The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

Tag: punk (page 1 of 1)

The Importance of Being Adam Ant

Elise Moore takes a close, loving look at the protean punkster pop star’s masterfully submissive manipulation of sexual imagery – and his wet shorts

(special guest post)

As a Canadian born in 1975, I knew essentially nothing about Adam Ant until this year. I don’t even have the faintest recollection of “Goody Two Shoes,” his one big U.S. hit, or “Stand and Deliver,” the one everyone in the UK remembers. I do have a vague recollection of “Room at the Top,” which was a U.S. dance hit in 1990: probably I saw the video, in which a suited, slick-looking Ant engages in a lot of elaborate mic play.

At the time it came out, I was already taking an interest in punk and New Wave, a context in which I encountered the cover of Kings of the Wild Frontier a million times, although I certainly would not have connected it with the “Room at the Top” video. I also heard the story of how Malcolm McLaren stole Ant’s band for Bow Wow Wow, and accordingly thought that Adam and the Ants were a comparable packaged post-punk confection. Which I have nothing against, but for some reason, I just never got around to them.

Then the other week, an old, brief post on Ant’s “Prince Charming” video by Mark Simpson that has since disappeared [here’s the enlarged repost] but was probably occasioned by the release of Ant’s comeback album in 2013, rose from my murky subconscious and sent me down an Ant-related internet rabbit hole. Since my thoughts about Ant, as I perused this material, were framed by my familiarity with Mark’s writing, he offered to give me a platform for them.

The benefit of not having “been there” for any part of Ant’s career is the overview of his oeuvre that it gives you. There appear to be two official versions of the story of his career: that of the British music press that was there for his rise as a cult performer in the late punk scene, which is that he was a failed punk who used his pretty face to sell out; and that of the fans he acquired with Kings of the Wild Frontier who grew up to be serious music fans (in part thanks to that album), which is that he was an avant-garde pop genius who sold out with his pop album, Strip, and then utterly betrayed them a few years later by making a, gasp, dance album.

There’s also the revisionist account, prompted by several triumphant tours since his comeback, which is that he was an eccentric pop genius all along, so far ahead of his time that the critics never caught up with him and too protean for the public to stay with him. It’s probably clear, since I’m writing this, that I prefer this version of history.

However, it remains for the exact nature of this eccentric genius to be described. I’m not a musician, nor a music critic, nor even a “serious music fan,” so I can’t say much about that component of Mr. Ant’s career. But the “Adam Ant project,” so to speak, extended far beyond music or even visuals. And the most interesting aspect of it was his conscious manipulation of sexual imagery.

It was as an art student that Ant (then Stuart Leslie Goddard) first became fascinated by transgressive sexual imagery in art and transgressive sexual behaviour in subcultures. Not, according to early interviews, as something he wanted to enact in his own life, but for its taboo-breaking value and visually appealing iconography. This disclaimer rings true, given that one of his heroes was 60s British gay playwright Joe Orton, despite the fact that by all accounts Ant is enthusiastically heterosexual. But more on that later.

Adam and Siouxsie Sioux inventing Goth, London 1977

Part of what drew him to the punk scene, presumably, and McLaren’s SEX boutique in particular, was its congruence with these interests. The other part was Johnny Rotten’s theatrical and aggressive self-presentation (based on Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, according to Lydon), which so impressed Ant that he quit the pub rock band he’d been in the first time he saw The Sex Pistols. That happened to be their first gig, supporting Ant’s band. But Ant wasn’t married to the sound of punk. Instead, it was the attitude of punk that he never lost, and that he brought to his approach to pop stardom and relationship with the music industry.

Which is the other piece of the puzzle. Ant’s teenage years were dominated by Bolan, Roxy Music, and Ziggy-era Bowie, and it was over the love of glam rock that he bonded with long-time collaborator Marco Pirroni, another ex-punk, when he formed Adam and the Ants 2.0. It wasn’t just the sound, fashion, and theatrics he loved, however. Already a student of human sexuality, he saw the reaction of teenage girls to Marc Bolan and knew what he wanted to do with his life.

When the puzzle is all put together, we have this: an artist whose subject is sexual transgression but who wants to be Marc Bolan. Actually, there’s one more piece, which is Ant’s comedic side. You can see it from the earliest videos, as well as in a Dadaist prank like “Ant Rap,” but he really starts to lean into it with his first solo album, Friend or Foe, perhaps because he’s dropping the Johnny Rotten act and letting more of his own personality through. I don’t know much about the history of music videos, but one that did get on my radar is Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady,” which has quite a similar sensibility to “Friend or Foe.” The songs also notably share a similar attitude toward the artists’ critics, to wit, Fuck all y’all. If the early 80s music press already found it impossible to deal with Ant as a sex-obsessed, “style-over-substance” sell-out, adding comedy to the mix must have been even more unforgivable.

Adam Ant was broadcasting the dirty little secret that serious music fans and adherents to punk or indie “authenticity” didn’t want to hear about. He was a walking deconstruction of pop.

It went together, really, the style-over-substance accusations and the comedy. Perhaps what was most unforgivable about Ant was that he knew, and didn’t try to hide, the fact that popular music (even, or especially, punk) had always been as much about the image as about the music. In fact, it had been about three things: music, image, and sex. In the reverse order. Punk was perhaps especially about image, because it certainly wasn’t about music or sex. Adam Ant was broadcasting the dirty little secret that serious music fans and adherents to punk or indie “authenticity” didn’t want to hear about. He was a walking, or rather bouncing, deconstruction of pop. The addition of comedy and panto was just another way to refuse to pretend that there was anything serious about being a rock star—the punkest gesture of all.

Sex and comedy come together at what might be the double climax of his career, the albums Strip (1983) and Vive Le Rock (1985). Pun intended. Kings and Prince Charming are two of the least sex-obsessed of his albums, his conversations with McLaren having triggered not only an interest in tribal drumming and vocalizations but also an exploration of the theme of romantic heroism, which drew on Ant’s other obsession, history. Even then, he would end concerts by stripping his shirt off and singing “Physical (You’re So),” a punk-period bump-and-grinder that Nine Inch Nails saw fit to cover. The lyrics, tentatively requesting a romantic date and perhaps a little roughhousing after dinner, are positively sweet, so it’s hard to know what was going on in his head to cause his ecstatic gyrations, but easier to know what was going on in the heads of the women in the audience during them.

(Forget Reznor: you’ve got to wonder if Steve Kipner and Terry Shaddick, who wrote Olivia Newton-John’s massive 1981 hit “(Let’s Get) Physical” with a male vocalist in mind, caught an Ants concert.) 

Friend or Foe was the fame album, after which the sex theme came to the fore again with a vengeance. How could someone with Adam Ant’s interests resist the opportunity push the envelope sexually in a mainstream context for his audience of pubescent girls? In the process, he alienated the teen boy audience he’d acquired with Kings, and with Vive Le Rock he alienated the girls. But before that happened he had an almost unheard-of opportunity to make pornographic art in a completely mainstream context. 

Of course, the 80s were the decade for putting porn into pop. Madonna and Prince were doing it in the United States. Wham! were all leathered-up on the cover of Fantastic already in 1983, and dancing around onstage in tight shorts on their Club Fantastic tour. The problem was really how to distinguish yourself, as a pornographic artist, from what was just normal pop proceedings. I would say Ant managed it, or at least, put his own stamp on the trend.

The Libertine character invented for Strip was a natural evolution of the Prince Charming/Dandy Highwayman character, who had in turn evolved out of the original Buccaneer/Warrior. The Strip character is Casanova by way of Jane Russell: the album cover apparently nods to a poster for Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw, a film notorious now and controversial then for the eccentric millionaire’s obsession with his Muse’s mammaries.

It’s not something you can really reproduce with a male body (at least not Adam Ant’s: you’d need a Tom of Finland type), but the reference is a mission statement for the album: we’re here to celebrate sex and court controversy, and Adam is taking the place normally occupied by women in popular culture. Ant, who was the only man in his college course Women in Society, presumably knew all about second-wave feminist objectification arguments, and was only too happy to gallantly relieve women of the gaze. Apparently, he did manage to get the “Strip” single and video banned by the BBC, although the single sounds more innocuous than “Like a Virgin” now and the video looks like an indigestion nightmare after watching too much 70s TV sketch comedy.

 I was joking when I said there was an element of gallantry in Ant’s assumption of the role of “objectified woman,” but I may not have been far off. The great crowd-sourced pop archive that is YouTube has a “making of” clip about the “Strip” video in which Ant, who studied filmmaking at college and storyboarded his videos, explains that, far from a mere video babe, the woman in the video is its “hero,” and the point at which he sits in her lap on a park bench a gender-flip of the more conventional heterosexual situation. (Which is easier to do when the man is the same size as the woman.) The lyrics of the song actually reject “sneaky” voyeurism, represented in the video by the moustache-twirling villains who constitute the showgirl heroine’s audience; the alternative offered is mutual stripping, with the man going first. The video’s Psycho homage makes more sense in this feminist context, underlining the aggression in the act of erotic looking. An aggression that Ant evidently felt capable of facing, although his post-fame breakdowns make you wonder. And it’s perhaps worth noting here that the first breakdown was triggered by a female stalker whose aggression levels were comparable to Norman Bates’s.

But back to gender: Ant was already doing gender-flipped versions of narratives in the “Prince Charming” video, in which Ant really assumes the role of Cinderella. Diana Dors, “the English Marilyn Monroe,” is the fairy godmother whose magic wand transforms our baby-faced, biceped working-class hero into an exotic spectacle, a Star. So as with the Strip album, an iconic female pin-up stands behind Ant’s conception of himself as a sex symbol.

The limitation of feminist objectification theory is its rigid structure: only men possess the destructive “gaze,” and only women can be its object. But Ant, of course, beginning with Prince Charming and continuing with Strip, was courting the gaze of his teen girl audience. With his scholarly, historically-oriented approach to pop culture, Ant was aware that Bolan wasn’t the first male star to create mass hysteria in women, and neither were The Beatles (to which “The Ants” nods) or even Elvis. At the end of the “Prince Charming” video he fragments into several characters, one of which is this Ur-male sex symbol, silent film star Rudolph Valentino, The Latin Lover, in his most famous role, cosplaying as The Sheik. The seeds of Strip are there.

Women now in their 50s gleefully relate how he triggered their puberty; lesbians confess that he was the only man they would have gone straight for; and self-identified straight men come forward to testify to his handsomeness

Much naughtier than the banned “Strip” single and video was the stage show, which was easily the most outrageous aspect of this phase, or maybe any phase, of Ant’s career. And I include his punk-era appearances in a gimp mask. (Or was it a Cambridge rapist mask? I can’t quite get to the bottom of this story.) Photos of the tour preserved by fans and documented on the internet detail his routine of stripping down to little shorts (also on display in the “Strip” video) and immersing himself in a tank of water before completing the show soaking wet. Which was ostensibly an homage to Houdini, although I don’t quite see what he was escaping from other than his clothes.

Damp Ant

His project of making himself, in his late 20s, into a porn star for pubescent girls was apparently entirely successful, to judge from the fascinating and extensive YouTube comments on his videos and live clips. Women now in their 50s gleefully relate how he triggered their puberty; lesbians confess that he was the only man they would have gone straight for; and self-identified straight men come forward to testify to his handsomeness (one even admitting to lusting after him during the “Physical” gig climaxes). (Unless that was another lesbian.) It may be that his own relaxed attitude toward his self-objectification, his entire indifference to presenting himself as “masculine,” made Adam Ant the male star that it was okay for straight men to admit to finding attractive. In his cover of “Y.M.C.A.,” “A.N.T.S,” with lyrics altered to yet another Ants manifesto, he made his hostility toward what the internet has taken to calling “toxic” masculinity, which perhaps might better be called repressed masculinity, crystal clear:

It's fun to go to the A.N.T.S.... 
Put on that paint and hold up your head
Til all the tough men drop dead.

Ant didn’t stick with androgyny for long, however. With his Dietrichesque canvas of a face (high forehead included), it must have been too easy for him. Instead, with Strip and Vive Le Rock  he fashioned himself into first a heterosexual, and then a homosexual porn archetype. You can put over the gay porn archetype with a teen girl audience, as George Michael magnificently proved with his Faith album just two years after Vive Le Rock. But not if it comes with a hair metal-by-way-of-its glam roots sound, I guess. With a single, “Apollo 9,” that hearkens back to the demented bubble-gum of Bowie’s avant-pop album, Lodger (also produced by Tony Visconti), by way of a square dance. With accompanying video featuring Ant decked out as a pink-gloved space cowboy, sporting a band aid-as-accessory long before Morrissey. Incredibly, “Apollo 9” was a bit of a hit, unlike the title single, a more straightforward rocker—that, however, namechecks Tom of Finland. I’m assuming that no heterosexual man would have known who Tom of Finland was in 1985 without a dedicated interest in pornographic imagery and sexual subcultures.

Ant as Mr Sloane, backstage at the Royal Exchange

Maybe the only reason Vive Le Rock tanked was that Ant, distracted by acting, let a whole year lapse between the success of “Apollo 9” and the album’s release. In the spring of 1985 he appeared in his first and most noteworthy role, as the title character in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester; Vive Le Rock appeared in the fall. Ant made his first reference to Orton, however, on a 1980 demo called “Prick Up Your Ears,” about Orton’s relationship with the lover who murdered him, Ken Halliwell. The timing suggests that Ant read John Lahr’s biography of Orton, Prick Up Your Ears, when it came out in 1978. Ant has said that he felt he understood Orton very well, and believed that Sloane was Orton’s alter ego.

Sloaning again

As someone who is also not a gay man who wrote an award-winning play about Orton and Halliwell in my teens, I feel like I’m in a better position than most to understand what he means. My own take on Orton, who became my alter ego in the play, in some regards, was that he was a narcissist who continually refashioned himself into other people’s fantasies and had no real identity. Well, I think that was actually John Lahr’s take, but it was one that fascinated me and resonated with me. I grew out of that phase, but Adam Ant, for good or ill, found a way not to, by becoming a pop star.

With Orton as one of the guiding spirits of the Vive Le Rock era, I suspect Ant was using this new “gay” image not so much to court a gay male gaze, or anyone else’s at this point, as to explore his narcissism, or, in Mark Simpson’s phrase, his “desire to be desired.” The heterosexual fantasy characters he’d previously enacted had the unfortunate drawback of having, ostensibly, to do something. Even if his Prince Charming/Cinderella in the video, unlike the characters he’s based on, doesn’t go to the ball to meet anyone, but to be looked at. Whereas the rent boy persona of the Vive Le Rock era doesn’t have to do anything except look sluttily available—not even feel desire. It’s not a character that exists within the lexicon of heterosexual fantasy, but Ant, ever the cultural appropriator, doesn’t let that stop him. And it makes sense that the pop music image influences of his 50s childhood, the first rock ‘n’ roll stars, are part of this mix. Because the decade that gave us pop masculinity as we still know it—“rebellious,” Romantic, a bit dangerous in a Byronic way, rough trade for the boys and girls—is also the decade in which masculinity’s desire to be desired came out of the closet.

Rock ‘n’ roll really started with Brando’s leather look in The Wild One (1953), which inspired Tom of Finland to create a gay archetype that grew up alongside the “straight” one. Like a couple of twins checking each other out, exchanging style tips. Whatever label you want to put on this new masculinity, it was both aestheticized and sexualized in a way that masculinity had seldom been before, in the modern world.

In fact the only proper label for it is—dare I use the “m”-word?

Ant taking Grace Jones, early 1980s

My source of unique information for this essay was this article, by a psychologist fan.

As mentioned in the essay, I was a playwright in my teens and early 20s. I’m currently working on a novel, which should be out some time in the next century, if there is one. Meanwhile I like to think about pop culture, usually film. I co-host the weekly film podcast There’s Sometimes a Buggy: Irresponsible Opinions About Classic Film and have published essays with various (non-academic) journals, usually Bright Wall/Dark Room and Bright Lights Film Journal.

Mark and I have been chatting about masculinity in pop culture for about 15 years, although we’ve never actually met.

Prince Charming – Adam Ant’s Pop Apotheosis

Some years back I posted a piece called ‘The Prettiest Punk’, about the most fetching three minute wonders. Scandalously, Adam Ant appeared nowhere in the list.

Perhaps this oversight was an unconscious censorship – because otherwise none of the other candidates would have stood a chance. Or more likely down to the fact I was born a bit late for punk and so only remembered Adam Ant in his much more successful, much more made-up new romantic ‘dandy highwayman’ phase, which twas technically new wave musically, but very much new romantic visually, and ideologically.

When he transformed from a punk Cinders into a glamorous, baroque butterfly, drowning in lip gloss.

Born Stuart Goddard in 1954, and raised in an unplumbed two-room north London slum, this art school ruffian chose the punk name ‘Adam’ because ‘he was the first man’, and ‘Ant’ because ‘they will survive nuclear war’. He personified more than anyone else (even, dare I say, that other London boy made good, D**** B****) the open secret that British youth cults of glam, punk and new romanticism, although they officially hated each other, were all part of the same aesthetic rebellion.

One that eventually culminated (or degenerated, depending on your point of view), via the assimilation/proliferation of glossy magazines, consumerism and advertising, and the increasingly mediated nature of masculinity, in metrosexuality.

The tongue-in-cheek but seriously extravagant by the standards of the time ‘dandy highwayman’ promos for ‘Stand and Deliver’ and ‘Prince Charming’, both shot in a day and released in 1981 (forty years ago next year), were at least as influential in shaping the sensibility of the 1980s as Paul Schrader’s more ‘adult’ Hollywood feature film and young Richard Gere panopticon, American Gigolo, released the previous year.

‘Stand and Deliver’ was a pitch perfect pop song, noisily celebrating male narcissism and declaring, with wailing warcry, a national uprising against naffness – while holding grown-ups to ransom.

“It’s just stealing people’s attention. I’m a very big history fan of certainly the Georgian era and I like the flamboyance and sexuality and bawdiness of the time. I’ve seen films like Tom Jones and I grew up going to Saturday morning pictures and seeing all these other influences. I put them all together and Stand And Deliver was just purely grabbing people’s attention and using the whole sort of classical English highwayman feel as a theme.”

Adam ant

The promo, directed by Mike Mansfield, begins with us enjoying in close-up a fully-made-up but apparently naked Adam gazing smolderingly at himself in the mirror as he applies his ‘war paint’ – while the hunting horn sounds. The ‘threesome’ mirror-shot that invites the viewer to gaze on a beautiful young man gazing at himself is a trope which has become a cliche in the decades since, in a world where metrosexuality is completely mainstream and corporate, and social me-dia is rampant. In 1980 however, it was still an arresting vista.

I'm the dandy highwayman who you're too scared to mention
I spend my cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention

Mr Ant is entirely upfront and personal about his ravenous desire to be desired. In fact, he wields it as a weapon. Instead of holding up travellers with a pistol he holds a mirror to their faces. (Perhaps inspiring 1980s Taboo nightclub ‘door whore’ Mark Vaultier’s infamous habit of holding a mirror up to hopeful punters, asking:”Would you let yourself in?”).

Stand and deliver your money or your life
Try and use a mirror no bullet or a knife

Tossing the phallic pistol and replacing it with a mirror is a provocatively fey gesture, as befits the ravishing passivity of male vanity. It also perhaps references the raucous Sex Pistols-style guitar chords that open ‘Stand and Deliver’ (who also styled themselves as ruffians).

Working class Adam completely embraced the nascent medium of glossy, aspirational pop promos, coming up with many of the grandiose ideas himself – as well as the medium of glossy, aspirational self-love. Both of which were of course abhorred by ‘proper’ punks and the ‘serious’ music press.

The devil take your stereo and your record collection (oh-oh)
The way you look you'll qualify for next year's old age pension 

Which is why, in addition to being enormous fun, ‘Stand and Deliver’ went to No.1 in May 1981, and refused to budge from its pole position in the hit highway for five weeks, relieving nearly a million teenagers of their pocket money. But then, unlike most pop singles, it did contain useful fashion advice:

It's kind of tough to tell a scruff the big mistake he's making

During the ‘hanging’ sequence (which was banned by the BBC) accompanied by the divine Georgian gibberish chorus of ‘Qua qua da diddley qua qua da diddley‘, we are regaled with knee-clasping stylised shots of stylised Blitz Kids. There’s more than a nod in this video to The Dame’s seminal ‘Ashes to Ashes’ promo of the previous year, at the time the most expensive ever made, which also featured eminent denizens of London’s hyper-cool Blitz nightclub, paying homage to their prophet.

‘Stand and Deliver’ ends as it began, just you, me, Adam and his reflection sharing an intimate moment: a close-up on mirrored glossy lips again, as if (re)discovering their own irresistibility.

And frankly, has anyone worn lip gloss and full foundation better? Blondie’s soft-focus kisser looked crusty in comparison. Even Tim Curry’s iconic smackers as pouty Frank ‘n’ Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show seem drier than a Weetabix discovered behind a radiator after Mr Ant’s spangly lusciousness.

If ‘Stand and Deliver’ was Adam Ant’s glamorous gospel, ‘Prince Charming’ was his shining apotheosis. It is quite the most perfect promo ever made – delivering him straight into pop cultural heaven.

The track has a repetitive, terrace/school playground chant-like quality to it, like some of the best glam rock singles. But unlike glam rock it doesn’t really exist separate from the panto pop promo. In fact, ‘Prince Charming’ is more pop promo than song. This is not a criticism. It is part of its historic achievement.

It starts with Adam as Cinders, his bandmates singing to him:

Don't you ever, don't you ever
Stop being dandy, showing me you're handsome

It’s a touching image of male camaraderie in the British youth cult tradition, and reminds me somewhat of Bowie’s ‘When you’re a boy/Other boys check you out‘ line from ‘Boys Keep Swinging’.

His fairy godmother turns up, played by camp icon Diana Dors – on a cloud, surrounded by toned oiled-up topless young black male dancers. With a wave of her wand he is transformed into a sexy Beau Brummell – something I suspect Mr Brummell never actually achieved himself. (Check out those tight breeches and the way they reflect the light – gadzooks!).

Ridicule is nothing to be scared of

Quite so. Male vanity only really works if it is unashamed and fearless. Ridicule is a form of attention, after all. And frequently a form of envy.

At the ball that Cinders/Adam attends, the chanting and the arm-crossed synchronised dancing is wonderful, but also slightly Satanic, in a thrilling Dance of the Vampires sense, despite or perhaps because of the childish panto theme. As Adam mounts the cloudy staircase towards a landing mirror, the revellers freeze and fade away to nothingness and our hero is left alone, with his Orphée-esque reflection – and our gaze.

He smashes the mirror with a handy candelabra, fragmenting himself, and we see Adam as a series of male pop cultural icons: the Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood), Alice Cooper, Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino) and Adam in his dandy highwayman garb from ‘Stand and Deliver’. It’s the drag sequence in Bowie’s ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ promo, but this time cross-dressing in the clothes of the same gender. Metrosexuality is, after all, about accessorising attractiveness.

With admirable arrogance, this slightly odd-looking, very tiny man from the humblest of backgrounds imaginable has, via the powerful transformative magick of pop, inserted himself into the immortal iconography of male celluloid stars. His desire to be desired made famous flesh.

Cinders has found his Prince Charming – in himself. At his coming out ball.

Mind, he is only really convincing in his dandy highwayman role and as Valentino. His Valentino is actually quite devastating – a revelation, both in terms of Valentino and Ant. Besides, the fact that he knew and understood the long-dead silent screen star’s importance as one of the first male sex objects, let alone coveted it, is an indication of his close study of the subject.

But there is a ghost in attendance at this ball. The ghost of Johnny Depp Future, who was only 18 when this video was made. Depp credited Keith Richards with inspiring his criminally successful Pirates of the Caribbean ‘Jack Sparrow’ character – but curiously didn’t mention Adam Ant’s dandy highwayman. Which, visually at least, it clearly references. Perhaps he didn’t because Ant did it even prettier.

Some of Adam’s (much) later looks also put one in mind of Depp. Maybe it’s because facially they do share some genes. Or perhaps it’s because they are both, for that reason, stealing styling tips off each other – seeing each other as their respective reflections.

Call me a biased Limey, but I think it’s pretty clear that in all essentials, Adam is the original and Depp is the copy.

I posted a brief piece about Adam Ant and ‘Prince Charming’ on this blog many years ago – but it seems to have mysteriously vanished. Much like the revellers at Adam’s ball...

Suburbohemian Rhapsody: review of ‘Berlin Bromley’

by Mark Simpson (Independent on Sunday, 23/07/06)

“Oh, Bertie, when are you going to write your memoirs?” asks punk academic Jon Savage at a chance meeting with the author in Berlin. Berties replies: “Oh, I don’t know, Jon… what would I write, a teenage boy lost in suburbia, prostitution and drugs?”

This, you’ll be glad to hear, is exactly what we get in Berlin Bromley (SAF), a “post-glam, pre-punk version of The Naked Civil Servant”. This memoir consists of the day-dreamy reminiscences of a pathologically, fabulously narcissistic 15 year-old-boy, perpetually trapped inside 1976 and his own lip-glossed, suburbohemian delusions. He re-christened himself Berlin after reading too much Isherwood and tried to re-create the Weimar Republic in Bromley, Kent — and came perilously close to succeeding.

This is the gloriously pointless autobiography of a boy who never really did anything but take Mandrax, wear lots of make-up and turn tricks. A boy who was in at the birth of punk, but somehow managed to absent himself when it threatened to get too real. A boy who should have been the leaderene of the New Romantics, a movement he personally prefigured, but who told Steve Strange “it’s not gonna happen”, and went back to Bromley just before it spectacularly did, to take some more Mandrax and daydream his life away (with the odd side-trip to hardcore Earls Court gay cruise bars).

Next to Bertie Marshall’s passivity, Quentin “if you like…” Crisp looks like a particularly perky contestant in The Apprentice. Still, it’s a bonus that he spends as much attention on his writing as he once did on his eyeliner. No one is more aware of his gloriously wasted life than Marshall. His honesty is as breathtaking as Marshall’s profile used to be. Even if you find yourself wondering whether honesty and truth aren’t always quite the same thing (Marshall is also a novelist), you’re left with a clear sense that a life spent as a passive observer, even of your own life, can make for powerful prose.

Essentially, Berlin has one main claim to fame. You might not have heard of him, but you’ve probably heard of that party, held in the mid-Sevneties at his mum’s semi-detached in Bromley while she was away. It was attended by his friend Siouxsie Sioux in plastic Ribena apron and fishnets (and nothing else), taking welts out of the artex ceiling with her cat-o-nine-tails, the rest of the Bromley Contingent mouching around, and the Sex Pistols shagging everywhere (save Johnny Rotten, who just snorted speed and grinned a lot).

The climax of the party, and possibly of Marshall’s life, is where the next door neighbour, a little old lady called Mrs Hall, leans on the doorbell to complain about the music. Marshall hides behind SS’s fishnets and plastic apron strings while she answers the door and spits: “Oh, fuck off.”

Trouble ensues when Mrs Hall, “trembling with fear and rage, eyes filling up behind her Fifties fly-away glasses,” calls Sioux a “little slut”.

“How dare you call me a slut, you f****** old c***!” snaps Sioux. “[She] leant forward and gave the old bag an almighty slap across the face, knocking her glasses into the nearby privet hedge.”

The most famous moment in Marshall’s life happens at the age of 15, on page 58. And he’s observing it from behind SS’s fishnets.

Personally, I wouldn’t have Berlin, or Bromley, any other way.