Adam and the Ants — 2nd Peel Session, 10 july 1978
So what exactly was I suggesting earlier today: no Jordan (—> no SEX —> no Pistols —> no Jubilee —> no Ants) —> no (UK) punk? Or else maybe, less aggressively counterfactually, I’m dubbing her the Bez of punk, maybe? As the amiably blitzed Madchester dancer to the success and cohesion of the Happy Mondays — despite famously contributing nothing concrete to the music (maaaan) — so Jordan to the “spawning” of the revolt that followed…. but this isn’t quite right. Because Bez always had to be there, for the Mondays to be the Mondays — and Jordan’s banishment was the condition of Britpunk’s emergent and widening possibility… She needed to be there — and then she needed to be gone.
It’s bigger than just her. What gave early punk its force was its willingness to present itself as live parcels of startling, cattleprod contradiction — Jordan on the commuter train from Seaford the perfect redux of this, all sexy and fetishistic on the way to work, to say fuck right off to anyone leering. Make the contradiction the hook; put the problem out there in the open, and ride on the energy of everyone who straightaway gets what you did (they’re riding the energy with you, forming it with you). The mainstreaming (except mainstreaming isn’t quite the right word) involved a great deal of factional warfare, unpersoning and exile, based on real or imputed “crimes against the movement”. Rock-press resentment against the fancypants Jarman/Jubilee/Chelsea-Bohemia tie-up was considerable, suspicion of manager-manipulater McLaren (which he gleefully fomented) was endemic, and well, yes, there was that niggling shallow decadent Night Porter thing, hmmmm…
We came, said Marco Pirroni a few years back, from this “background of hate and swastikas and snideyness and hating each other” — and he’s trying to balance fondness and nostalgia and sentimentality and precision here: “It was very snotty, very snidey, and you’d build up this defence. I grew up with a bunch of people that were thrown together and found each other and caused something to happen — even though we may have not liked each other at the time — now I have a quaint affection for them all.”
I’ve argued before now that Sid and Siouxsie’s swastika-cosplay was (if you knew how to read it) a sign they were declaring they WEREN’T nazis — as per the classic McLaren/Westwood trollery, which set iron crosses alongside union jacks alongside badges with Marx on them, as a challenge to those who came on it: Come on, you’re smart, you work it out. Toxic, unstable stuff — and the people he sent off onto the streets wearing these triggery mash-ups were themselves young, and sometimes much more vulnerable than they seemed (vulnerability sort of went with the “getting it”, punk as the dogwhistle for the doomed, as a friend of mine once sadly put it), and ambivalent or worse about “working it out”. Can you take this way of moving through the world, and make it a nourishably sustainable basis for life, or work, or play? Or is it just culture-destructive self-immolation?
Formed in 1976 as a one-off improv assault on all art at the Hundred Club Festival — with Marco helping out on guitar, and Sid probably less helpful on drums — Siouxsie and the Banshees, once thrilled feedback had decided them they wanted be a lasting thing, spent late 1977 and 1978 touring, Adam and the Ants their favoured tour companions. The Banshees wanted a record deal that gave them appropriate artistic control. This period — which included beloved below-the-radar Peel Sessions from both bands — saw a lot of fan-agitation to get them signed, and fevered speculation why they weren’t yet. It also saw — not at all unrelatedly — a counter-pressure, attacking them as irresponsible dabblers in swastika chic, if not active Nazi-symps. The Banshees — a better, more focused group quicker, perhaps because (and I say this with much fondness!) so very militantly humourless back then — broke through this pushback, re-purposed themselves as [insert personal caress or slap here], and were off and away (very nearly taking Marco up with them at one point). (Of course he wasn’t an Ant yet…)
But the early Ants — though they had gathered a similar following — had not found their escape-velocity, or indeed the direction to point themselves. The three Antpeelsessions do have potentially terrific stuff in them, or two of them do, but the band’s identity is unfocused as its line-up was mutable, and the various ideas, stances, moods and impersonations clump into confusion and cancel one another out. The first (23 jan 1978) is actively clueless and obnoxious, best avoided except by scholars and unhappy completists: one song is shock-the-squares oaf-punk “but I’m playing a character” racism, two are identikit idiot-belligerent hostility, and “Deutscher Girls”, well, “Deutscher Girls” has a little more going for it, lofi Roxy Music-ish cartoon tango, a lyric that says, “Why did you have to be so Nazi?” (sadface ur are evil cz ur HOTTT), and Adam’s little falsetto curlicue on the word “nazi”, simultaneously coy and arch and a hint of what his voice can already do, and will do more of. Come on, you’re smart, you work it out: DG is the only song on this session where the band could say this and not be (justifiably) punched, (justifiably) hard. And some in this milieu very much wanted to be punched — and some wanted worse — but I don’t actually think Adam did. Again, he was clawing his way out of a role he’d inadvisedly dived into.
The third, 26 march 1979, is material I’ll discuss in the next post, along with their first LP. The second (see featured clip!) gives a sense of the impasse, ideas getting in each other’s way. “You’re So Physical”, a cheerless Gang of 4-ish topic — less Olivia Newton John than sex as fact and trap and chore — over a Stooges-Banshee grind, is followed by a fairly similar grind, except even slower and more Bansheesy, with the demystification this time rammed into reverse. In “Cleopatra”, sex is the legendary attribute of the Egyptian Queen who took “a hundred Roman centurions for after-dinner mints,” a “wide-mouthed girl”: the tone slips from sneering and tabloidy, admiring-demeaning, to a weird distracted slither, as if an inkling has struck Adam of the classic Antsubject somewhere buried in this silly stuff, before it slides away out of reach again. You hear a singer perhaps newly aware of strengths, possibilities, craft and texture, all but imprisoned in ideas and sounds that still block him.
Jumping to the final song in the session, “Zerøx” is actually about this, in a way, though it’s pointed at unnamed others. Apart from where it blind-quotes Anarchy in the UK ("I’ve got the best so I’ll take the rest") with the ghost of a Rotten tip-tooth Rs-roll rip, it’s modishly cybernetic and modishly Cockney, New Wave moves both, the second better on Adam, the first more suited to the song. Here’s the ghost too of the ancient punk attack on all culture, as mockery and impersonatation and mechanical emptiness, but the only spark to it is some nice machiny-ness in the guitar.
And finally “Friends”, and (at last!) the first ever Antsong I unambiguously enjoy (though this probably isn’t my favourite version): it’s a list, and it’s an irritably funny, clever and inventive list — a deft piece of cultural reference as crazy paving, different registers of types of celebrity clashing, your connections (or your consumer knowledge) as passport into mini-celebrity (and freeloading) yourself. Again it’s not a route he’d actually go on to take, the arrangement doesn’t really suit it, and the gleam of imperial-phase Antmusic seems a very long way off. But if this post has sometimes seemed a long trudge through a nasty, backbiting, unlikeable time, all unrewarding self-blocking and poor sense of direction, it’s worth thinking what it was feeling like to the Antpeople trapped in it. If it’s this joyless to revisit, imagine living there.