Sunday 17 February 2013

ADAM and The ANTS: Kings Of The Wild Frontier

(#242: 24 January 1981, 2 weeks; 14 March 1981, 10 weeks)

Track listing: Dog Eat Dog/‘Antmusic’/Feed Me To The Lions/Los Rancheros/Ants Invasion/Killer In The Home/Kings Of The Wild Frontier/The Magnificent Five/Don’t Be Square (Be There)/Jolly Roger/Making History/The Human Beings

(Author’s Note: The above is the track listing of the original UK edition of the album; the US edition has a slightly different running order with “Making History” being replaced by the single B-sides “Press Darlings” and “Physical (You’re So).” In addition, initial pressings of the North American LP edition came with a bonus 7” of “Stand And Deliver” and “Beat My Guest.” The cassette version incorporated both songs into a completely different running order. To preserve sanity, I have based my comments on the UK edition.)

“Let me answer this bit, Ducky. The contemplation of me by you when a love-feeling comes leads you into that deeper, uncatastrophic madness of God-love. And when and after the whirling stuff has eased up to the surface, don’t you find me among the oozing froth and scum?...I wonder if ny feeling of need for you in me – a need for that you-quality, for you yourself, in me – is at all like your God-need, if your flesh-and-blood body was a part of my own body, like you have in some plant forms of life?”
(Stanley Spencer, letter to Hilda Carline, September 1945, quoted in Stanley Spencer: A Biography by Kenneth Pople, Collins, 1991)

“If you’re not aware of the History of Art, you’re in great danger of repeating it.”
(Adam Ant, interviewed by Mark Ellen in Smash Hits, 11-24 June 1981)

Stuart Goddard grew up in Cookham; in the fifties his lifespan would have briefly overlapped with that of one of his heroes, Stanley Spencer. Perhaps he would have been present amidst the crowds in Christ Preaching At Cookham Regatta had Spencer lived long enough to complete it. Maybe Stanley saw him wandering around Cookham High Street, one of many tomorrows, as he contemplated what to do about his series of spiritual tableaux, the church-house project, or, as he sometimes called it, “the Church of Me.”

Adam Ant, as Goddard grew up to become, was at his peak the epitome of the Church of Me in pop; with Marco Pirroni, and behind them a thousand other influences and records, they set about building a new house of worship because, well, what was the alternative? What’s the good of worship when you end up like Sid Vicious or Ian Curtis – the “big nothing” alluded to and sneered in “‘Antmusic’” is almost certainly connected to these people’s sudden nothingness.

In this house of worship, however, it was made very clear by its builders that this was going to be a church that would incorporate daftness, colour and fun. Away with dulled compromise – “Ninety eight point four’s the bore with twenty-twenty vision” says Adam in “Ants Invasion,” while “The Magnificent Five” is an extended jibe at, and gradual demolition of, the very concept of sitting on the fence.

There is not a moment on Kings Of The Wild Frontier when you are not aware, or being made aware, that this is a bold attempt to do, to create, something new. If 1980’s number one records were all about darkness and hopelessness – not all of them, maybe, but enough of them to make a difference – then Kings, at least musically, sends a bulldozer through all of it. To anyone stuck at the turn of ‘80/1, it took on the significance of a beacon, a guide out of the dark and into a new light…a New Pop.

I’ll make no bones about it; Kings, the biggest-selling album of 1981 and the longest number of weeks spent at number one since Grease, has long been a personal favourite, from the original 12-page booklet/brochure/catalogue inwards. It smelt new, never mind looked new; watching the initial performance of “Dog Eat Dog” on early autumn TOTP unlocked something in me, and I know in around a quarter of a million others, that, as the song suggested, had been long suppressed. It changed something in me that the kilts and mascara of Spandau Ballet, gusting their way through “To Cut A Long Story Short” on the same show a few weeks later, did not.

The puzzle is in what has become a rather muted long-term critical perspective towards the Ants and this album. Even back in 1985, in his reportage/elegy Like Punk Never Happened, Smash Hits reporter Dave Rimmer was rather sceptical about Adam; the book begins in earnest, as it should, with Ant and Marco in a parental semi-detached house somewhere in Harrow, somewhere in early 1980, eating cupcakes and discussing plans for a new Ant sound, involving the Burundi beat amongst other things. Also present at that meeting was drummer Jon Moss, who obligingly drove to Rockfield Studios to double up some drums for the single “Cartrouble” but turned down the job as full-time Ant. Even at that stage Ant was not messing about; ingloriously dismissed by Malcolm McLaren from his own band (which soon became three-quarters of Bow Wow Wow), he contacted Marco immediately and began to make new plans.

There was a race to beat Bow Wow Wow to get Burundi post-punk into the charts, and also a huge urge on Adam’s part in particular to get revenge on McLaren, to prove that he could do this sound and do it better, brighter and cheekier than McLaren could possibly imagine. And so it turned out; despite much press coverage and manufactured controversy, and indeed despite some at times magnificent records, Bow Wow Wow only made a fraction of the impact that the new Adam and the Ants made, and that only after the event (the cohabitation of “Go Wild In The Country” and a reissued “Deutsche Girls” in the Top 20 of early 1982 made for some interesting comparisons).

Because Adam – with the considerable help of Marco - had “it,” that aura inherent in all natural pop stars. 1979’s Dirk Wears White Sox, recorded with the old Ants, had done well on an indie basis (and has stood up with time; it’s impossible to imagine the early Franz Ferdinand not studying the record in depth), but that was no longer enough for the singer – no, what was needed was an all-out attack on, and eventual embrace of, pop, both visually and aurally. As well as conceptually.

So it is something of a surprise to find Rimmer, nearly twenty-seven years ago, being gloomily critical of Adam’s business sense and his post-stardom ways of doing business. As a Smash Hits staffer he may have been vexed by Adam’s people demanding at least twice the going rate to republish his lyrics in a magazine later decried by Paul Morley as being “glossed into a daze with their hippy parodies of teenage excitement” but since copies of Smash Hits were never given away for free, one can only conclude that Adam was firmly taking care of business – in interviews of the period, as Mark Ellen noted back in 1981, he could have given Stewart Copeland or Gary Numan a run for their money in this respect – precisely to avoid getting ripped off by another McLaren; as he got deeper into stardom, the received wisdom is that he loved showbiz far more than he had ever cared for “punk,” and ended up a symptom of the problem rather than a solution to it. Much the same argument is offered by Simon Reynolds, in his book Rip It Up And Start Again, in which New Pop is basically used as a punch bag to decry what it was presumed to have done to the spirit of punk or post-punk (whatever either would have meant).

I do think this conclusion seriously wrongheaded – it encapsulates a lack of understanding of the nature and execution of showbusiness, as if “punk” were some kind of untouchable Holy Grail of music with unassailable morals (it’s turned out to be our era’s Queen Victoria, a relentless back-harking reference point to describe times when things weren’t like “this.” Quite. The mid-seventies were, as I’ve said before, a horrible era to live through). Actually, the person of whom Adam most reminds me throughout Kings is Tommy Steele, the first British rocker to get a number one album. You may recall that “Tommy Steele” in the early days stood for the collaborative team of Steele, Lionel Bart and Mike Pratt, astute, knowing people who knew exactly what they were doing and how to make it work in the milieu in which they were confined.

(In fact, you could extend this comparison to cover The Duke Wore Jeans, that jolly nineteen-minute extended play of a Brit flick soundtrack, which I now see was Steele’s Prince Charming with its urge to take on multiple characters and points of view, to try new clothes and attitudes on, just as happened at Sex and Seditionaries and Blitz in the second half of the seventies. Indeed, in Adam’s 1982 solo number one “Goody Two Shoes,” the hook of “You don’t drink, don’t smoke – what do you do?” glances directly back at the “What Do You Do?” that two Tommy Steeles had sung at each other twenty-four years previously.)

Kings, however, is all about belonging, tribes, warpaint, identity, colour, newness – every one of its dozen songs plays like a manifesto. Yet despite Adam’s protestations that “cult” was just another word for “loser,” what is most remarkable about listening to the record now is just how uncompromising and challenging its overall sound is. In the Smash Hits interview cited above, Adam admitted to checking out completely “off-the-wall” music to absorb its influences, including jazz, tribal music and what he calls “patently dull vocal sounds.” Always looking for that one thing to take, redeploy and magnify. The 2013 listener marvels at how such extreme things as “Feed Me To The Lions” and “Don’t Be Square (Be There)” were bought, heard, loved and presumably absorbed by millions; Pirroni’s guitar is frequently so out there (despite his expressed distaste in 1981 for “freeform instrumentation”) that he makes Robert Fripp sound like John Williams.

Like the Avalanches of a generation later, Ant and Marco were gleeful pillagers, jolly scavengers, rescuing whatever they could from the smouldering bonfire of popular culture and recycling it. Much attitude from the New York Dolls, Roxy and Bowie (“Ants Invasion”), guitars from Eddy, Marvin and Morricone, chord changes from John Barry, a general fuck-you-ness from the Pistols – and it all, in late 1980/early 1981, made perfect sense.

“Dog Eat Dog” opens up the album and sounds like Mud playing Gun’s “Race With The Devil” (if you snigger at the thought of Mud being an influence on anybody, listen to “Tiger Feet” and especially “The Cat Crept In” and then try to snigger). Adam essentially tells you what they’re going to do and how it’s going to sound: “You may not like the things we do/Only idiots ignore the truth” the song and album begin, and it sounded like pop’s rebirth – coming so soon after that remarkable sequence of proto-New Pop number one singles which openly played with the notion of what a “pop single” could do (“The Winner Takes It All” – the singer subverting the song she’s been given to sing and turning a lament into a declaration of independence; “Ashes To Ashes” – a star tells his audience pretty firmly that whatever you liked before, that time is OVER; “Start!” – a record that debates directly with its listener about what a pop single can achieve, or even change; “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” – with its 26-second drone intro and not wanting to give the band’s fans the same old shit), it feels like a deliverance. Voices boom, as do timpani, and then whistles and whoops take over, just like the Ants are taking pop over.

I’m not going to say much about “‘Antmusic’” or the title track as they both reached #2 as singles, so Lena will be giving the songs a fuller analysis when she gets to them, but it’s enough here to note that the internal inverted commas of “‘Antmusic’” are probably as significant as those of “‘Heroes’” and “The ‘Sweetest Girl’.” Not that irony is an intention here - Kings may be one of the least ironic of number one albums – but that the ball which Robin Scott began to roll in 1979 with “Pop Muzik” is gathering speed, and that whatever “rock” or “punk” or even “the twentieth century” had to offer was no longer enough, if indeed it had ever been. Amongst the pictures accompanying the 2004 CD reissue of Kings is a still from the video to the title track; the five musicians are noticeably cramped in their visual field of space (and presumably also cramped by their video budget), but still the intention and bigness of the song ring out. “Kings,” the song, getting past its Chic/Sister Sledge reference (“We are family”), does demonstrate the fairly huge debt owed by the band to that Glitter thing, with its double drums and call-and-response routines; but both music and philosophy here are far more multidimensional and complex. Laments about whiteness and taming; who was really listening?

Getting past the hits, “Feed Me To The Lions” quotes the Lawrence of Arabia theme, while over a grind that recalls 154-era Wire, Adam questions the idea of “emotion” in pop (“Too emotional, am I?” he sings, accusatorily). “Los Rancheros” sees the Eddy-Morricone lineage being coloured in, with some great deep chants of “East-WOOD!” and “CLINT!” and Adam musing about “a new breed [who will] say welcome tomorrow instead of yesterday.” It’s been a long time since a number one album was this playful, or this sinister.

“Ants Invasion,” with its hapless protagonist endlessly searching for followers, or recruits, or perhaps just a new audience – note Adam’s recurring “wrong decision”s – reminds me that Kings wouldn’t, I suspect, have had the impact that it did have without the example of a parallel album from 1980, Searching For The Young Soul Rebels by Dexy’s Midnight Runners, another group led by a driven individual sick of what he’s been spoonfed and looking for newness and solidarity in unexpected quarters, regularly interspersed with comments, and at one point a monologue, directed towards the audience. The degree of commitment in Adam Ant and Kevin Rowland is certainly comparable – and so “Goody Two Shoes” could justifiably be said to be about both of them – but whereas Rowland looked to old Stax and Northern Soul 45s and used his low-set horn section (trombone, alto and tenor saxes, no trumpet) as, effectively, a lead guitar, Ant and Marco looked to everything and everybody else. This song follows most obviously in the steps of Bowie, including a ruminative acoustic interlude, but the expressed desperation (or elation?) is new.

Side one ends with “Killer In The Home,” with Adam again pondering the nobility of Geronimo over the riff from Link Wray’s “Rumble” – with some extraordinary guitar feedback in the middle section – before concluding that, actually, the killer IS the home. A complete rebuttal to the endless questing for home that has dogged number one albums these last dozen years. To achieve and change anything, you have to leave “home” – as I knew was very much the case in early 1981.

The title track opens side two, before moving to the magnificent “The Magnificent Five” which manages to paraphrase both Nietzsche (“He who writes in blood/Doesn’t want to be read/He must be learned by heart”) and Orton (“Prick up your ears”). Musically the song is schizoid, veering between almost insultingly jangly indiepop and vast protean irruptions of thrash.

“Don’t Be Square (Be There)” is one of the album’s best songs, scooting along on a proto-Orange Juice chassis of indie-funk before being thrown off course by Pirroni’s discursive guitar which gradually escalates to a tirade of white noise that would not have shamed 1970 Sonny Sharrock. All the while, unforgettable phrases pop up – “Music for a future age,” “Antmusic for Sexpeople, Sexmusic for Antpeople,” “You may not like it now, but you WILL!,” “We go like THIS *SKKKKKKKRRRHHHHNNNNNPPPHHZZZZZKKKK!*,” even “Dirk wears white sox!,” and, most crucially, “Get off your knees!” Rather than the huddled Abba masses doing sing-alongs in the nuclear bunker, closing down and in on themselves, the Ants want to break OUT, go OUTSIDE, and FIGHT BACK – and that is what 1981 audiences wanted; all of 1980 having built up steadily towards it.

Kings is also probably the most universal number one album since Pepper; kids would get things like “Jolly Roger” straightaway and sing along (and dress up), while grown-ups would smile at its metamorphosed Pistolisms (“It’s your money that we want, and your money we shall have!”). Although you could interpret this as Adam playing the double-bluff card – I note that on “Ants Invasion” he sings, “You want a thrill!/So you come and see me/A cheap line in fantasy” – it is more a joyous reclamation of punk, and its reduction to second childishness that had always been inevitable (the song plays like a punked-up Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, and there is some delightful atonal whistling to see the song out); for some reason “Blow High, Blow Low” from Carousel springs to my mind.

“Making History” goes by on a custom-based Bo Diddley beat and partly revisits “Dog Eat Dog” but its lyric is among the gloomiest on the record, all about bad guys with varying degrees of authority killing good guys for their own good and not knowing who is who; there were enough 1980 suspects for the song’s subject(s) here, which may be why the song was nervously pulled from all US editions of the album (“and we call this making history”). “The Human Beings” ends the record with a nervy Adam, whose yelp sounds remarkably like David Byrne, solemnly intoning the names of various Indian tribes; no more needs to be said, and so it isn’t.

Kings Of The Wild Frontier is, as far as this tale is concerned, the official starting point of New Pop (it might also be the starting point of New Pop’s funny cousin, New Romanticism, but that’s another argument for another time). It sets down pretty firmly how things – ideally – are going to be, and at the time it was unanswerable. Michael Jackson was listening, and ‘phoned Adam to tell him so; many exhausted and impatient others were, too. It succeeds magnificently in feeding high art and higher philosophy to its eager, predominantly teenage audience – did any pop star hitherto have such determination as to create an entirely new audience for themselves out of scratch? – and also, as Jon Savage commented at the time, at leaving its century, looking simultaneously back, to pre-industrial times (worship of the noble savage, tribal rites, etc.), and forward, to post-industrial times, such that even when computers would put everybody out of a job, there would still be a societal umbrella (of “rejects”) for people to shelter under (and this nearly three years before the Smiths).

Moreover, I think that no number one album since Please Please Me had managed to convey the immediate impression that This Is The New Thing and You’re All Welcome To It (you certainly couldn’t have said the latter about Never Mind The Bollocks). No number one album since then had drawn such a decisive line between the past and the future and called it the present. It is as if this record had somehow been summoned up, spirited up, by common, unheard prayer. It is the explosion which 1980 had predicated all along.

That it was also Adam’s only number one album is almost incidental in this context. As New Pop gathers pace, it will become customary for its leading lights to get just one number one album (if they are lucky) and nothing else. In truth Adam was unlucky with Prince Charming, released in November of the same year and if anything a more uncompromising album (“Ant Rap” remains one of the most extreme singles ever to go top ten; “Flowers Of Romance” gone pop), which unfortunately came up against entry #256. Perhaps there were seeds of suspicion in his audience even then; exactly where are these Ants taking us (no matter that, in the video for “Prince Charming,” he effectively invents vogueing)? In his subsequent career(s), the world was not uniformly nice towards Adam, but he has survived and recently released a new album, still raging at injustices, looking askance at his, and rock’s, past, still trying to find ways out of settling for mediocrity.

As for 1980’s legacy to 1981, the former year did arrive at two conclusions. One was that, if this was “the end,” it was necessary to fight one way’s through and find, or create, a new “beginning,” even if from songs which lyrically and schematically weren’t always optimistic.

The other conclusion, or the other lesson to be learned from the end of 1980, you may discover in the next entry.