Review: Gang of Four

Joe Costello ventures to the O2 Institute to witness the gang’s show.

It was a very late decision of mine to attend this show, bound by decades of misplaced snobbery over band line ups. Was 50% of the original band enough for the headliners to legitimately call themselves the Gang of Four? Eventually I relented, partly on the basis that I failed to summon up the effort to see them on their most visit to the Midlands in 2009 when the band played in Leamington Spa in support of the thirtieth anniversary of their debut album Entertainment! and if not now, then when would I get another chance?

But before that, the Miki Berenyi Trio, performing a mix of songs from both the Lush back catalogue and her current group Piroshka, she tells us at the end of their set that we are in for a treat and that they had planned to return to London immediately but opted to stay to see the headliners perform again. On a personal note, during the interval, we passed each other on the stairs and she smiled at me which set the pulse racing every bit as much as the injury-time winner that took place at around the same time at Villa Park and would have probably have witnessed in person but for this conflict of interest.

And so to Gang of Four and the perennially dispiriting sight of Jon King, a man old enough to be my slightly precocious dad, exhibiting infinitely more energy and stamina than I have been capable of many years. They open the show with a trio of crowd pleasers Return the Gift, Not Great Men and Outside the Trains Don’t Run On Time, the latter bookended with a pointed comment on the previous day’s announcement on HS2 and would it be running at all let alone on time which may have been enjoyed by RMT general secretary Mick Lynch who was in attendance at the London show the following evening.

The halfway point of the set sees King thrashing a microwave oven with a baseball bat to provide additional percussion during He’d Send In the Army. They may have warned of the dangers of capitalism throughout their career but you can’t fail to be impressed that the item was advertised for sale on the merchandise stall after the show, signed and yours for £30.

The evening concludes with Damaged Goods and it was an enjoyable one but the elephant in the room remains. Of the original line up, only King and drummer Hugo Burnham took to the stage, the latter’s daughter creating a Gang of Five on a handful of songs requiring backing vocals.

The 2009 tour, I have since learned, also comprised 50% of the members from three decades before, King and guitarist Andy Gill who went their separate ways in 2011, disagreeing over the future direction with Gill continuing to tour and record under the moniker against the wishes of King until his death in February 2020. Had you seen this line up’s final performance in 2019, appropriately or ironically depending on your view in China, you would have witnessed a completely different quartet to the current tour. As far as I can tell, there was no love lost in the intervening period between the two.

The concept of what constitutes a band is one I find myself increasingly drawn to. I remember in my youth being appalled to learn of a Latin American boy band Menudo who simply replace members once they got too old, not quite Logan’s Run style but the ruthlessness in pursuit of entertainment has parallels. I can think of nobody other than Coldplay or U2 who retain their original or most recognisable constituent parts, the latter employing a ringer on drums for their ongoing Las Vegas residency so even they are not immune to the Ship of Theseus syndrome, or Trigger’s Broom if you prefer.

Ultimately, I think better to have seen a fraction of the band than none at all, most of us change jobs and colleagues over the course of our lives and careers and in the somewhat rarefied atmosphere of the entertainment, some of the same rules apply for the stars as they do for the rest of us. Being fortunate enough to see half of Black Sabbath perform at the Commonwealth closing ceremony last year on my birthday, I can be content with what I’ve witnessed and not regretful about what I’ve missed. Next up for me, Teenage Fanclub, at least, half or two-fifths of them depending on how you want to work it out.