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Classy reunions (continued)

Doing the Dolls without Nolan and Thunders (whoíd gone on to found the famously unreliable Heartbreakers) could easily be seen as sacrilege. After all, Thunders, who co-wrote some of the Dolls best material, was the dark Keith Richards foil to Johansenís prancing Mick Jagger. But the new live disc, which includes a medley of "You Canít Put Your Arms Around a Memory"/"Lonely Planet Boy" in obvious tribute to Thunders, certainly sounds the way a Dolls album should. After years of putting different bands together, Johansen had the connections to find the right guys for the job: guitarist Steve Conte, drummer Brian Delaney, and, in the wake of Kaneís passing, former Hanoi Rocks bassist Sammi Yaffa. So, no, itís not the original New York Dolls. But Johansen has no illusions or reservations about that. "You know, there were little fences to be mended between Jerry, Syl, and me. And thatís part of the reason I originally did it. But it was also fun. I just wanted to have as much fun as I could. And Iíve ended up having more fun then I ever thought I would."

Fun isnít the first thing Gang of Fourís 1979 debut, Entertainment!, brings to mind, what with its polemics about the capitalist condition, stark, staccato rhythms, and sharp, tangled, razor-wire guitars. And both the tenor of the lyrics and the tone of the music grew only starker as Gang of Four moved on to 1981ís ironically titled Solid Gold before embracing elements of the disco theyíd once derided with the polished production of 1982ís Songs of the Free and its memorable hit "I Love a Man in Uniform." The original Gang ó guitarists Andy Gill and Jon King, bassist Dave Allen, and drummer Hugo Burnham ó packed so much into those first three albums that two decades later, you can still hear them influencing new bands, Bloc Party and Radio 4 to name just two. Itís hard to think of any period since the original four parted ways when a Gang of Four reunion wouldnít have been relevant. But the bandís break-up, which began when Allen left and pretty much ended when Burnham was let go after Solid Gold (Gill and King did keep things afloat for one more album in í83 and then attempted a pallid comeback in 1991 with Mall), was a bitter one.

So it took 20-plus years before the original four were ready to bury the hatchet and head back into the studio to re-record an albumís worth of material culled from their first couple of discs. The result is being packaged with a full disc of remixes by the likes of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Ladytron, Dandy Warhols, and the Futureheads; itís due stateside on August 30 from V2, though "To Hell with Poverty 2005" is already available as a download through iTunes. (I wonít bore you with a note-by-note, line-by-line comparison to the original except to say the band havenít taken any unnecessary liberties with it.) Gang of Four have already done dates in Great Britain, and they just kicked off their US tour with a slot at this yearís Coachella festival in Indio, California.

"It seems as authentic as it ever was to me," Burnham says from his office at the New England Institute of Art, where heís spent the past several years teaching primarily English. (He and his wife settled in the Boston area in 1998 and have lived here ever since.) "Itís harder to play the songs because Iím 23 years older. And itís also a challenge because, while the dynamic of our relationships is very similar, the edges have certainly softened. Weíve matured. When we first started rehearsing, back in January, we were having to deconstruct our own music and put it back together again ó thatís the fancy way of saying, ĎHow the fuck did I play this?í But it comes back to you. And weíre also arguing about changing this or that in order to make the songs better. Itís like weíre still doing to each other what we did 25 years ago."

Itís no accident that the lifespan for the bands that formed the core of Britainís í77 punk explosion was rarely more than a few years. Burnham isnít comfortable with the punk label: "I just didnít think of us as a punk band. We came out of that period, but we didnít have zips on our pants or safety pins. I consider us more post-punk than punk, whatever the fuck that means. Weíre a rock-and-roll band, just like Pistols, just like Stones, like the Clash, like the Who, like Duran Duran . . . sort of."

Still, mixing pop and politics in the already combustible setting of a rock band is a tricky business. Doing so with Gang of Fourís passion and intensity was bound to create tensions. "In every regard our break-up was acrimonious," Burnham confirms. "There were things that had to be worked through before we all got together. But once we spent time together, we realized there really wasnít a problem, and in many ways our relationships are much stronger. We still get pissed at each other, but there are much stronger bonds going on. And damn right we have a connection: we made some of the best fucking music ever together. Weíre enjoying that that means something to people now. And weíre enjoying doing it. Together."

The New York Dolls play May 12 and Gang of Four play May 16 at Avalon, 15 Lansdowne Street in Boston; call (617) 228-6000.

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Issue Date: May 6 - 12, 2005
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