Thursday, April 9, 2015

Vive le Rock!

Thanks to the wonder of the world wide web, it is possible to carbon date the events and context of your earlier life with precision. Popular culture of the past is catalogued by a legion of obsessives who have documented the detail and minutiae of any niche area you care to investigate. Punk gigs are particularly well-served: enter the words “The Slits” and “Croydon” into a search engine and it reminds me that I saw them support Siouxsie and the Banshees on 9th October 1977 at the Greyhound; google “Buzzcocks Woolwich” and I realise that I was at Thames Poly on a Saturday night in March 1978; search “The Ruts Nashville Rooms” and I know that it was on 6th November 1978 that fighting between punks and skinheads made it one of the most terrifying gigs I have been to. Trying to pin down exactly when I saw Adam and the Ants at the Marquee in Soho’s Wardour Street proved a little difficult, however. I know it was either late 1977 or early 1978, but the Adam Ant website informs me that the band played the Marquee fourteen times in 12 months during those two years.

If I cannot remember or pin down the date of the gig, what I can recall is how theatrical and electrifying the performance was. The slow bass-heavy start of opening song Plastic Surgery was sung by Adam Ant from the dressing room behind the stage, his snow-white tanned face only emerging as the song burst into life. And with Sex Pistol acolyte Jordan as part of the set-up, and songs such as Deutscher Girls, Whip in My Valise and Beat My Guest sung by a leather-trousered and bare-chested Adam, the sense of a band pushing the boundaries of punk even further was inescapable. Along with Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Ants were unsigned to a record label at the time and they both eschewed the ram-a-lam-a sound that punk was quickly developing into in favour of doomy bass, icy guitars and a pop sensibility. This made them the two most exciting bands around at the tail end of ’77. The writer Stuart Maconie identifies Joy Division as being the first band about which the term ‘gothic’ was used in the music press; but he acknowledges that 80s' Goth undoubtedly began with the Banshees. I would say that Adam and the Ants, with their heavy S&M image, contributed just as much.

Whereas the Banshees signed a long-term deal with Polydor and immediately began a chart career with top ten hit Hong Kong Garden in the summer of 1978, Adam and the Ants released an unsuccessful one-off single on Decca, the puzzling and twee, Young Parisians. Although some of the live favourites were recorded for John Peel sessions, and Whip In My Valise cropped up on the B side of 1979 single Zerox, by the time I saw them play the Lyceum Ballroom that year there were new favourites: Car Trouble, Physical, Kick. But when the band released their debut album on independent label Do It in October 1979, only one of these songs was included and none of the early songs had survived. One number from the set of the Marquee gigs - Dirk Wears White Sox – was present as the title of the LP but absent as a song. The album received a lukewarm critical response and there was certainly a sense amongst many that Adam Ant had missed his moment. Although this was to be proven wrong (the events of the following year – the discovery of Burundi drumming, theft of the band by Malcom McLaren and Bow Wow Wow, reinvention as native American dandy pirate highwayman, world domination - are legendary) there has always been a sense that the wider world has been deprived of the pre-Prince Charming Adam and the Ants.

Which is why the first date, in Brighton last night, of a dozen gigs billed as ‘Performing Dirk Wears White Sox’ was such a joy. Sandwiched between a faithful run-through of that album and a closing version of Kings of the Wild Frontier (“this song means more to me than any other”), Adam and his current Ants treat us to an extensive selection of those punk era numbers. Plastic Surgery (“don’t go sitting in the sun/your face might start to run”) sounds fantastic and the two-minute tango (brevity was always the watchword) of Deutscher Girls reminds how unafraid they were to take musical risks back then. It would be a cliché to say that these songs never sounded better but in all likelihood, with a very accomplished band made-up of a bassist and a brace each of drummers and guitarists, they have probably never been played better: for all their originality, the Ants were a punk band.

Although he jokes about his bouts of mental illness (“I talk a lot of rubbish, sometimes”), Adam himself looks in good shape. And with a nod to the sartorial side of punk, he is resplendent in Seditionaries' Karl Marx shirt to go with his, now customary, Stetson hat. And he is supported by some luminaries from those heady times: Seaford resident Jordan is in the house and when I am being bored in the bar by a drunk, he mentions Theatre of Hate but takes some convincing when I point out that Kirk Brandon is standing right behind him. The rest of the audience is pretty stylish, too, with a smattering of those tell-tale signs of a punk past: Kohl-eyes, Vive le Rock! t-shirts, leather and tartan. Some, however, get the era wrong: there are a couple of white-striped faces and one poor soul in a Stand and Deliver tunic.

The band are on-stage for an energetic 90 minutes and, of the eleven songs on Dirk Wears White Sox, Tabletalk, the saucy Cleopatra, and the humour of Never Trust A Man (With Egg On His Face) stand out as being the most remarkable. But finishing the set with the title track from the next album – the one that launched the Ants’ pop supremacy - I thought that when the band returned to the stage it would be to perform more of those chart hits; but with further proof of the quality of those earlier songs, they encore with deafening versions – Ant is now a third guitarist - of Zerox and Physical, two more numbers that never made it onto that debut album.

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