New Gang of Four Tribute Album ‘The Problem of Leisure’ Honors Punk’s Greatest Guitarist

New Gang of Four Tribute Album ‘The Problem of Leisure’ Honors Punk’s Greatest Guitarist

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Andy Gill was not simply the best guitarist that came out of the punk movement in the late 1970s/early 1980s. He was a great guitarist, period. When he died of multiple organ failure and pneumonia on Feb. 1, 2020 (suspected, but not confirmed, as COVID), I wasn’t able to pen an appreciation due to medical issues of my own. Luckily, a handful of artists have come together to pay homage to his work on this lovingly curated two-disc set The Problem of Leisure: A Celebration of Andy Gill and Gang of Four.

“Andy Gill was one of a handful of artists in history who changed the way guitars are played,” Tom Morello, guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, has said. “His band Gang of Four were incendiary and completely groundbreaking with Andy’s confrontational, unnerving and sublime playing at the forefront. His jagged plague-disco raptor-attack industrial-funk deconstructed guitar anti-hero sonics and fierce poetical radical intellect were hugely influential to me.”

Gang of Four (left to right): Jon King, Hugo Burnham, Sara Lee, Andy Gill (Photo by Erica Echenberg/Redferns)

Morello, along with System of a Down’s Serj Tankian, provide a blistering take on “Natural’s Not In It” from Go4’s classic debut Entertainment! (which Rolling Stone declared the fifth best punk album in history; as always, Rolling Stone is wrong). If this celebration of Gill and his band leans heavily on tracks from that debut, it’s because a 40th anniversary tribute to that perennial classic was in the works prior to Gill’s death.

Like any record of this nature, the results can be wildly divergent. Yet though there are points high, low and in-between, The Problem of Leisure is shockingly consistent. The acts that hew close to the originals shine because the originals are pretty much indestructible. IDLES doing “Damaged Goods” and Everything Everything running through “Natural’s Not In It” and, especially, Helmet’s impassioned slog through “In the Ditch” are hard to dislike.

A few tracks, as expected, fizzle. Herbert Grönemeyer’s rigid synthpop take on “I Love a Man in Uniform” would be better served by a different vocalist. Perhaps The Sounds’ Maja Ivarsson, who also provide a wan version of the song, could have added her vocals to Grönemeyer’s rendering?  And the inclusion of the posthumous “Forever Starts Now (Killing Joke Dub)” is bad Go4 and bad dub in one useless track.

To my ears, the standouts are also the most unexpected. Warpaint’s electronic drone behind “Paralysed” is the perfect indie pop update to the sparse stop/start groove of the original. And Gary Numan’s take on the strident anti-love “Love Like Anthrax,” replete with Middle Eastern modalities and Numan’s plangent whine, is the post-punk trip-hop hybrid you didn’t know you needed.

Except for Numan’s track, there isn’t one version here that will replace the originals in my mind (Numan’s will sit equally beside the original). That’s a testament to the passion and clarity of Andy Gill and Gang of Four. But if these versions of great songs are the ones that get younger music fans back to the originals, it’s a win-win for everybody.

The Problem of Leisure: A Celebration of Andy Gill and Gang of Four is out now.

Image at top of Andy Gill by Redferns

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