You’ve heard of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics? Well the Sandman from the title is part of this community of spiritual beings who control the seven foundational truths of life: Dream, Destruction, Death, Destiny, Desire, Despair, and Delight. In the most insightful piece in all of Gaiman’s work, Delight is transformed into Delirium.
The dizzying delight of the New Romantics, typified by Adam and the Ants, gave way to delirium. Adam himself suffered some mental health problems, but the musical genre’s walls were broken down, and not in a good way. The walls were broken so any idiot in make-up could sell a million records. This mascara-covered foray into the baroque did not last long for pop music. Some money-grubber saw the potential, deleted anything that was interesting about the musical/stage genre of New Romanticism, and shoved money and naked girls in the faces of talent-less twits like Motley Crue (I can’t stand them, so I won’t even bother with the umlauts), Guns N’ Roses, and Poison.
And thus ended the delightful period of English pop music known as New Romanticism. Younger, louder bands with more sex in their videos replaced them. And Adam himself plunged into a typical Rock and Roll valley of sex, drugs, and finally mental instability. The poor guy tried to regain his fickle audience a few times, but the faithful were few. It was like someone switched on the lights at the party and the whole crowd could suddenly see that no one was quite as sexy or interesting as they seemed a moment before.
I have to admit, this was never really my scene. The height of Adam and others like him was 1981. I was born in 84, so I only saw the edges of it, a decade later and too self-conscious to wear anything with epaulets, let alone mascara. Even if I had been living in New York or London at the right time, I probably would only nodded my approval.
The visuals were, as I mentioned, baroque, which suited my inflated sense of timelessness. By the time I came of age, the subcultures of the 80s had all melted into a single unseemly glob though. Only faint memories of distinctions remained. New Romantics, metalheads, goths, punks, etc were all kind of the same thing. I mean, there are always the religious followers of a trend. I’m sure there are hardcore punks and goths somewhere, holding onto the dream all by themselves in some long-forgotten club that has since found itself pretty much in the parking lot of the local Target. Everybody else, the casual scenesters and MTV-watchers, blended. So the particulars of the aesthetic are gone. This is uncomfortably obvious in Adam’s new weirdo video, where he’s got something of the old (and tired) pirate thing going on, but he’s inside a world that wants to be imagined by Terry Gilliam, but isn’t.
A scene like Adam used to play in cannot last longer than its highest virtue. If fun, or sex, or looking great is the pinnacle of success, then you’ve got about one summer to enjoy it all before it crumbles underneath you. It’s sort of a “eat, drink, and be merry” thing. What makes the New Romantics’ version of that old old old hedonistic lifestyle (best described here) distinct is the fear that the world might end before they hit thirty.
Though Pete Townshend, my personal musical hero, and Alphaville are acts that don’t quite qualify as members of this movement, they each wrote songs that put the whole genre into historical perspective. Alphaville’s Forever Young is a bit more serious than anything you’d find on an Adam record, but the baroque fashion is in place and the frenetic, dizzying sounds liken the two bands. In this song, they express their fear of having a bomb drop on their heads and the existential anxiety produced by having your future decided remotely by idiots in suits.
I mean, the first few lines couldn’t make the purpose for 80s rock any clearer:
Let’s dance in style, lets dance for a while
Heaven can wait we’re only watching the skies
Hoping for the best but expecting the worst
Are you going to drop the bomb or not?
Townshend’s little known song Dance It Away is about the same thing:
We’ll still like to think we’re human
And we’re gonna drown in our own sweet was
At times it looks confusing
But Mr. Can, we dance it away
(By the way, that’s John Entwhistle playing bass and singing backing vocals and Kenney Jones on drums on that track, so it’s basically a lost Who track.)
All that to say Adam and the Ants had a vibrant stranglehold on fun. I don’t think I would agree with the guy on any topics. I doubt we could even tolerate each other so well in a social situation. But, man, I just cannot turn away when he’s performing. He knew this was his chance and he took everything he could get out of it.
So why doesn’t it work? Why can’t he hit it again? To be fair, I don’t know that he can’t. I watched only the first song, Cool Zombie. The song itself is alright. It’s got a honky-tonk guitar thing that’s cool. I think Adam could slide into that soundscape well enough, though not the aesthetic. And he doesn’t. He’s wearing a version of his old pirate costume, which seems to be remembered in fonder terms by the artist himself. I could be wrong about that. As I said, I was never part of that scene. His more devoted fans might want that costume back in the same way I love seeing old man Townshend swing his arms when he plays his guitar. The fact that the pirate suit fits a little tighter makes the whole thing feel sadly silly. Between that and the bizarre little dances he performs, it’s impossible to forget that you’re watching a sixty-year-old that you last saw as a kid.
The music is good. It’s a country thing basically, which doesn’t thrill me but doesn’t turn me off either. It reminds of the Black Crowes, who never really grabbed my interest. Adam does a kind of Bob Dylan style singing, throwing the words out of his head just to get them out.
The aesthetic of the video does a good job of trying to recreate the gothic look Adam and Alphaville helped popularize back in the 80s. It just feels a little too secure. The threat of the world ending isn’t as intense as it was in the 80s, which is a good thing I guess. The art we produce is at least different without that pressure.