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May 14

adam ant in seattle (with me)

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“THESE HAPPY FEET ARE ALL WE NEED”: some thoughts about dress-up and dance and video, motion and provocation, Adam Ant and us…

Above is the title to the presentation I gave in Seattle at the EMP Pop Conference 2014 (24-27 April), theme Go! Music Mobility. Strictly speaking it doesn’t exist as a paper, and never will — some people can read their own words vividly, but I’m not one of them. So what you get below is roughly written-up fragments, you can join the dots yourself (or protest that no such join exists). We had 20 minutes each: it’s quite hard to time an extempore presentation — I’m well aware by now that I tend to load up more ideas than I’ll get through, and I spent a lot of time paring it back. Then looking at what I now had and deludedly thinking “yikes that’s only about 10 minutes-worth!” and adding new stuff in. In the event, I did indeed have more than I could get through. I’ve put some of it back in below (indicating when I didn’t say it): the rest — which anyway probably wasn’t fully thought through — I’ll keep for another day (meaning the book I’m writing) (trufax!)

1: INTRODUCTION

Looking back at the digest I sent in to get this gig, quite a long time ago now and long before I really knew what I’d be talking about (as it’s evolved a lot since then), I picked out this phrase: Dance is not content, style is not substance, the flash look is fleeting, the word “pose” speaks for itself. Because it’s the opposite of how I think about music; and it’s the opposite of how I suspect Adam thinks about his work — which is not so say that we think in anything like the same way.

[See below -- right at the bottom -- for full version of my proposal: it’s a big topic, much too big for 20 minutes really, and some bits I didn’t get close to covering, except maybe by implication; implication I quite possibly haven’t yet grasped… ]

This is a story about dancing rather than sound; about move and look. So last week I decided to illustrate it with silent tumblr-style gif-sets. Silent because I want people to be thinking about movement more than music for the moment — and not to be distracted by the elements we always think about. I should straight away confess that this is first time I’ve ever made a tumblr-style gifset — so apologies to anyone present who’s being doing it for longer, these are not very deft and have little finesse. I’m not sure they always pinpoint what I’m discussing — that would have taken much more detailed skill than I gave myself time for. The moves between gifsets and discussion points may seem quite abrupt: this is primarily a device to stop myself digressing, and if I pause to fill in the gaps between one image and the next I will end up telling the entire tale of the era off the top of my head, and we’ll be here all week.

[Up behind me as I spoke -- very large! -- I had gifs on a loop: seven sets of them in all, one set for each section. Here is the first, from the video for Friend or Foe, which topped the UK Top 40 in May 1982.]

Last time I was in Seattle, in 2007, I was worrying at the idea of how the writer’s ethos — which I characterised as valuing elements that “pass the test of time” — might actually obscure or smother or anyway clash with a performer’s ethos, which veers towards I termed (probably glibly, certainly not entirely comprehensibly) the “test of space”. And really here we’re back with this same problem — looking at elements in performance which music-writing often overlooks or undervalues; and trying to find ways to bring them back to the centre.

And finally, in this introductory section, I’m going to give a lightning definition for US ears, who may be less familiar with it, of the term “pantomime’. It’s a form of theatre which, come Xmas-time, anyone in the UK will see performed, in pretty much any small town in the land. Its frame will be a classic story from quite a curtailed canon — Aladdin, for example, or Jack and the Beanstalk, or of course Cinderella. (I’ve noticed that Pirates of the Caribbean has recently been added to the list.) [Despite its obvious relevance, I actually forgot to mention Goody Two Shoes, which -- Adam notwithstanding -- has now very much fallen out of this canon…] Aimed primarily at children, the story is a pretext for puns and pratfalls and other excellent silly business to amuse and involve them, with a stream of more topical (and guardedly bawdy) jokes to keep the adults sitting with them entertained (this doubleness of address is characteristic, at least of its modern form). It constantly breaks the fourth wall, with leading characters good and bad speaking directly to the audience, confiding in them, commenting with them on story and — sometimes — on the production, the props, the scenery, the music, the management… There is a now-unbendable ritual of cross-dressing: a middle-aged male, generally stout and “unfeminine” in build and manner plays the ‘Dame’, who is voluble and sexually eager; and the hero, known as the ‘Principal Boy’, is almost always played by a slim young woman or girl, with hair cut short.

2: THE START

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As far as I know, this is the first time the Ants were captured on film. It’s a scene in Derek Jarman’s 1977 film Jubilee. The conceit of the film is that Queen Elizabeth — not the one whose jubilee it was in 1977, the earlier one, 400-ish years previously — has tasked her court magician John Dee with scrying the future of her realm, and the film is what they and we see. Various terrible things, plus Adam and the Ants performing the song Plastic Surgery. They’re performing for real — in a sense this is the only unscripted element in the film, albeit inset in a scripted scene complete with people playing their audience (including the sinister tycoon who will sign them), plus director and crew filming them, all of whom the camera captures in its 360° pan — and Jarman, a semi-sympathetic observer who was Chelsea-based and knew the Kings Road scene well, was not greatly invested in the idea of punk as some kind of needed radical turn. Not hostile, not partisan: I don’t think he was sceptical that punk had honestly set itself against everything around it, but he was definitely sceptical that it could sustain itself unspoiled.

[Skipped-over sidenote here: this latter doubt = key as a punk assumption? Inevitability of doom of self-realisation as shared mark of identity etc etc.]

All of which makes this an invaluable raw glimpse of a moment in its uncensored untutoted affect. And what the footage captures is a kind of blockage; a deep fear of communication. No one looks at the camera or each other. It’s about stumbling around and falling; it’s all spastic twitches. It’s an anti-art pop — an anti-dance dance — which is to say that with repetition it’s quickly going to become techniques and tricks and self-protective habits and wisdoms of performance; mannerism and device. Mannerism but not sustainedly interesting mannerism: repetition that doesn’t endear bcz it’s not enough about timing; indeed, is mostly about “anti-timing”.

And anyway arguably it’s only the frontline acts in punk which will somehow take all this somewhere else. Adam was right there on Kings Road from the very start, but somehow the Ants were very soon deemed (by later arrivals with better self-dramatising technique, including all the writers rushing in to chronicle the exciting revolt) to be trapped; to be getting ounk wrong. Over the next couple of years the Ants would gain a not-large, very loyal following, but no break-out momentum. As post-punk began to emerge — via their colleagues the Banshees, via PiL and Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire and The Fall and Throbbing Gristle — it was often being whispered that the Ants were doing this wrong too. Adam had to do something. So he did: he paid a visit to Malcolm McLaren.

[Second gifset here: this one possibly needs honing to capture better what I'm pointing to, as does the next.]

3: THE BREAKTHROUGH

This is the result of that meeting. This is August 1980, the Ants playing Dog Eat Dog live on Top of the Pops. ‘Live’ — I should perhaps explain for anyone in the audience who isn’t English and over 35, or a committed anglophile and scholar — is a term of art, when you’re talking about Top of the Pops (the key UK chartshow for three or four decades, depending how and what you count). ‘Live’ on Top of the Pops meant miming to the playback of your hit. It was a weekly opportunity for up-and-coming bands to WIN THE CHARTS, to seize the moment and the attention by move and look and sound (irrespective of final chart figures), and this is exactly what Adam and the Ants did with this performance, even though Dog Eat Dog itself ever got to #4 in the UK.

And whether or not you can see why, you can certainly see the change. As well as the costumes — with their slambang collage of very disparate elements — Adam is now open-faced, open-chested, open-armed in affect.

Note here explaining Top of the Pops to US audience: half an hour every Thursday at 7.30 in the era we’re discussing, though it would move to other days and times later. (It actually still exists, though in a very attenuated form.) It was somewhat looked down on by the rock press and certainly sneered at by punk figureheads — the Clash for example declared they’d never go on it and never did (and so much for them). This is a time when space on television — and in the non-specialist media generally — was very limited for pop or rock. If McLaren advised Adam of anything it was this: end-run the rock press, they’re tw4ts, they need you more than you need them. Go wide.

And — as well as this — it’s advice Adam certainly took. He still gave interviews to the inkies, where there mostly remained an attitude towards him (meaning against him). But from here on in he appeared on every TV show for kids, in teenybopper magazines and in the tabloids. Of course the togs were perfect for that: and for a time he was omnipresent, suddenly memorably everywhere. He end-ran all the rock-writing filters; he changed the shape of pop media. Or — to put it a less grandiose way — he grasped very early how pop media was changing and how to use this, and adapted to the change as it adapted to his. Media as a whole was changing fast anyway, expanding and involuting — this specific campaign helped shape and perhaps accelerated elements of the shift [as the tentative pop reclamation, you could call it, of ‘The Filth and the Fury’: which is how McLaren got the Pistols into the mainstream press -- and arguably how he lost control of them, and his larger project].

All of which said, this is a curious, conflicted song to make this move with: because while on one hand it’s about pride and honour, about what it takes to seize the media stage and command it: to become a WARRIOR on TOP OF THE POPS, it’s also — not quite overtly — a score-settling song. What’s the ‘dog-eat-dog-eat-dog’ we’re to leapfrog? Partly the crappily parochial backbiting of the rockwrite mediascape we’re skipping away from — and partly it’s a coded fuck-you to McLaren, who took Adam’s money, gave him some advice certainly, and made off with the rest of the Ants (who shortly became Bow Wow Wow).

[Song topic contrast: the shift, in the general context of punk moralism, from (see above) “Plastic Surgery IT’S SO PLASTIC!” to “We’re gnna MOVE REAL GOOD/we’re gnna LOOK REAL FINE” -- a move more complex and ambiguous than it seems, as Antsongs, esp.the non-charting ones hidden on the b-sides or the LP, continued to be complex and conflicted and adult and worldly in content and attitude]

[full gifset here: adding that to fashion gifs to get its full force across, you’d need some kind of representation of the rest of blocked pop culture as we apprehended it at the time; and as important, as 12-yr-olds apprehended it]

4: THE MANIFESTO

Stand and Deliver went straight in at UK #1 in Jan 1981. It takes us straight back to the Golden Age of Highwaymen and Pirates, the 80-odd years between the two English Revolutions and the American and French Revolutions. An age of heirachy and notoriously corrupt stasis, of course, but an age too with presentiments of resistance to this. By the 18th century, Britain’s Sumptuary Laws, the rigid legally enforced codes of dress appropriate to class, were history: but they were recent history. Older people would have able to recall their parents and gradparents discussing them; they were still paid official mind in the Tudor and Stuart eras. Who was allowed — and who was not allowed — to wear silver, or lace, or the colour purple. Some of the rogues of the Golden Age were noblemen (and women) fallen on tough times; some had never known anything else. Leaving pirates aside — their dresscodes were probably tailored to a more immediate practicality — we know that highwaymen often dressed to tread a taunting line; the Sumptuary Laws were long repealed, but of course its conventions hung in the air, like chemical trails, for years afterwards. Dandy gangsters who liked to cut a dash (16 String Jack, for example) robbed not to feed the poor, but to fund their own finery; the cheeky snook they cocked at respectable structure and the order of things.

All of which is Vivienne Westwood 101 — but the Ants were the first in pop (or anyway on Top of the Pops) to bring these ideas to bear so publicly, on such a scale. This song is a manifesto for many reasons — it sets a coming now against a weary then — but it does it in a context of time travel that’s not so simple to unravel.

i: you could call it ‘retro’ I suppose, but it’s not as if it merely steps back into the 1960s, or 50s or 40s — as others were doing all around. Post-punk was often flirting with the 30s and the 20s also — Weimar and modernism, surrealism and dada, and there’s a pretty good Antsong about Italian Futurism, Animals and Men — but Stand and Deliver jumps backwards out of the 20th century, and entirely over the 19th century, to land in the time of Dead Queen Anne or thereabouts. Pop and rock are full of much older myth than they generally fess to. This shd be addressed (this is a way to address it).

ii: added to which, there’s a new way also to look at personally lived time, as artist and audience are experiencing it. The 70s — in particular the Glam 70s — had treated the teenager as the locus
of mutiny and mutancy. Eecognising that the generational clock has ticked on a half-step from glam if not yet punk, Adam was also I think acutely aware of the degree to which most teenagers, even the rebels, are acutely anxious conformists. He tweaks this by reaching out to — confiding in — pre-teens, the audience whose “time” is about to come; whose presence will irrevocably undermine the ensconced youth-no-longer-youth of any given right-now. Previous popstars had tended to blur this distinction — Adam is the first (that I can quickly think of) who was exploiting a sub-generation gap impatience and scorn, from below. His biggest, most loyal audience was now not pissed-off goth futurists so much as 12-yr-olds playing dress-up.

And dress-up is the key: all through this and the next few hits, the dance step is fashioned round a panto sensibility: the performance including the awareness of the fun of performance, the player slipping in and out of character (a device that kids love and self-serious quasi-adults often distrust).

[Note, to be explored another time: slippage in and out of character only works against a formally established (or formalist?) backdrop: you need stable conventions to register rebellion. Elsewhere -- discussing Cecil Taylor, link to my old website currently AWOL -- I’ve called this “modernism’s dirty secret”… ]

[full gifset is here: these ones don’t really need curating! And I believe I noted on-stage that I could basically just sit gazing at the one above, the one with the mirror, forever]

[I was over halfway but only just -- and somewhere round here the moderator let me know I had not ten but three minutes left…]

5: THE IMPERIAL MOMENT

Prince Charming, a UK #1 September 1981, (and the alb was UK #2). Which to me — with hindsight, of course — marks the arrival of a kind of chill. The sadness embedded in the phrase “happy ever after”, if you like: the sense of quitting the rugged terrain of adventure for a plateau of changeless bliss [and the ending also of the adventure of the fellowship of quest: he would soon be ‘Adam Ant’ rather than ‘Adam and the Ants’].

Cinderalla-style, the former kitchenboy — all dressed up — has crashed the nobby nobs’ fancy party and taught them to dance his dance, the easy-to-mimic stiff-armstrut every UK popwatcher of a certain age can instantly bring to mind and manner. and it’s a great, funny moment — the instant of triumph — but you set it on repeat it feels more grind and lack than it feels win-win-win. If his uppercrust foes have become him, hasn’t he also become one of them? [“Ridicule is nothing to be scared of!” This rallying cry has a different meaning once you get to be someone laying down Pop’s Sumptuary Laws, rather than someone tweaking them. Not that Adam ever quite WAS such a lawgiver: another time, I think I’d explore why/how he ended up stepping back; was it a conscious decision or an unconscious symptom?]

[Omitted: in some versions of the original tale of Cinderella, the meaning of victory is announced pretty bluntly: the Ugly Sisters are forced to wear red-hot iron boots and dance themselves to death.]

[Omitted also, a note about media: when a new medium -- such as video -- arrives, there’s a wide-open moment when new moves can use it to slip through. And then a long congealing as the world catches up with it, and prior resources start to tell]

6: TO SET ASIDE CHILDISH THINGS

So here’s Adam Ant four years later, singing Vive Le Rock at Live Aid, on 13 July 1985. 150,000 physically present at the two venues (so wikipedia says), and a global audience of some 1.9 billion, in c.150 countries. (At its peak — ie several years before Adam was on it — Top of the Pops maybe reached 15 million.)

Lets go back to the quote I began with: Dance is not content, style is not substance, the flash look is fleeting, the word “pose” speaks for itself. Because whatever else it is, this is much closer to Bob Geldof’s dour line on pop (and punk) than it is Adam’s. There was aesthetic and politico-moralist beef here: sandwiched between the Boomtown Rats (i.e. Geldof’s old band) and Midge Ure’s, Ultravox, two Antrivals in the world of UK pop video each allotted four songs. Adam battled for two songs at least; Geldof was an arse about it and allowed him just one: a trouper to the end, Adam opted for the new Antsingle — and, at a moment where pretty much everyone else who performed that day did well on the back of this massive advert for their greatness of heart, Adam’s dropped in the charts in the weeks afterwards — and his career never really recovered.

Was the song so bad? It’s not so bad. I’m not going to blame the single: that’s not the story I’m telling. [It’s OK: it’s a retroglam celebration of 50s energy, good leatherclad McLarenite orthodoxy -- takes the line that the rock’n’roll 50s were the last unfettered and actually politically dangerous moment in pop. But the 50s were played out, and he no longer seems to be able to pull us into the deep weird past, or to call on the spectre of his kid-fans to challenge all this -- bcz he knows they’re no longer watching, or fears that they are, bcz actually they’re recommitting, to everything adult and awful and “political” about Live aid. A confident, unwearied, undepressive Adam could have made lot more of the post-ZZTop Depeche Mode/post-Mode ZZTop that’s also winkingly present, the mix-and-match meet-and-genrefuck cosplay naughtiness that Adam had been so good at dramatising, somehow pranced out against the lumbering stagecoach of this event’s self regard… ]

[sidebar moment here imagining Adam w/huge Texan-style beard]

Really I think you take the cue from Adam himself — his movements, his physical address. Watch him on loop. Superficially he seems spry enough — he’s jumping and skipping about the stage — but watch his face. He seems tired, drawn, out-of-breath, defeated; his shoulders slump as if he’s about to collapse in on himself. This isn’t the climax date of some colossal tour; he hasn’t been playing for hours here. It’s a three-minute performance — and even so, confronting this terrible sea of grown-up faces in the light of day, he can’t sustain his belief in what he does.

The show was about handing over cash for charity: maybe he should have just have done Stand and Deliver! At least it would have been cheeky and inappropriate (but I’m finding it hard to imagine that working either — quite apart from anything else I feel that Adam was now bored with himself and his recent triumphant past).

[In the discussion afterwards, prompted by a question from the audience, I noted that the Cagney-quote yell that comes with the song -- “Look Ma! Top of the world!”, from the movie White Heat -- is a classic (I fear I may have said ‘iconic’) expression of ironised victory in the moment of disaster, yelled as the gas-tanks ignite under the beleaguered hoodlum. What a weird, telling catchphrase to pick, knowingly or otherwise.]

[Needs to be explored, as per proposal! The seriousness fear of such threats to order of triviality, frivolity, irony, contrarian trolling -- but ALSO the present-day absorption of the latter, as clickbait-generator. If Adam won the tabloids, isn’t that just a way of saying in the end they won him? He doesn’t need to have been superbly politically prescient, just bitterly aware that he was no longer in command even of his own moment.]

[full gifset here: another one that maybe needs a focused selection of the rest of LIVE AID to get the full point across, and tighter loops on the moments I mean]

7: “I MET A TRAVELLER IN AN ANTIC LAND”

So where to close? In the proposal, I had some handwavey thing about present-day relevance — how you could Adam’s way of seeing to explore Michael Jackson, Madonna, Beyonce and Britney, even Psy and Gangnam Style. It wasn’t till I was watching Chris Molanphy’s presentation yesterday that I found what I was hunting for: the fact that Miley Cyrus’s chartnumbers for Wrecking Ball include the viewnumbers for fan-made youtube tributes and parodies. Whether or not you approve the counting method, no idea could be more Antic. Hits made of participants; inviting an audience up across the footlights.

In pantomime lingo: YOU TOO CAN DRESS UP AND BE THE PRINCIPAL BOY.

[And out! I believe this was playing, looming vast above our heads, for most of the Q&A. Yabba Yabba Ding Ding!]

____________________________________________________

Original proposal:

“THESE HAPPY FEET ARE ALL WE NEED”: some thoughts about dress-up and dance and video, motion and provocation, Adam Ant and us…

Somewhere between the twitchily vulnerable live footage in the film Jubilee in 1978, and the icily controlled march-prance of triumph in 1981’s Prince Charming, Adam Ant got the moves right, end-running the sluggish UK music press out into much wider mass adulation. Of course the sound mattered, but the costumed strut mattered more, and video had arrived just in time to enable his moves, so fourth-wall-bustingly cheeky and intimate. In 1985, at Live Aid, on a day when the new rock aristocracy established its place in the lasting seriousface story of politics and pop, Adam scampered breathlessly on-stage to sing Vive La Rock. And his timing was off, and the future was no longer his to command.

This paper will be a story about moves and where they get you; their effect and their aftermath. It will explore Adam’s signature moments, sound and look, as glimpses of a key fault-line within pop culture, from TV’s response to the Elvis pelvis up to the present-day “problematic pop” video, in which bodymotion combines with pan cultural bricolage to be the prime attractor/irritant. Dance is not content, style is not substance, the flash look is fleeting, the word “pose” speaks for itself: you still read this kind of thing. But even at its least serious what Adam was doing on-screen — not to mention Jagger, Jacko, Madonna, Beyonce, Britney, even Psy — was really NOT trivial. Antmusic was never the kind of project that earnest historical appraisal has been good at capturing: too visual, too silly, too kinetic, too brilliant at seizing its moment, little interested in fashioning a legacy. Against such earnest recuperations, this paper will rep for the value — as choreographed for video — of Antmusic’s non-verbal, mobile intelligence, its dramas, its drumbeats, its gestures and its sexy skips. Fah diddley qua qua!

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