One of the downsides of making a groundbreaking, influential album is that your other records often get overlooked. So it goes with Leeds, U.K., post-punk trailblazers Gang of Four. While the band’s 1979 debut LP, Entertainment!, is rightfully hailed as a genre-defining album and an inspiration for multiplatinum artists like R.E.M., Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Nirvana, their 1981 follow-up, Solid Gold,has forever had to live in its shadow.
“Entertainment! has been written about so much, and Solid Gold gets somewhat under-recognized, but I think it’s just as strong,” says Hugo Burnham, Gang of Four’s drummer from the band’s inception until 1983. (He rejoined from 2004 to 2006.) One reason for Solid Gold’s languishing could be that it boasts nothing as instantly catchy as Entertainment!’s “I Found That Essence Rare” or “Damaged Goods.” What Solid Gold lacks in hummable tunes, however, it makes up for with heavier, darker, groove-oriented songs. At the heart of those songs is Burnham’s powerful, hypnotic drumming.
“Solid Gold was us feeling more confident in going that [groove-heavy] direction,” says Burnham of Gang of Four circa 1981. “We were peaking, playing really well live, and we felt like, ‘Okay, we’ve earned this. We’re getting the second shot.’ Entertainment! was two years of forging an identity as a drummer, but I owned more of my drumming on Solid Gold.”
After recording both Entertainment! and 1980’s Yellow EP in low-key English studios, the members of Gang of Four found themselves tracking Solid Gold in the most famous recording studio on Earth: North London’s Abbey Road. The weight of being in such a legendary room was surely felt, but Burnham, guitarist Andy Gill, bassist Dave Allen, and vocalist Jon King found it exhilarating, not nerve-wracking. “It was brilliant,” says Burnham, whose father, coincidentally, had appeared in the Beatles Let It Be film, which was partially filmed at Abbey Road. “There was no stress being in that room. It was more, ‘Yeah! This is cool. Oh, look, I’ve seen that in the movie.’”
Abbey Road’s spaciousness played a crucial role in defining Solid Gold’s sonic picture, giving more life and resonance to Burnham’s drums. “It was such a fabulous, huge room,” remembers Burnham. “Entertainment! was recorded in a tight room. We weren’t trying to make the drums sound like cardboard boxes, but we were definitely going against that big, echoey, boomy ‘rock’ sound. We came back away from that with Solid Gold. It was a bigger, warmer-sounding record.”
Another new addition to the mix was American producer Jimmy Douglas. Douglas, whose résumé at that time included acts like Foreigner, the Rolling Stones, Slave, and Hall & Oates, was an unusual choice. But he proved a godsend for Burnham, who suffered a severe case of nerves (aka “red light fever”) during the Entertainment! sessions. “I was much more comfortable with what I was doing on the second album,” says Burnham. “Jimmy Douglas made it easier; he didn’t make me feel I wasn’t good enough. It was great to have a referee, and I didn’t feel I was being judged for every little anomaly or slip up, the way I felt during Entertainment! I had no red light fever on Solid Gold.”
Nearly four decades on, Burnham still has the custom-made black-with-red-striping Premier Resonator kit he played on Solid Gold. “I loved Premier because that’s what Keith Moon played,” explains Burnham. “I went to the factory, and I wanted red or gold sparkle, but the Premier rep said, ‘[Blondie’s] Clem Burke was here last week and he got the last sheet.’ [under his breath] Bastard.”
The centerpiece of Burnham’s Solid Gold kit was a specially made, unusually sized 18×20 bass drum. “I went with that rather than the John Bonham 26″ massive thing,” says Burnham. “The rack toms were both 14″—I just tuned them differently. The same as my two floor toms. I thought 18″ floor toms were too boomy, so I had two 16″ floor toms tuned slightly differently.”
Burnham developed an early appreciation for drumming while seeing many of the 1970s’ great rock bands in London and South East England. Particularly appealing was the “less is more” approach of Bad Company’s Simon Kirke and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones. “I went to see Billy Cobham when I was sixteen,” says Burnham, “and I thought, Wow, I can never do that, so I’m not going to try. John Bonham played incredible patterns, but essentially was straightforward and simple. ‘Hit hard, don’t hit them too often, leave the holes.’ He defined all that, especially with the kick drum, and I loved that simplicity.”
The lessons Burnham learned from Bonham, Watts, and Kirke are very much on display on Solid Gold. From the tom/hi-hat interplay on “In the Ditch,” to the mesmerizing stomp of “What We All Want,” to the Clyde Stubblefield meets John “Drumbo” French hyper-groove of “If I Could Keep It for Myself,” each song has a unique, often tricky drum pattern that showcases Burnham’s skill while also serving the song.
“I’d arrive at them mathematically,” says Burnham, reflecting on the origin of Solid Gold’s drum patterns. “I’d be counting all the time in my head how many bits and which bit is the off-beat. All the while I’d be thinking, how can I make this sound more like [Jamaican session great] Winston Grennan without sounding cod-white-boy style?
“I felt much more confident about creating those patterns [on Solid Gold],” says Burnham. “Though there was still arguing and going back and forth with Andrew [Gill] about how they should sound. There’s no question that I owe Andrew, Jon, and Dave. Some [in the band] have said, ‘Oh, I wrote all the drum riffs.’ No. But everyone was significant in the style I developed.”
Of particular significance was bassist and rhythm section partner Dave Allen. “Dave was very important to my playing,” says Burnham. “The two of us just sounded really good together. He was really fun to play with. We used to joke that when he joined we had to teach him to play a third as many notes, because he was the real musician in the band. He really knew his stuff, but he got it. He loved good music that we liked, whether it was Dr. Feelgood, Can, or Funkadelic.”
When pressed to pick his favorite Solid Gold tracks, Burnham thinks for a moment and then becomes animated. Though he hasn’t played the songs for years, they’re still fresh in his mental and muscle memory. “‘What We All Want’ is my favorite; it was also my favorite to play live,” he says as he hammers out the song’s signature drum pattern on an imaginary drumkit. “It was ‘Ba baba ba…two snare, top rack, top floor, and then bottom rack, bottom floor. And [Solid Gold’s slow-burn lead-off song] ‘Paralysed’ is so beautiful. It’s not soft—it’s controlled. ‘Outside the Trains Don’t Run on Time’ is fantastic because it’s unleashed…it’s like, Arrgh!”
Nearly forty years after its release, Burnham is still immensely proud of SolidGold. “It’s a pretty heavy, funky record,” he says. Though Gill still records and tours with a new version of Gang of Four, Burnham feels his place in the band’s history is secure. “I am the f**king Gang of Four drummer,” he says. “There have been others—good guys, and this is not a condemnation of them. But I was the best.”