Sunday, 21 December 2008

No Barriers: John Lennon "(Just Like) Starting Over"/Adam and The Ants "'Antmusic'"

There are certain years where the obvious domination of a sound, a look, a geographical area makes it easy for music writers to sum up a year in a hundred words or less; these years are often so important all you have to say is their names – 1964, for Beatlemania, for instance, or 1977 for punk. What happens after these landmark years, however, is not so easily summed up. People who like easy shorthand for years get lost in, say, 1966, or 1980. By the end of the summer of ’66The Beatles had stopped touring; and by the summer of ’80 punk was a greater force musically in the U.S. than in the UK (it could be argued, though I am not going to do it here, that the U.S. invented punk and it was taken to its logical conclusions first in London and then around the rest of the world in short order). In 1980 the UK charts were not moribund, exactly, but there was a distinct void of one ‘kind’ of music. New Wave, Adult Contemporary, Disco, Pop, Ska – all had their moment at the top; from the fantastical “Xanadu” to the maudlin Orbison cover (Don McLean’s “Crying”), from ABBA escaping back into their polar north to Kevin Rowland’s contemporary soul bringing back the urgency of the past into the urgency of now – it might well seem to some that the charts (and hence the public) were willing to throw their pence at anything going, from The Special AKA to Blondie, Barbra Striesand to Odyssey.

But a strange parallel story is carefully walking through the charts, occasionally bobbing up to the top, but keeping its head down, so as not to be noticed. The first
indication something was up? In late June, “Funkytown” by Lipps Inc. got to number two, thumping and bumping and beeping like an alarm clock programmed by M; the only bright light in a chart that was otherwise, despite itself, mostly depressing. Then in August, ABBA with their epic “The Winner Takes It All” – a song where the singer goes through the song, her voice cutting through it like so many shrouds of useless camouflage…or if you like, using the song against itself to make her point, a ju jitsu move that makes the song quite superfluous by the end, once she is done singing.

Not long after this piercing, if you like, of the sonic fourth wall, comes another in September – “Start!” by The Jam is a direct statement from the band to the audience, not just the fans but anyone who hears the song – that ‘what you give is what you get’ and that the link between the song and its listeners is what will last, is what is ultimately important. Not fashion, not video, not even a name; it is the connection that counts.

It is quite possible that John Lennon heard this song (the band appeared on a US show, Fridays, that July, to play “Start!”), but then, maybe not. Its similarities to “Taxman” are obvious, but the meaning couldn’t be any different. Something must begin, Weller seems to be saying, and it doesn’t have to be an epic event; it could be as anonymous as someone hearing a song on the radio and having it stand for something, though that something may not be readily or easily apparent.

These two songs, while not New Pop in and of themselves, helped to introduce a rawness and freshness that was direct and positive, setting the stage for something…unthinkable and unpredictable; a passing of the torch, so to speak, between two people who had (as Weller predicted) never met.

In October, Adam and The Ants began their pirate raid on the charts – they had, to say the least, their problems in the past with one M. McLaren, and were determined to show that they had a right to the charts – not just to do well, but to get to the top, swinging in on a rope when least expected. The UK public was, shall we say, mostly unprepared for tribal drumming, Native Indian/Pirate/Highwayman chic and a lead singer who did not believe in typical English reserve. All this may be stating
the obvious, but Adam and The Ants were punks through and through, having survived ’77 and all that, and not much was expected of them. “Dog Eat Dog” got to #4, however, on the sheer energy and yes, charisma of the band and Adam in particular. “Same Old Scene” by Roxy Music came out soon after, insisting that ‘nothing lasts forever’, a hypnotic and despairing and falsetto-laden song of supper club regret and longing – is the past really better than the present? IS there any division between the past and present? Can something ‘extreme’ (one can only wonder what Ferry thought of Adam and The Ants) be the solution?

In December, just as ABBA were providing valuable distraction, two answers to Ferry’s dilemma were climbing the charts – the one being Adam and The Ants' epochal “'Antmusic'” and the other, John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over.” Lennon’s song was an open celebration of love and recognition that time had gotten the best of him and Yoko, that they needed to fly away somewhere, be alone - to, as Roberta Flack might put it, celebrate their love. The past is there in his Elvis/Orbison tribute and beat, but the longing for a future (airport noises at the end, after a pause) is there as well. Same old scene? Not exactly, but a renewed scene of love and commitment, for sure. (For someone who has been called a ‘weirdo’ as of late it is odd to hear this song, as it is utterly non-political and actually charmingly square, really.)

So, Lennon is positive and hopeful; Adam Ant is less so. Adam would be the one who heard, via who knows what grapevine, about Ian Curtis’ death. (Is this the ‘big NOTHING# threatening me’? I cannot help but point out that 1980 ends with a zero, a noose, a circle, a fresh slate – an absence that nature, abhoring a void, will fill with something, anything…)* Adam Ant demanded that music – not pop, not rock, but ALL music in the jukebox be damned, because it (like Lonnie’s chewing gum) had lost its flavor, its punctum. Sad New Romantic kids could scram, Adam and The Ants were single-handedly going to revive music, period. The song leapt and bounded up the chart, regarding not the Christmas sentiments, but oddly complementing the sadly successful Lennon song, a song that plainly stated that growth and love were compatible. Even after Christmas, it kept rising, until it was halted at #2 by a song that Lennon had written years before punk – “Imagine” – a song that was as punk as could be, demanding peacefully what Adam and The Ants were chanting and yelping – the past is the past, the future must be newly remade in order to be livable and bearable, and that rejecting old ways of thinking was the only way forward.

# The way he sings ‘nothing’ sounds uncannily like John
Lydon, though at other times Ant sounds like Tarzan – he
is as passionate as Lennon was doing “Twist and

*Michael Stipe once said the worst year of his life, so
far, was the 25th one. Rock music turned twenty-five in 1980.
(Coincidentally, R.E.M. played their first gig in April, 1980.)