Andy Gill 1956-2020
Sevenoaks School 1967-74
Gill: contemporary in every sense
It would be easy to look back to the late 60s and early 70s at Sevenoaks School and bathe it in golden nostalgia: bizarre straw hats; arcane rules; obsessive teachers demanding boys get their hair cut. Andrew Gill, Gill to those who knew him then and for ever afterwards, won’t fit any type of nostalgic retelling, he was always abrasively contemporary.
Gill was never a ‘boy’ either, he was always seemed to be a young man even at 11, still apparently a young man for that matter at 64. Which makes it difficult to think of a world without Gill in it. So, the young man I sat next to in the Sevenoaks Art Room, in the Fine Art studios at Leeds University and in too many pubs and clubs across the world to mention, what marked him out?
Once you heard his guitar playing, that aggressive, sharp rhythmic attack, you knew you were hearing something excitingly different, something new. That guitar and the group it came from (the Gang of Four, a joint effort formed in Leeds by Gill and another Sevenoaks Art Room contemporary, Jon King) changed things.
If you drew a line through bands like U2, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Franz Ferdinand and so many more, it’s the influence of the Gang of Four that links them. That combination of immediately recognisable aggressive guitar playing and political/social analysis, odd in a pop song don’t you think, where did that come from?
Bob White, Head of Art at Sevenoaks, taught us to strip back any idea, any process to the fundamentals. He taught us to search for the right ‘form’ for any circumstance, to tease out an image; radical content demanded radical form, politics is life. You could see this in one of Gill’s last paintings at school, a series of white vertical stripes, each stripe a different type of paint, different luminosity, texture and density, but all white. It was a characteristic Gill combination of commodified materials and clarity of thought.
You could hear that in anything by the Gang of Four too, each instrument clear and of itself; the popular song taken to bits, analysed and reconstructed, and you could dance to it. Politically charged, witty lyrics informed by a Sevenoaks A-level education in English, Art and History from Jon King, and this staccato slicing guitar noise from Gill, trained in the unusual combination of Art, Economics and Physics. All bound together by what we learned in the Art Room, without that, I doubt those subsequent groups would have existed. Everything was up for questioning; anything was possible if you could defend it vigorously enough. How many other guitar heroes would naturally compare James Brown’s ‘Sex Machine’ to a Jackson Pollock painting?
Most of us who clustered in the Art Room round the record player (Hendrix, Dylan, Velvet Underground, Trojan Records, Motown) had passed the 11-plus to pay our fees and we naturally gravitated away from prefects, rugger and cheery thuggery. Sevenoaks then was split between an Edwardian public school ethos with some fairly medieval brutality and something radically new. I would go from an English lesson sat next to Jonathan Bate (scarily clever then, an eminent academic now), to ancient punishments like writing lines to arguing about films with Adam Curtis and Paul Greengrass, who became directors themselves. There are two sounds I associate with that period, metal boot studs on tarmac as the 1st XV pushed their way through to lunch and the whiny treble of the Art Room record player, the playing arm weighed down with old coins to stop it jumping on the warped records.
We did work hard, especially in the Art Room, but we also enjoyed ourselves. I remember the laughter, the fun, the excitement more than anything and Gill was an exciting young man to be around, always in some sort of trouble. Bob once described Gill as looking like he had been thrust into a drawer at night then shaken out and sent on his way in the morning. Gill was a magnet for attention. He had an unlikely obsession with North American Indians, carrying a copy of Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee under one arm and the Axis: Bold as Love LP under the other. Wearing a black armband on the day Jimi Hendrix died was heavily frowned upon. Playing a reggae version of ‘Jerusalem’ in assembly also went down very badly.
We designed the Sennockian during the Upper Sixth; in those golden days the Art Room put the school magazine together. Actual cut and paste with scissors, Sellotape and Letraset. Ours was a proto-punk affair heavily based on the Whole Earth Catalogue; we chose the cheapest newsprint, a scribbled cover and handmade titles. I expect we called it a ‘democratisation of the process’ or something similar (art students!). Our clientele was not impressed, nor were the great and the good when we went up to get the traditional reward for the designers, the Sennockian school prize – horrors – Gill’s tie was undone; proto-punk indeed.
Mark White (OS 1974)
Gill: Master Forger
Our lives centred on Sevenoaks School’s Art department, where we often worked into the evening. The Art Room boys included me, Andy Gill, Mark White, Kevin Lycett, Paul Greengrass, Adam Curtis, and Tom Greenhalgh. Andy and I went on to found Gang of Four; Mark, Kevin, and Tom formed the Mekons; Paul became a famous movie director; and Adam is a hugely respected documentary film maker for the BBC. It was a brilliant department run by Bob White, the teacher who inspired us all. We owe a lot to him.
Public transport wasn’t good in the villages clustered around Sevenoaks. To get about, many of us owned motorbikes. Gill had a 50cc moped that was so feeble he had to get off and push on steep hills, and the lights didn’t work. To fix this, Andy had a cunning ruse: he sellotaped a tiny torch to the handlebars. But Gill’s illegal lights were spotted by a traffic cop, who found it hard not to laugh as he issued Andy a ticket.
It was a downer, but we were privately jubilant. The policeman had been fooled by Andy’s criminal masterpiece! Gill – broke but artistic – had handpainted the road tax disc for his moped, to avoid paying for one. The forgery had taken ages to make and was a fine piece of work; closely detailed, delicately coloured. A miniature masterpiece!
Sadly, we were stopped again an hour or so later by the same policeman. He checked Gill’s moped again, and burst out laughing when he found the fake tax disc, which was, in truth, rubbish. The cop laughed so much, he let Gill off potential fine #2 - forgery? fraud? stupidity? – sending us on our way with the kindly words ‘Now f*** off! I hope I never see you again!’
And he never did.
Jon King (OS 1973)
Top image: Andy Gill at Sevenoaks School
Inset image © Scott Dudelson/Getty Images Entertainment via Getty Images