The very first tune on the very first album by Gang of Four, 1979’s Entertainment!, is a little number called “Ether”, in which singer Jon King assails the “dirt behind the daydream” of our pleasure-seeking society. Tucked away at the end of the song is a seemingly throwaway reference to the possibility of “oil under Rockall”, which probably doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you know the back story.
Cue Mr. King, amiable postpunk survivor and an artist who’s still strongly motivated by the desire to shed light on our darkest impulses.
“Rockall was one of the most curious exercises of modern British colonialism,” says the singer, taking a break from a Toronto sound check. “In the 1950s, the British government decided to lay claim to a rock about the size of a very small apartment building that sticks out of the North Atlantic somewhere between the Irish Sea and Scotland. It’s a tiny thing, just pure rock, covered in seagulls. And they landed a Royal Marine commando on this rock, with a tent, and he lived on the rock for whatever the minimum requirement was for the British government to lay claim to 200 square miles of ocean. We were paranoid and suspicious, so we said, ”˜This must be about oil.’ ”
What makes this 32-year-old song remarkably current is that oil has recently been found under Rockall’s gannet-haunted reef. “This is now the source of a huge diplomatic ruckus going on in the UN,” says King, “with Ireland and Iceland saying, ”˜How dare you claim all of the seabed just because some commando sat on it for 60 days?’ ”
Lest one get the impression that rock bands might be more useful to the oil industry than seismic testing, King makes light of his psychic powers.
“That was rather Nostradamus-like, wasn’t it?” he says, laughing. “But I think the thing is, that’s what everyone talks about at home and at work and at pubs and stuff, but it’s not very often expressed in music. I don’t think it’s that we’re prescient; we’re just putting it down. You can see all this stuff happening all around you. It’s just surprising how few people take on the sticky wicket of saying things—you know, how little of modern life leaks into popular culture, for whatever reason.”
No crystal ball is necessary to see that Gang of Four’s latest album, Content, is a worthy successor to Entertainment! and its 1981 follow-up, Solid Gold. Seemingly reinvigorated after the nightmare of the Bush-Blair era, King and his writing partner, guitarist Andy Gill, address the great vacancy at the core of contemporary existence in a loose suite of songs that colour their generally bleak outlook with surprising flashes of warmth. A little of their ferocity might have fallen away; in fact, the new disc’s “A Fruitfly in the Beehive” is both bittersweet and beautiful. But there’s more than enough bite left in the Gang’s sound that it’s easy to see why they’ve been a major influence on groups as diverse as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine.
“I wouldn’t say it’s about the emptiness [of modern life] so much as it is about the sense that you can’t just say or do nothing,” King says of Content. “And of course we’re privileged enough to have never had a successful record, in commercial terms, so we can write about whatever we like.”