Gang of Four’s Hugo Burnham talks about the band’s legacy, new box set & more in BV interview
The new Gang of Four vinyl reissues & box set are available in the BV shop.
"It's really the balls, isn't it?" Hugo Burnham is deservedly chuffed, talking about the fantastic new box set chronicling his band Gang of Four's groundbreaking first four years that featured the original lineup of himself, guitarist Andy Gill, bassist Dave Allen and vocalist Jon King. "This was really a labor of love Jon. We, Jon, did such a great job."
For many, the music Gang of Four made during those years IS the sound of post-punk -- a searing, danceable form of aggression featuring a rhythm section informed by punk, pub rock, disco and dub, sliced and diced by "angular" guitars, with shout-along, socially conscious lyrics. The influence of tracks like "To Hell with Poverty," "Damaged Goods," "Anthrax," "Not Great Men" and "What We All Want" is still being felt today. All those songs are on Gang of Four 77-81 which features everything the original lineup released through Warner Brothers -- 1979's Entertainment! and 1981's Solid Gold, as well as non-LP singles that ended up on the "Yellow" and Another Day / Another Dollar EPs -- plus a fantastic live album from 1981 and a cassette of early demos.
You can also feel Gang of Four's influence in the box set's 100-page handbound book, designed by Jon King, that features essays and recollections from the band (including Gill who died last year), as well as friends and fans including Flea, R.E.M., Sofia Coppola, Henry Rollins, Pylon, Mission of Burma, Peter Hook (Joy Division/New Order), Mekons, writer Greil Marcus, and more, plus never-before-seen photos, show flyers and other memorabilia. It really is an amazing package, design-wise, and you can watch a video of Jon King unboxing it below.
Gang of Four 77-81 is out Friday via Matador and for sale in our store along with the new Entertainment! and Solid Gold reissues. Ahead of that we talked with Hugo,who these days is an educator at Endicott College's School of Visual & Performing Arts in Massachusetts, about the box set, the band's legacy, how playing in punk band shaped his career as a teacher, and more.
BrooklynVegan: Firstly, congrats on this amazing box set, it's such an amazing package. What is it like 45 years since the start of the band that you're still here talking about this thing that you did?
Hugo Burnham: I'm delighted. I'm slightly surprised. Although the surprise has diminished over the years, but the delight hasn't. But people still pay attention to, and love, and write about, and talk about, and play our music from what is quite frankly a long time ago. So yeah, it's wonderful. It's great. I love it. Love talking about myself.
And I was looking at the credits on the box set. You're listed as a Copy Editor and head proofreader. Is that your general forte these days?
Well, it's one of them. My day job, I'm a college professor, which I've been since 2000. And I actually run now the internship program for the visual and performing arts majors here at Endicott College up on the North shore, just about 30 odd miles Northeast of Boston. But teaching for 20 years, one has to become somewhat pedantic about proofreading. I've had a lot of practice. But to be specific, this was mostly Jon King's masterpiece project. But as I've said in a couple of other places, I was definitely his right hand man or his Lieutenant. We worked together a lot on this. And David [Allen]'s involved as well, but Jon, with the industrial art designer, put the whole thing together. But the content was very much between Jon and I. Finally making use of all the boxes of Gang of Four stuff that I've been hauling around for 40 odd years. It was a real deep mining exercise, finding stuff and reaching out to people, friends, Mekons, roadies saying, "I know you've got some pictures. Can you share the pictures?" And then, of course editing those down to the ones that wouldn't upset anybody too much. But it was such fun putting it all together, and going back and forward, and back and forward. We'd been talking about it for a while, but we really got into starting the work on it around September of 2019. So yeah, it's a long haul, but it's great. I'm very, very happy with it.
One copy note, I was surprised, or maybe not surprised, or happy, to see only one use of the word "angular."
Yeah. Bugger, we let that one slip in. (Laughs)
It's hard not to, I feel like the descriptor was invented for Gang of Four. I believe it was 10,000 Maniacs who use it in the book.
Yeah. Well, when friends of ours wanted to write something and participate, it wasn't up to us to change their language. They are lovely people, and it's a delight. It was really kind of them to write something.
There are so many amazing tributes from so many different artists in this thing. Was there anything that surprised you reading this that you didn't know about? From another artist?
No. (Laughs) It sounds terrible -- I'm cocky, but no, not really. It was just very nice to be able to get that wide selection of people, not just musicians, who would say something. Because I think that's what's important is to show, or to share rather, how many people, different places, different ages, who are involved in the creative arts in different ways, love what we did.
In the past, you have been a little critical about the way Entertainment! sounded. I remember seeing quotes from you around the time of the 2005 reunion, in particular about the drums, you said sounded like they were recorded in a cardboard box, or maybe sounded like a cardboard box. The albums were remastered for these reissues -- has your opinion changed or softened since?
Yeah, interesting. Over 40 years, you're going to look back on your own work, and you're going to have different ideas about it depending upon what's going on. It is an observation rather than a criticism about the sound of Entertainment. It was very dry, but we did it deliberately. But quite often I think, "God, I wish there'd been a little bit more room around the drums." Probably the most accurate drum sound, or sound that we got of ourselves on record that really fulfilled the way we sounded live, was the Another Day, Another Dollar EP. "To Hell with Poverty," that's the one. I think that's probably our best piece of recorded work. Not the greatest song, but just in terms of how we recorded it and how it sounded. That was the truest to how we sounded. And I love it, because it was bigger and more expensive. But as I said, it's an observation rather than a criticism. But there were times where like, "God, I wish I could hear Entertainment! with a slightly more open sound."
I read an interview recently with Peter Hook where he talks about how he hates the way Unknown Pleasures sounds. And as a fan of Joy Division -- and Gang of Four -- I only know it that way. And to me, that's the only way it should sound.
Oh, absolutely. But for Hooky and for both of us -- we're good friends -- I know what it means. It's like when you've played it so often, you played it in different environments, and know how the dynamic of it can sound, you think, "Oh gosh, I wish it could've been like this, or I wonder what it would've sounded like had it been I guess a little bit live-r or a little bit less controlled."
Were you involved in the remastering process at all?
No. Jon took charge of that, because it was done in Abbey Road. So, just physically it was all easier. I don't think it's good to have everybody involved in every decision all the way through. The ultimate decision, of course. "Yep, good, approve." But otherwise, it can be too many cooks. We took different areas, and we're the primary. But nothing was done or ultimately approved without all three of us being involved.
One of the cooler things with the box set is the cassette of early demos. Which I haven't actually heard yet, apart from "Elevator" which you released recently. Was there anything in there that really surprised you that you hadn't heard in years and years, and were like, "Oh, why didn't we do something with this?"
Well, what you'll find is other than "Elevator," all the others actually became or turned into other songs. But I think that's part of the joy of why we put it there is to see if you can work out where this one or that one went. I'd actually heard them quite a lot over the years, but a dear old friend of ours from Leeds, Andrew Rodgers, who is the pack rat of all pack rats and whose whole house is probably full of stuff -- he had an original cassette from the few we made when we were making the demos. So, I made sure that what he had and what I had were aligned. But I thought it was cute to put it in a cassette like that. Because I know a lot of youngsters, I say that without being patronizing, love the cassette thing right now. That made sense. And again, it just makes it a little bit sparkly. Because it's easier to throw a few things in a box and say, "Yeah, here's a box set." We thought, "Okay. What can make this interesting?" And the fact that they were on an original cassette with that handwriting, mine, we just recreated it to put the cassette in. So, it was fun.
Speaking of cassettes, one of the things you write about in the liner notes is about when Gang of Four were on tour in America, and everyone gets Walkmans which were brand new at the time.
It was about the second and third day [of that tour]. Because we would always fly to New York, we would stay at the Iroquois Hotel on West 44th. And around that area, there were all those electronic stores back then. And I think Phil Allen, Dave's younger brother who was one of our original crew, was the first one to go and get one. And suddenly, it's like, "Oh my God." By the time we left to go to Philadelphia and Toronto, when the bus turned up, it literally, everyone was wearing it, and it was extraordinary. And what was great fun was we all were listening to quite a lot, and loving WBLS radio in New York, Frankie Crocker and all that sort of thing. And the Warner Brothers PR department in New York, who were just wonderful, lovely people, they used to record the station on cassette, the shows, and then FedEx them or whatever out to us a day or two in advance to the hotel, so we could keep up with it.
Oh, that's amazing.
Yeah, definitely cut down on the arguing in the bus.
What struck me was it was such a pinpoint moment with technology where there was a definite change, right? It changed your tour bus instantly. Sort of like cellphones or iPods and then iPhones.
That technological, cultural change, we notice it because we've been on either side of it. My daughter, it was always there. They were always there. I had a similar conversation with someone recently. It's like I remember when same gender, same sex marriage was made legal in Massachusetts, which at first, you'd think the sky was falling the way some people were going on. And it's like the end of the world, and blah, blah, blah. And my daughter grew up with that always being there, so it's no big deal. Whether it's culturally, or technologically, or the two combined, I make a conscious effort not to do this [mimes looking at his phone] all the time. It's difficult. And the more you see it from other people when you're walking, it's like "lift your head up. Look where you're going." And here at school sometimes, I see a student walking through, lost in his phone, and I will not change direction. (Laughs) It's this annoying old guy way of saying, "Hey, watch where you're going."
I bet as a teacher, the way it is in the classroom has definitely changed over the last 20 years.
Well, it's been for years going through the "Okay, phone's off," and I know some teachers say, "Put them in a basket when you come in." But it's the same with laptops, when that was a relatively new thing in the classroom, you had to tell them, "Okay. Are we using them for the class, or are they just sitting there really ignoring me?" You become quite adept as a teacher at recognizing the body language between the two. At my old school in Boston, because I walk around the students, I'm not static. And I was walking up, and I noticed one kid, he was like [hunched over looking at his laptop), and I said whatever his name was, "You with us?" He said, "Oh no, no, no. I'm just checking what you said." I thought, "Yeah. Okay. Jolly good." I knew he was lying. So I just carry on talking, and I went past him and behind him. And then, he suddenly realized I was behind him, and he started to [close his laptop]. I stuck my hand in, right? And open it up. And I said, "Oh. So sorry, what is milfhunter.com?" The whole class just collapsed. He was embarrassed. I think the point was made. It didn't happen again.
While on this subject, in research for this interview, I know you were Dean of Student Affairs at the New England Institute of Art...
That was where I started teaching in 2000, yeah. That was a great little small, independent, well, it was independent when I first went, but then it got bought up by one of those big for-profit venal organizations who ruined it frankly. But it was a great little school. What I used to call an applied art school, four year college. Photography, graphic design, music industry, radio, TV, all that sort of thing. Great little school. But yeah I ended -- up my last job there was as Dean of Students...
And you had to oversee stuff like the school's drug and alcohol policy, and discipline. You're at an art college. There's a better chance of them perhaps knowing what you did beforehand. Did you ever have to sit a student down, discipline them, and get a reply like, "That's not punk rock to have me in here about this."
Well, I think because one of the classes that I taught for 11 years -- I ran the whole department -- was what was Freshman Seminar or, as I called it, "Growing Up 101," which was transition training and education. Half of it academic, half of it life skills. And we would address a lot of the things that quite a lot of the kids, students, young adults had never discussed with an adult before. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, all those sort of things. There's a point at which they'd eventually find out my background. You don't lie to them, but you don't tell them everything. But I think what my background gave me was a certain degree of credibility. That I wasn't just an old man ranting at them. And dealing with it was a lot about critical thinking, critical analysis. Okay, so how do we approach this? What's the reality going on here? But when I was Dean of Students and having to deal with discipline issues, which was if they were drinking, or had pot, or whatever in the dorm, they weren't allowed to. So, I said, "Look, you're an idiot. I'm not criticizing you for having these things, but I'm criticizing you for being an idiot for having them here in the dorm, in this school building, where you know it's against the rules. So, you're just not being smart about it."
I think I was just being straightforward and honest, and that's how I ran things. When a new bunch of students would come in every year at the old school, I always would wear a suit for the first week or two, because I didn't want them to see the tattoos or anything like that. Because I had a responsible position. But inevitably, they found out my history, and then I'd take my jacket off, and they'd see the ink. But by that point, it's like okay, we know who he is, but I also wouldn't let them take advantage of the fact that I used to be a rowdy, occasionally drinking rock and roll drummer.
Another thing that I noticed from the liner notes is there were more than a few where people who talked about how imposing you were. I think it was Curtis Crowe from Pylon who said you were like the Incredible Hulk. And somebody else said that when they first saw you, they just imagined you shoving people's faces into the wall.
I remember that one. (Laughs.) I remember that. I don't know. I looked like a skinhead when I was younger. Because I've always had short hair, and I wore Doc Martens, and it was a less common look over here in the States when we first came over than obviously in England. But yeah, I think everybody had a certain...we had presence, and it was the sort of thing, we would surprise quite a lot of people. They expected us to be dour shoegazers, before the expression was in the vocabulary. But we had humor. We had a presence, an aggression on stage. It's always good to surprise people I think.
Even though I had seen URGH! A Music War as a teenager, I grew up in West Virginia where there were not many shows to see, and I was a little too young to catch you guys the first time through. But when you toured in 2005, I was still taken aback, by all of you, but in particularly Jon who gets on stage and seems like he's been possessed. I wasn't expecting that.
When the four of us sat down in the summer of 2004 to talk about it, because every now and again, people said, "Oh, you guys should get back together." It was like, "Yeah, no. Don't think so." But then, it became quite an issue. Especially after the Pixies had suddenly done it, so brilliant and successful, and there were a lot of younger, newer acts that clearly had been influenced.
Almost every other band at the time.
(Laughs) I won't use the word stolen, because that would be ungracious, but let's say "influenced." So, I thought, "Well, let's think about it," and we got together. And even though it was uncomfortable at first, that feeling got put aside, and we went back quite comfortably into the old dynamics. Which worked positively, and occasionally not so positively. But when we were playing together, when we were rehearsing together, when we were sitting around drinking, and laughing, and everything together, it was fabulous. But what we did, what was a big thing at the beginning was we're not going to do this like a victory lap. We're not going to do this half-heartedly, because we had left behind, as it were, a reputation of being fierce live. Even though that was when we were 22, 23, and now we were all turning 50 or 49, 50 that year, we could not rest on those laurels. It was hard work to get back to, well, it certainly was for me. Because I hadn't played for quite a number of years, and physically my job was quite demanding. But yeah, we just said, "We have to be every bit as good, if not better." So, it was conscious and deliberate that we did that, and got away with it.
I thought you were great.
So did I. Thank you.
And as a fan, I was very happy to finally get to see the four of you play.
I've mentioned this before. The very first show we did was at this really weird pub in South London on the Old Kent Road. And it was supposed to be a secret show before we went off on that five or six day UK tour in January of 2005. And that secret show suddenly turns out to be 300 people in 175 capacity pub. And stage fright has never been a thing to me really, but before we went on stage, I was terrified. I was like, "Oh my God, we're going to be found out." But halfway through the first song on this crappy stage, it smelled of piss, and beer, and everything. It was just like really the old days. Dave just turned around, and looked at me, and grinned, and it was like, "Oh, this. Yes." And it was like being transported back so many years. It just clicked in, and it was fantastic.
I think it's interesting that you guys and Pylon both just put out box sets. And you're very connected bands. You toured together. You guys ...
We've remained dear friends all the way through. I have other friends down in Athens. And when I was doing A&R [for Island Records], I'd go down there. And we've always stayed in touch. And then, when they did their reunion bit, they asked me to come and DJ for them when they did their show in Brooklyn. And again in Athens at the 40 Watt. So yeah, we're just good friends. And I guess it's just timing. Their box set was fabulous, too, and they were very kind, and asked us, as we did with them, "Could you write a few memories for us?" Because I think those are important. It matters. It puts it in time and place.
I want to ask you about "It's her Factory," your vocal contribution to the Gang of Four's ouvre.
My primary vocal ... I sang a lot of backing vocals. Being the only one who could really sing in tune...but yeah. And that came from just messing around in the rehearsal room. Andy was doing his sloppy reggae thing, and Jon. It started off as this toasting thing over the top, but then we formalized it. I wrote the lyrics, and then said to Jon, "Okay. Are these any good?" And we took it from there. Yeah. It was always fun live on stage. What do you think about it?
I am an Augustus Pablo fan so it always reminded me of that. It also holds a special place for me as I would say it has ended more mixtapes that I've made than any other song, just because it ends with, "That's all," and just stops cold.
Right yeah. Playing it live was great too. It was quite important that we're not stuck in our position. "We can all do a little bit of this, and a little bit of that." So yeah, it enhanced that thing of I'm not just the drummer, and he's not just there. Sometimes people sing, sometimes they don't. Yeah. It was a good live piece. It was fun.
Gang of Four have been sampled a few times recently -- Run the Jewels sampled "Ether" on “The Ground Below,” and Frank Ocean sampled "Anthrax" on "Futura Free." But looking on whosampled.com I was a little surprised by how few times you'd been sampled.
Well, there are some that got through without anything. There's one particular multi-platinum artist who has one album with more sync licenses than one can shake a stick at. It was actually, we love that record, but I always felt listening to it that, "Oh my God, that's Dave. Andy, that's our ..." I could hear it, I could hear it. And then, I went along to see him playing in Boston, I don't know, 10 years ago, eight years ago, and we were backstage, and it was fun, and charming, and all this. And then, I'm upstairs watching, and he said, "Okay. I just want to say that this song relies very heavily on something from my lovely friend upstairs, Hugo from Gang of Four, and this song was ... I just hope he doesn't sue me." I keep saying, "God, maybe we should just go back and get somebody to say, "Hey, wait a minute." I could pay my daughter's tuition with that. But yeah, it has happened. Who else? LCD Soundsystem, clearly. There are others. When you're not together, when you've not got a thing going on, and you're not paying attention to it, or have a record label that's actively trying to help, which we didn't for so many years, these things happen.
I've got very little to complain about compared to James Brown or Parliament-Funkadelic. But it happened more times than we were given credit for. But it was really an honor and a delight when Run the Jewels, when El--P came to us and said, "Hey, you guys meant so much to me." And then, "Do you mind?" And I'm like, "Do we mind?" It's fantastic. Really a thrill. The same with Frank Ocean. May it continue.
3D from Massive Attack recently said that he had tried over the years to sample Gang of Four, and they've just never been able to make it work.
Oh, I'm not sure he didn't succeed a couple of times. (Laughs.) Yeah. When anyone who's done as great work as they have will acknowledge that they like us, or they're inspired, or whatever, it's a fabulous thing. It's really very gracious, very nice.
Does it surprise you at all ever that the way that what you guys did is still so massively influential today? I would say at least one artist I write about every day, and that includes loads of new bands, there's a direct through-line.
Thank you. Lovely. It's great. If young, new bands are inspired by us, I hope they go back even deeper into the people who inspired us, and listen to Dr. Feelgood or Free. And everyone listens to Hendrix and Parliament-Funkadelic, but more and deeper into dub reggae, and I-Roy, U-Roy. The stuff we love. But yeah, go and listen to a Wilko Johnson with Dr. Feelgood. Go and listen to Free. And I don't mean "All Right Now." I mean almost every other song. Because we all take some. It's how you take it and how you use your influences. It's lovely when people will acknowledge that. Yeah, it's cool. I never thought it at the time that it was important. I thought it was great. It was important to us that we did something that was interesting. But yeah, it's nice that it still makes a difference.
On that note, we can wrap things up.
As I say, "That's all."
Purchase the above-pictured box set, and the new vinyl reissues of Solid Gold and Entertainment! in the BV shop.
Here's that unboxing video: