Interview with Hugo Burnham of Gang of Four

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Jim McGuinn interviews Hugo Burnham of Gang of Four (MPR Video)
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This week on Teenage Kicks, Jim McGuinn talks to Hugo Burnham, the drummer of Gang of Four. With the release of 77-81, Gang of Four have put together one of the best vault boxsets this side of Prince, featuring their first two studio albums along with bonus singles, a live concert recording, and an incredible photo book, documenting the post-punk band that would go on to influence everyone from Tom Morello to Flea to El-P from Run the Jewels.

Watch Jim and Hugo's complete interview in the video above, and read a transcript below. You can also listen to Jim's interview with Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen, recorded separately, in the audio player above.

Interview Transcript


JIM McGUINN: All right, it's The Current and Jim McGuinn here, and I am joined by Hugo Burnham from Gang of Four, a seminal band with roots that go back to the late 1970s in the U.K., but you're now, you're now in America and you're outside of Boston, right?

HUGO BURNHAM: I am indeed. I've been living in the States since 1988. Started in New York and Brooklyn before it was hip. And I was working. I came over when I was doing management, artist management, and I went into A&R, which I did for a number of years, starting at Island Records and then going, I moved to Los Angeles, and worked for Quincy Jones at Warner Brothers for three years. And then did some publishing for a couple years and then came back to the East Coast and ended up in Gloucester, which is up on the North Shore a little bit north of Boston, and I teach at a college called Endicott College, a little bit, so a little bit further down the coast. Yeah. So yeah, that's where I am.

Awesome. Well, thank you for joining us in Gang of Four right now, you guys, with a new release that chronicles the early days of the band, 1977 to '81. Primarily the first two records that you put out at that time with the original core lineup, and then a bunch of extra materials.

Yeah, essentially, it's everything bar one for the real anoraks! But everything we recorded with the original lineup, which was myself, Andy Gill, Jon King and Dave Allen, the first two full albums, another vinyl 12-inch album full of all the singles we did. And there's also a double album of a live show we recorded in San Francisco in 1980, which was a truly astounding show that had been floating around for a while on the internet. But we managed to find the original engineer, and he reworked it for us and was very generous with his time and his, his master tapes. So we were that we were able to include that as well. And we've also included a cassette in the box set for authenticity's sake of a lot of our old demos, because I had had them all on a cassette in a box in the basement. So it seems you know, the point of the box set was to make it authentic to the time in terms of how we presented it, the way it was packaged. There's a 100-page book, hardcover book in the box set, which really is a testament to that time, what we were doing musically, socially, politically what was going on around us, and the things that matter. And we have a lot of lovely people contribute to it. So we are very proud of it. And yeah, all those boxes I've been schlepping around for the last 40 years of ephemera and stuff finally got used!

I understand that you are sort of the archivist of that of that time period. You were the person who saved the flyers and saved, saved everything right?

Yeah, I did save a lot. There's also an old friend from Leeds University who was one of our group, Andy Rogers, who is a dear old friend. He's a worse pack rat than I am. He had a few things that I didn't have. So again, yet another really generous person who said, "Sure, here you are," so it's a great, it's a great collection.

77–81 unboxing video


Well, sadly, Andy Gill, the guitar player in the band is no longer with us. He passed away about a year or so ago, I guess…

February of last year, beginning last year.

Yeah. But the three of you are still still here. And, and it's definitely something to be proud of, because that era of that band. I mean, I don't know if you knew it at the time, how the last 40 years, how influential Gang of Four would would end up being on successive generations of musicians?

Well, at the time, you have no idea what's going on. We just wanted to do what we could do. In the most interesting way we could, you know, we wanted to wear, not just wear our influences musical and otherwise on our sleeves, but do something with them. You know, we were trying to be interesting and have fun. I mean, we were the opposite of dour sort of shoegazers. But I think because we had you know, it's, "Oh, they're political." When we first came to the United States on tour in the summer of '79, which was right after we'd finished recording "Entertainment!", the first album, in London. We came on a tour that was self financed, we didn't have a record label over here. And Ian Copeland from FBI agency booked us, we did about six shows opening for the Buzzcocks, who were dear friends and who'd taken us to Europe for the first time and we toured within the U.K. And we probably did another 30-odd shows in a row. We were here for six-odd weeks. And some shows were two shows a night sometimes, it really… We were good! We were really good live when we arrived. But good god, we were even better by the time we left. It was a great explosive tour. And I think a lot of times when people you know, they heard about the single, they'd read about us, all the sort of nerds and anoraks who'd got the NME on export, I think. And they thought we were all going to be terribly serious. We were serious, but we were fun and entertaining and loud.

That's the interesting thing. Because Yeah, you know, I came on to the, I guess what you call like, the new wave of music, you know, a couple years later, so I never saw you in your prime. I was I was looking back. And so I discovered the band through "Entertainment!" And, and "fun" would not be the first adjective I would think of to describe what you guys were like. Look, we have a great sense of humor. We loved playing with each other. I mean, there's no point not entertaining when you are performing. Because that is the job. That is what we wanted to do. The artists who inspired us, that we loved seeing, were just as aggressive and forceful and engaging live, and we wanted to completely match that ferocity. I mean, if you are able to look at band Well, okay, sorry. Yeah. Who would you put on that list, then?

I would put Dr. Feelgood on the list very high.

Oh you can hear that I mean, definitely. Andy's guitar has that sort of urgent attack, you know, that Wilko Johnson had with the guitar. Yeah. Dr. Feelgood. I mean, there were bands… I mean, obviously, the things that — the Stones, the Who Yeah.

Free was a huge influence on us, which probably most Americans know from one song alone, "All Right Now."


And then it's, you know, the band that the guy had the guy before Bad Company, the Bad Company, guys, right? Yeah,

But Free themselves, they were so young. And they made some brilliant… blues-based, like every great English band, rock and roll band of the time was

Yeah.

But they really taught us, along with the all the reggae and dub reggae we were listening to, about space, to be — not to fill every hole, not to do big fills on the drums or cymbal crashes all the time, or really fast guitar solos and things. It was about space, and anyone should listen to Free. I mean, they can start with the album "Fire and Water," which is the one that featured "All Right Now," but so many better songs than that. So they were a huge influence; I mean, you know, we saw we saw, you know, Bob Marley and the Wailers. I mean, we saw a lot of acts.

Yeah, well, and that space is definitely there in Gang of Four, because there are times when you're playing in pretty restrained style as the drummer, holding a very specific beat. And then, you know, Andy and Dave seem to be kind of coming in and out of that beat with their parts in a very interlocked way where the space is the key. Yeah, we were all playing quite percussively. I mean, there was absolutely melody, but percussion, and the interchange between the three of us was elemental to what drove us. That's what made us work together well. So given that you guys managed to merge a lot of those different maybe influences and some might be somewhat surprising, like, talk to me about what punk meant, you know, maybe both musically and also as not musically, in terms of how the band got started. And where you maybe like where you utilized punk and where you zagged against punk too, maybe, that's some of the things that's something I find interesting.

When we look at the expression where we utilize punk. Punk opened many, many doors for people of our age who'd grown up… Okay, so the album "Ummagumma" by Pink Floyd, on the back is that picture of their equipment truck with all of their equipment laid out on the floor in front of it. And I mean, you'd see that when you were 12, 13, 14, and you'd go, "F***, I'm never gonna be able to do that." Growing up and loving, you know, really very musical acts, I mean, Genesis, for instance, I used to love. They played at my high school, right after the "Nursery Cryme" album came out. We paid about £105 for them. But these were real musicians. And it was difficult, complicated stuff. So it was definitely a, "Ugh, I couldn't do that." But at the same time, we'd be running around the country following bands like Hawkwind, who were not,

A little more chaotic.

A little more sort of straightforward, who were amazing, but you know, we'd go to all these, we'd go to these festivals at the Crystal Palace, and a cornucopia of acts. When punk really started, when we first saw the Sex Pistols, the Anarchy Tour, the Sex Pistols, the Damned, the Heartbreakers, and the Clash, it was like, "God, you can do this without having to be a really adept musician. You can do it with one amp and three chords, and be engaging and exciting and fun." So it's like, "Hm. Let's do it." And you know, the legion of acts of our age, everyone in Manchester, who went to the Free Trade Hall to see the Pistols that one time, they all buggered off and started their own bands. But that's that's what we, that's what anyone does. I mean, you are inspired by something and somebody. I mean, look how many acts. I mean, look at Velvet Underground. When they were contemporary, it was like it was a really small thing. But as time went on, more and more people discovered them and were like, "This is great. I can do this." So we weren't punk per se. But when we started '77 it was still punk. There was no such thing as post punk. And we weren't trying not to be punk. We just didn't wear a lot of zippers or have spiky hair or, you know, talk about Margaret Thatcher. Although one of our early songs was about John Stonehouse who was a conservative politician who got into terrible trouble with hookers, and decided to take all his clothes off at the beach and walk into the water and drown himself. That was one of our earlier songs. But it got boring a bit quickly doing just that. So we wanted, I'm repeating myself, we wanted to be a little bit more interesting than just smashing it out. Which was exciting and fantastic. I mean, the Pistols were amazing for all of 15 minutes, you know?

Yeah. Well, and you can hear I think the, you know, something like "I Found That Essence Rare" might be the most straightforward, closest to punk song maybe, in the Gang of Four catalogue.

Yeah, I think you're right. There's another one on the on the demo cassette called "Elevator." You know, that's, it's that sort of punk, pub rock, Dr. Feelgood, you know, straight down, heads-down, no-nonsense, mindless, boogie inspired.

Well, that stuff's fun to play. But you definitely brought in innovation there. And I think it's, you know, I don't know where the credit goes, which of the four of you, or all four of you for coming up with that, that space and the way that you and Dave Allen's, the bass and drums work together. And then even how, you know, Andy's guitar was on top of that. There's something going on. Like, I'm curious, were any of you into into like funk music at the time?

Yes. I mean, you know, Parliament Funkadelic. Dave was a great fan of the Meters when he was growing up, you know, really learning how to play bass guitar, he would play with cover bands, funk bands, you know, Sunday brunch bands, he was the real musician in the group in that respect. And when he came down to Leeds to find a band to join and joined us, you know, the first few months it was, "Oy, play less! Play less!" Which he cottoned on to and got very quickly. I mean, it was the four of us. I mean, we were like, if you like, the four corners of the compass, and met in the middle. You know, we argued and fought a lot. We challenged — that sounds trite. We pushed and challenged each other musically, a lot, which included a lot of arguing. But that's that's how we came to this. There was no sort of, "I've written a song, I'm going to come in and you play along," there was none of that.

And then, the other thing, I think that that was one of the, I don't know if I call it an innovation, but it was just one of the things that struck me is that I felt like when I discovered Gang of Four, that the music was taking, it may be a cliche phrase now, but it was taking, you know, making the politics personal and making the personal political. And, and that was something, as a kid growing up in suburban America, was, you know, new to me at that time to hear that possibility. There's just definitely something going on lyrically, that is different than the rest of maybe the class of '77, if you will.

Jon King is one of the most eloquent, erudite men I know to this day. The majority of the lyrics are his. If he sang it, they were his lyrics. If Andy sang it, they were his lyrics. And my lyrics were "At Home He's a" — sorry, "It's Her Factory" on the B-side of "At Home He's a Tourist." Which I ran past Jon, because I had to defer to the great lyricist that he is. But that was my song. And, yeah, I mean, like you said, politics — there's an awful expression that used to get bandied around, "small p politics." But I mean, everything you do is a political act. And I think it was acknowledging that more than anything else, right? Rather than trying to force anything, it's just acknowledging.

The other thing in that book that I noticed is, and it's and it's indicative of what we've seen in the years since, even up to now with a new tribute record coming out is just the love that you endeared from other musicians. You know, there's so many people in the in the, in the book in the box set, whether it's members of R.E.M. and Pylon and some of the American bands you toured with or some of your friends and, you know, mates and tour touring partners like the Buzzcocks and Mekons in the U.K. But why is it that you think that you ended up being such a musician's band, I guess you'd say?

Um, well, going back to the comment I made earlier about Velvet Underground, I think we had a similar thing. People saw us and thought, "God, this is cool. I should go out and do this." I mean, Flea has said for decades without having seen Gang of Four there would never have been a Red Hot Chili Peppers. Yeah. Which is very nice. You know, gracious, he's always been a big fan. R.E.M. used to tour with us as our support act in the early days, when they were earning 50 bucks a night. You know, that's all of them piled into a crappy old van. So, you know, they'd sleep on our floor, drink our beer, smoke our dope. Again, have remained friends for years. I think because certainly the acts that used to tour with us, we were fun, decent, you know, and exciting to watch from the side of the stage. So, yeah, I mean, why be an a**hole when you can be… ? But yeah, what we were doing was exciting. People want to make and listen to exciting, engaging music, and we managed to do that.

Yeah. So after this era, you know, it stops at '81. Dave left the band, and then the sound changed. And eventually you left. Can you, just like, what happened there that didn't carry on? And then and then suddenly, you know, eventually kind of…

Well, it's a confluence of things. When Sara Lee joined the band, at that point, we went through a number of changes, we also got, we changed management. And for at least a year, during that period, I was, I took over the management of the band. And taking on that responsibility led to a certain, a little bit of a schism of responsibility and ideas about how things could and should be done. Jon and Andrew were left spending most of the time, excuse me, in the studio, writing what became "Songs of the Free." I mean, I come in and drop in and we'd rehearse and we play together. But they were spending most of the time doing it. Sara was there, but was not as engaged in the songwriting the way that the four of us were originally. I think there was an element of, "Christ, are we ever gonna sell any records." You know what? We cannot repeat ourselves. We certainly didn't, from "Entertainment!" to "Solid Gold."

Yeah. Yeah.

So what do we do next that might get us a hit? You know, what are we missing? So there was that. We made "Songs of the Free." And then, to be honest, I left because Jon and Andrew asked me to leave. At the time, Jon said, "I'm just sick of arguing." And he wasn't wrong.

So the band got back together, then '04, '05? Maybe around that time?

We physically got back together in 2004 to discuss, and it was the first time the four of us had been in the same room, probably around November, October. November, in London. I'd met with Jon and Andrew in London over the summer, and then came back with Dave. And we, the last time we were in a room together as the four of us was in a hotel room at the Hotel Iroquois in New York, when Dave left us in summer of '81. And quite quickly, although it was rather odd to begin, quite quickly, we fell back into a great groove together, just socially, before we started playing together, and we agreed that we would — there was a manager involved. Oh God, Andrew's manager at the time, his manager as a producer. So there was a little choice for us to choose who was going to look after us. Again, a cock-up of a choice. But anyway. And we started rehearsing right after New Year in 2005 for about 10 days in Andrew's studio and went out and did eight, ten dates in the U.K., which were great, fabulous. It was really good. And then we came to the States; started with Coachella. So that would've been probably March.

March or April. Yeah.

Yeah. And just carried on. And it was fantastic. When we were on stage together, it was pure magic. It was really good. It was like being 23 again, although it did hurt. When you're turning 50 and you're trying to keep up with your 23-year-old self, it's "Oh my god!" I'd have to let my arm just go down while I was keeping time here [with my other hand]. I got one of those great big drum seats with the back, so I could lean back! We did this great interview with, can't remember who it was from the New York Times, and he asked us, "What's the biggest difference between now and back in the day when you're on tour?" And I said, "Well, back then it was gallons of vodka and big bags of blow. And now it's fine French white wine and ibuprofen." Which really did, that about summed it up. But it was great. We had really good fun. People loved us. The really exciting thing was all the shows, which were pretty much all sold out, it wasn't just old balding guys in tight leather jackets, there were as many people who were 20 years as there were who were 50. So that was very gratifying.

cassette tape
Gang of Four performing in Los Angeles in 2005. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)


I think about this, because there are several people that have been in pretty well-known bands who have ended up as teachers or in the education world. And I think about, like, I have this vision that most people on campus are probably like, "Oh, he's that English guy." And then there's probably like one kid every semester that's like, "I know who Gang of Four is." Does that, does that happen at the school?

Yeah. When I first started teaching, and it was, you know, principally a music school.

Yeah.

It happened with a little bit more regularity.

Sure.

And now it's like, "Oh, Professor Burnham, you're in Gang of Four?" And I'm like, "Yeah." And it's like, "My dad really used to really dig you. My dad asked me if you would sign this, please." (laughs) I mean, you know, it's great. It's fantastic. Look, any teacher with any sort of personality in class, the kids will eventually Google you and find out what what your background is. I always had this thing when I taught, I've never taught — I've never stood in the classroom wearing jeans, or wearing sneakers, or just a t-shirt. I used to wear a suit for the first three weeks, because you know, I didn't want them to see all the ink I've got and stuff. So I'm the adult in the room. So you have to set a little bit of a tone before you display a little bit more width of personality.

Yeah, absolutely.

But I do think especially teaching those classes and that what I do now is because I work with creative students, artists, actors, musicians, architects, graphic designers, photographers, etc. When I'm helping them prepare to go out into the world to get jobs, or internships, and then jobs. I think I'm lucky that I, it's like, I've been there. I know what it's like to be a creative person trying to find out how I can earn a living. So I think that helps me offer a little bit more authenticity rahter than if I'd just been an academic all my life.

And yeah, and you've also you've, you've gotten to be on the creative side, but also work behind the creative side.

Yeah, absolutely. I've done everything as it were.

If you could summarize the best of this Gang of Four, this early era, into one or two songs, you know, let's say you ran into somebody and they had no idea who you were, what would you, what would you say and what would you tell them to listen to?

I tell them to listen to "Love Like Anthrax" because it is so f****** out there. The simplicity and the ferocity of what we're doing together is very, very challenging. The other song I have always said I loved most that was recorded was "To Hell with Poverty!" That song was the closest to the way we used to sound live that we managed to do in the studio, and that was produced by Nick Launay, that worked with Public Image and INXS and Midnight Oil, I think, wonderful guy. I wish actually, we'd made our third album with him; we should have done, I'm not quite sure why we didn't. But that, "To Hell with Poverty!" is it. I love it. Okay, I'm going to give you a third song because it's what I love to play live, is "What We All Want," which was the, that was us really working out our funk with Jimmy Douglass, the producer of Slave. I love listening to it. I love playing it. So you asked for two, I gave you three.


That's great.

What a bargain!

Congratulations on the box sets. And I hope it brings a whole new, you know, the next generation of people to appreciate what you guys achieved.

I — that would be lovely. I mean, it's … I … every day, I'm sort of thrilled and a little surprise that people still love what we did. And find it inspiring and important, so cool!

Yeah.

It's been very lucky. We were damn good. But we were also very lucky.

I wish I'd seen the band in that early peak, but I'm glad I did see them eventually. And glad I've gotten to meet you—

Likewise, man.

and other members of the band. And, you know, thank you for being on with us on The Current today.

It's a pleasure. It's a great show, and I'm really grateful for you asking me to come and chat away.

External Link

Gang of Four - official site

Hugo Burnham - Endicott College faculty page

2 Photos

  • Gang of Four '77 to '81 box set
    Gang of Four '77 to '81 box set (Matador Records)
  • Hugo Burnham and Sarah Green
    Hugo Burnham (L) and Sarah Green attending the 30th annual Producers Guild Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 19, 2019, in Beverly Hills, California. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)