Four,” Gill told the writer.

“I had never really thought about what that meant,” Burnham says.

Gill died suddenly in February of 2020. Since then, the gravity of his words has taken on new depth for Burnham, as he reconnects with the band’s legacy, and its incendiary attitude and ideas.

A recently released box set, titled 77-81 (Matador) makes clear its assertion that despite nearly 40 years spent releasing dozens of albums, Gang of Four turned out its most commanding works between 1977 and 1981. Those first five years encompass the group’s first three albums: Entertainment!, Solid Gold, and Songs of the Free. Throughout each of these albums, Burnham, King, Gill, and bass player Dave Allen — the latter of whom was replaced by Sara Lee for Songs of the Free — crafted terse anthems that sharpen their teeth and claws on everything from Marxist philosophy and the dangers of materialism to the trappings of love and maximum entropy.

Songs bearing titles such as “To Hell With Poverty,” “Not Great Men,” “Damaged Goods,” and “I Love A Man In A Uniform” are propelled by muscular rhythms, avant-garde grooves, and the jagged energy and freedom that their British punk rock forefathers in the Clash and the Sex Pistols had exposed.

Alongside British counterparts such as the band Wire, and American band Mission of Burma, Gang of Four’s first three albums have come to define the post-punk canon.

Following Gill’s death, Burnham and King have reconvened under Gang of Four’s banner to bring the group back to the stage. But who could fill Gill’s shoes playing guitar and bring the songs back to life?

They had their eye on a handful of potential candidates. Marissa Paternoster of New Brunswick, NJ trio Screaming Females was in the running, but the pandemic complicated the group’s early efforts. Then, in the midst of their search for Gang of Four’s next guitar player, Burnham’s friend Patrick Ferguson, a drummer with Athens, GA’s indie rock band 5/8, got in touch.

Ferguson hosts the Crash and Ride podcast, which had recently featured David Pajo as a guest. “Patrick said, ‘My god, I’ve just interviewed David Pajo!’ I hope that David forgives me for this, but I said, ‘Who’s that?’” Burnham laughs. “‘Cause you know, he’s a youngster!” 

Pajo’s resume boasts of playing and writing with dozens of seminal early ‘90s indie rock luminaries such as Slint, Papa M, The For Carnation, Tortoise, Stereolab, and dozens of other acts.

“So I started digging and listening, and thought, oh god, this guy is good,” Burnham says.

As a founding member of Slint, Pajo is aligned with the early beginnings of math rock in the ‘90s. Semantics aside, his musical DNA blends quite well with Gang of Four’s rigid, angular songwriting style. 

Ferguson introduced them to each other via email. After exchanging a few messages, Pajo recorded videos of himself playing guitar along to three of the group’s signature numbers, “Natural’s Not In It,” “To Hell With Poverty,” and “What We All Want.”

“It was chronically, cripplingly obvious that this was the only choice to make,” Burnham says. “We really didn’t want to have just another boring or predictable old white guy in the band,” he adds. “David is neither boring, nor predictable.”

Pajo instinctively adapted to Gill’s percussive style, and how the guitar parts intertwined with the group’s fast-paced rhythmic presence. “He was digging deep into the recordings, alternate versions, and different live things, trying to get [Andy]’s take on everything,” Burnham says. “I said, great! Learn the songs as [Andy] would play them, but make them your own. We are not a Gang of Four tribute band,” he stresses. “This is Gang of Four, here and now. David is in the band, and it’s as simple as that.”

Burnham, King, and Pajo were in place, but bass player Dave Allen opted out of rejoining the group for a round of North American tour dates.

Former bass player Sara Lee was the obvious choice to complete the lineup. After leaving Gang of Four circa ‘84, Lee had gone on to perform as a member of Robert Fripp’s band the League of Gentlemen, and has played with everyone from Robyn Hitchcock to the Thompson Twins, as well as with Georgia acts, the B-52’s and the Indigo Girls. Her 2000 solo debut, Make It Beautiful, was also released by Ani DiFrancos’ Righteous Babe label.

“When I called Sara, I didn’t quite know how to get to the point. Finally she says, ‘I’ve been sitting here on the phone, waiting for you to ask me if I’ll play!” Burnham laughs.

Gang of Four. Clockwise from top left, Jon King, Sara Lee, Hugo Burnham, and David Pajo.

With Lee in place, Gang of Four took on a new configuration, and started breathing new life into the music. On their current tour, the group is sticking mostly to the classic material from those first three albums, but they’ll pull out a few numbers from later albums as well, including “I Parade Myself” from ‘95’s Shrinkwrapped LP. “We’re not being assholic about any of this,” Burnham says, “We’re playing that song because it’s such a great song. But there is such a breadth of stuff that we can dive into from those first three albums, which is more like ‘77-’83.”

The million dollar question: Will Gang of Four record new material with its new lineup? Burnham pauses with a sheepish, tight-lipped smile before joking that for a million dollars he’d record with any lineup. “I hate to hyperbolise, but this has been a lot of fun,” he says. “There is no stress, no anger, no overwhelming control issues. David is a versatile and disciplined player who has done seriously great work leading up to joining us,” he adds. “It would be silly not to make the most of this lineup, even if it’s just for ourselves. We’re not kidding ourselves into thinking that the world is waiting for new stuff — but we’re waiting for it.”

Gang of Four and Pylon Reenactment Society play in Hell at the Masquerade on Friday, March 11. $29.50 (adv.). 7 p.m. (doors).

This story appears in the March print issue of Record Plug Magazine.

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