Gang of Four’s ’77-81′ box is an essential document of an iconic band at their peak
Order Gang of Four's '77-81' and the reissues of 'Entertainment!' and 'Solid Gold' in the BV shop.
For a lot of people Gang of Four are the sound of post-punk. A driving anger-fueled energy, mixed with a little funk, a little disco, a little dub and those guitars that only seemed to be described as "angular." There were a lot of bands from the late-'70s and early-'80s who fit that bill but Gang of Four were among the first and definitely one of the best, especially when we're talking about the fearsome original lineup of guitarist Andy Gill (RIP), singer Jon King, bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham. That lineup released two total-classic albums -- 1979's Entertainment! and 1981's Solid Gold -- and a handful of equally great singles before Allen left the band to form Shriekback and Go4 began to mutate (still to make some great records, just different).
Signed to EMI in the UK, the band were never totally happy with their U.S. deal with Warner Bros, and this box set -- and the release of their catalog via Matador -- came about by utilizing Section 203 of the Copyright Act of 1976, which is also known as the "35 Year Law" that "allows recording artists to terminate grants of rights that they made to record companies, 35 years after publication of the works, and restores ownership of the US copyright in the sound recordings to the artists who recorded them." The band sent notice to Warner Bros in 2017 and it officially went into effect in 2019 which is when they started working on the box set. They were still working on this set when Andy Gill died last year, and it's been dedicated to him: "The albums show his best recorded work, fierce, fresh, and exciting. We, and the world of music, will miss him," the band write, and they are not wrong.
It's clear 77-81 is a real labor of love for the band and Jon King in particular who designed the extremely cool packing and the fantastic 100-page hardbound book full of recollections from the band and their circle of friends, as well as tributes from members of REM, New Order, Mekons, Pylon, 10,000 Maniacs, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and more. Plus: it's the first time all their lyrics have ever been officially printed.
You hopefully are familiar with the Entertainment! and Solid Gold and the singles (which were packaged in the U.S. on the Yellow and Another Day Another Dollar EPs); it's all entirely essential, hard-wired into rock and pop now and still being imitated on a daily basis. Entertainment! has the better songs, but Solid Gold's production is more robust. The dry, flat sound of Entertainment! was done purposefully -- the idealistic band were trying to avoid rockist trappings like reverb -- but the band almost immediately regretted it and were pretty vocal about not entirely loving the sound of it when they reformed in 2005. Hugo said his drums sounded like a cardboard box but, like Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, the production is part of the package and I love it. "Non-LP single "To Hell with Poverty" may be the ultimate Gang of Four song, a killer track with all the sonic punch it deserves. The whole set was remastered from the original tapes at Abbey Road and is sounding as good as you've likely ever heard it.
77-81 also comes with a live album, recorded at their May 22 show at San Francisco's American Indian Center in the middle of the Entertainment! tour that sounds fantastic -- it was originally broadcast by UC Berkeley college station KALX -- and really shows the band at the height of their powers. There's also a cassette full of demos: one side has the band's earliest recordings, including nascent versions of of many of their songs (and one, "Elevator," that never made it into the studio); the other side being a 1981 session from Abbey Road Studios featuring instrumental takes on Solid Gold/Another Day songs. It's definitely interesting to listen to but is more of a bonus curio than anything else.
The only thing that's really missing from this set is Gang of Four's 1978 EP for independent label Fast Product with "Damaged Goods," "Love Like Anthrax" and "Armalite Rifle." You can't have everything, but this is pretty close.
For more on the box set, read our interview with drummer Hugo Burnham. Watch frontman Jon King take you through the 77-81 box set, check out "Elevator" from the demos cassette and listen to Entertainment! and Solid Gold below.