More people should talk about Marco Pirroni. He’s awesome. Quite apart from the fact that he appears to be a fantastically chilled, intelligent and knowledgeable individual he’s also a spankingly good guitarist and an incredibly important figure in the punk scene. He’s also one half of the powerhouse behind practically all of Adam And The Ants / Adam Ant’s 80’s success (co-songwriter and musician), he’s all over Sinead O’Connor’s best work, and of course there’s the whole Siouxsie And The Banshees time. He’s just one of those musicians who adds to absolutely everything he appears on but never seems to get all that much in the way of recognition.
That’s not to take away from Adam Ant’s contributions to this song – and we’ll get to that momentarily – but Pirroni is such an important part of this song it would be an injustice not to mention him straight off the bat. Because in truth we have a bit of a cheat this week. “Antmusic” was released in November 1980 (thus technically qualifying, the best kind of qualifying*) but didn’t ascend all the way to the hallowed Number 2 slot until January 11th 1981. 1981 is, however, very much spoken for. Little else of consequence got stuck at Number 2 in 1980 though and, without wishing to pre-empt What Else Happened In 1980?, it’s a bit of a strange year on the singles charts.
The biggest song of the year was released by a band who don’t do singles – that would be Pink Floyd with “Another Brick In The Wall Pt 2”. The second is “Woman In Love” by Barbara Streisand. The third is the exceedingly saccharine “(Just Like) Starting Over” by John Lennon and the fourth is original-choice-for-this-article “Funkytown” by Lipps Inc. That is, by anyone’s standards, a mixed bag stylistically. And that’s fairly representative of the year in general. It’s a mixed bag. Disco is still very much a presence, and the fifth-biggest selling song of the year is Diana Ross’s “Upside Down”, but it’s also clear from that list where its place is now – and that’s in fourth and fifth position. So if disco is losing its grip, the obvious question is “what’s coming in to take its place”?
Step forward one Mr Ant, or Adam to his friends. Adam Ant is a strange figure in some ways, someone who despite massive mainstream success tends somewhat towards the margins. He’s bound up in New Romantic imagery, what with the make-up, flashy none-more-80’s videos, pirate and highwayman characters and whatnot, but his sound – heavy on the glammed up guitars and double drummers – eschews the more typical synth-and-remoteness approach embraced by much of the New Romantic movement. Bands that went big on chunky guitars as part of the New Romantic movement aren’t really a significant feature of the early 80’s charts, where the synth reigned supreme. Ant is also a product of the punk scene who committed the one sin one must never, ever commit. He left it.
That means he is, at best, a peripheral figure in that scene, even though he’s got two songs on Derek Jarman’s Jubilee – if one needs to check credentials – and there’s not much that’s more punk than that. But at a certain point, and frustrated with the lack of career momentum, fate, in the guise of Malcolm McLaren, intervened. He was brought on board as a manager to give Adam And The Ants the career push they needed. However “intervened”, in this case, meant after being appointed manager McLaren promptly stole the “… And The Ants” part of Adam And The Ants and hived them off into a project of his own, Bow Wow Wow.
And, you know, Bow Wow Wow aren’t the worst band the 80’s produced, not by a long chalk. They were mildly controversial. “I Like Candy”’s a solid tune. But it’s hard to escape the idea they left at exactly the wrong point. The … And The Ants That Became Bow Wow Wow, were replaced by … And The Ants which brought the Right Honourable Mr Pirroni into the picture and, well, things were never the same again. Adam And The Ants first album is Dirk Wears White Sox. It’s a good album. His second is Kings Of The Wild Frontier. It’s an absolutely terrific album and criminally underrated. It’s an album full of swagger and confidence and it’s very easy to love because it’s just so goddamned confident. And it spawned three hit singles, “Kings Of The Wild Frontier” (fantastic), “Dog Eat Dog” (slightly less fantastic), and “Antmusic”.
“Antmusic” is the key. It’s a manifesto, basically. It’s not his only manifesto – the biggest of which, “Stand And Deliver”, is the peak of his career – but it’s an effective one nonetheless. It is, in its own way, an anti-disco song, though it’s not anti-disco in the “disco sucks” mould, but rather in a way that argues for progress rather than staleness. Now if you want to call that self-serving you’re not wrong – what is being argued for as a replacement is the vague, nebulous concept of “ant music”, whatever that is – but it’s an absolute rarity in its time for finding a third way between “disco” and “disco sucks”.
The thing about the agenda the song has, and this is such a crucial testament to the time in which it was released, is that you really need to see the video to get it. The lyrics have a degree of pointedness about them. “It’s so sad when you’re young / to be told you’re having fun” sings Ant on the first verse, and the chorus is “so unplug the jukebox and do us all a favour / that music’s lost its taste so try another flavour”. “That music” in the song isn’t specified. But watching the video it’s explicitly disco that’s being talked about.
And it’s not an entirely unfair point. Disco is a good six year old now, and there’s a sense that it’s done all it can do. Whether “ant music” is a viable alternative is another matter, but in arguing for progress rather than stagnation Adam Ant is at least offering an alternative rather than just another slanging match. This philosophy, if that’s not too grand a word for it, will go on to reach its zenith in “Stand And Deliver” when punk’s squalid on-brand commercialisation, too, becomes his target with the dandy highwayman “so sick of easy fashion”. This will be expanded, later, on “Ant Rap” where we’re informed that Adam Ant is, “so tired of anarchists looking at me / don’t need their credibility / destroy, they say, defy, condemn! / as long as you don’t destroy them”. It’s an evolving process. And that process begins, here, with “Antmusic”.
And it begins with those big-ass chunky Pirroni guitars. “Antmusic” is ridiculously simple in terms of its construction, but that’s also what makes it so appealing. The verse is just D, E and A. The chorus has the temerity to throw in a B flat, G and *gasp* F sharp. That’s it. And yet just listen to the way Pirroni powers his way through those handful of chords. They sound practically alive the way he drags them out of his guitar, like they’re almost playing themselves. Pirroni’s a master of producing that kind of guitar sound and nobody can quite do it like him. The lyric, shrieked, yelped and bludgeoned out by Ant, is a perfect fit for Pirroni’s style, hand in glove.
Underneath that hammer the double-drummers, using the Burundi beat not much in evidence in popular music up to this point (well, unless you include Adam And The Ants’ previous two singles) but powering the song along on an unstoppable wave of percussion. And there’s the break, where the whole song comes to a staggering halt, propelled simply by the drums as Ant moves into a slightly more threatening mode, before a huge Pirroni guitar slash and a launch back into the chorus. It’s a fabulously ostentatious moment, but that’s Adam Ant – ostentation is pretty much the price of entry.
And “Antmusic” is, indeed, an excellent entry point to a commercially successful act that never quite get the recognition they deserve. It’s not hard to understand why – the sheer, screaming 80’s-ness of everything occludes something rather smarter lying beneath the surface and the success-for-a-few-years-only fits neatly into corny I-Love-The-[DECADE/YEAR] nostalgia pieces. But that’s very unfortunate. Adam Ant’s chart success is a near-perfect collection of singles, he bothers to write lyrics miles away from standard 80’s vapidity, and “Antmusic” is a great part of that run. Vive le rock.
* Basically this is my series and I’m not being puritanical about it so my attitude is “ah, fuck it”.
What Else Happened In 1980?
Well the biggest headline of the year is, of course, John Lennon’s murder in New York. That happens at the end of the year though – at the beginning, in January, Lennon’s former bandmate Paul McCartney is arrested for drug possession in Japan. Ian Curtis of Joy Division hangs himself and John Bonham of Led Zeppelin is found dead. Cheery stuff, 1980. The Sony Walkman launches in the US and Jah Wobble acrimoniously departs Public Image Ltd. The Psychedelic Furs release their debut album, and Young Marble Giants release their only album, the hugely influential Colossal Youth. Judas Priest release their landmark, British Steel, and McCartney releases his first post-Wings solo album, McCartney II. It’s remarkably good. AC/DC are Back In Black and Olivia Newton-John is, sadly, in Xanadu. Rap arrives in the form of Kurtis Blow’s debut album, and both The Teardrop Explodes and INXS release their first albums as well. We’ve covered the best-selling singles already but attention must also be drawn to The Jam, who top the charts for three weeks with the immaculate “Going Underground” and Dexy’s Midnight Runners with the straightforwardly brilliant “Geno”. And, to round us off, David Bowie releases the album all his other albums will get measured by, giving us the career-highlight that is Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
The original song slated for this article was “Funkytown” by Lipps Inc but due to a combination of not being able to think of anything to say about it and “nefarious outside influences” from the not-we (hello, Andrew) it – quite rightly – got trashed in favour of “Antmusic”. There’s something to be said about one-hit wonders, of course, and “Funkytown” is certainly one of those, but this will be coming up later in the series. In the 90’s, in fact, if you want to play guess-the-song. “Funkytown” itself is… fine. Nothing special. Decent riff. Vocorder-a-go-go. You know the drill.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3. The Kinks – “Lola”
4. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5. Elvis Costello – “Oliver’s Army”
6. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
7. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
8. Adam And The Ants – “Antmusic”
9. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
10. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
11. Queen, “Killer Queen”
12. Blondie, “Denis”
13. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
14. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
15. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
16. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
17. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
18. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
19. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
20. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
21. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”