The anarchist king of punk-rock guitar led the Gang of Four with a sound that was equal parts precision and destruction, kicking open the doors for a radical new breed of player.
Andy Gill was a guitar anti-hero who shattered the notion of licks and riffs … by literally shattering licks and riffs. Gill’s playing on his band Gang of Four’s highly influential 1979 debut Entertainment! heralded the arrival of a new kind of rock guitarist: string slammers who embraced angularity and atonal bombs, crafting braying, churning waves of noise and serrated, dangerous solos. Under Gill’s hand, a single-note could become a whinnying exclamation point to one of his observational lyrics—the equivalent of one of James Brown’s chorus-climax yowls as well as a sonic dagger pinning an idea between the ears of his listeners.
Gill died Saturday, February 1, at age 64, due to pneumonia, according to a press release from his current Gang of Four bandmates. His legacy includes 15 studio and live recordings, and a list of production credits that covers albums by Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Jesus Lizard, the Futureheads, and Killing Joke. His bandmates recalled Gill fondly, writing, “he was our friend—and we’ll remember him for his kindness and generosity, his fearsome intelligence, bad jokes, mad stories, and endless cups of Darjeeling tea. He just so happened to be a bit of a genius, too.”
Gill never ceased to exercise and display his genius. He was always interested in creating and manipulating sound, and was an early adopter of digital recording. In recent years, most of his onstage guitar tones were generated via a pair of MacBook Pros running Apple’s MainStage software.
But his core constant musical companion for the majority of his career was the Fender Stratocaster, with a Gibson ES-335 joining over the past few years to get, as Gill described it, “that growling, old man kind of sound.”
Gill was born in gritty, industrial Manchester, England, in 1956, and fell for the guitar after seeing the Beatles on television. “I was trying to figure out how they changed pitch,” he recounted in a June 2019 Premier Guitar interview. “I couldn’t see they were pressing on frets. I thought they were maybe fiddling with their tuning heads—maybe that’s how it worked. I mean, I had no idea, but I liked the sound of it, but I didn’t think I had any ability. And then my cousin, who was a couple years older than me, could play quite a few things on the guitar. And he showed me how to play ‘Satisfaction’ by the Stones, which I always think as Guitar Lesson Number One. If ever any kids ask me how to play guitar, I show them that. And once I got it in my head, I played it a million times … couldn’t stop playing it. So, I was addicted at that point, and I thought, okay, so it’s not so hard. Actually, they were lying! It’s easy! And then the same cousin showed me how to play ‘Voodoo Child.’ Then I was away. If you can play that, you can pretty much go on and do anything.”
That sense of being able to do anything was reinforced when Gill and his University of Leeds mate, Jon King, made a trip to New York City in 1976, ostensibly to study film and art, but covertly to absorb the blooming, wildly creative and diverse urban rock scene.
“At CBGB, I remember standing between Joey Ramone and John Cale, having beers with them, and chatting about stuff, and, you know, feeling ‘this is all very normal,’’’ Gill said. “Then the Jam turned up at CBGB and we watched them, and we’d have a chat with Paul Weller and Paul Weller’s dad, who was managing them then. And we got to be friends with the Patti Smith Group. And Jay Dee Daugherty, the drummer, he was particularly a very nice guy. That was a great time—fantastic! It was like: This is normal, anyone can do this, I can do this. Okay, when we go back to Leeds, we’ll do some gigs. So it was, literally, the beginning of Gang of Four.”
Gang of Four were immediately heralded for their searing-but-danceable sonic expressionism and their keen cultural observations. Gill addressed the latter in our 2019 interview: “Sometimes there’s an element of confusion about the political thing. It would be a mistake to think that Gang of Four was always banging the drum for socialism and prescribing certain social changes to make the world a better place. I don’t think that was ever on the agenda. What was on the agenda was much more attempts to describe the world that we saw around us and, on a sort of micro level, what you might call personal politics. And on a more macro level, the things that we saw happening in our country and in our media, and the way things would be presented to us.” Whatever its intentions. Gill’s poetic commentary was perfect for the Reagan/Thatcher era and remained on point through the Gang’s most recent album, 2019’s Happy Now, where “I’m a Liar” and “Ivanka: ‘My Names on It’” found new characters to skewer.
Gill’s playing on Entertainment! and throughout his career was a blunt, bright-toned blend of the deep groove and rhythmic precision of classic R&B and dub, along with the explosiveness of Hendrix. He and similarly daring guitarists like David Byrne and Robert Quine ushered in a new era of guitar marked by a less literal approach, more dependent on sound and texture for conveying its message. And prominent bands, including the Chili Peppers, R.E.M., and Nirvana, have cited the Gang of Four’s influence.
The expression on Andy Gill’s face during this 1982 show at The Pier in New York City captures the mix of intention and humor often apparent in the sounds he conjured from his guitars. Photo by Ebet Roberts
Gill often cited his own primary influences. “There are two very, very diverse ways I go about things,” he explained. “One is sort of just crashing through everything else, while the drums and the bass are always a tightly functioning, rigid groove. And you could say the James Brown thing is there. And sometimes the guitar ties in a little bit, and then goes completely off-grid. It’s sort of Hendrix at his most chaotic, or the Velvet Underground, where it kind of gets a little sloppy. And then, at the other extreme, it’s tight and sits right in what the rhythm section’s doing. People that do that are—like, Steve Cropper, and Wilko Johnson at the British R&B end—just millimeter-tight with the groove.”
For four decades and various personnel changes, Gill remained at the helm of Gang of Four. As Gang of Four was beginning the final leg of a U.S. tour in late February 2019, he was hospitalized in New York City for a chest infection. The remainder of the tour was scrapped and, when he sufficiently improved, Gill returned to his home in England. When we spoke last winter via Skype, he seemed in improved spirits and condition, obligingly answering questions about his career as a brilliant and purposeful sonic radical who helped change the evolution of rock guitar and continued to experiment with its DNA.
I asked Gill what kept him inspired and focused after 40 years in music. His answer was typically grounded. “Friends and relatives, and just going through and doing a good job,” he replied. “Regularly albatrosses fly in, dropping grenades, and to survive and to achieve a few things is a great source of satisfaction.”