Friday, February 14, 2020

REVIEW - Gang of Four: This Heaven Gives Me Migraine

Listening to This Heaven Gives Me Migraine, the upcoming five-track EP by Gang of Four, is simultaneously exciting and devastating.

Regular readers of this website know that anything released under the “Gang of Four” banner gets my immediate and enthusiastic attention. It has been a habit of mine to deeply dissect the band’s releases and/or area live performances as soon as possible, thus making them one of my most-covered acts. While not everything I’ve written on the Andy Gill-led version of the group over the years has been favorable, every syllable I’ve delivered has been the honest reflection of a longtime fan who truly and deeply cares about everything this band does.

Or did.

That part still stings like hell. Twelve days ago, I spent an afternoon composing my tribute to Andy, who passed away on February 1 at 64. I won’t repeat what I wrote, as it was difficult enough for me the first time. However, I will say that I’m far from over this loss. Selfishly, I spent the days following my post mourning the fact that I would never again get an opportunity to hear where Andy’s mind might have taken us next. He was always searching, always retooling, always striving to say things with a bravery and insight that many of us could only dream of possessing. It was tragic to think that work as brilliant as Andy’s would cease to be when it so clearly wasn’t time for it to stop.  

Fortunately – and quite surprisingly – there was more coming.

Today, the surviving members of Gang of Four announced the February 26 release of this new – and very likely final – EP. The digital-only release contains three songs – which Andy had been working on mere days before he died – bookended by brief clips of him speaking. According to the band, it was Andy’s desire to create a project that “revisits and re-imagines his musical legacy.”

“From the hospital, Andy continued to give final notes on mixes of music that he looked forward to releasing,” shares Andy’s widow, Catherine Mayer. “Since his death, I have been working with the band to fulfill his vision. The only change we have made is to include on the EP two brief recordings of Andy speaking, both, in different ways, essence of Andy.”

“This collection of songs was recorded just before Andy died, and it was his intention to get these out – to represent the way we played them on tour, late last year,” adds John “Gaoler” Sterry, who had fronted Gang of Four since the departure of original vocalist Jon King in 2012. “All three songs were recorded in Andy’s home studio in London, and there’s a fly-on-the-wall intimacy to this EP – from the song selection to the snippets of spoken word.”

Considering the posthumous nature of this release, it is quite appropriate – and heartbreaking – that This Heaven Gives Me Migraine (a reference to a lyric from 1979’s “Natural’s Not in It”) would feature a re-worked version of 2015’s “The Dying Rays.” As previously discussed on this site, the track is one of Andy’s greatest songwriting victories and a prime example of his many gifts as a lyricist. In the original version, guest singer Herbert Grönemeyer perfectly personifies the quiet sorrow that hits many of us as we age and begin to contemplate our mortality. In this new incarnation, Gaoler breathes a new perspective into the existing words. While Grönemeyer’s performance embodied the ravages of time and regret, Gaoler’s take resembles a young man – and a world of fans and admirers – who got to experience the world under the tutelage of a world-renowned mentor, only to see that magic come to an abrupt and sad end:

Control and power
Empires were built in our minds
But it will all go up in a blaze
Only dust
In the dying rays.

One quibble I expressed in my review of 2015’s What Happens Next was that Andy had largely overlooked Gaoler’s gifts as a vocalist in favor of filling a fair amount of the album with guest performers. This version of “The Dying Rays” corrects that misstep and provides Gaoler a further opportunity to thrive in a well-earned spotlight.

The EP’s second song is a version of “Natural’s Not in It” recorded late last year by the band’s final lineup. While most diehard Gang of Four fans will understandably favor the original version off the Entertainment! album, this new rendition brilliantly showcases what the live Gaoler-fronted lineup – which had impressively grown from disappointingly pedestrian to absolutely fucking scorching in the span of about 18 months – was all about. This energy carries into a loose recording of “Toreador,” which slays the original version off last year’s Happy Now thanks in large part to a ton of added oomph in the drumming department. As for the spoken pieces, I won’t spoil their content except to say that it was nice hearing Andy’s voice again today.

Does This Heaven Gives Me Migraine serve as a fitting sonic epitaph for Andy Gill? No, but nothing would ever succeed as an adequate final statement from someone whose career was devoted to forward motion. That said, this EP demonstrates that Andy – revolutionary and irreplaceable – was still working and exploring right up to the end.

For that alone, the man left on a high note.  


Sunday, February 2, 2020

Words for Andy Gill

I’ve written thousands of words on Andy Gill over the years, but this is one piece I never wanted to do.

Time stood still for me yesterday when I read the announcement posted by his band, Gang of Four, that he had left us. History will remember him as one of the most innovative guitarists of our time, but he was much more than that to me.

A much as I love Jon King as a singer and frontman, I’ve always connected most with the Gang of Four material that featured Andy at the mic. For me, his deadpan delivery often spoke to the disconnection we all feel at times as we struggle to find meaning in the madness surrounding us. When I first heard his turn on vocals on 1982’s “We Live as We Dream, Alone,” it felt like he had just summed up the universe:

We live as we dream, alone
To crack the shell, we mix with the others
Some flirt with fascism
Some lie in the arms of lovers…

Man and woman need to work
It helps us define ourselves
We were not born in isolation
But sometimes, it seems that way.

For many diehard Gang of Four fans, the band began to rapidly lose its fire once the original lineup ceased operations following 1981’s Solid Gold. I’ve always considered this an unfortunate misconception, as the group’s subsequent albums – with Andy increasingly at the helm – offered even greater insight into the guitarist’s take on the world. The lyrical content on the tragically overlooked 1995 album Shrinkwrapped is among Andy’s finest output, with the man reaching new heights in describing a person’s emotional lows with the track “Unburden.” If you read the first story in my forthcoming book while listening to that number, it will be obvious how much his work has informed and inspired my own.

In 2015, Gang of Four – with Andy as the sole remaining original member – released the album What Happens Next. While many scoffed at the idea of a King-less record (while at the same time dismissing the effort as “Gang of One”), those who gave it a chance heard what is perhaps Andy’s most exquisite – and heartbreaking – creative moment. With German singer Herbert Grönemeyer delivering the mournful guest vocals, “The Dying Rays” still guts me every time I hear it:

What I wanted
Disappears in the haze
A speck of dust
Held forever in the dying rays.

Breath on the mirror, nothing in sight
The horizon's bare, but in the night
I missed the pilots' light.

Control and power
Empires were built in our minds
But it will all go up in a blaze
Only dust
In the dying rays.

“It's very much written from the heart,” Andy once told me. “It's not a young man's song, let's put it that way. I think with a little bit of experience and a certain amount of looking in the rearview mirror, you have some ideas about time, wasted time and things like that…I was in this Elizabethan house, [a] hotel in England. The sun was going down, and I was sitting in the chair and doing nothing, staring off in the middle distance. I just saw this speck of dust coming down in front of my eyes. It mesmerized me; I was hypnotized like a cat. [Those were] the first words...the 'speck of dust' thing. Everything came from that.”

The older I get, the more I refer back to this song. In 2017, as I found myself newly in my forties and heading towards divorce, I connected with “The Dying Rays” in ways that eased my pain. And when my most recent relationship ended late last year, it was the first song I played. What began as a speck of dust for Andy has become an irreplaceable lifeline for me when I’ve needed one the most.

My personal dealings with Andy were interesting, to say the least. When I received a promo copy of What Happens Next, I dissecting that thing for days. I enjoyed it immensely, but it was far from a perfect Gang of Four album – and I made my misgivings known in a review on my website. A few days later, I received an email from Gang of Four’s publicist saying the Andy really liked “how well thought out and fair” my review was and that a phone interview could be arranged so he and I could discuss the album one on one. Naturally, I jumped at the offer.

Andy and I soon had a lovely chat, and of course my review came up in that conversation. The impression he gave me was that he cared very little about whether a review was positive or negative; he seemed most interested in knowing whether a listener had seriously thought about what he was presenting in his work. As we were wrapping up, I mentioned that I intended to include a chapter on Gang of Four’s 1982 album, Songs of the Free, in a book I’ve been working on in dribs and drabs since 2005 called Albums that (Should’ve) Changed the World. He immediately offered to assist me in putting that together, and we agreed to stay in touch moving forward.

So, how did I reciprocate Andy’s graciousness and openness towards my criticisms of his new album? By potentially shitting all over my newfound connection with an artist I deeply admired, of course. When the band hit the Paradise Rock Club in Boston a few weeks later, I was invited to review the gig. Frankly, the show largely sucked; I didn’t think the new lineup cut it. I ended up skewering Andy’s new Gang of Four on my site the following day. (“If any other band on the planet delivered a gig like this, they would receive a more favorable review,” I wrote. “But this is fucking Gang of Four; this stuff really matters. I respect Gill enough to give his work an honest review, for better or for worse.”) Sure, I was proud of myself for keeping it real, but I began to strongly doubt that Andy would ever want to speak to me again.

About 18 months later, I got another email from the band’s publicist, this time inviting me to attend another gig at the Paradise. The email came with an additional message: “Andy would love to say hello.” Uh oh. Surely, I couldn’t face the guy after that last review. And what if I found his version of Gang of Four mediocre again? I went to the gig anyway.

I’m glad I did, because they absolutely blew my goddamn mind that night. Fucking incredible. The band on stage that evening WAS Gang of Four. Andy had been right all along, and I had been a schmuck for ever doubting him.

After the gig, the band’s manager brought me backstage. I was unsure of how my presence would be received. Fortunately, Andy was simply wonderful. He was in a jovial mood, greeting me with a wide and enthusiastic smile as he playfully joked around with his bandmates – all of whom were equally warm and hospitable. It was clear that he didn’t hold my negative words about the band against me.

“You’ve taken a lot of hits on my website, Andy, but I stand before you tonight to look you in the eyes and eat my words.”

I told him how much I loved the show and how impressed I was with what the other members delivered. He was glued to my every word, intensely nodding and clearly considering everything I had to say. I don’t think that had anything to do with the fact I was being complimentary; I think it was because I was giving his efforts my time and genuine thoughts.

I have no delusions about my place in this world. At best, I’m a semi-successful cult musician and a music fan with a Blogger account. Andy’s career would have gone on just fine without my opinions, but he made me feel that my reactions – even when they were far from rosy – were of tremendous value to him. I will forever respect and appreciate that.

Photos were taken and laughs were shared, and Andy reiterated his commitment to participating in my Albums book. Then, life went on as it always does. My focus drifted towards more pressing matters, and the Albums project continued to sit on the back burner.

The last time I heard from Andy was in March 2018 when he sent me a quick “hey Joel - how’s it going?” on Messenger. His timing was impeccable; I had just written a piece for my website on the then-new Gang of Four track, “Lucky.” I shot him the link, which soon appeared on the band’s official Facebook page – thus demonstrating a level of reciprocity between band and press that is sadly lacking in most corners of the music business. I had hoped for more connections with him from that point, but life and schedules again took us in different directions. I thought I had time. I was wrong.

Andy gave us much to listen to and ponder in his 64 years. Solace can be found in the fact that people will be discovering Gang of Four’s music for years to come. They will dance. They will sweat. They will read those lyrics. They will think. Most of all, they will find comfort in knowing they are not as alone in their living and dreaming as they once believed.

Farewell and thank you, dear man. You mattered. So much.