Ok, this isn’t the Gang of Four of yore — but There’s still something to be said for getting drunk on cheap wine.
By Brett Milano
It’s a safe bet that the current edition of Gang of Four—with but one original member, guitarist Andy Gill—won’t be around for very long. So let it be said for the record that they weren’t that bad.
The backstory: Gang of Four — wildly influential post-punk band with Marxist leanings and a jagged, exhilarating guitar sound — reformed and toured with its original lineup in 2005. By the time they managed a new studio album (2011’s Content) the original rhythm section (bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham) had been replaced by two young guns, but Gill and singer Jon King, the only consistent members through the group’s prior history, were still aboard. And that lineup sounded legit, playing a memorable Paradise show three years ago.
Now King’s gone as well and Gill is fully in charge, and for most fans that seems one change too many. The new album What Comes Next—an obvious, but sometimes successful attempt to recapture the trademark sound—has gotten the honor of a one-star review in Rolling Stone, which seldom trashes anything. The Paradise was about three-quarters full on Friday, but it seemed that many fans had bought tickets before learning of the lineup change—I heard a lot of “tribute band” and “Gang of One” type comments. Perhaps most tellingly, Hugo Burnham—the original drummer who now teaches at the New England Institute of Art, and traditionally rejoins the band for its Boston encores—was in the audience Friday night, but notably scarce when the encore rolled around.
But if you can accept Gang of Four with a new, unknown singer—especially one who clearly wasn’t born when the landmark Entertainment! album came out in 1980—this lineup is as good as it’s going to get. New frontman John Sterry may be an odd fit visually, with his spiky Billy Idol hair, but vocally he worked hard and earnestly: If he often made you think of King, it was because he keyed into the proper cynicism and caustic humor of the old lyrics, not because he was aping King’s phrasing. The mix worked best on deep cuts from the more recent albums, where they weren’t competing with your ’80s memories. Indeed, “I Parade Myself”—from the 1995 album Shrinkwrapped, and never a track that stood out before—took on the anarchic grandeur of the band at its best.
Was something missing? Sure: King’s neurotic persona is hard to duplicate, and the most anthemic oldies (especially “To Hell With Poverty,” with its timeless refrain “We’ll get drunk on cheap wine”) did sound like covers without him. But you got the vintage sound whenever Gill cut loose on guitar, which he did loudly and often. A dose of fresh blood hasn’t hurt the rhythm section and Jonny Finnegan, also new on this tour, fits their tradition of piledriving drummers. Gill even took a few lead vocals—may as well, it’s his band now—and got plenty of chances to do his trademark slicing leads against the dubwise rhythms. At those moments it barely mattered who was singing.
So go ahead and call this the cut-rate Gang of Four. There’s still something to be said for getting drunk on cheap wine.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.