From The 1980’S To 2022, Still Selling Out Venues And Finding Young Fans Along The Way; For Leader Hugo Burnham, That Also Includes His Students
Beverly – The legendary 80’s band, Gang of Four, has reunited for a nationwide tour that began with drummer Hugo Burnham, now Assistant Professor of Experiential Learning Endicott College’s School of Visual and Performing Arts in Beverly. The band has been rehearsing at Endicott’s campus in preparation for a tour celebrating their Grammy-nominated (and sold-out) box set, Gang of Four 77-81, on Matador Records.
“The Grammy nomination was a surprise, really,” mused singer Jon King, also the set’s art director. “Being on an indie label with no marketing budget, it’s quite complementary to be on a short list along with George Harrison.” (King shares the nomination with art co-directors Dan Calderwood and Bjarke Vind Normann.)
The band, with multiple iterations since its first break-up in 1983, is reenergized. On top of the nomination and tour, there’s the return of bassist Sara Lee from the ’80s, and the addition of ex-Slint guitarist David Pajo, one of today’s most sought-after musicians.
“I look forward to playing every night,” said Lee, who has worked with the B-52s, Ani DiFranco and Fiona Apple. “We knew each other so well after being on the road for three years together and —just like that—it’s right back where we left off.”
Pajo, who grew up with Gang of Four’s music and has most recently played with Zwan, Interpol, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, said being in this band is something of a dream come true. “I always felt like there was English punk and there was Gang of Four,” he said. “You guys were—are—gods, you know?”
From England to Endicott (And Everywhere In Between)
There have been ups and downs for Gang of Four. Members quit or were pushed out. There were copyright battles and multiple managers, some of whom left with the money. The band reunited, toured, and did it all over again. Founding guitarist Andy Gill died in 2020.
Burnham took a circuitous path back to the group. His journey began in London, where he was born to a “different” sort of family. He was a rugby player as a kid, but his father was a creative person who worked in fashion in London’s West End. He was known to sport a full-length fur coat to Burnham’s rugby matches. Neither of his parents were particularly musical but watching BBC’s pivotal music show Top of the Pops was a family ritual.
Burnham recalls the day his father brought home the family’s first record player and a single— the Rollings Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.”
“The first album I got was Let It Bleed, and then I just started buying loads of records,” he said. “Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sergeant Pepper, Deep Purple, Small Faces …”
After playing a snare drum in his prep school’s orchestra, he set out to find his first drum set.
“I saw this old red Premier Olympic kit for £75. I tore back to Dad’s showroom and said, ‘All my savings, I want to buy this drum kit. Can you come and look?’”
Burnham practiced in a shed behind the house, playing along to records on the family phonograph. “I didn’t have a drum stool, so I sat on an old clay chimney pot. It was just the right height,” he said.
Fortunately, his school’s headmaster was quite progressive, and bands like Genesis came to play there. Burnham’s first band opened for some of the acts, which led to additional bookings.
“My first concert was Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1971 at the Royal Albert Hall; the second was also CCR nine months later. I was 16. Then I started following bands like Hawkwind. We saw The Who at the Rainbow. Bowie was there too. That show blew my mind and completely changed my world.”
Even then, Burnham didn’t see a future in music. He sold his drums to concentrate on university entrance exams, but then turned to acting.
“I auditioned for the Central School in London, but didn’t get in, so I almost joined the Royal Navy,” he said. “It was a way to see the world, have fun, play rugby. I was headed for officer training, but the weekend I was supposed to go to boot camp, I sent the ticket back and said, ‘Sorry, I’ve got to go to a concert with my brother.’”
He spent a year doing odd jobs and applying to “any university that would take me,” he said. That was Leeds University, where he studied English and theater. There he met King, Gill, and founding bassist Dave Allen.
“Everyone I was hanging with—who became Gang of Four, the Mekons, Delta 5, and Soft Cell—were fine arts students. We started writing songs and playing shows.”
Gang of Four formed during a heyday for British music. Bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash helped introduce the world to punk rock with a fiery British perspective.
The 77-81 box set, which features archival photos, original lyrics, and anecdotes from everyone from Michael Stipe and Flea to Sofia Coppola and record producer Steve Albini, shows the band during rampant British inflation, unemployment, industrial conflict, nuclear fears, and rising far-right sentiments—not too unlike today. Per the liner notes, those dark times demanded radical new music.
On May 15, 1977, Gang of Four played its first show in a Leeds basement. Soon, they were supporting the Buzzcocks on tour, followed by an indie label EP, which led to a major record contract with EMI and an invitation to appear on Top of the Pops, which Gang of Four ultimately declined over a request to alter its lyrics.
Their first album in 1979 was followed by a U.S. tour that led to a record deal with Warner Bros. Records. From 1979 to 1982, the band toured the world and released its now-classic albums—Entertainment!, Solid Gold, and Songs of the Free—before Burnham left the band in 1983.
Burnham continued to make a name for himself on the business side of the industry, managing bands and as a talent scout for Island Records. He worked with Quincy Jones’ label at Warner Bros. and with EMI Music Publishing, both in Los Angeles.
In 1998, he arrived in Gloucester, MA where he continued managing artists and joined the board of the nearby Windhover Performing Arts Center. A chance encounter with an old music friend led to a teaching position at Boston’s New England Institute of Art (NEiA).
Burnham taught full-time and earned a master’s degree in education from Cambridge College, eventually becoming NEiA’s Dean of Student Affairs. The school closed permanently in 2017, so
Burnham, who had already been teaching classes at Endicott as an adjunct, was hired full-time in 2018.
On the Road Again
Just before the tour kicks off in Buffalo in late February, Gang of Four will be at Endicott for a final rehearsal before boarding a tour bus. Many shows are already sold out.
“This is the first time we’ve played together since the spring of 1984,” said Lee, referring to herself, King, and Burnham. “And we’re having so much fun.”
“I think this is a good time for a younger generation of Gang of Four fans to discover us,” added Pajo. “It’s hard to play these songs and not be excited.”
Said King, “What surprised me was that two-thirds of the audience seemed to be under the age of 30. The music—because it doesn’t sound like anything else— seems to have its own charm.”
Burnham, Still the Teacher
On tour, Burnham will continue teaching. He’ll work remotely from the tour bus, guiding students who aspire to engage with the creative world he loves. Most don’t know of his cult status as an artist, but every so often one does bring an album to be signed – for a father.
Burnham is also a Dad. His daughter, Ts (Tess), a music theater major at Dean College, will sing back-up vocals for the band’s East Coast tour dates during spring break. His wife is the Oscar-nominated and Palme d’Or-winning film producer Sarah Green, a local native of the Cape Ann area.
It’s because of Ts that Burnham says he’s seen artists like the Jonas Brothers, One Direction (three times), and Harry Styles — of whom he’s a fan — twice.
“I’m very lucky,” he said. “Teaching is essentially my professional practice and research, and I’m very grateful to have the support of Endicott College. And three sets of stairs to climb there every day, trying to stay fit enough to play.”