A Life in Music

 

Jane Savidge reflects on Andy Gill – Producer, Songwriter, Musician, Visionary …

 

“If Andy smashed a guitar on stage, the audience would take the pieces home.”

When you think of Andy Gill, and Gang of Four, you immediately think of the angular, jagged style of guitar he brought to bear on Gang of Four albums like Entertainment! and Solid Gold, and on songs like At Home He Feels Like a Tourist and Damaged Goods. Indeed, when I first met Andy we got into a heated discussion about Prog Rock – we both hated it – and he told me that in his teenage years and during the final few years of his schooling, he kept getting into arguments about what constituted being a good guitarist. “They’d stand in front of me in a rehearsal space or in my living room,” said Andy, “and play the most ridiculous guitar solo you could imagine, like they thought they were Jimmy Page or something. And I used to say” – he mimed holding the fretboard of a guitar close to his face, picking at the strings with an unidentified (metal!) object, and then marvelling at the resultant, discordant sound – “but can you do this?”

More recently, Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello would suggest that Gang of Four offered “a Gramsci-level understanding of the world in a great punk-funk band”, and that the sounds that came out of Andy’s guitar, “were a deconstruction of the instrument – in the same way the lyrics deconstructed everyday life in capitalist society.” He also suggested that Andy “changed the way guitars were played, defying the convention that says you should play for the song. In a lot of ways, Andy played in the opposite direction to a song,”and whilst this sentiment is inordinately pertinent, what’s surely more true to say is that when Andy died on February 1st 2020, the world lost one of the most innovative and influential guitarists of all time. Gill, who, together with Jon King, co-founded the pioneering post punk outfit, Gang of Four, in Leeds in 1976 – the pair met in the art room at school and went on to study Fine Art at Leeds University, where the band’s first line-up was completed by bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham – influenced generation after generation of musicians, and his profound impact on music and on bands like REM, U2, Nine Inch Nails, Afghan Whigs, Nirvana, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Radiohead, Rage Against The Machine, Sleater Kinney, Franz Ferdinand, the Strokes, Maximo Park, Bloc Party, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, St. Vincent, Minutemen, Fugazi, The Rapture, LCD Soundsystem and Futureheads (amongst countless others) cannot be underestimated.

Not long after Andy’s death, Flea commented that he had shaped his “aesthetic and approach to music profoundly,” whilst Mark Bowen, guitarist with contemporary post-punks IDLES, admitted that, “without Gang of Four, IDLES wouldn’t exist.” The eulogies kept on coming, but perhaps Andy’s legacy was best summed up by someone not in the music business at all: “I stole a record collection from someone’s house,” artist Damien Hirst told the Guardian’s Dave Simpson in 2021. “Among the records was Entertainment! by Gang of Four. I loved it because it made me think. After that, I wrote ‘Gang of Four’ on my school blazer and had their button badge. I used to copy their artwork on to my school books. I got into the art world because, through Gang of Four, I realised anything was possible. I thought, ‘I’m fucking doing what I want.’”

Naturally, “I’m fucking doing what I want” became some sort of clarion call for an awful lot of us, but it is interesting to note that Andy followed a similar diktat for most of his working life. Indeed, if you forget about him being a guitarist for a moment – and I know that’s difficult – you should be aware that, aside from being a guitarist and live performances and touring consuming a huge part of his working life, Andy wrote or co-wrote all the songs and produced, or co-produced, every Gang Of Four album, as well as producing and/or mixing albums for artists such as Red Hot Chilli Peppers, the Jesus Lizard, the Stranglers, the Futureheads, Michael Hutchence, Killing Joke, Polysics, Fight Like Apes, Therapy? and the Young Knives. Of course, he learned his craft co-producing those first few Gang of Four records – Entertainment! in 1979, Solid Gold in 1981 and Songs of The Free in 1982 – but by the time he’d completed work on the band’s fourth album, Hard, in 1983, his stock had risen so high that, less than a year later, he seemed a natural fit to produce the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ astonishing, self-titled debut album for Capitol Records. The distinctive style and sound – which was very much his own – that Andy brought to the project, including treble-heavy guitars, a tight linkage between drums and bass, and the use of transistor amps, meant that he became one of the most sought-out producers of the ‘80s and ‘90s and beyond, and, up until his death in 2020, he had produced well over 50 artists, and had over 70 projects as a co-writer or producer to his name.

That debut Chilis’ album was subsequently heralded as “the little spark that ignited the rap-rock revolution” and as the first release in the funk-metal genre, but it probably didn’t feel like that at the time: hearsay suggests that the band was often at odds with Andy over the musical direction of the album, and in Scar Tissue, Anthony Kiedis’s 2004 memoir, Kiedis recalled It becoming “very much him against us, especially Flea and me. It became a real battle to make the record.” No doubt, this was due to a misunderstanding, as Kiedis thought he’d seen a note Andy had written suggesting that he thought their song Police Helicopter was ‘shit’, although what Andy actually had written (according to Andy’s widow Catherine Mayer who recently found the production notebook relating to this sequence of events was “??? Possible machine job”, the whole episode turning out to be some kind of private inter-band-producer jocularity. Correspondingly, it’s no doubt more useful to cite Flea’s views on the subject: We were obnoxious, drugged-up maniacs,” he told the Guardian in 2021. “We thought we were great and wanted to capture that rawness – and Andy was trying to produce a polished recording.” Nevertheless, you could be forgiven for thinking that Andy’s career as a producer for hire had gotten off to a rocky start – although you’d be wrong: Andy and Flea remained friends up until Andy’s death, and Flea gave the eulogy at his memorial service; in the week of his death, Flea wrote on social media, “Andy and I had spoken recently, and communicated a lot over the last several months. I am shocked. Andy was one of my heroes, a man who inspired the shit out of Hillel, Anthony and I as youngsters; I was thrilled beyond belief when he agreed to produce our first album. May his beautiful soul be in bliss with the divine.”

Notwithstanding the tantrums and tiaras that were bound to accompany anyone lucky enough to produce the Chili Peppers’ seminal recordings, the experience must have meant something to Andy as he then turned his head to producing a track on Derek Jarman’s Last of England soundtrack in 1987, and then, a year later, several tracks by Busta Jones (who had briefly/replaced Dave Allen playing bass for Gang of Four in 1980), Addie Brik, and Curtains, the third and final record by LA ‘s most eccentric folk-rock outfit, Balancing Act, an album that featured touches of jazz and jagged electric-guitar – funny, that – as well as a cover of Funkadelics’ Can You Get To That. Andy spent the next couple of years producing bands like Dan I and Downy Mildew – the latter were an American folk pop/alternative rock band from LA, Andy’s contribution to proceedings ensuring that he put together their Cool Nights single, customarily backed with a cover of the Bacharach/David song, Walk On Byand a mash up of Sunday Morning by the Velvet Underground and Leaving On A Jet Plane by John Denver! – before resuming Gang of Four activities with Mall, the band’s fifth album released in 1991 for a new label, Polydor.

Reuniting the band’s founding members, Andy and Jon King – in 1984, Andy had actually taken some time to recover from cancer before producing the Chilis’ album, releasing a solo single, Dispossession, and then resuming his collaborations with King again – the record was “slickly produced” by just Gill this time with lots of synthesizers, Rolling Stone heralding it as “an adventurous, often gripping album that flirts with commercial appeal while indicting American consumer culture.” That year, Andy also produced the soundtrack to the W.T. Morgan-directed US comedy flick, A Matter of Degrees – the film starred Arye Gross, Judith Hoag and Tom Sizemore – before EPs by a new project by musicians Tim Robson and Simon Bourcier, known as Steal Peach, and co-writes and demos with Carole King’s daughter, Louise Goffin intervened, and he reconvened with Downy Mildew once again to produce their Elevator single.

Whilst all this was going on, Andy had embarked upon production duties for the English psychedelic rock band, Levitation, whose notoriously troubled existence was probably coming to a head – and an untimely end – on Meanwhile Gardens, the band’s second album and the record that Gill had been charged with knocking into shape. Unfortunately, when Levitation main-man Terry Bickers upped sticks and left – he actually quit live on stage at Tufnell Park Dome in London on 14th May 1993 – before the album was completed, it hardly helped matters: the record was shelved, only surfacing as late as 2015.

Presumably no more than vaguely irritated, Andy returned to his true love, Gang of Four, and produced their sixth studio album. Shrinkwrapped, which featured several songs used in the Peter Hall penned-and-directed Delinquent movie. 1995 also saw Andy producing Mad Cow Disease’s Tantric Sex Disco album – a British industrial metal record which brought comparisons with Killing Joke and Ministry – as well as two singles – The Night and Grandmasters – by Intastella, and the four-track Tell me What You Taste EP by the Morgans. Two years later, Andy co- produced – along with ex-Sonic Youther Jim O’Rourke and ex-Velvet Undergrounder John Cale – the third Jesus Lizard EP, and co-produced the Stranglers’ thirteenth studio album Written In Red, before the charmingly monikered Armageddon Dildos’ Speed album and the Jesus Lizard’s sixth and final, and much more experimental album, Blue, took his attention.

In 1999, Andy completed work as a producer on no-less than four major album releases, including Scottish indie-poppers Bis with Social Dancing, American punk blues band Boss Hog’s Whiteout and Japanese alternative rockers Hal from Apollo ’69 with their 666 album. He also managed to find the time to produce two songs for Sona Fariq, whilst composing and producing The Score, a TV programme for the International Broadcasting Trust, but the album that proudly stood out in amongst this impressive plethora of releases, was Michael Hutchence, the only solo posthumous album by the INXS frontman.

Initially embarked upon as a project between Hutchence and Tim Simenon as early as 1995, Hutchence originally phoned Andy to ask him to play guitar on the record – Hutchence once said “the Gang of Four’s music took no prisoners ..it was art meets the devil via James Brown” – before ringing him ten minutes later to ask him to co-write the album. Andy joined Hutchence at his house and home studio in Roquefort-les-Pins and, over a five-month period, continued to write and record in France and London. He ended up co-producing the album (with Black Grape producer Danny Saber), as well as co-writing and programming the entire reord, playing guitar on ten songs, and providing bass and keyboards on several more. When Hutchence tragically died on 22nd November 1997, Andy asked Hutchence’s close friend Bono to record some new lyrics for one of the album’s stand out tracks, Slide Away.

Andy’s prolific output as a producer continued apace as he produced British band Mucho Macho in 2000, and five more projects in 2001 – Hell Is For Heroes, DNA Doll and a mix for Gramme, plus two albums for Australian artists – a Mark of Cain album called This Is This and the Regurgitator long player, Eduardo and Rodriguez Wage War on T-Wrecks (2001). A year later he followed up this workshy hiatus – ha! – by starting work on Killing Joke, the band’s second self-titled, and eleventh studio album. Released on 28th July 2003, and featuring Dave Grohl on drums – Grohl famously recorded his drum parts within five days in March that year, and refused to be paid – the album was produced at Gill’s home recording studios in London – apart from the drums which were recorded at Grand Master Studios in LA – all songs subsequently being credited to Coleman/Walker/Youth/Gill.

The album marked a return to form for Killing Joke, and was perhaps their most overtly political statement to date – alternative titles were Axis Of Evil and The Death and Resurrection Show, Killing Joke main-man Jaz Coleman commenting upon the album’s release, “It’s the beginning of the American Empire. They’re taking over the world. That’s what’s happening, and here we are at the heart of the fucking enemy. I never thought I’d see the day” – as well as their most well-received record since their debut, despite the fact that it appeared to have been recorded in reverse order. “It’s the first record I’ve ever done where the drums come last,” explained Grohl at the time. “Usually drums are first. It’s nice, though, because once you put the drums down and all the percussion is done and everything, it’s done. You have a finished song. And also, all the programming and stuff that Andy is doing, the rhythms that they came up with are great. It’s not conventional “rock drumming”, it’s not like conventional rock rhythms. It’s challenging.” Well, maybe, just maybe, Andy Gill had something to do with that.

Emboldened by the success of his work with Killing Joke, Andy went on to co-produce (with Paul Epworth) the eponymous debut studio album by British post-punk indie rockers, The Futureheads for 679 Recordings/Warner, which was named the 33rd best record of 2004 by Pitchfork. The album, released on 12th July 2004, spawned four singles, including First Day, Decent Days and Nights, and Meantime, although it was their cover version of Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love that shone through: the track flew to No.8 on the UK charts and was lauded as Best Single of the Year by the NME in 2005. That year, Andy also produced the Gang of Four album, Return The Gift, a fourteen song affair that saw the band reunited in their original line-up – Gill, King, Allen and Burnham – and re-recording a host of their original songs originally recorded between ’77 and ‘81. In some quarters the project was deemed implausible, or a very risky, if not impossible adventure, but whatever the truth of the matter, the album was a triumph, living up to its undoubtedly impossible ambitions.

2005 also saw Andy Gill producing and appearing on a new version of the Buzzcocks’ Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve) – along with Roger Daltrey, Elton John, Robert Plant, Pete Shelley and Jeff Beck – which was released as a tribute to John Peel, and producing the sixth album by Japanese band Polysics. The following year, he produced the Mercury Music Prize-nominated Voices of Animals and Men – the first full-length album by British indie rock band The Young Knives – and composed and produced several tracks for TV shows like Natural History Of Murder, CSI Academy and The Body Farm – I sense a theme here! – before Therapy? took his fancy three years later with Crooked Timber: the album was named after an Immanuel Kant quote – “from the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made” – and was the Northern Irish rockers’ tenth full-length record, as well as a record that Andy felt particularly in tune with. A year later, Gill was back in Ireland and in the studio again, with The Body of Christ and the Legs of Tina Turner, the second album by Irish band Fight Like Apes.

Gill reunited with Jon King to co-write and produce the magnificent Content, the eighth studio album by Gang of Four which was released in 2011. The album, which featured Mark Heaney on drums and Thomas McNeice on bass, is particularly notable, not only as the first album of new material since the band reunited for live shows in 2004 – the Daily Telegraph hailed it as “their best record since the Seventies” – but also as something more intangible: the record had “a sense of us investigating possibilities,” Gill told journalist Dorian Lynskey at the time. “That’s what we talk about – what’s the range of alternatives?” But it was more than that: when Gill told Lynskey ever more ebulliently, “I think lots of stuff that we do is funny, pushing it slightly too far, but at the same time truthful and serious. 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,” I am convinced that he was trying to reveal some kind of inner truth. The record was not just in keeping with its “knowing title (definitely the noun rather than the adjective)” – that’s the Guardian’s take on the subject – but instead, the handsome metal box filled with music, text, illustrations and a sample of Gill and King’ s intermingled blood, was a red herring of sorts: to wit, Content was aptly christened after the adjective, as much as the noun.

After Content, Gill co-wrote and produced a one-off Tom Fool EP (featuring Unkle Bob’s Rick Webster) and produced Dynasty in Beijing, China, the second album by Wuhan-based AV Okubo, before putting together a new line-up of Gang of Four featuring John ‘Gaoler’ Sterry on vocals. A new album called What Happens Next – Gang of Four’s ninth studio album – followed in 2015, and featured Sterry on vocals, with drums shared between Mark Heaney and new drummer Jon Finnigan, and Thomas McNeice again on bass. The album also contained contributions from Alison Mosshart of the Kills, The Big Pink’s Robbie Furze, Japanese guitarist Tomoyasu Hotei and German musician Herbert Grönemeyer. After another extensive period of touring, the Gang of Four EP, Complicit, followed in 2018, the three-track affair featuring a song called Ivanka (Things You Can’t Have) within its coffers, the cover naturally boasting a shot of Ivanka Trump herself.

In 2019, Gang of Four released their tenth and last ever studio album – there can never be another – called Happy Now. Produced by Gill, Happy Now was lauded for having “fire in its belly” as well as being as intense as anything they’d ever released before. However, I like to think of the record as being the last long love letter in a very long line of long love letters from a man who was playing with our intellect as well as our emotions: indeed, when you think about those last three Gang of Four album releases, you can just as easily imagine them with question marks pinned to their masts – Content?, What Happens Next?, Happy Now? – as, ahem, bereft of such ephemera. And that’s surely the point: “I’m fucking doing what I want” may be something Andy Gill never said as a summation of his career, so perhaps Marlon Brando’s Johnny Strabler sums it up best with Whaddya got?

On February 26th 2020, Gang of Four released an EP called This Heaven Gives Me Migraine,a posthumous GO4 release which included two re-recordings of the band’s own Natural’s Not In It, and Toreador tracks, completed with Andy the previous year – the intention being to create versions that were closer to their live performance arrangements – plus The Dying Rays, and two spoken interludes from Andy himself. The release emerged amidst the trauma of Andy’s death, John Sterry commenting at the time: “The Dying Rays (2020) is just a beautiful song and completely confounds what people think of when they think of Gang of Four, which in itself is quite a Gang of Four thing, I guess; the lyrics seem all the more pertinent now.” Sterry’s sensitive ruminations on his close friend’s untimely death were a timely precursor to the new found urgency surrounding an entirely new project – or rather a project that Andy had envisaged and been putting together for quite some time: indeed, The Problem of Leisure: A Celebration of Andy Gill and Gang of Four was originally conceived by Andy himself, not as a post-mortem tribute, but to mark the 40th anniversary (in 2019) of Gang of Four’s 1979 debut long player Entertainment! Since Entertainment! was universally heralded as a classic (“the fifth best punk album of all time”: Rolling Stone magazine), you can see what Andy was up to here, and who better to administer and oversee an album of cover versions of Gang of Four songs from the archive?

Of course, Andy realised that his covers of Entertainment! songs brief was too narrow as soon as he saw that some artists had chosen tracks from different albums and periods, so he set about putting together a collection of songs from across his career, each song individually chosen by the artists’ who covered them and allowing them free reign to interpret the songs as they liked. Several artists recorded their interpretations at Andy’s studio where he also got involved in the production. Except, it wasn’t to be: instead, the remarkable double album, The Problem of Leisure, was lovingly, posthumously finished by Andy’s widow, Catherine Mayer, the artwork put together by Andy’s long-term friend and Gang of Four aficionado, Damien Hirst. Which is where we came in.

The 20-track double album, The Problem of Leisure: A Celebration of Andy Gill and Gang of Four was released in June 2021, and featured contributions from artists from 4 different continents, reflecting the broad influence Andy had had on contemporary music, including Flea and John Frusciante from Red Hot Chili Peppers, Gary Numan, Massive Attack’s Robert del Naja (as 3D), IDLES, Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine) & Seri Tankian (System of a Down), David Bowie and Gang of Four bassist/singer Gail Ann Dorsey and many others. This incredible roll call of global talent had come together in order to say one thing: we loved Andy and his music. Or should that be two things? Either way, they also meant to say something else: ‘We’re fucking doing what we want.”

 

© Jane Savidge 2022.

 

 



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