Gang of Four: Old punks, new Content

Post-punk masterminds Gang of Four are back with their first new recorded material since their 2004 return to action. But why does it come packaged with a sample of their blood?

During one of Gang of Four's US tours 30 years ago, their singer Jon King was confronted by a hostile interviewer. "He said, 'You call yourself Marxists and yet you own all this equipment. Isn't property theft?' I imagine he'd spent weeks coming up with this killer line to crush me. I said, 'Well first of all, we don't call ourselves Marxists. And secondly that's not Marx, it's Proudhon.'" He sighs. "The headline in the piece was, 'Jon King denies he's a communist.'"

This is the downside of being one of the cleverest and most politically outspoken bands of your era. You may be a formidable live band and an acknowledged influence on the likes of U2, REM, Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party, but you still tend to get described as if you were the musical education wing of a Marxist thinktank.

"If you were to analyse the mix," says guitarist and producer Andy Gill, "there'd be 1.5% post-Marxist thought … " "And 20% Dr Feelgood," continues King. "What I value about what we do is that there's these ideas we can have a conversation about, but then you go: 'What a fantastic gig,' and you're covered in sweat. I love that feeling."

Spread out on the coffee table in Gill's London apartment is the deluxe edition of Content, the pair's impressively sharp first album of new material since reuniting for live shows in 2004. True to its knowing title (definitely the noun rather than the adjective), it's a handsome metal box filled with music, text, illustrations and even a sample of King and Gill's intermingled blood. "It's like, what do you want? Blood?" explains Gill.

The lyrics, like the blood, are a joint effort. There's a sense of ideas being tossed back and forth, interrogated, and tested for weakness. Where most political bands would say X is wrong, Gang of Four will ask: Is X wrong? Why is it wrong? Is Y even worse? "I think you can sense us investigating possibilities," says Gill. "That's what we talk about – what's the range of alternatives?"

It feels a little like spending time with two rival lecturers from the same faculty. King is a garrulous enthusiast who is forever digressing, by way of analogy, into praise of Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga or the situationists. Gill is flintier and more exacting, like a man who might return your essay with the words, "Really? Clarify" next to every paragraph.

They were nurtured by academia in the first place, specifically the theory-heavy fine art department at Leeds University in the late 70s. "An amazing bunch of people," Gill says. "It all came together. Leeds at the time was a bit weird. There was tangible fear and paranoia in the air."

"When I saw the Red Riding Quartet on television it felt incredibly true," agrees King of a period overshadowed by the Yorkshire Ripper, National Front violence and economic depredation.

What a lot of people miss, they both think, is Gang of Four's sense of humour and provocation. "I think lots of stuff that we do is funny, pushing it slightly too far, but at the same time truthful and serious," says Gill. "Even the name Gang of Four. The nerve of four young white students calling themselves after this group of people on the world stage. It was an act of chutzpah."

It feels right to have a new Gang of Four album in an economic and political climate that somewhat echoes their 1978-82 heyday. King is excited about the tuition fee protests. "People who say that back then it was rigorous and engaged and now it's not, it's insulting to young people. I'm proud that my daughter went on that march."

One difference, he says, is that "commercial music is totally withdrawn from any description of life". But then he reaches for another analogy. "You know that great soliloquy in The Third Man, when Orson Welles is saying the Renaissance, wars, poisoning – you get Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. Switzerland – 400 years of peace and you get the cuckoo clock. Well, maybe we're at the end of the cuckoo clock phase."

Content is out on Monday on Grönland. Gang of Four play Heaven in London on 2 February.


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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