Born: January 1, 1956;
Died: February 1, 2020
ANDY Gill, who has died aged 64, was one of the most influential and inventive guitarists of his generation. As co-founder of Gang of Four, his abrasive and metallic guitar shards captured the urgency of the punk era, yet retained a skewed funkiness that suggested dance music as an incendiary and oppositionist force.
Offset by the serious intent of songs such as At Home He’s A Tourist, and To Hell with Poverty, Gang of Four gave the anything-goes eclecticism that punk opened up an extra edge. The band’s debut release, the Damaged Goods EP, released on Edinburgh’s Fast Product label in October 1978, was one of the earliest records now regarded as post-punk.
The original Gang of Four’s mould-breaking sound forged by Gill with singer Jon King, bass player Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham eventually gave rise to a new wave of bands such as The Rapture. This in part inspired the quartet to reconvene in 2004 after a decade’s absence. “Everyone was used to the fact that our generation or the generation just after us had borrowed elements from Gang of Four,” Gill told the Herald in 2006, “but this new crop seemed much more blatant. It’s weird hearing it all over the place, but I like a lot of it. The thing that’s different about it is you’re never sure what they’re going on about. With Gang of Four, I think it was always pretty easy to tell.”
Andrew James Dalrymple Gill was born in Manchester, where his parents Stanley and Sylvia met as students before the family moved south, first to Bexley, then to Sevenoaks, Kent. Gill’s parents separated when he was eleven, and he was brought up by his mother. The roots of Gang of Four stem from Gill meeting King at Sevenoaks School. Both fell under the influence of art teacher Bob White, as did other classroom contemporaries including film-makers Paul Greengrass and Adam Curtis, plus three future members of the Mekons.
Gill and King formed their first band, the Bourgeois Brothers, aged sixteen. As a portent of provocations to come, the pair played a reggae version of Jerusalem at school assembly. Gill turned down a place at Cambridge in order to join King at Leeds University’s Fine Art department. Both won travel grants to study, and visited New York, where they hung out at CBGB’s and observed the nascent punk scene first hand.
In Gill’s words, he and King had been “sitting about, playing chess, drinking gin and writing songs” since 1975, so “by the time punk came along, we’d already written most of our first album, Entertainment. We were writing about the interesting things that happen to you when you’re trying to live your life, and the invisible forces that affect you. We were trying to look at what you can expect from culture, art, relationships, and which vested interests served us.”
Such high-concept deconstructions of the personal and the political married to an austere metal-funk chimed with the times. Gang of Four’s name was co-opted from the Chinese quartet of deposed Communist Party leaders, and the band drew ideas from situationism and structuralism.
“People often thought we were more political than we were,” King told the Herald. “I’m not saying we weren’t, but we didn’t have a line or a set of answers…Sometimes we wondered if were on the right track; when we started, no-one was touching on the things we were. We were having fun, but we weren’t sure if we were getting through. Punk reaffirmed that we were on the right track.”
This fitted perfectly with the aesthetic of Fast Product, founded by Edinburgh College of Art students Bob Last and Hilary Morrison. According to Gill, “Bob Last had his finger very much on the pulse. I remember that he asked The Mekons, who were our mates, and who we hung out with in Leeds, if they wanted to do a record, and we thought that was ridiculous. We went to Bob and said, listen, you’ve got the wrong band.”
Damaged Goods topped the independent charts, and led to a deal with EMI, who released Entertainment (1979). A mooted Top of the Pops appearance to perform single, At Home He’s A Tourist, was cancelled after the band refused to cut a lyric that mentioned condoms. Three more albums, Solid Gold (1981), Songs of the Free (1982) and Hard (1983) followed, before the band split. Gill co-produced them all, and went on to produce records by Red Hot Chilli Peppers, the Jesus Lizard, Michael Hutchence and Killing Joke. Gill also produced Glasgow band Bis’s 1999 album, Social Dancing.
Gill and King reconvened in 1995 for the Mall (1991) and Shrinkwrapped (1995) albums. The reconvened original quartet re-recorded old material for Return the Gift (2005). Allen and Burnham had gone by the time of Content (2011), before King too departed, leaving Gill the sole founder member on What Happens Next (2015) and Happy Now (2019). Gill’s Gang of Four continued to tour, and a new album had recently been completed. Whatever the result, Gill’s guitar will undoubtedly ring out its defiant and coruscating chimes to the last.
Gill is survived by his wife Catherine Mayer and his brother Martin.