> Gang of Four's Jon King talks about the balance of power between artists and labels, rediscovering old songs, and the space to make mistakes - SNACK: Music, film, arts and culture magazine for Scotland

Gang of Four’s Jon King talks about the balance of power between artists and labels, rediscovering old songs, and the space to make mistakes

In August, even long-term residents of Edinburgh can feel like a tourist in their city, such is the overwhelming rate of change caused by the various festivals. That’s not the meaning of the lyrics to ‘At Home He’s A Tourist’ by Gang of Four, but it brings the key elements of this interview together in too neat a way to overlook!

SNACK caught up with singer Jon King to discuss the tour, box-sets, the state of the world, the Scottish artist they discovered and the importance of authenticity, in live shows and in how you live.

You’ve mentioned that you’re all set for the upcoming tour, especially after not having played here for a long time. How do you feel about it?

We’re incredibly excited. We have the support bands lined up, and it promises to be a fantastic lineup. We’re all eagerly anticipating it since it’s been a while since we last played in the UK.

Last year, you toured the US. How was that experience?

The US tour was a result of a box set I produced, exclusive to the US due to rights reasons. It included a 120-page book, five albums, a previously unreleased double live album from 1980, and more. Unfortunately, it was released during Covid, a time when the entertainment world was at a standstill. The box set received rave reviews, sold out, and even earned me a Grammy nomination. This success led to a high demand for us to tour the US. 

Once our box set gained traction, there was a renewed interest in our music. We wanted to maintain the band’s authenticity, so Sarah Lee, a long-time member and accomplished musician, joined us. We also collaborated with David Pajo, known for his work with Slint and others. David has been fantastic, offering both a faithful interpretation of our original material and his unique flair.

We managed a month-long, coast-to-coast tour in March 2022, which was a sold-out and intense experience.

Gang of Four | Photo credit: Jason Grow

Is there any chance the box set will be released in the UK?

That’s unlikely. In the United States, around 40 years ago, Congress passed a unique rule. This rule, found only in the US and not replicated anywhere else globally, recognised that when bands initially sign contracts, they’re often in an unequal position of power. For instance, when a relatively unknown band like Gang of Four signs with a massive corporation like Warner Brothers, the balance is skewed. This rule, commonly referred to as the 35-year rule, allows bands to exit these contracts after 35 years if they wish.

When we first signed our contract, it seemed favourable, offering a 10% royalty on our vinyl sales. However, fast forward 30 years, and a 10% royalty on streaming media, which has virtually no manufacturing or distribution costs, feels like a rip-off. The rule allows for renegotiation, but our record label showed no interest.

Interestingly, Warner Brothers, whom we left in the U.S., eventually acquired EMI, our global label. Neither has ever shown genuine interest in our work. For instance, during the recording of Entertainment! (the band’s debut album), no one from the record company visited the studio. When we submitted our tape, they even asked if it was just a demo. Their lack of interference was surprising, but in hindsight, it allowed us the freedom to work without external pressures.

How did the audiences respond during the US tour?

It was heartening to see that while we played our classic material, about two-thirds of the audience were younger, likely under 35. Many probably hadn’t seen us live before. The energy was palpable, with audiences always wanting more by the end of our shows.

Touring can be challenging. Did you enjoy the process?

Absolutely. Despite the challenges of touring, this was one of the most enjoyable tours I’ve ever been a part of. There wasn’t any edge to it, it was a great pleasure to concentrate on the music, and with the crowds, there was momentum building up over the course of the tour.

With bringing Dave in, did you rediscover any old songs, or look at any in a new light?

One of the songs which has its own flavour on different nights is ‘He’d Send In The Army’. It’s quite improvised, and David’s contribution was outstanding. The song I truly watch as an audience member is ‘Love Like Anthrax.’ David’s guitar playing during this song reminds me of watching Jimi Hendrix. I’m a big time Jimi Hendrix fan and watching Dave Pajo is like watching him, I’m blown away by his command of the instrument and the theatricality of it. It’s incredible. It’s mesmerising. Another highlight was watching David perform ‘Paralysed.’ Our songs aren’t typical pop songs; they’re stark and either hit the mark or they don’t.

Many of your songs from the 70s and 80s remain relevant today. How do you feel about that?

It’s bittersweet. On our recent tour, I engaged with fans post-show, and many wanted to discuss the songs. We proudly display various flags on stage, representing our beliefs. It’s unfortunate that my lyrics still resonate today. Songs like ‘Guns Before Butter’ touch on themes like militarism and authoritarianism, which are still prevalent. We were part of movements like Rock Against Racism, and now we see movements like Black Lives Matter. It’s disheartening to see issues persist, but I’m touched that our music still speaks to people.

How do you feel about the current state of the world?

It’s disheartening. I often find myself avoiding the news. Just recently, I learned about record-breaking temperatures in China and the hottest week in human history. It’s a grim reminder of the challenges we face.

You’re often cited as a significant influence on many bands. How do you feel about being seen as pioneers in the industry?

It’s humbling. Everyone is inspired by someone, and if we’ve played a part in someone’s creative journey, that’s an honour. We drew inspiration from blues musicians like Muddy Waters, who wrote authentically about their experiences. Today’s challenge for young musicians is the abundance of technology. With tools like GarageBand, it’s easy to produce nice sounding tracks, but the challenge is to create a unique sound. It’s essential to have a message, not just in lyrics but in the sound itself.

What’s your take on the current music scene?

Most music today sounds similar, with only a few standing out. I recently saw Marissa Paternoster from Screaming Females perform, and her authenticity was refreshing. Live performances are where you truly connect with music, and we pride ourselves on being a great live band.

How do you think Gang of Four would fare if they were starting off today?

It’s hard to say. Today’s music industry is challenging, especially financially. When we began, we didn’t have money or promoters willing to book us. So, we self-promoted our first gig. We were fortunate that the Buzzcocks, who were just starting to gain traction, allowed us to support them. They, Pete Shelley especially, were generous, even inviting us to support them in Europe. We barely had enough to cover food and petrol.

Back then, we weren’t immediately recognised or reviewed. With today’s social media, there’s a heavy focus on promotion and marketing. When we started, our sound was still evolving. Our initial style was heavily influenced by bands like Dr. Feelgood. Over time, as we became more comfortable on stage, we developed our unique sound. Today, every mistake is noticed, recorded, and remembered. In our early days, we had the luxury of evolving without constant scrutiny.

Being in Glasgow, which has always had a vibrant music scene, was different from places like Leeds and Manchester. We often felt overlooked, which, in hindsight, might have been a blessing. Our first release, the Damaged Goods EP, came out after we had been playing for about two years. By then, we had songs like ‘Anthrax’ that were far from mainstream. 

The current streaming platforms are, in my opinion, detrimental to musicians. They offer minuscule payouts, benefiting shareholders more than artists. Even Apple Music, which positions itself as trendy, takes a significant cut without investing back into the music. Albums, like Entertainment!, told a story, but now, with tracks being sold individually, it’s harder to convey a broader narrative. There’s no positivity from it and the exposure doesn’t drag people out to live shows.

Do you also feel as though streaming and everything digital has really impacted bands artwork and their overall identity?

Vinyl offers a unique experience. Its 12-inch square format provides a vast canvas for artistic expression, unlike streaming tracks which lack that tangible playground. For instance, Entertainment! was conceived as a unified idea. The exclamation mark in its title introduces a playful twist, questioning the very notion of entertainment. 

The cover, inspired by Situationist imagery, encapsulates the essence of all the songs. It’s about taking familiar imagery and transforming it into something else. My approach to lyrics often involves considering a concept and then its opposite. It’s a balance between addressing societal issues and embracing them, like criticising Apple while using their products. It’s not hypocrisy, but it’s a complex stance.

Can you delve deeper into the inspiration behind the Entertainment! cover?

The cover was influenced by Karl May, the best-selling German author who wrote westerns and adventure stories. He created a cowboy and Native American duo, reminiscent of Tonto and the Lone Ranger. Most Europeans recognise the imagery from his works. The cover touches on the historical exploitation of Native Americans by European settlers.

It’s a darkly humorous and multifaceted representation. I designed the outer cover, while Andy crafted the inner artwork, capturing TV images and adding commentary. His work, especially on songs like ‘5.45,’ brilliantly encapsulates the album’s themes.

With the resurgence of vinyl, how do you view its role in today’s music scene?

Embracing vinyl is a fantastic opportunity for bands. If I were in a band today, I’d consider releasing exclusively on vinyl and going all in on social media to see how that pans out. It allows you to carve out your own niche, setting your own rules, you define your own world.

What motivates you to continue in the music industry?

At my core, I’m a musician. It’s not about fame or fortune, as even legends like Paul McCartney continue to create because it’s their passion. If you believe your work is still relevant and exhilarating, there’s nothing more fulfilling than pursuing it. 

Take Eddi Reader, for instance. Her talent is undeniable, and her dedication to her craft is inspiring. One of the highlights of my career was discovering Eddi. She travelled from Irvine to London to audition for Gang of Four’s Songs of the Free tour in America. That tour marked her first journey outside the UK, and she joined us on our American leg. I recall her father accompanying her to Glasgow, ensuring we’d take good care of her. After one of our shows, we all shared a few whiskeys at the hotel. It was a memorable evening.

Eddi has been consistently magnificent throughout her career. Regardless of her evolving style over the decades, her audience has remained loyal. In Scotland, authenticity is highly valued. 

If you’re genuine and loved here, you’re deeply cherished. Scotland has a fierce sense of identity and community, something I’ve always admired. This strong sense of community isn’t as prevalent in the southeast of England, where it often feels like everyone is a stranger. 

Scotland’s inclination towards independence isn’t surprising, especially given the current political climate. The nation has a tradition of looking after its own and valuing honesty. These, to me, seem like quintessential Scottish virtues. Scotland excels when it does things right. While it doesn’t always get everything perfect, its emphasis on authenticity stands out. Especially in Glasgow, any hint of insincerity is quickly detected and isn’t tolerated.

Speaking of Scotland, how have Scottish audiences received you over the years?

Scottish crowds have always been fantastic. They value authenticity and can quickly discern what’s genuine from what’s not. Our records have resonated because they’re unique and honest. Live performances, like those of Dr. Feelgood or Bob Dylan, are unpredictable and raw, capturing the essence of the moment. That’s the beauty of live music; it’s ever-evolving and spontaneous.

I saw Dr. Feelgood half a dozen times, and they were really drunk and on speed so they were often in quite a state! One thing was guaranteed, no two shows were alike.

The four of us are eagerly anticipating our upcoming tour. We have six shows lined up in the UK, and we’re genuinely excited. Our lineup is fantastic which we believe fans will love.

How do you think you’ll be remembered?

Legacy is a complex concept. If our music inspires fans and fellow musicians to make a positive impact, then we’ve done our part. The goal is to contribute to the broader conversation, pushing it in a progressive direction.

Gang of Four play Edinburgh’s La Belle Angele (rearranged from the O2 Academy) on Sunday 1st October

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