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Three Songs No Flash

Maverick Magic: Adam Ant Live Royal Albert Hall
Chris Roberts , May 22nd, 2017 08:42

Adam Ant tours his anthems and his insect nation fill the Royal Albert Hall. It’s a comeback which can only be hailed as triumphant. Chris Roberts argues that the later, solo hits are every bit as dynamic as the Antmusic which gave us the early Eighties’ brightest star

Adam Ant, whose mum was Paul McCartney’s house cleaner, has still got the moves. That stuttering sidestep, that unresolved shimmy, that primal chest-beating. Then there’s the one he can’t do much about, the one that happens when his cheekbones aren’t resting. Any smile or grimace from Adam and instantly it’s the early Eighties and pop music is knowingly flowering and incandescent, just as it was a decade earlier when Bolan smirked or winked. Tonight is a heartening show, proof that Adam has hauled his career (and life) back from the doldrums and can fill the Albert Hall with people eager to sing “qua diddley qua qua” in unison.

He is energetic, sings and performs well, and is on a different plane to the guy I saw muddling through a small Bush Hall set with patchy T.Rex covers just six years ago. It’d be too Hollywood to say he’s back in the big time, and yet you don’t play the Albert Hall – and comparably-scaled venues across the country, with a US tour to follow this autumn – if you’re small time. And anyway, Adam Ant has always been big; it’s pop music which got small.

Adam Ant, who regrets playing Live Aid because he feels he got shafted by only being allowed one song, is a rock star tonight. He very evidently feels more comfortable playing the punk-garage survivor, strapping on a guitar for several numbers, buzzing fuzzy, dirty chords from it. Large chunks of his crowd love that fact, love that it’s his punk roots which show through now, the young aspirant who played the Roxy in leather and spit taking precedence over the subsequent pop comet who blazed across the dandy highway with such princely charm, a devilishly pervy swerving dervish, a wanton whirligig of fashion and fame and fetishism. Yet others related more to this latter luxury. Adam Ant as crossover pop star was a perfect thing: fey and foppish but fiery, big, bold and glamorous. Everything we used to be great at with pop stars.

Even now the best Adam singles provoke a bewildered, bedazzled response. You’re just not supposed to do the things they do, not in that order, not in those ratios, not when you’re pretty much the first Beatles of the new decade and the new video age and these things you’re doing are humping the national psyche for two years. You’re not supposed to do all these confident, mucky, flashy things as if they’re standard. You’re not supposed to laugh at reprimand and deliver the command that ridicule is nothing to be scared of. Except, of course, you ARE supposed to do exactly these things. Because pop music should be an escape and a treat and a flight into inspirational, narcissistic irresponsibility. The Seventies did this. The Eighties knew it and, for a while, still did it nevertheless.

So somewhere along the lean years, Adam Ant, who has been ill and been arrested and sectioned and still come back strong, was perhaps talked out of this. The tired old chestnut that gritty sweating punk rock was more authentic, more valid than glitzy glowing pop, still holds sway in some cobwebby areas. Which is weird really, seeing as most other things trumped up by Tony Parsons have been discredited. Old, stalled, limited punks were always jealous of Adam’s flamboyant success. Possibly Adam was told the way to resurrect his career was to re-establish his credible roots, rather than play up the mugging-to-camera pantomime heartthrob role into which some feel his post-Ants career “descended”. To rock, rather than pop. Now Adam happens to be very good at both: he has in the past declared that he was primarily a showbiz entertainer, at other times asserted his vivacious devotion to, y’know, rock & roll.

He took so much stick for “selling out” back in the day. Perhaps the received wisdom that his solo singles marked a decline, that Adam plus Ants was greater than Adam minus Ants, has lodged somewhere in his complex and intelligent and sensitive mind. He got criticised for electing to go on ITV’s Cannon And Ball because it had bigger viewing figures than the BBC’s Morecambe & Wise, and for taking the then uncommon route from huge pop star to minor American C-movie actor. For singing with Diana Ross. For dating celebrities (Heather Graham, Jamie Lee Curtis). All this sounds absolutely brilliant and starry to me but apparently all of this wasn’t very “punk”. Is it possible that punk wasn’t very much fun, do you think?

While those Ants anthems are indisputably feral and wonderful and deranged, there is so much wit and exuberance and pizazz in the hits of his solo era. If their chart showings (again) echoed that of Bolan’s later less-beloved singles, just hear the enduring sparkle and whoomph – as we do tonight – in the cheeky 'Room At The Top', the taunting 'Apollo 9', the self-aware 'Friend Or Foe' (“I want those who get to know me/ To become admirers or my enemies”) and the very British sexiness of 'Puss ‘N’ Boots'.

Subtle innuendos follow these songs around, and the songs tease them with a benevolent, whip-smart brand of comedy. It’s only a shame we don’t get the thunderously magnificent and brazen 'Ant Rap' tonight, but we do get the sub-radar 'Can’t Set Rules About Love', the surprise home run here and a (relative) obscurity which now sounds some kind of zenith of Eighties Big Pop. Adam was a true great at that, and the fact that he was very good at Critic-Approved Stuff earlier shouldn’t diminish its status, either in our eyes or his.

Right now he trusts his rock side, feels more truly in touch with that. The band, despite two drummers and guitarists, are… basic. Clad in black and not looking back, he’s Gene Vincent haunting the Kings Road, the boots biker-ish, the t-shirt (once the coat comes off in 'Strip') slightly disappointingly one of his own tour t-shirts. The straw hat never comes off, except when there’s a one-woman stage invasion towards the end and she tries to grab it. A roadie instantly rushes to replace it on Adam’s bandana-wrapped head, panic over, style reaffirmed and the importance of image, thankfully, acknowledged.

Anthems: The Singles Tour may be a set list of greatest hits and b-sides – sensibly, as he’s already racked up cred points by touring the Dirk Wears White Sox debut album – but Adam freely admits to us that he prefers the b-sides. So one assumes this is a way of giving the public what they need to party with while simultaneously keeping him interested. In truth, even if it’s bliss for completists, it makes for a stop-start evening for the casual fan, everyone standing up and going batshit for, say, 'Antmusic' or 'Dog Eat Dog', then losing momentum, sitting down and nodding politely for, say, 'Greta X' or 'B-Side Baby'. Might there have been a case for – as opposed to this sort of one-for-you-one-for-me rhythm interruptus - stacking all the hits more closely together to build a climax?

Averse as Adam may be to doing the commercially obvious, even the songs which the Most Electric Eighties Hits Ever sections of the crowd don’t know are rich with heat and hooks. So there’s a razor incision to 'Beat My Guest' and the thrilling, turbo-charged 'Cartrouble', and a louche lilt to 'Young Parisians'. The punctuation points of 'Prince Charming' and a rumbling tumbling 'Kings Of The Wild Frontier' more than pay the ticket. Before an encore which closes with a turned-up-to-11 'Physical (You’re So)', there’s the set-topping one-two punch of 'Goody Two Shoes' and 'Stand And Deliver'. The latter naturally sends everyone loopy: the hall is filled with a juicy jouissance of nostalgia and neurosis. It may be an anthem, it may be familiar, but it’s still so sweepingly strange. Yet the former is even better: galloping, twisting, nonsensical, inevitable, irresistible. It’s hard to believe Adam Ant, who once sang about “next year’s old pension”, is in his 60s, but when the devil took the record collection he left him the best tunes and a cracking attitude. This revival isn’t just a happy ending to his turbulent life story, it’s a reminder that pop music can muster maverick magic.