Saturday, February 1, 2020

In memoriam: Andy Gill

Andy Gill and Jon King onstage, Hof Ter Lo, Antwerp, Belgium, 2nd May 1981. (Photo by Gie Knaeps/Getty Images. Source: NME)

Andy Gill's death was announced earlier today. He was the guitarist for the Gang of Four, who emerged in Leeds in the late 1970s inspired by the first wave of punk. By joining the dance beat of funk and disco (both highly suspect genres to most punks) to the squalling feedback of Andy Gill's guitar, they created a sound that was as radical as their anti-capitalist politics. I remember laughing in sheer disbelief the first time I heard Gill splattering jagged chords over the steady beat of drummer Hugo Burnham and bassist Dave Allen in "At Home He's A Tourist," while vocalist Jon King chanted the typically smart, bitter lyrics about how we are made to collude in our own oppression. ("She said she was ambitious / So she accepts the process.")

Gill's guitar was simultaneously rhythm and lead, but as with some other punk and post-punk bands he didn't play traditional guitar solos. Instead he filled his guitar breaks with the aural equivalent of a scream.

I saw the Gang of Four in Chicago after the release of Songs of the Free, when Sara Lee had replaced Dave Allen. It amazed me that four people dressed like young Thatcherite investment bankers on casual Friday could produce such a wall of sound. While Songs of the Free seemed like their subversive attempt to produce an ironic pop hit, live they had lost none of their visceral rawness; their sound seemed powerful enough to shake the foundations not only of the hall, but of a bankrupt social system. Alas, it turned out not to be.

Although the three primary instruments in the band carried a more-or-less equal weight in their sound, it turned out that Gill was the only irreplaceable member. "To Hell With Poverty" tells you why:

"In this land—right now—some are insane, and they're in charge." Andy Gill is dead; let's get drunk on cheap wine.

Update 13 February 2021: Writing a friend about this post, I began wondering whether Gill (whose cause of death was listed as pneumonia and multiple organ failure) might have been an early COVID-19 victim. I rechecked the schedule of the Gang of Four's final tour; they played three concerts in China in November 2019, a detail which suddenly took on a new significance.

Doing some searching I belatedly discovered that Gill's widow, Catherine Mayer, had written a blog post back on 14 May 2020 about her suspicions that her husband had died from complications of COVID-19 infection. The evidence is compelling, especially because we now know that the virus was circulating long before the first case was reported to the World Health Organization on 31 December 2019:

Mayer also gave an interview to BBC Newscast shortly after publishing her post:

Whatever the ultimate cause of Gill's untimely death, it's clear that COVID-19 cases and deaths have been drastically under-recorded.