Touched By The Hand Of God

Another wonderful post by my friend from GB, Nick. It’s so good in fact that I allowed a paragraph on that most dreaded of bands, REM.

Enjoy!

Looking back on my 40 year love affair with music, there are songs that have made me smile, songs that have made me want to man the barricades, songs that have made me want to leave home, cry…even one or two that have made me want to dance…and when you are as appalling a dancer as me, well that’s no mean feat.

But there are only a few tracks/performances that I can honestly say have stopped me in my tracks, moments where I felt as if I had been hit in the solar plexus and had the wind knocked out of me. Except in most of these instances the blow doesn’t hurt, because as the air leaves one’s body it is replaced by something even more vital. Instead of breathing oxygen you find your system enriched by something altogether more intoxicating….the sight and sound of pure genius.

So what is it that makes these moments special? What makes one song, one moment in time; stand out from all the rest? The songs and performances I am thinking about aren’t necessarily the artist’s generally perceived high points; a couple of the artists aren’t necessarily perceived as having any high points at all and not every track is actually enjoyable. All I can say is that listed below, in no particular order, are some of my “Oh My Fucking GOD” moments, moments that have left an indelible mark on me…….

REM: Let Me In (Live ‘Tour’ version)
Michael stands alone under a single spotlight. From the middle distance a dissonant guitar riff churns out a rough sloppy riff, as if some kid is practicing in the room next door. Michael sings in a raw, desolate tone pleading to be let into your (?) life, vulnerable and alone he and his voice seem at breaking point. The intensity doubles as a thin, achingly mournful single wheezing synth line accentuates and underpins the vocals. The song ends and for a fraction of a second there is silence. An audience of thousands in the arena, and this boy sat in front of his tv screen alone, are temporarily, momentarily stunned. It takes the next few tracks to get over the shattering impact of what I reckon to be one of REM’s greatest moments.

THE SLITS: Shoplifting (John Peel Session/Live)
Proof that little girls are made of things other than sugar and spice. Femmes in rock up until this point had tended to be cutesy, folksy or pre-packed plastic dolls. The Slits were real women, packed with hormones and the threat of a knee in the balls for any guy stupid enough to call them ‘babe, doll or darling’. Fronted by the wild Ari-Up, this four piece reveled in their womanhood, flaunted their menstrual cycles and basically gave two fingers to the world of male expectation.

At the outset, and when the band was at their most…Fertile/febrile…they were a match for anyone with their wild football hooligan chants, tribal drumming, slashing guitar and dub style bass. Shoplifting marks the very zenith of their achievements, both in its recorded version for BBC’s John Peel show and lives where Ari-Up stood with her legs apart dressed in t-shirt and tights and a sanitary towel on very public display. They shocked, they challenged…and then sadly became increasingly tedious as Ari assumed an ever more ludicrous pseudo-Jamaican persona…track the Peel session down if you can, it was released on Strange Fruit Records some time later and may still be traceable.

NEW YORK DOLLS: Personality Crisis (Old Grey Whistle Test, BBC Television live)
I reckon it must have been late ’73, early ’74. A Portsmouth council flat living room occupied by my mother and my good self. Weekly at 10pm on a Tuesday night there was a peculiarly British rock show on tv called the Old Grey Whistle Test fronted by the outstandingly, mind numbingly tedious Bob Harris. This bearded, rabbit toothed old hack would mumble on about bands which were quite obviously tedious, pompous or pretentious and usually combined all three. Some bunch of long hairs would play 10 minutes of wibbling jazz rock and the camera would pan to Bob’s stupid face as he intoned words like; “nice” or “special” In fairness, there was the occasional treat such as a new track by Stackridge (don’t ask!!) but on the whole it was dullsville… until one night a bunch of faggots from New York came on and blew the whole fucking program to hell. OK, maybe I overstate things slightly but I recall as clear as the day it was broadcast the visible shock on my mother’s face as Johannson and the guys strutted their stuff. It was an unholy racket, and I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not…all I knew was that any track/band that made my mum look as stunned and uncomfortable as this lot must be worth paying attention to. This feeling was compounded when, after they had finished Bob Harris couldn’t contain his contempt as he sneered; “mock rock.” A seminal, killer OMG moment.

BRECKER BROTHERS: East River (Single)
Jazz-rock muso’s in monster funk shock! One of the most breathtaking, awe-inspiring slabs of funk ever, and as a bonus contains one of the wildest, most intriguing noises ever. It’s a wall of sound more powerful than anything Spector ever produced, and just when you think it can’t get any more insane…in comes that noise. It’s the sound of a synth being filled with some weapons grade combustible and ignited…from the start the track roars out from the speakers and leaves the listener utterly spent four minutes later.*

*Note, Heaven 17 /Human League were so enamored with the track and that noise they spent many fruitless hours trying to recreate it…they never did.

GANG OF 4: At Home He’s A Tourist (Live Portsmouth Polytechnic circa ’78)
Gang of 4 was one of those bands that were almost too good to be true. To be right at the front of the stage and actually be there to witness one of the truly great performances of all time was quite remarkable. The student union only held a few hundred, and the stage only some five feet high. After the disco had played the last song the lights went off and there was a pregnancy of expectant silence. A few cheers emanated as the audience sensed more than saw figures appear on stage. There was a click and a hum as guitars were plugged in…a high hat is struck lightly four times and…WHAP. Blinding white strobe lighting flashes and careers around…the band members caught fleetingly in its vicious illumination. The bass and drums hammer out that familiar ‘Chic for White Boys’ intro…the brooding sense of panic becomes full blown hysteria as Andy Gill, he of the fractured, spastic, ‘this ain’t a guitar it’s a tool’ style of playing, cuts across the rhythm, slashing and hiccupping, using feedback as just another sound texture before Jon King comes in with the polemic.

I don’t think I have ever been taken higher at a gig, the rest of the show was stunning, but those opening five minutes or so…Oh My Fucking God.

NEW ORDER: Regret (Live)
Have you ever heard a track for the very first time and after the intro and first verse, felt as if you’d known it all your life? Have you, although you’ve never heard the track before instinctively known what the song should do next? Regret is a case in point. Looked at critically it is probably no better but certainly no worse than many other of the band’s songs. Musically it isn’t particularly innovative and no catchier than say Chlamydia, so why does it occupy such a special place in my heart? For exactly the reasons I have outlined above. As the first verse comes to an end you WANT all the other instruments to drop out, leaving Bernie to repeat that killer opening guitar motif…Da-.dada-da-da…before the vocals and band come crashing back in. It’s as if you had actually taken part in the creation and performance of the track. It is New Order at their truly most democratic because judging by the reaction the song gets when played live it’s obvious that thousands upon thousands of others feel just the same as me. This was OUR New Order song.

VELVET UNDERGROUND: Sweet Jane (Live ‘Redux’ tour)
In so many ways this has no right to be included in this listing at all. It is a lumpen, rocked up version of a song that worked originally because it was one of the world’s greatest rock & roll riffs precisely due to the fact that it WASN’T overblown….and yet. On a tour that probably shouldn’t have been undertaken in the first place, one where the audience seemed to be wanting to enjoy themselves far more than they actually were and as they watched a band that seemed barely connected to one another, we all felt as if we were watching another case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Yet another frankly ordinary rendition of a classic song ends but this time, without waiting for applause that would undoubtedly be as perfunctory as the performance that preceded it…BANG….that riff is hammered out…. and the audience goes collectively berserk. For four short minutes the band actually seem to be enjoying themselves, even Lou smiles… and all the tepid, short changing half heartedness is forgiven.

GEORGE CLINTON: Loopzilla (Capitol 12”)
At the end of the seventies I have to admit to being phenomenally ignorant about funk in general and P-Funk in particular. Hell I even preferred the Gap Band to their obvious source Funkadelic. I was quickly put right on the subject by my hipper betters when I moved to Edinburgh in 1980 however, and eventually learned to appreciate the Parliament/Funkadelic thang, intellectually if not physically It wasn’t until a parcel arrived from our American importers and I slapped on this monster piece of funk that I could honestly say that the Mothership had truly landed. A wonderful lame-brain synth riff with snatches of One Nation etc thrown in, it is one of those few tracks that will still get me onto the dance floor. Killer and…OMG.

FIRE ENGINES: Get Up & Use Me (Live)
Edinburgh band probably unknown in the States, they were the coolest thing in the world for about a year back in 1982/3. Darlings of the hip music press; their recorded output was frankly patchy and did nothing to further their supposedly messianic status. I only went to see them out of loyalty for fellow label mates (yeah…my band was on the same label…am I cool or what?!)…and fuck me they were good. On vinyl they were discordant in a rather boring way, but live and in particular with this track they came wonderfully, stunningly alive…and annoyingly they were bloody good looking too…it isn’t often that I see a band and am consumed with awe and jealousy but Fire Engines live were one such experience.

ERIC SATIE: Gymnopodie #3
Classical music always felt more like a chore than a source of musical enjoyment. Sure I could appreciate the cleverness of it all, and a few pieces such as Dvorak’s Symphony From The New World I would count amongst my fave pieces of music (interestingly it’s often sneered at by purists for being wantonly populist, but that’s fine by me and it is predicated on the Afro-American spiritual “(I’m A) Goin’ Home”…so maybe it’s not so far removed from rock’n’roll as I first thought.)
Anyway, my son was born on the 3rd of July. On the 4th (our wedding anniversary) we arrived home with our first-born and slumped down as a threesome on the bed. Our son had decided that he was temporarily bored with screaming his lungs out and slept soundly in his mother’s arms. I turned on the radio quietly, and the most peaceful, beautiful piano motif drifted from the speakers. It was played with such a lightness of touch, delicate, mournful yet joyous, hesitant and every few bars slightly jarring too. It was the perfect summation of all my wife and I had been through and soothed away much of the fear and doubt we had felt, and were to encounter in the months ahead.

KATE BUSH: Wuthering Heights (Single)
Every now and then you hear something on the radio and go “What, and who the fuck was that?”
Pompous and theatrical as hell, it was everything I knew I should instinctively loathe and yet…and yet. Kate’s voice swoops and soars from the bowels of the earth up to the sky, showing a range only bettered by Karen Carpenter…(ok, maybe I’m overdoing it slightly…Kate has a good range but isn’t an especially good singer technically and can be way too mannered at times.) Yet there was a sense of desolate lonely pleading in her voice, especially in the chorus as she sings of Heathcliffe calling from the moors to his love that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end…It was, and amazingly still is genuinely moving..(The less said about the appalling video though, the better!)

SUICIDE: Frankie Teardrop (Album version)
A track that is, at first sight, at odds with the tone of this listing. This time the discrepancy lies in the fact that all the other tracks are enjoyable, overtly or as secret pleasures. Suicide’s Frankie Teardrop is the single most shocking, buttock clenching track I think I have ever heard. I bought the album on the strength of hearing Cherie Cherie, a shimmering atmospheric piece of modernist electronic mood music…nothing prepared me for Rev & Vega’s aural assault. Frankie is like a nightmare whose details become increasingly indistinct as time passes, but whose atmosphere, tension and downright terror remain as fearsome today as they were all those years ago when I first heard the track. I lay on my bed and recall cowering against the wall as the screaming increased in intensity until I actually feared for my own sanity. The song ended and I remember lying there sweating, shattered and deeply disturbed. I’m not sure how many times I played Frankie
Teardrop thereafter and I reckon I could quite happily live the rest of my life without hearing it again but…Oh My God.

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: This Was the Day (Live TV performance)
My relationship with Mr van Vliet and his only occasionally Magical band has been an uneven one. From the loathsome Trout Mask to the loveable Clear Spot, The good Captain sunk to as many depths as he scaled heights. I don’t recall the program or the date…the presenter announced that Beefheart was next on and I remember groaning and getting up to do something more interesting…and found myself standing there transfixed for the entire performance.
In his stripy t-shirt and brandishing the one instrument that should be banned from rock music…namely the flute, Beefheart gave one of the most heart-achingly beautiful vocal performances ever. The band played sympathetically and hell, even the flute solo was touching. I remember tears welling up, my throat tightening and my chest feeling constricted…I don’t know how highly the track is regarded by aficionados, but it’s my all time fave Beefheart track.

BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD: For What It’s Worth (Single)
Long before I had ever heard of Neil Young I would play my brother’s records when he was out…(he had of course forbidden me to touch them.) It was thanks to him that I first heard The Who and the Beach Boys.. and this track. There was something strange, spooky and immensely powerful in the playing and the arrangement…and in particular the harmonics that act as a musical Zeitgeist throughout the song. I had never heard American folk rock or country rock before and to be honest never encountered anything since to match this track…apart from almost everything else by the man behind this track Pure Oh My God-like genius.

ROSE ROYCE: Love Don’t Live Here Any More (Single)
In a world full of clinically conceived love songs aimed at the cynically heartbroken, this piece of unashamed pathos stands alone in its ability to make me cry even when all is well in my life. Guilty OMG pleasure.

AFRIKA BAMBAATAA; Planet Rock (Tommy Boy 12”)
The track where electro came of age. The follow up to Looking For The Perfect Beat (almost as good) this track is the perfect synthesis of Euro-electro as purveyed by Kraftwerk (it includes a sample from Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express) and rap. It’s a track that spawned innumerable imitators and inspired the like of New Order. An astonishing piece of music which still sounds fresh today.

And there are so many more but for now, why don’t you add your own “Oh My God” moments?

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