Musical Epiphanies #1 – Gang of Four on The Old Grey Whistle Test

This series of blogs covers musical moments that have changed my perspective on music or have stayed with me since the first view or listen. We start with Gang of Four’s performance of ‘To Hell With Poverty’ on cult TV show ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ in 1981, which I first saw 6 years ago aged 13.

A lot can be said about this performance – its electricity, its power, perhaps its complete ridiculousness. But for me, this levels with Public Image Ltd and Au Pairs as one of the best Old Grey Whistle Test performances by a punk band – its sheer class is utterly undeniable, showing a band both at the peak of their powers and in total adoration with their art.

For those who haven’t seen this performance, I’d recommend following the link here and watching the video before reading further!

Andy Gill’s chords soar in an infectious mess of high-pitched screams, momentarily fall back to Earth and are resurrected with authoritative thrashes of the strings, with Gill slowly rocking with the rising intensity of the moment.

Then come the drums and bass. Now the chaos has a backing track, and it’s irresistible. The whole band are in full swing, with singer Jon King flying in from the side of the stage and performing what can only be described as a total insult to dance, though a spasm of complete euphoria, an ecstasy epidemic shared by all on stage.

All stops for a brief second, and crashes back into life. King and Gill move to the mics. ‘OOOOOH, AH AH AH!’. It’s music at its most hedonistic, its least caring. King sings the wrong words within three lines, but who the hell cares?  It’s a beat-driven frenzy that no one dare try to control.

The song describes giving up on political principle and social action, centring on the lines ‘To hell with poverty/We’ll get drunk on cheap wine’. No combination of lyrics and performance could epitomise this sense of stark realism more while being juxtaposed by the most hysterically danceable punk song ever – an anthem for the despairing anti-Thatcher freedom fighters, dancing high on their own downfall.

This will remain, to me, an understated highlight of punk. Though never a huge favourite of mine, Gang of Four grabbed me in a way not many artists could. They demand your attention, your enjoyment. They don’t care if you refuse. These are the dying embers of the revolution, so let’s shout about it while we can! Let’s sing about our futility and hopelessness with pride! Why not? What have we got to lose?

The next ten years showed we did have a lot to lose, unfortunately, but we’ll save that for the political blogs. For now, though, we can celebrate one of the greatest punk innovators at their best, shamelessly parading the OGWT stage with blissful ignorance to convention and musical normality.

We can all raise a cheap glass to that, surely?

 

Next: Musical Epiphanies #2 – Magazine – Real Life

 

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