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Entertainment! Turns 35: Gang of Four Drummer Hugo Burnham Remembers

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This week SEM celebrates Gang of Four’s Entertainment!, which was released 35 years ago, in 1979. It’s one of our all-time favorite records by one of our all-time favorite bands.

Not to get too sentimental – lead singer Jon King, guitarist-singer Andy Gill, bassist Dave Allen, and drummer Hugo Burnham probably wouldn’t like that – but Entertainment! is the perfect blend of aggressively catchy bass and drum rhythms; experimental, razor-edged, feedback-drenched noise guitars; and lyrics that challenge the listener to reevaluate his/her political and personal identity.

Entertainment! is as fresh, important, and relevant as it was 35 years ago, as evidenced by the publication of Kevin Dettmar’s 33 1/3 monograph on the album, which comes out on Thursday.

We were honored to chat with Burnham about the making of Entertainment!, a record that continues to inspire us every time we drop the needle on it.

SEM: Would you please talk about the early days of Gang of Four and how your sound and style evolved? We read somewhere that when Dave Allen came on board, the band had to teach him how to play less—basically play a quarter of the notes he’d normally play…

HB: Well, yes. Dave was actually the most experienced and certainly “accomplished” musician of us. He had spent years playing in many bands before we met him….doing both original material and covers. He did lunchtime jazz gigs for years! That is a learning process and a discipline that Jon, Andy, and I had not had.

Our sound evolved as most bands’ styles do – from original shared musical reference points, like Dr. Feelgood, Free, Jimi Hendrix, Motown, R’n’B – as defined by Jerry Wexler…not the soft sappy black pop music that enjoys that nomenclature today – reggae, both the pop reggae in the UK Top 20 charts we grew up with, and the less well-known dub reggae styles. “Armalite Rifle” is a complete Free-style song, and “Damaged Goods” employs the drop-in/drop-out stylings of dub with the sound and staccato playing lifted from the amazing Dr. Feelgood. While our first few shows had a much more obvious punk vibe, with early songs like “John Stonehouse,” “CSA,” and a “race-you-to-the-finish” version of The Beatles’ “Day Tripper,” it was not long before we were getting deeper into more awkward aural territory, with “Anthrax” for instance – drawing from both The Velvet Underground and Godard’s movie-making.

 

SEM: “Ether” and “Anthrax” bookend Entertainment! and are two of its best songs. Would you please discuss the writing process for these songs?

HB: Andy and Jon would start with the ideas: sonics and lyrics. We would, as a foursome, play them to death, arguing, experimenting, twisting and changing arrangements, playing the songs live as often as we could – where there is always such a greater sense of what works and what might not, not simply from an audience’s response. We were not driven by what people “liked,”, but  by the discipline of having to – I hate to say it – entertain.

“Ether” was one of the later songs we wrote, as I remember, when we were really driven by not being satisfied with a straight 4/4 beat. Andy drove me – and drove me mad – to be risky, to be interesting, and I fought to make my beats anything but “different for the sake of it.” That would have been easy, but you can’t dance to it. Although we never wrote or played funk music or reggae songs, those styles heavily influenced what and how I played and created rhythms with and alongside Andy’s guitar playing and general goading.

SEM: Why do these two tracks bookend the album?

HB: No bloody idea. Well, not wholly true; it was most likely a clear decision not to do the obvious and open with an easy-to-swallow “rocker” or the single and not to end “comfortably.”

 

SEM: Entertainment! sounds like nothing else from its era. It doesn’t have the lavish broodingness of Martin Hannett, the bright punch of Bob Sargent, or the meticulousness of Martin Rushent. It seems to fall in between all that into a place very much its own. Andy and Jon pretty much produced it, right? What was their secret?

HB: It was a difficult album for me in many ways. I was very nervous, I had horrible “studio red light fever,” the pressure of having to be the first, with Dave, to lay tracks down was exacerbated by the physical set-up of the WorkHouse studio. The control room was a floor above the main room, looking down, in a most imposing manner, on us. The band personal dynamics of wrestling for control and dominance, as there is in any great creative team, scratched and irritated my nerves even more. And by the time Dave and I were done and came up to the control-room,all the good seats were taken and fiercely guarded!

I was also a little afraid of the technology. Jon and Andy…not at all so. They were artists, and experimenting with the creative process was second nature to them. Rob Warr, our wonderful manager, was equally involved in the production with Jon and Andy. The very able engineer, Rik Walton, ended up almost a negative element, which was caused by his lack of comfort with the clear ideas that Jon and Andy had about the sounds they wanted and how to get them. It was too “un-safe” for him!

I get it, I would probably have felt more comfortable at the time with, say, Chris Thomas, the only real producer we ever even contemplated. He was suggested by our A&R man, who – to his great credit – did not push back at us when we said, no thanks…we’ll do it ourselves. Jon and Andy knew very clearly what they wanted, I think. Why get in the way?

SEM: Was Gang of Four consciously trying to expose its audience to critical theory?

HB: To a degree, but no more than any other idea or question we wanted to examine. We wanted to infuse our music with more than just edicts or direct political statements. We wanted to share ideas, the principle of questioning our comfortable attitudes, and engage in thinking critically. There was enough polemic flying at the time from “political” bands. Nobody needed any more from us. We were, first and foremost, a rock band; but we argued endlessly about the balance between theory and practice.

 

SEM: For the benefit of those who don’t know, would you please provide some context for the band’s formation, the socio-political environment of Leeds in the late 1970s, and the economy?

HB: The mid-to-late ‘70s in England was a time of turmoil, economically and politically, with a change coming from years of Labour government to the encroaching Thatcher years of Conservative Party rule. There was still a strong social divide and class structure, as well as a geographical North-South divide, with the comfortable ruling classes down South and the working class and Industrial North.

That’s horribly simplified. But for the “benefit of those who don’t know” is what you asked for. Leeds was up in Yorkshire – the post-industrial North. Three of us were students from the South, with our soft southern accents, at a big old university whose largest departments were Engineering, Medical Studies, etc.

Jon and Andy were Fine Arts students, and I was an English major. Art students were the oddities in a sea of flares and long hair around campus. The city was gritty – large swaths of the area around the campus were old empty workers’ houses slated for demolition. They were used for stealing from, for illicit parties, and even band rehearsals. Many were squatted. There was a strong and growing right wing movement all across the country. The National Front and BNP [British National Party] were active , mostly just finding punks, students, anyone who was black or Asian, and gay people to beat up or throw bricks at.

Punk brought an un-ease to things, in a way. There was a stylistic skinhead strain to the punk scene, and the real skinheads were confused by it. The sounds of punk were angry and aggressive. That attracted them, but much of punk philosophy was contrary to what they embraced. They’d come to our shows, and the tension in the air could get unbearable. The whole spitting thing was another “Huh?” for them!  A lot of fights broke out. The way you talked – one’s accent – was also a big red flag. If you were from the South – and we three were – it was an excuse for a fight. If you were a “Fookin’” student – yes, another fight. And everybody drank a lot, of course. More fights. And the police in Yorkshire, at that time, were just thugs. So much corruption and brutality. It was the time of the Yorkshire Ripper. See the film trilogy, “Red Riding” for a very harsh and accurate sense of how things were then. We were double fair game for their bullshit, students and southerners. The Drug Squad were merciless, planting drugs on people, stitching them up.

SEM: In the same vein—Leeds University. It must have been a rather amazing hotbed because it produced Gang of Four, Mekons, and Delta 5. Was there a palpable energy in the air? We assume that such an academic environment wouldn’t be as possible in a post-Thatcher, Cameron-run Britain…

HB: There were a lot of bands, not least because of the doors for opportunity having been thrown open by punk rock. Pubs, clubs, they all had a space to play. We shared stages with older and musically far more adept bands who quite often were maddened by the popularity of “three-chord wonders.” Fuck ‘em…we really only knew two chords properly anyway; we made the rest up. The Fine Arts Departments at the University and at the Polytechnic down the road – now re-branded as a City University – had great teachers and some great people studying there. With the Mekons and Delta 5, we had something of a collective, working and gigging together, building a PA together, and sharing a warehouse rehearsal space – rented with and downstairs from the Impact Theatre Co-operative that I had started with three other people.

But the Poly should not be dismissed at all. It produced both Frank Tovey of Fad Gadget and Marc Almond-Soft Cell, both of whom, by the way, I did drag shows with – well, theatrical pieces in drag. Nothing strange about us – we’re Englishmen! But it was the city itself, too – lots of clubs, both official and after-hours shebeens and reggae places. All very dodgy but mostly welcoming to a bunch of art students who wanted to drink and dance late into the night.

God knows what students do now for fun and political engagement. The activism here in the US among students is so much poorer than we took for granted back then. Too comfortable.

SEM: It’s known that the Top of the Pops non-appearance somewhat skewered the band’s chances at infiltrating the “big time” and getting inside the system, but could any of you have seen Entertainment! enduring as it has, becoming one of a handful of iconic, instantly recognizable post-punk albums?

HB: Nope.

SEM: Other than perhaps the TOTP decision, is there anything that you’d do differently if you could go back?

HB: Regarding TOTP, perhaps we might have got away with the lyrics part if we had not so aggressively taken the piss during the run-throughs the day of the show. Andy had tied his guitar-strings in a knot halfway up the neck of his Ibanez, for instance, and I think Dave didn’t pretend to play at all! We baited them just too far. I think we could have been smarter about it and possibly have “won: in the end; but hey – we were right, and they were wrong. It was great for us for a couple of weeks in the music press, but then the world moved on. And so did EMI (laughs). So we lost!

If there were other specific things I wish we had done differently, I would mostly focus on our poor decisions about management. Our first manager was always our best manager – and we treated him rather badly, I think. Thank god we are still friends – he’s a lovely man. Somewhat later on, Dave left us. With strong management, this would never have happened. We also wouldn’t have lost our great crew, mainly Dave’s brother Phil and my brother Jolyon. They’d been treated so badly. Our great loss.

The best managers in the world wanted very much to manage us, but we turned them down. Actually I didn’t, but I was alone on that one. It frustrates me to this day. We ended up with the guy whom the great Mo Ostin at Warner Bros. asked us kindly not to hire. Oy. He screwed the band badly, starting with me getting ousted three months later. And then in 2005, when we did our full and fabulous reunion, we made a very bad choice of manager again. He was toxic and destructive, working to divide us and succeeding. I am sad because it could have been more successful and lasted longer. But then, it wouldn’t really have been Gang of Four without the arguments and stress, would it?!

Jon has a marvelous and most apt phrase about Gang of Four: The band who never missed an opportunity…to miss an opportunity. But we did it with style and humor, and we had so much fun most of the time, so what the hell.

Check out our interview with Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen here.

Check out our interview with Kevin Dettmar, the author of Gang of Four’s Entertainment!, here.

Check out our 35th anniversary edition review of Entertainment! here.