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

 

The Fall Obituary

My first true journalistic piece, I wrote this article in late February for my university magazine in a ‘Broken-Up Bands’ feature a few weeks after Mark E. Smith’s death.

Basically a print version of me parading the campus wearing an ‘I Love The Fall Even Though They Confuse Me Sometimes’ shirt, I aimed to get some innocent, anonymous reader to acknowledge who and what The Fall were, stick ‘Pay Your Rates’ or ‘Jawbone and the Air Rifle’ on, listen in mild confusion and swiftly leave, questioning what the hell they’d just heard – standard protocol for all first listens of The Fall, I believe.

I thought many articles on the feature had been somewhat self-indulgent and missed the point, focusing on the author’s love for the artist rather than the artists themselves and their impact as a whole. So I felt I had done their legacy justice to some extent – it’s difficulty to know if you comprehensively can with The Fall.

But anyway, nothing says artistic justice like an article about The Fall, written by a middle-class student from the South, for a middle-class university’s magazine about how great they were. Exactly what Mark would’ve wanted, right?

‘Hey student, You’re gonna get it through the head’

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Mark E. Smith’s death in January gave us a timely reminder of what two things The Fall have taught us about musical endeavour over their spellbinding career: You can write critically acclaimed albums of songs consisting only of two guitar chords complimented by absurdly obscure vocals, and it is possible to maintain prolific commendation and musical output despite the coming and going of 66 different members over 42 years. On the topic, Smith famously jibed “If it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s The Fall”.

My first experience of The Fall was in 2016 when listening to their third album Grotesque (After The Gramme), released in 1980. A politically charged bleak outlook on Thatcherite Britain, it opened my eyes to how musical and lyrical creation could be so effortless, humorous and minimalist; the first track ‘Pay Your Rates’ sees Smith rhyme ‘rates’ with itself fourteen times, for example. The album took on themes such as conspiracy theories, the middle-class’ adoption of punk and the lack of career opportunities for the working-class, with Smith’s signature lyrical satirising of all he saw shining through time and time again; “The lower-class, want brass, bad chests, scrounge fags/The clever ones tend to emigrate” he quips in ‘English Scheme’.

Delving deeper into their goldmine discography, the brilliance of The Fall becomes clearer and clearer – Hex Enduction Hour (1982) is an astounding piece of artistry – commanding, jarring and utterly compelling; The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall (1984) offers immense bassline driven headbangers, while The Infotainment Scan (1993) sees Smith and co. take on Madchester beats in an enthralling journey of indie-dance experimentation.

Admittedly, on first listening The Fall can be extremely difficult to follow. They are exceptionally idiosyncratic, reject the current trends of the day and demand great patience from the audience – Smith remarked in 1990 “We do make deliberate decisions to alienate people”, owing to their abrasive and repetitive song structure and production. Though with time you begin to welcome their sounds with open arms. It is impossible to resist the thundering chord sequence of ‘Mr Pharmacist’, the sheer speed and velocity of ‘Jawbone and the Air Rifle’ or the hectic, distorted mess that is ‘Lay of the Land’. I could go on, though I fear the list may be everlasting, perhaps never ending.

Smith’s death – bringing with it the end of The Fall – symbolises a growing disappearance of a vital era for musical creativity, both poetically and instrumentally. The post-punk breed has lost an extravagant yet solitary figure of anti-fashion that broke all rules of conformity and trend, offering up 31 albums of pure rejection and retreat, yet remaining as current, confrontational and up front as physically possible. They are one of a kind, though they’d probably reject that too.