Thursday, 9 June 2016

Antmusic For Sexpeople

ADAM ANT - Birmingham Symphony Hall

It's interesting how many people of my age and slightly older list "Kings Of The Wild Frontier" as the first record they bought. It's therefore not surprising that when Adam Ant announced a tour playing the album in full, tickets sold out instantly. I was lucky enough to get seats just three rows from the front and it's clear that we're in for something special as soon as Adam hits the stage wearing that classic brocade jacket. At the age of 61, he proves that you are never too old to look stylish, and with his longer hair and beard he now fits the pirate look more than ever. Right from the opening song he takes command of the stage, with spectacular animation that puts to shame most young frontmen and even some of those from established acts. He rarely stands still, ensuring that he interacts with the audience on all sides of the room.

Although Adam is the focus of attention, credit should also go to his band. I'm not sure what to call them; they haven't officially been "The Ants" for 35 years although they are playing songs from that era. Obviously tonight's cast doesn't include anyone from either the early line-up that went on to become Bow Wow Wow or the classic line-up from the album we are about to hear. In fact I don't catch the names of any of the musicians and even a spot of internet research leaves me none the wiser - some journalist I'd make! I'm informed that one of the drummers is named Yola and older members of the crowd remember her from a few local bands of the past. I later discover that a friend actually went to primary school with her. That's right, I did say one of the drummers. You might consider two drummers to be excessive but the twin tribal drumming was always part of the Ant sound and live with two full kits it gives the show the drive required to bring these classic songs to life. With Adam playing additional guitar at times, the music has a much fuller sound than I could ever get from playing the record at home.

I didn't read the music press at the time, not even "Smash Hits", so I can only speculate on the media excitement over "Kings Of The Wild Frontier" on its release. Here was an artist seeming at first glance to be moving away from the stark, minimalist punk of debut album "Dirk Wears White Sox" with the clear intention of becoming a star. Perhaps there were even accusations of "selling out" but that was not the case at all. Despite being considered a "commercial crossover" this was an innovative album for its time, when very few artists could have a string of number one singles while carving out a unique image. As I said, innovative for its time but it might still be considered that way if it were released now. This is not the sort of thing that would top the charts or be deemed "commercial" today. The album no doubt caused a rift in the Ant fan base. Sure, Adam would have lost some of the punk fans of old but an equal number of those punk rockers embraced the new style and discovered their first pop idol. This is apparent from those here tonight who have not abandoned him after all this time. Even to a regular gig-goer the effect he has on members of the audience is startling. I imagine this might happen at a show by whoever this week's teen craze might be, but you may be asking yourself whether grown adults should behave like this. Well I say WHY THE HELL NOT? Adam has shown that whatever your age it's not too late to be passionate about music or do whatever you please without fear of judgement. Tonight the venue staff have a hard time stopping the audience from dancing in the aisles or rushing to the front. One man spends at least one entire song negotiating with security, trying to persuade them that he should be exempt from returning to his seat simply because Adam has been his hero since childhood. The bizarre spectacle of two adults arguing over a scarf that Adam drops from the stage calls to mind the way Morrissey fans scramble for scraps of his shirt. I admit I will often take a setlist if it's easily accessible but I've never come to blows with other fans. Perhaps I need to up my game.

This is obviously an evening of nostalgia. Adam has judged the age of the crowd and what they want, the most recent song in the set being 1985's "Vive Le Rock". Although there have been rumours of a new album called "Bravest Of The Brave" for more than a year, things have gone quiet on that front of late and there are certainly no new songs tonight; everything played is instantly recognisable. Most tellingly there is nothing from the last album "Adam Ant Is The Blueblack Hussar In Marrying The Gunner's Daughter". While it received favourable reviews in some quarters, with 17 tracks sprawled across double vinyl it stretched the patience of many fans who found that as a listening experience it was as cumbersome as its title. I had a few reservations about it myself, despite the presence of Boz Boorer on guitar and co-writing duties. If all the filler had been cut out it could have made a great single album. But I digress...

Although this had been billed as a "Kings Of The Wild Frontier" tour, that album takes up less than half of the show and Adam gives us value for money by playing another hour or so worth of favourites and surprises. The rest of the set, beautifully modelled here by Porl "The Count" McHale, includes the early singles "Zerox" and "Car Trouble", the hits from the "Prince Charming" album of course, and the later 45s "Goody Two Shoes" and "Desperate But Not Serious". Amazingly, we are also treated to pretty much all of the B-sides from the "KOTWF"/"Prince Charming" era.

Some might say that this wasn't the case with the last album, but it's clear that when he was at his peak Adam considered all songs to be of equal importance, be they singles, B-sides or album tracks. At a time when many acts would lazily put an instrumental version on the flipside, Adam was always consistent in his songwriting. Knowing that they were unlikely to be played on the radio, B-sides gave him a chance to explore the weirder lyrical themes. For someone considered a "pop star" a surprising number of his songs are about nudity and fetishes, especially S&M. We get several of those numbers tonight, with my highlight of the show being "Beat My Guest". Purely for the energy of the guitars, you understand, I have no personal connection with the lyrics...

It's sad that in recent years the press has concentrated more on Adam's battle with bipolar disorder than his music, but he has always been open about his problems. When I saw him touring "Dirk Wears White Sox" two years ago, he tried to give his side of the story to a sympathetic audience although this turned into a long diatribe about the press, and he clearly struggled to keep his temper. Some seemed amused by this but while we think it's all part of the fun when the likes of Mark E. Smith are out of control, it feels wrong to take someone's mental health issues as a source of entertainment. So it's a relief that tonight he manages to keep himself in check, perhaps he is now fully in control of his life again. He is still very talkative but he mainly regales us with stories about how songs were written and I discover that "Never Trust A Man (With Egg On His Face)" was based on an actual sci-fi film with an alien that resembled an omelette. But in many cases the songs themselves tell the stories with no need for explanation. The views on the media covered in "Press Darlings" were directed at the music press when it was written, with Garry Bushell even getting a namecheck, but could now be applied to the tabloids in general. "Zerox", written in 1978, deals with musical plagiarism and I can't help thinking how so many bands of the 1990s mercilessly stole from Adam and his contemporaries. How can anyone listen to the line "I'm never bored, I steal your chords" without thinking of Elastica?

Sadly the show must come to an end, with three extra songs not shown on the setlist above. "Red Scab" is one of the biggest surprises, I'd even forgotten about this song myself. When Adam sings "I got a heart on my arm, it says pure sex" he could easily be describing how many here still think of him. After a cover of Marc Bolan's "Get It On", the final encore of "Physical" is probably the one remaining song that everyone is expecting. We're left in no doubt about why "Kings Of The Wild Frontier" was an important album. This was not someone succumbing to the commercial whims of the day or turning his back on the rebellious spirit of punk. The aim was to subvert the system from within.  On the title track and "Antmusic" in particular, Adam was setting out his manifesto for overthrowing the music business as we knew it. The opening line of the album, "You may not like the things we do" was a statement of intent to convert you and this was further emphasised with the "music for a future age" of the Talking Heads-esque "Don't Be Square (Be There)". "You may not like it now but you will," we were promised, because "the future will not stand still." Three decades later we have to concede that he was speaking the truth.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Is There Anyone Out There?


In most of my blog posts my intention is to introduce some of you to new music, hopefully get you to check out a record I've recently bought or see an artist if they're playing nearby. This time I'm writing about an exhibition that has now finished but whether you caught it or not, it will hopefully get you thinking about past events buried in the murky depths of your memory.

The Click Club was a regular event started by local promoters Dave Travis and Steve Coxon, running from 1986 to 1990, with many bands from the Midlands and beyond playing on a frequent basis. I recently attended the exhibition curated by music historians from the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research with assistance from Dave Travis, who loaned many items from his archive including tickets and a huge array of gig posters.

The Click Club was located at Burberries, a venue halfway up Broad Street next to where the Lee Longlands furniture store stands. The site of the club itself is now just an empty space, a pile of rubble fenced off in a very noticeable contrast to the tacky bars that overrun that part of town. As many of you know, I keep a diary of gigs I attend but I didn't start keeping regular notes until around 2004 so the entries before then are patchy, filled in from ticket stubs and memory. I'm always grateful for an opportunity to fill in the gaps. There's only one entry for Burberries in my diary and it's possible that I went to one other show there, but I think that was all.

The first thing that greets visitors to the Parkside Gallery is an enormous wall of posters for gigs from one of my favourite periods of music. The Click Club coincided with my late teens. I had just begun listening to John Peel and was introduced to bands such as The Wedding Present, McCarthy, The Mighty Lemon Drops, all of whom are featured here. Unfortunately I hadn't started going to gigs at this point so I'm overwhelmed by this view of the flipside of my teenage memories. One poster that catches my eye is right at the top of the wall - Throwing Muses and Pixies for the bargain price of £3.50. You'll be surprised to learn that despite being a massive fan of both, I've never seen the Pixies and it wasn't until 10 years ago that I first saw Throwing Muses. The date on the poster is 26th April 1988 - one year before I moved to Birmingham. How I wish I'd been born just a little bit earlier.

One of the key aspects of any archive is reminiscing with others and it's good to have Jez Collins of BCMCR on hand to discuss gig recollections. He manages to fill in a few gaps in my memory by discussing gigs not just at the Click Club but at other local venues around the same period. It's encouraging to see that someone who was around at the time is still enthusiastic about the music of that era and keen to share his experiences with other music lovers.

As well as a promoter, Dave Travis was also a photographer with his pictures often appearing in the national music press. On display we see his photos of many bands who played at the Click Club. The curators are actually offering one of the prints as a prize for those who give feedback on the exhibition - but please don't think that's the reason I'm writing this article! It would be difficult to choose just one of these to put on my wall. Alongside the aforementioned Throwing Muses gig, we have That Petrol Emotion's Steve Mack (I've explained before how he was something of an icon for me) plus a great shot of Edwyn Collins holding a newspaper article about himself. Sharing wall space with Primal Scream, Killing Joke, Frank Sidebottom, we have of course all the obvious Midlands heroes - Mighty Lemon Drops, Pop Will Eat Itself, The Wonder Stuff.

I often feel it's something of a liberty to take photos of gallery exhibits but in this case it's encouraged and Jez actually offered to take a picture of me standing with some of the posters. I do feel guilty about the number of snaps that I came away with and won't include too many of the artist photos here as it would be effectively exploiting someone else's work. Having said that, I do feel the need to share this one of The Wonder Stuff as it captures the late Rob "Bass Thing" Jones at his best. This photo was taken around the time of the debut LP "The Eight Legged Groove Machine", one of the records that epitomises that era for me so maybe this is the picture I would be most likely to hang on my wall.

The Wonder Stuff

Some of the lesser known but no less worthy Midlands acts are also on display - The Sea Urchins, Mighty Mighty, and most interestingly The Lilac Time featuring Stephen "Tin Tin" Duffy. I know I saw them in the early '90s but the date and venue are missing from my diary so perhaps it was this gig. The most surprising aspect is the number of international bands, notably Suicide and The Sugarcubes. Many touring artists now skip the Midlands entirely so it's amazing to think that bands of that stature regularly played in a venue of this size. It's hard to comprehend that despite our thriving local scene we now miss out on so many established acts. I wonder if anyone, perhaps even the exhibition curators, can shed some light on why artists seem determined to avoid us. More importantly, what can we do to persuade bands and national promoters that we are just as deserving of a visit as we were back in 1990?

Alongside the photos and memorabilia there are also video screens on a four-hour loop showing clips of some of the bands who played at the Click Club, including one gig that I definitely attended: The Blue Aeroplanes, Sunday 25th February 1990. This was a very important evening for me, only the second proper gig that I'd been to. (We don't talk about the first!)  Despite all that has happened since, this gig remains one of my all-time favourites half a lifetime later so it was fascinating to be able to watch it again. I tried to spot myself in the crowd but I can't remember where I was standing or even exactly what I would have looked like at the time. It also reminded me that the support act was Elizabeth Jane so I'm able to fill in a few more details in my diary.

The Blue Aeroplanes, 1990

This collection of photos and posters has given me a great sense of nostalgia mixed with a tiny bit of regret that I missed so many of these events, sadness that I didn't make the most of my younger years and take advantage of the wealth of music going on around me. This was partly down to lack of funds but mainly due to having few friends with similar tastes. In the days before the internet it was hard to find out about events if you didn't have the right contacts. Nevertheless, I'm proud of the homegrown talents on display. Many of them, such as Mighty Mighty and Fuzzbox, have seen a resurgence of late and I run into their members on a regular basis. Although I often bemoan my own lack of musical talent, I'm glad of the minor role I have in our local music scene and hope that my writing persuades others to get involved.

If, like me, you're trying to fill gaps in your gig diary or are wondering if your collection would be of interest to anyone, check out Jez's Birmingham Music Archive project. This is a steadily growing record of our local history so please consider sharing your memories, ticket stubs etc. either via the Facebook group or Twitter: @brummusicpics