ADAM ANT AND THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE LOVELY POSSE
Enmore Theatre, Sydney
March 23, 2012
By BOB SHORT
Share The first thing a friend in the UK asked was “what was the ratio of Sexpeople to pop people?” An arcane question for those not in the know but one that goes to the heart of the dilemma that is Antmusic. For many, Adam Ant and his merry band are permanently plunged into the early ‘80s embarrassment of the first wave of pop videos and hairstyles best left forgotten.
It was a funny old decade the '80s; when the rebels learnt how to shake hands with Molly Meldrum and his ilk. (Non Australian readers and those seeking cultural reference may wish to replace the words Molly and Meldrum with corporate and antichrist.) Some were forgiven their sins but many of the original fashion police were gleefully denounced as criminals and thrown to good taste’s equivalent of Sing Sing – where a well deserved arse raping and gnashing of teeth would surely follow. Mullets and shoulder pads went the way of flares, thankfully dispatched with the kind of vehemence that not even post modern irony could ever resuscitate.
And what of Adam Ant and his Prince Charming and pirate nonsense? Could we ever forgive this post driven through the heart of punk – the taint of new romantic swish? Man. I think you had to be there to truly dig that jive the nurse is giving you. Next you’ll be telling me you actually like those Exploited and Anti Nowhere League singles you keep stashed in their Mylar sleeves. As a man who has wielded the pen poison, I know it is easy to judge an artist by the low points of a career. Hollywood director Joel Schumacher might have had a distinguished left field career if it wasn’t for the dog’s breakfast he made of “Batman Forever”. That’s the one he’ll be remembered for as he rolls in his grave.
Imagine for just one moment that Iggy Pop would be forever judged solely on the basis of the truly sub standard “Blah, Blah, Blah” LP; that his sole musical legacy would be the contribution of “Real Wild Child” to the theme song from Rage. How about weighing the worth of the Rolling Stones by limiting your listening pleasure (?) to “Black and Blue” and “Goat’s Head Soup”. I know there are some deranged individuals out there who will champion these releases but, for me, these case studies only reveal their worth and find redemption in terms of an entire body of work.
Apart from the odd mention in such publications as the NME (where the typical description involved terms such as “the fag end of punk rock”), my first introduction to the music of Adam Ant was the film “Jubilee”. Punk was still a broad church back then, not blinkered by the clichéd expectations of suburban thugs. I saw the film in a Balmain flea pit at a time when that whole peninsula was still a cling on tacked onto the arse hairs of the planet. The cinema reeked of cheap smuggled booze, vomit and piss. I frequently laugh when I see the Yuppie haven it has become, post renovation. If only they knew... The film’s R rating had attracted a genuine raincoat clad brigade of snorting local perverts clutching brown paper wrapped bottles in one hand whilst whacking away at themselves with the other. To their disappointment, their attempts at masturbation were somewhat disturbed by the film’s scenes of castration, murder, pretentious portentous Elizabethan clap trap and a soundtrack that had clearly arrived from another planet.
Sandwiched in the very mixed salad of Gene October, Eno, Toyah and Wayne County, the clear soundtrack winner was Adam and the Ants. (The Banshee’s “Make up to Break Up” didn’t make the LP). Frantic performances of “Plastic Surgery” and “Deutscher Girls” gave you every reason you may have needed to buy into the franchise. The song writing was strong but left field and angular enough to escape the pack whilst not alienating potential listeners. The lyrics had a kind of camp “Carry On” edge, flirting with the deliberately offensive whilst still maintaining a knowing wink. That’s a fine pair of melons you have there, missus. They’d go nicely with my cucumber. Certainly, political correctness was not a deep concern to Adam who rewrote the plot of “West Side Story” in terms of lighting up a beacon on a Puerto Rican. (A charming rhyming couplet but one that even Adam has since distanced himself from.) Did he really write the line “You’ve gotta concentrate on camp in the concentration camp.”? Yes, indeedy he did. In fact, he built an entire repertoire around rubber, Nazis, bathrooms, whips and chains; nursery rhyme football chant sing-a-longs about the joys of torture. The British music press was suitably appalled and looked forward to the arrival of ABC, Billy Bragg, the grim North, the misery gut Smiths and the return of business as usual.
But Ant wasn’t just perverse in terms of lyrical themes. He signed to Decca records who were madly scrambling for a punk band they could call their very own. Any punk would do. What did he record? The “quirky” debut single “Young Parisians” best remembered for the immortal line “Young Parisians are so French. They like Patti Smith.” Decca looked bemused at the distinct lack of pounding beat and distorted guitar but thought that this must be what the kids are listening to these days. This guy is a punk. This music must be punk, too. They released the single anyway and promptly went belly up.
When I arrived in London and began my search for what was going on, I wasn’t particularly interested in anything that Monotony Maker or the eNME were selling. Instead, I perused the very best in alternative media; the only real street press that mattered. I went into the West End, looking for the wildest and most attractive punk girls and what they had carefully painted on their leather jackets. Through this important gauge of popular taste, I soon ascertained where the action was and which acts I should investigate. This approach had many additional advantages (thankfully none of which I intend to share here – Oh, I say!). As you can probably guess, I soon found myself attending many Adam and the Ants gigs. I admit it. I was a teenage Sexperson. Your ridicule is nothing to be scared of.
The Ants circa ’79 were a genuinely great band, balancing sinister riffs and peculiar lyrical themes with a pop sensibility that saved them from all that neo-seriousness of post punk. They were never better than the night they supported Gary Glitter at London’s Lyceum. What a night that was. Grown men pulled passed out over the crush barriers from the mosh pit. The dual drummers of the Glitter Band were a thundering dance machine. I’m sure Adam sat in the wings taking notes. After the defection of the original Ants to Malcolm McLaren’s Bow Wow Wow, his new band was modelled on all things Glitter with ‘50s guitar twang and a splash of Burundi beat action on the side. To just about everyone’s surprise, the pop charts bowed to the irresistible force of this “new” Antmusic. And that’s where most readers will enter this story. A lot of those original punk supporters cried traitor. Adam’s image became exponentially more theatrical as his success grew until it all came tumbling down like a Judy Garland movie.
Well, that’s one interpretation of reality. You could also look at the arrival of Marco Pirroni into the Ants’ camp. Pirroni has a blistering guitar genius that seems to have escaped most rock fans’ notice. Whilst certain punter’s burnt their Ant’s records in disgust at what they considered sell out, Marco laid down the kind of industrial strength guitar riffing that few have ever attempted. If you don’t believe me, check out “Killer in the Home” off of the first CBS album. Link Wray with a heart full of napalm. Chords that strip paint off the wall. Listen to the B-sides of the singles. “Red Scab” is the sonic equivalent of a sledge hammer to the face - think first album Stooges covering AC/DC’s “TNT” after a fist full of downers.
Imagery aside, the transition from the independently released “Dirk Wears White Socks” to the major label “Kings of the Wild Frontier” was virtually seamless. For many, however, that newly found imagery of pantomime suits and bright colours was all too much to bear. I remember a tearful friend handing me a pile of discs unable to listen to them ever again.
But this is ancient history. Adam ditched the new band. Adam made movies and dated genuine movie stars. Adam went to the psych ward. Adam walked into a bar with a replica gun. Adam went to the psych ward again. Where once he looked like the Wild One, now Adam began to look and sound like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. Surprise, surprise... psych ward again. News of a return to form began to filter out and this seemed the strangest tale of all. Suddenly I was on the Internet at nine o’clock in the morning desperately scrambling for tickets.
The endless circling of Enmore and Newtown in search of a parking spot meant that I missed the support act; Georgie Girl and her Poussez Posse. Well, there’s a name to conjure with. Nudge. Nudge. Wink. Wink. I’ll say no more. I was under the impression that I had arrived in a timely fashion when I walked into the Theatre at 8.30. Frankly, I was expecting those usual hours of tedious waiting whilst the headliner struggled to squeeze less than successfully into the leather pants of youth. Instead, almost immediately, the bass riff of “Plastic Surgery” filled the auditorium. Clearly Adam was keen to get on stage and prove he hadn’t completely lost the plot.
There had been Internet reports of tardiness the previous year. His battles with mental illness have been clearly documented. I read that he was recently booked to play a benefit concert at a Pentecostal church and began with an extended version of “Sympathy for the Devil” much to the audience’s disdain (but personally I’d just like to think of that as some genuine funny shit.) The British tabloids suggested he was clearly on the verge of another pistol-packing mental breakdown.
Tonight, Adam was back and wanted to prove several points. Firstly, he had to prove that he remains an exceptional and professional stage presence and performer who deserves his place on the big stage. This he did, clearly demonstrating he could still pull off an hour and a half’s set without falter and come back for close on half an hour’s worth of encores. (A lucrative American tour looms in the future and I’m guessing he doesn’t want to fuck that up.) Secondly, he went out of his way to prove he loved and was proud of all the songs he’d written; not just the pop stuff but the punk stuff and the weird stuff. There was clearly a quest for vindication in this set; a desire to rewrite history.
A good deal of his success was achieved through the help of a brilliant but clumsily named backing band, The Good, The Bad and the Lovely Posse. With a twin drum attack, bass guitar and lead, the band also featured the occasional backing vocals of Georgie Girl. She’d come on stage for a couple of songs in one costume, leave and return later in a skimpier number until all that was left was lingerie. She sang her lines just fine and knew the dance from the Prince Charming video. Though hardly vital to the night’s proceedings, she added a certain colour to the evening even if that colour was blue. Is she really going out with him? I don’t know. Let’s ask her. Georgie! Is that Adam’s ring you’re wearing?
I’d like to helpfully tell you who was in the rest of the band so I could sing their praises but all my research has failed to dig up names. They are young, focused and pleased to be doing what they are doing. No Marco but Ant proved himself to be no slouch on the guitar either on the songs he decided to play on.
Adam drew his set from his entire career including one song from his upcoming album (the threatened title of which would push this review up to the five thousand word mark). Whilst he played the expected hits (“Viva La Rock”, “Stand and Deliver”, “Ant Music”, “Desperate but not Serious”, “Dog Eat Dog”), he slanted the set heavily towards the “Dirk Wears White Socks” (“Cleopatra”, “Never Trust a Man with Egg on His Face”, “Catholic Day”, “Car Trouble”, “Zerox”) era with a joyously (un)healthy dollop of the more infamous B-side babies for good measure (“Kick”, “Beat My Guest”, “Fall Out”, “Christian D’Or”). Even “Fat Fun” made a re-appearance along with “Deutscher Girls”. Possibly, the most successful part of the performance was that “Wonderful” sat happily beside “Whip in my Valise”. “Prince Charming” didn’t sound out of place with “Red Scab”.
Ant had successfully tied the disparate parts of his career into a distinct package. A lot of that obviously came down to the band and the fact that they just simply rock this material. They play “Puss’n Boots” in the same way they play “(You’re so) Physical”. Fortunately, it is clear no one sat them down and told them this song was a pop song and that was a punk song. And then there was the secret weapon. It’s a bit of a cliché talking about drums as a division of Panzer tanks coming over the hill but, fuck, you should have heard the earthquake opening of “Kings of the Wild Frontier”. If you were anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere, I’d be surprised if you didn’t. However, it was also clear that these songs all meant a tremendous amount to Adam Ant; even those songs many accused of being fluff. He repeatedly told the audience so.
Perhaps what I have failed to tell you was how much fun this gig was. Did I mention the covers of Marc Bolan’s “Get it On” and “20th Century Boy”? There was no point I got that “enough is enough” feeling that can easily hit you 60 minutes into a set when the band launch into yet another specially extended version of a less than dazzling album track. There were no such problems here. Adam belted out song after memorable song. As he left the stage not once but twice, the audience loudly cheered for more but not out of that Pavlov’s dog expectation one has come to expect from Sydney audiences. (I suppose we are supposed to clap now but I would much rather make a run to the footpath and suck down half a packet of Marlboros to make up for lost time.) Instead, there was genuine sense of excitement in the room. This was the kind of good time that you didn’t want to end and a determined hardcore were not walking out that door without hearing the final feedback wail of “Physical”.
As I left, I overheard a couple of conversations that suggested some of the more straight-laced pop people were mystified by all the “new” (read very old) material. Fair enough. I am pleased to report that long suffering Sexpeople were the big winners on the night and there were more than a few present. Well, I for one, never thought I’d see that many Sydneysiders in one room singing “Who taught you to torture?” I guess stranger things have happened.