"Where have all the cowboys gone?"
From an unkempt Paula Cole in the late '90s, that rhetorical bit of nostalgia seemed trite. Now, however, it seems authentic, albeit for different reasons.
Cole was just bitching about some lazy-ass lover who wouldn't cuddle. Real cowboys stood up for the common man and spoke their mind even when they knew it would get them in trouble. In that context, Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez should've worn chaps.
Besides a role-playing cowboy in the White House, Cole's question seemed prophetic when the calendar hit 2000. U2 was making cheesy pop tunes, Springsteen came to terms with the "new world order" and Rage Against The Machine's vocalist walked away while his co-cowboys settled for cock rock. Ice Cube became an actor, Flava Flav hit the crack pipe and Ice-T-well, he became an actor, too.
Our royalty-the Strummers and the Ramones of the world-dropped like flies. Even Dylan lamented, "I used to care, but things have changed," and we gave him an Oscar for it.
Our heroes were gone. Four years went by. Now it's time.
It was a cold Friday night in South London. At the Montague Arms-a surreal pub that Andy Gill describes as a "taxidermist nightmare"-four old friends in their late-40s sat in a corner booth unnoticed.
A few minutes later, their singer, Jon King, began beating on a microwave he had dug out of a dump. The fans in attendance knew it wasn't some hardy attempt at performance art, but rather the introduction to "He'd Send In The Army." They cheered just as the band-Gill on guitar, Dave Allen on bass and Hugo Burnham on drums-launched into the song. It was the beginning of something that hadn't happened in more than 20 years: a Gang of Four show with all original members.
After the band finished up the song, another army of sorts circled the pub. Police were dispatched to block off the nearby streets, which had begun to overflow with folks trying to get a peek at their heroes.
It was Jan. 21, the day after George Bush's second inauguration.
The mythology of Gang of Four almost seems like a series of anecdotal stories told to the grandchildren of punk. Stories that say, "You think you had it bad? Listen to the shit we had to put up with."
It started in Leeds, an English manufacturing city that in the late '70s was hit particularly hard by a stagnant British economy. Nationalistic parties like the British Movement and the more fascist Nationalist Front were sprouting up like weeds through cracks in the concrete.
"It was grim," King recalls. "Streets filled with rubble-it looked like a war scene. But I think that a lot of artists find that they do their best work under oppressive regimes."
King and Gill, students at the time, decided to form a band with their friend Hugo Burnham. Dave Allen, responding to a bassist-wanted ad for a "fast R&B" band, would round out the quartet a short time later.
Naming themselves after Jiang Qing (Mao's widow) and her "counter-revolutionary" comrades, Gang of Four played their first show in the summer of 1977. Leeds wasn't quite the epicenter of punk that London was at the time. While Sex Pistols were declaring "no future," King says Gang of Four were virtually ignored for almost two years.
"If we'd been a band in London, I'm sure we'd have been reviewed. So we were allowed to develop our sound at our own speed."
That "sound' was more grounded than the brazenness that would come to typify punk rock. It was existential more than political. King's lyrics attacked capitalistic materialism. Gill's guitar sound was a staccato mix of funk and punk-a rhythm guitar player gone extraordinarily wrong. Burnham's drumming was cleverly syncopated but also held a sense of adventurous primacy, like adulterated sex.
While the band claims they were trying to get Allen to play "a quarter of the notes he was actually capable of playing," his bass became what the guitar is to most bands. He and Gill's relationship was said to have inspired New Order's Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook.
They signed to EMI, the record label that had brought the world the Sex Pistols the year before. Though they'd later be viewed as progressively political punks, Gang of Four were viewed as hypocrites by many music fans because EMI was also a major defense contractor. But EMI gave the band what other labels refused to: complete creative control and the rights to their songs. The songs were only "licensed" to the label, which was beyond unconventional at the time.
Their first single, "At Home He's a Tourist," got the band invited onto Top of the Pops, the British equivalent of American Bandstand. But when the show's producers demanded they change the word "rubbers" to "rubbish," the band opted not to play. Such moves helped combat accusations of hypocrisy and added to their lore.
"In hindsight, we'd [have] been better off commercially if we'd gone along with that," King admits, "but I couldn't have lived with myself."
Released in the summer of 1979, Entertainment! is GO4's masterpiece. It's an ordeal of boredom, frustration, angst and the realization that the causes we align ourselves with are often just as flawed as the ones we're fighting against. Those same sentiments would later be channeled into a thriving alternative scene and, even later, into grunge. If Joy Division's Closer was an introverted cry for help, then Gang of Four songs like "Guns Before Butter" and "Anthrax" were an interventionist shout in your face.
"We wanted to make something that was absolutely naked. Absolutely open. No effects, no treatments," King says, adding that their songs are widely misunderstood. "I never wrote any songs about unemployment or Margaret Thatcher. Dylan said, "I don't write political songs; I write contemporary songs.' We wrote contemporary songs."
When songs are political, suggests Gill, they rarely maintain their poignancy: "We could've written this two weeks ago, instead of more than two decades ago. If the observations are true, then it's going to maintain its accuracy."
Gang of Four would release one more album-1981's Solid Gold-before Dave Allen quit, citing exhaustion. After Songs of the Free (1982), Burnham was fired. Although officially disbanding in 1984, King and Gill would collaborate again, sometimes under the name Gang of Four. But it would be more than two decades before they'd play with Burnham and Allen again.
"When I first heard [Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out'], I thought, "Ah, that's the guitar part from "Natural's Not In It,'" King chuckles. "But really, I think it's great."
"Take Me Out" is one of about a dozen hit songs over the last two years that borrow a page, if not an entire chapter, from Gang of Four. It's nothing new. Bands like U2 and R.E.M. openly admit they've stolen from GO4, but it wasn't until recently, with bands like the Rapture and Bloc Party, that borrowing bordered on thievery.
GO4 just seem to be the easiest reference point, like Muddy Waters was to the Stones. Like the Pixies to Nirvana. It's like what Brian Eno said about the Velvet Underground-only a hundred people bought the record, but those people all formed bands.
"In a way, they're doing us a favor," Gill says. "It's as if they're kind of explaining us to a wider public."
After the reunion was cemented, the band decided to re-record some of their better-known songs for the album Return the Gift. (A clever online ad for it proclaimed, "You've heard the cover bands. Now let the original blow you away.")
Many were skeptical of the timing, accusing the band of cashing in on its influential legacy. Yet all four members have left lucrative careers for the arbitrariness of being in a touring band. King left a CEO position at World Television, a multi-million-dollar corporation that specializes in news production. The difference between Gang of Four's reunion and other reunions, King suggests, is that GO4 never got to play to the audience that only recently came to love them.
Gill says the time is right. Bands like Green Day, System of a Down and Bright Eyes-all of whom were once ambivalent to politics-are starting to musically buck the system. Even the historically myopic Eminem joined the fray with the video for his song, "Mosh."
People wanted good music, but they needed a message. They want to dance, but they need heroes more.
Guns? Or butter?
"I cannot see why people as they get older seem to become boring and cease to have adventures," King says. "We are a very confrontational [band]-a great kicking against the pricks."
The cowboys have ridden off into the sunset, but to paraphrase Malcolm X, the chickens have come home to roost.
Gang of Four play at the House Of Blues, 8 p.m. on Oct. 19. $18-$20. 619-299-BLUE.