Thanks so much for the interview can you give us some background on yourself?
Hugo Burnham: I grew up in the south of England, the eldest of five kids. My Dad was in the Rag Trade (fashion business) in London. Went to Public (aka ‘private’) high school; played a lot of sports, did lot of acting, too. I was a big ‘Ziggy Kid’ (early Bowie fan) before it went crazy. I went to a lot of shows…Bowie, Mott, The Who, Sensational Alex Harvey band, Roxy Music, Stackridge, Humble Pie, Hawkwind, et al. I booked shows at my school – brought in The Pink Fairies and Genesis…both of whom cost us less than £125 ! The first band I ever saw live was the Bay Area band..... Creedence Clearwater Revival, at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Fantastic!
Punk Globe: At what age did you first pick up your first pair of drum sticks?
H.B.: When I was 10…playing the snare drum in my Prep School orchestra.
Punk Globe: During your early days was playing drums your first choice of instrument?
H.B.: Recorder was the only other thing I played before drums. That, and The Fool.
Punk Globe: What was the name of your first band?
H.B.: Brahn….high school band. A play on the way Northeners (our bass-player was from Sheffield) would pronounce ‘brown’. The first song we wrote was called ‘Brahn Ale’. Oy.
Punk Globe: How did the formation of Gang Of Four come around?
H.B.: At Leeds University, in Yorkshire, the north of England. Jon and Andy had been in (public/high) school together – ironically only 15 miles from where I was at school in the south of England – and were studying Fine Art; I was studying English Lit/Theatre. The Fine Arts crowd were the coolest group of people on campus, so I gravitated towards them…away from the jocks I’d briefly started with. They asked me to play with them and our very first bass-player called Wolfman. He played too many notes. We did two shows at the end of the Spring term (semester) before going away for the summer. Jon and Andy went to NYC to hang out, I worked in London at a big, groovy department store and went to soccer matches (Tottenham) at weekends. I made the money to buy our first Ford Transit van.
Punk Globe: Is it true that one of the guys in The Mekons helped name the band?
H.B. : The Mekons (and ultimately Delta 5) were all part of that Fine Arts crowd. Others on the scene were Frank Tover (Fad Gadget) and Marc Almond (Soft Cell). I seem to recall it was one of their original two singers – Andy Corrigan (from Liverpool) who suggested it first.
Punk Globe: Where were Gang Of Four from?
H.B.: Jon, Andy and I were from Kent, in the south of England, Dave was from Kendall up north; Leeds (University) in Yorkshire (Northern England) was where we all got together.
Did you re-locate to London.
H.B.: Eventually, yes – I think around 1981 or ‘82, way after we’d already signed both the EMI and Warner Bros (for the US) deals…and quite a while after ‘Entertainment’ was released.
Punk Globe: Gang Of Four were so original with their sound. Combining Punk, Funk and Ska together. Were you involved with writing the music?
H.B.: It depends who you talk to! In the strict ‘Tin Pan Alley’ sense of song-writing, Jon and Andy took the lead, were the genesis of much of the song ideas…no question; but in true, pragmatic rock’n’roll terms – the songs were an absolute result of all four of us working constantly on (and fighting constantly about) them. To quote famous punk rocker, Burt Bacharach, “You can have a great song, but without the artist you really have no song at all."I’d actually say we weren’t at all ’ska’-sounding; Dub Reggae was much more our inspiration – Augustus Pablo, U-Roy, I-Roy, Lee Perry, etc. And, of course, we’d all grown up with the great Trojan Records roster of pop reggae acts that were ubiquitous on TV, on the radio, and all around us. England…y’know. And, other than our early songs – punk rock itself wasn’t much of a sonic inspiration…the spirit of punk, sure. We were much more into hard Rhythm & Blues stuff like Dr. Feelgood; and rock bands like Free, Hendrix, Beefheart, et al informed us hugely, as did Parliament/Funkadelic. Also we had a healthy respect for great disco music. Its general unpopularity with ‘cool kids’ made it all the more attractive! Chic were unbelievable. I’ll fight people over that, I tell you. Great art always comes from attitude and ideas…particularly great music. All of these people and artists had both in spades.
Punk Globe: I always felt that Gang Of Four and X Ray Specs stood out with their unique sound in early punk. Did you ever play or tour with them? Any thoughts on the passing of Poly Styrene?
H.B.: Wow….I can’t think of very much we ever had in common with X-Ray Spex sonically – but they were fantastic. We never played with them…they had pretty much broken up by the time we got going. They were part of the first ‘wave’ of punk rock…we weren’t. We did tour with Red Crayola when Laura Logic was part of that band. I am as sad at Poly’s passing as anyone should be. She inspired a lot of girls to break their molds.
Punk Globe: Tell us about your first single "Damaged Goods" and who released it?
H.B.: It was a magic event recording it, releasing it, and – hearing it on the radio (John Peel, of course) for the first time. The EP was released by Fast Product, an indie label from Edinburgh, Scotland that was run by The Rezillo’s manager, Bob Last. The Mekons had signed to them first; the label also signed Human League. He never paid us a penny in royalties. He produces films now, he was just nominated for an Oscar.
Punk Globe: How long had the band been together before you had a label take interest with you.
H.B.: It felt like for ever at the time…but maybe a year or so.
Punk Globe: Your debut LP "Entertainment" still impresses and inspires. Any thoughts on that?
H.B.: It still impresses and inspires me, too. Thank you.
I remember having a copy of Zig Zag Magazine with Jayne County and Levi & The Rockats on the cover... It was the issue dedicated to awards party that the magazine had thrown. It seemed like Gang of Four had either won or placed for quite a few awards that year. Do you remember what I have described? It looked like a great party.
H.B.: All Yesterday’s Parties….I can remember so few of them. We participated quite ferociously in any such event. I just got a headache even thinking about it.
Punk Globe: During that era were there any bands you enjoyed playing or touring with?
H.B.: The Buzzcocks were fantastic – they were a great boost to us, and were a lot of fun to be around with. We played a smattering of shows with Siouxsie and The Banshees…right as they were breaking big – and breaking up. The Slits joined us and The Buzzcocks for a while – fabulous women, all. The Ruts were great guys…an awesome band. Of course, we were very fond of (personally and musically) the ones we brought out on tour with us over the years – Au Pairs, Delta 5, Scritti Politi, REM, Translator, Pylon. And naturally, life without The Mekons is…no life at all.
Punk Globe: How many times did the band tour the USA?
H.B.: Many times, although I think we never toured long enough each time to really penetrate the place and have a chance of either breaking out or crossing over to a bigger audience.
Punk Globe: I also remember that we had a friend in common with Joe Jackson. Did you ever play with Joe? Have you seen him lately?
H.B.: We never played with him. An old high school friend of mine was his tour manager for years, so I saw him quite a lot socially. I think the last time we hung out was at his (first) wedding, actually. He wore the wedding gown.
Punk Globe: Have you ever met Dale De Vere?
H.B.: No. At least, not that I can recall.
Can you tell the readers about appearing on Top Of The Pops?
H.B.: Yes I can. We were asked on; because ‘At Home He Feels Like A Tourist’ was climbing the charts. We argued about it (…jesus, we argued about everything), but then said yes. Then a day before we were scheduled to go to London and do it, they said we had to change the word “rubbers”; so we argued some more, and then said “OK, we’ll say “packets” instead. All good. We went to London. Then they said they wanted us to say “Rubbish” instead of “packets”….trying to mask the fact that the original lyric had been censored. We said “No, that completely changes the whole meaning of it.” They said that if we didn't, they’d kick us off the show. We didn’t. They did. First time ever. In the short term it was a good move for us…for our egos, for our spirit, for our credibility, for the press we got out of it. Sadly, in the long run, it was akin to a disaster – you don't get to fuck the BBC off more than once in a career, and the promotion department at EMI said, essentially “Ah, fuck ‘em then; we’ll put our efforts into this new little band down from Birmingham called Duran Duran. They’ll do what they’re told.” As I’ve said before (and I’m stealing this from Jon King), “Gang of Four never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
Punk Globe: The first member to leave the band was your bass player. Did you enjoy working with Busta "Cherry" Jones and Sara Lee?
H.B.: Absolutely, both of them…for very different reasons. I was quite depressed/sad about Dave (Allen) leaving. He and I had become something really special, we were a real force together (and we are still good friends). Busta came along and learned everything in a day - he saved our bacon (actually, he saved the West Coast run of our US tour at the time); he was brilliant – both on and off-stage, and probably the only person alive who could have filled that gap at that time. We had known Sara from Leeds, so it was a fairly natural and not difficult decision to ask her to join us after we got back to England and re-grouped. A very different dynamic came into the band at that time…not directly because of Sara, but it was all connected. She turned out to be fun and easy to play with; quite different to Dave. She really grew as a player so much after she moved on, I must say…which is not a back-handed compliment – she was damn good with us – but she really flowered afterwards.
Since then, I am the only one who’s gone on to appear on TOTP – a number of times, first with ABC for the singles from their second album, then with P.I.L., playing “Rise”, and after that a few times with Samantha Fox.
Punk Globe: What year did you leave the band? What did you do after leaving Gang Of Four?
H.B.: April 1983. I was dumbstruck, then I got angry, then I cried, then I got angry again. It was a real blow and quite unexpected.
I tried some session-playing (which I hated) and then joined a couple of bands. The best one (that nobody ever heard of) was with Derwood (Bob Andrews) from Generation X. A very talented and lovely man. I played as a session guy with Samantha Fox for a while; it a lot of fun, and it was two fingers up at the people who thought it was sacrilege for the Commie/Pinko/Feminist-supporting/Faggot-Lovin’ Gang of Four drummer to work with a former topless model-turned-pop star. She was delightful, and I was well-treated by her and her manager/Dad…paid properly and on-time. Most unusual! I also worked with ABC for a few months…no recording, but I did all the videos and TV shows around the world. That was fun, too.
How did you get involved with A&R? Tell us some of the bands you signed?
H.B.: After playing, I went into management for a few years, first with Shriekback and then, in partnership with my brother and former G4 crew boss, Jolyon working with people like Neil Arthur (Blancmange) and Julian Cope. Shriekback and Cope meant that I was working with Island Records quite a lot, especially in New York. I was tired of London, and had always felt the lure of NYC. I sold my flat in South London and moved to Brooklyn. Shriekback was breaking up, and I was asked by the head of A&R at Lisand to work with him. My first real, salaried job! It was as great a company to work for as it was work with, and the first year was a blast. The Chris (Blackwell) sold the company to Polygram…and it all changed. It was a difficult time. My wife and I (we met at Island, she had just graduated with a BFA in Modern Dance and was working there to make money while she was auditioning for Paul Morris and people like that in NYC) have actually remained good friends the past 21 years with Mike Bone, who Polygram brought in as President right after the sale. He had a very hard time being ‘the face of the new’, and confronted a lot of resentment. He’s a good man. I signed a couple of things (including Pleasurehead with Killing Joke’s Paul Ferguson and John Carruthers from Clock DVA and The Banshees), but I was mostly there to oversee new acts’ touring and to work with the younger managers. I left after 2 years to work at Imago, a new label – who sent me out to open and run their LA office after I’d been there 6 months. I signed two acts while there, The Sextants – one of the best group of players and singers I have ever seen and heard (from San Francisco) to this day, and Bone Club. I left there, and went to work with Quincy Jones at Qwest Records (at Warners) for three years, where I signed Michael Been (The Call), Boston’s Ruffnexx Sound System, Tenderloin, and a couple of other young artists. Great label…wrong time – as the great leadership team of Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker were kicked out by the corporate pricks. The beginning of the end of the great old record business when it was run by people who could hum a tune.
Punk Globe: Tell the readers about the original members of the Gang Of Four reforming?
H.B.: There had been bad feelings for many years, but the time seemed right with so many new acts sounding a lot like what we had been doing – plus, all of us being on the verge of turning 50 – it was time to get over it. I convinced Jon and Andy that Dave was cool, and was the only person to do it; what had happened so many years ago was now irrelevant. We all met in London sometime in the fall of 2004, talked over some stuff, and agreed to do it. Two things we promised ourselves: it had to be fun, yet it HAD to be seriously/brilliantly done. Doing a half-assed job would have been awful and would have ruined the legacy we had built for ourselves, particularly as a live force. We did it very seriously, brilliantly, loudly, aggressively, with great focus, and we had (for the most part) a lot of fun. Anyone who saw ANY of the 2005 shows will attest to all those things. We all still had our hair. Very important.
Punk Globe: Did you play and tour a lot?
H.B.: Yes, at first; and it was so much fun. But we really should have done more – but, as ever, we let ourselves be snakebit by the familiar things: bad (bad, bad, manipulative, deceitful, inattentive) management, and our own collective innate ability to never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. We got into some silly arguments that, looking back on it, were clearly the result of managerial manipulation and sometimes too-tender insecurities of one sort or another. It went tits-up by the end of 2006. I regret the harshness that went on terribly; but none of it would have happened with a good and caring manager. It took some time, but I am very happy to say that – once again – Andy and Jon remain two of the best friends I have. Dave, too – but he and I had stayed friends for the 20-year gap anyway – I had managed his band Shriekback for a few years, and we spent quite a bit of time together when we both lived in LA in the ‘90s.
Punk Globe: Did you do any recording during this time period?
H.B.: Yes, we re-recorded a lot of old songs for ‘Return The Gift’. I actually barely played on this record…all, essentially down to the manager saying I couldn’t do it. Asshole. He kept needling me about not being able to cut it live, either…but I put the little shit in his place by being the balls every damn show. I never messed up, I never fell over onstage, I never forgot what song we were playing, and I was never too drunk to do my job (unlike some…!) So, fuck him (I can say that…I’m a drummer.) A session drummer did the album. No fun.
I understand that you have retired from playing drums. If it is true. What are you currently involved with?
H.B.: I have been teaching at college level in Boston since 2000. I am an Associate Professor at The New England Institute of Art, and I also teach at Endicott College just north of Boston, near where I live.
Punk Globe: Perhaps drumming with White Trash Debutantes could sway you back? After all WTD Rawk!
H.B.: I wish I had the time to swing around the country and play drums with people. I miss the fun of it. I was supposed to be in Chicago making an album at Steve Albini’s studio in July. Sadly that project fell through. But it’s hard. I teach at two schools, I have an 11 (going on 20) year-old daughter, and we are living with and caring for my in-laws. So you can see it’s a very ‘punk’ life I’m leading these days, in my mid-50s.
Punk Globe: Do you have web addresses that you would like to share with the Punk Globe readers? So they can get updates on you.
H.B.: I’m on Facebook….but I tend to ignore ‘friend collectors’ and people who don't even have the good manners to send me a message with their ‘Friend request’. I have ‘met’ some lovely people there, though.
Punk Globe: How does it make you feel to know that Gang Of Four inspired so many bands? Such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More and even Michael Stipe has cited Gang Of Four as an inspiration?
H.B.: It feels terrific. I’d like it even better if any of them had recorded one of our old songs. Did Stevie Wonder ever really need all those extra royalties from RHCP’s ‘Higher Ground’??!! You forgot INXS and Kurt Cobain. And U2. And those are just the “over 50s"!
Any advice or last words for Punk Globe readers?
1. If you don’t have a sense of humour (especially about yourself) – get one.
2. If it’s too loud, you really are too old.
3. If you think all new (pop) music sucks, you’ve turned into your Grandparents; get an 11 year-old in the house to slap some sense into you, and to remind you what it was like to discover new music and artists OF ANY STYLE at that age. Pure joy.
4. Lady Gaga is fucking wonderful - Real Punk.
5. You should never be too old to dance stupidly…even if your knees really hurt afterwards.
6. Clem Burke is the greatest living drummer.
7. Read a lot. I mean, a LOT. Read Andrew Vachss. Re-read Greil Marcus.
8. Send money.
9. Better still, send bottles of red wine from the Piedmont region of Northern Italy.
10. When a documentary called “Record Men” by a San Francisco-based music legend finally gets released, go watch it. It will be the greatest documentary about the industry you will ever see.
Punk Globe would like to thank Hugo for the insightful and very informative interview...