Adam and the Ant’s huge hits in the early 1980s – at one point he had eight records in the charts simultaneously – are indelibly burnt into anyone who remembers them. Children remember the flamboyant costumes, over the top videos, catchy choruses. Those old enough remember the hard-edged post-punk sound finessed with a touch of the new wave, the overtones of deviancy and sexual experimentation, the arch lyrics and the extremely fine cheekbones of the handsome Mr Ant (born Stuart Goddard).
What Antmania can be resurrected 30 years later? He slipped from among the most creative new wave popstars into irrelevance, battled mental health problems later diagnosed as bi-polar disorder that saw him arrested and sectioned for his own health, and disappeared. After 17 years away Ant returns with the sprawling 17-track album ‘The BlueBlack Hussar Marries The Gunner’s Daughter’, a bizarre, unruly, and sometimes inspired beast.
Playing the Roundhouse for the first time since supporting X-Ray Spex in 1978, tonight Ant sports the full regalia expected of him; gold-braided hussar’s jacket, feathered bicorn and various dangly adornments. Older now, with thick black-rimmed specs and a more weighty appearance than in his whip-thin youth, he could almost be a history teacher at a fancy dress party.
But he still has the spirit for it; leaping on stage he launches into the bluesy ‘Marrying The Gunner’s Daughter‘, before stepping straight into ‘Dog Eat Dog‘ – and back to 1980. The band bring a more ‘eavy metal sound to the music, while still delivering the characteristic tribal-style drumming, with two kit drummers just as he used to. He doesn’t hit every note, but in moments such as yodelling the chorus to ‘Beat My Guest‘ he sounds as vigorous as ever.
Over two hours with scarcely a break to talk Ant powers through new numbers like the ‘Hardmentoughblokes‘, a bewildering attack on faux film hardmen, the electronic-tinged and clearly personal ‘Shrink‘ which seethes with a sub-Nine Inch Nails intensity, and the smokey BMRC-esque ‘Cool Zombie‘. And there are the classics: ‘Stand and Deliver‘ sets the mood early on in the set, the crowd’s roar clearly audible. ‘Whip In My Valise‘ is still delicious, the spacey, flanged ‘Zerox‘ is searing. “I’m asked if I’m going to play my classics,” he deadpans. “’Course not, you want dubstep remixes don’t you?”, before tearing into the call to arms of ‘Antmusic‘.
But tonight is all about the crowd. Three heavily-set balding punks pass around a bottle of poppers, each eye adorned by a mascara cross; not one is under 50 years old. Another sports the kind of flour-and-water spikes last seen on grainy BBC footage from the 70s. In every direction are serried ranks of middle age, trussed in Napoleonic shirts and tunics, ribbons and hats. They know the words, they know the dance moves, they leap about and sing as lustily as any Regency highwayman. To be among such fans, all so far beyond the all-important 18-35 market segment, dressed to the nines bellowing “RIDICULE IS NOTHING TO BE SCARED OF” is to be humbled, and cheered.
Achieving some degree of fame or notoriety while barely out of their teens, guitarist Viv Albertine, singer Ari Up, bassist Tessa Pollitt and drummer Palmolive forged in The Slits an uncompromising, all-girl punk sound. Refusing to blindly follow punk’s musical memes, debut album ‘Cut’ was infused with Ari’s love of reggae and portrayed the women on the cover as wild, naked and covered in mud – naked defiance towards society and the male-ego-dominated music business. After six years and two albums The Slits split in 1982. Albertine trained in film, made a career for herself as a director, got married, and had a daughter. You know, life stuff.
And then life stuff happened. In interviews Albertine has been fairly candid about how the disintegration of her marriage and re-evaluation of life as a fifty-something fuelled the creative process that produced 2010’s Flesh EP and last year’s debut album The Vermillion Border. “I buried Viv Albertine from The Slits, I absolutely squashed her,” she said last month of her 18-year marriage. But some things cannot be kept down.
Stepping on to great cheers, Albertine is resplendent in a short, sparkly black dress and knee high boots. “Do you like my boots? They’re Biba,” she says. “Can you see them at the back? No of course you can’t, don’t be silly,” she scolds the affirmations from the darkness, to laughs.
Re-learning her skills after twenty-five years, Albertine’s songs are disarming, deeply personal, often brutal and frequently funny. She is utterly without pretention and seems quite at ease on stage, despite decades of absence. Her guitarwork is jangly and ringing, atonal chords played right up at the neck. While she admits that she’s not the best guitarist or singer, her songs bare a compelling honesty.
On ‘Don’t Believe‘, written after the death of her estranged father, she contrasts the indubitable existence of the physical world with the vague promises of love and healing we repeat emptily to ourselves through tired, linguistic clichés: “Time does not heal, time’s not on my side/Time will tell you nothing, and time cannot fly/I believe in glass, I believe in heat/I believe in rust, in aluminium sheets/…but I don’t believe in love.” The rallying cry ‘I Want More’ speaks of both women finding fulfilment away from expectations placed upon them, but also as a gasp of realisation from someone waking up to middle age to find the ground has shifted underneath them. Even when she restarts ‘Life’s Too Short To Be Shy’ twice (because “I can tune my guitar but I can’t tune my voice”) the audience egg her on. “It’s OK, I don’t really care,” she says. “I’m definitely not shy any more.”
She ends on the wonderfully titled ‘Confessions Of A Milf’, a lyrically acid take on marriage (“A man needs a maid, a maid of his own/A maid needs a muse, and a room of her own”) that winds itself up into a mantra of frustration: “Cleaning, shopping, faking, cleaning, shaking, baking, fucking, faking…”
Quavering voice, music and lyrics that are not always easy listening, Viv Albertine 2.0 will not be to everyone’s tastes. But here she is, now 57, responding to life as she knows how, because she wants to, and without giving a fuck what anyone else thinks. Just as she did 35 years ago. And it doesn’t get much more punk that.
Moulettes are the most precision instru-mentalists you’ll find wielding bassoon, autoharp, harmonium, cello, violin, double bass, guitar, glockenspiel and drum. They bring the dark crypt-like confines of the Roundhouse Hub to life with darkly comic tales of love, sex and death – like all good folk music.
Three more disparate artists one could not imagine: multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter James Spankie supported by a string quartet, the self-described “small fat Welshman” Sweet Baboo playing lovely, sardonic songs, and steel-pan drum legend Fimber Bravo, with Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip on keyboards repaying a favour from Fimber’s steel-pan appearances on One Life Stand. I ran out of memory cards in the end and just danced to Fimber’s rhythms. We got him back for an encore and he said “Give yourself a big hand, I’ve never had an encore in 20 years”.
This beast was just left on the pavement outside my hotel, along with piles of other detritus that had been tossed out of a flat that was being gutted. A lot more interesting than old saucepans and mattresses though.
It still seemed in pretty good nick too, complete with ancient 1970s (?) circuit boards inside that looked like some kind of 6th form electronics project to modern eyes. But looking closely revealed this:
So there you have it. I am going to rename this blog, Leslie on Reverb. Actually Bass Swing Bass Walk also has a certain ring to it.
In the same vein as my visit last year to Chernobyl and Pripyat, here is another abandoned part of the world that bears echoes of the past: these eerie photographs show the giant, hulking remnants of the Buran space orbiter project at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, once the crown jewel of the Soviet space program and the world’s most advanced spacecraft; now only thousands of tons of scrap metal.
Buran (Russian: Бура́н, ‘blizzard’) was the Soviet Union’s answer to the US Space Shuttle, which first flew in 1981. Proposed in 1975, it did not take its final shape until 1978, by which time NASA’s project was entering its final stages.
At a glance Buran appears physically similar to the Shuttle — Soviet scientists had come to the same conclusions regarding how to propel a re-usable orbital craft into space using booster rockets, and the laws of physics, then and now, apply equally to all nations. But the project team had taken a different approach – while NASA brought rocket boosters, a central fuel tank and the rocket engines on the Shuttle together as an integral system, the Soviets separated them into Energia, a multipurpose rocket launcher, and Buran, the orbiter.
Energia was to be the USSR’s new booster rocket platform to replace the giant and unwieldy N1 rocket that, while comparable to NASA’s successful Saturn V, suffered major engineering setbacks — four rockets were destroyed during test launches — and was eventually scrapped in 1974 at a cost of 2.5 billion roubles. With the sacking of the scientists leading the N1 team, a new approach was adopted to design a powerful and largely re-usable rocket system that could carry into orbit loads such as satellites or modules for the Mir space station in addition to Buran. Unlike NASA’s design the central Energia rocket could carry its own payload, not just fuel.
Buran, unlike the Space Shuttle, had jet engines like those on an aircraft, not rocket engines, and so was capable of controlled atmospheric flight, while NASA’s design glided down to Earth using only its re-entry speed. With less space taken up by engines and propellant, Buran could also carry more cargo, withstand higher heat intensities during re-entry and, extraordinarily, could even fly un-manned on automatic pilot. A scientist from the Molniya Company, a contractor working on Buran, early on in the project remarked drily on the comparison between the two:
“It is necessary to remember that Buran was created more than five years after the Space Shuttle. It has allowed us to apply more modern methods of designing, materials, manufacturing technologies, test methods, and has enabled our designers to take into account all foreign miscalculations and mistakes.
“Certainly, while over the years the Space Shuttle has had numerous updates, it has a main advantage compared to Buran: it flies.”
The most ambitious Soviet space program of all, between 1975 and 1993 more than one million people, 1,286 companies and 86 government departments were involved on the project at a cost of 16 billion roubles.
The giant distances across which the USSR spanned posed a problem in itself – the Cosmodrome launch site is in Kazakhstan, the Yuzhnoye rocket foundry is in Ukraine, and a great deal of other manufacturing was located around Moscow. The answer they came to was the same as that proposed by NASA: to piggy back Buran and pieces of Energia on to a much larger, stronger aircraft.
The result were two huge aircraft – the first was VM-T, a highly modified transport version of the Myasishchev M-4/’Bison’ 1950s bomber rebuilt to carry loads of 50 tons.
It was ready in time to ferry the Energia rocket stages and Buran itself to Baikonur, while its successor — the even bigger Antanov An-225 Mriya (Ukrainian: Мрія, ‘dream’) — was years later.
The An-225 is the largest aircraft ever built, with a load capacity of 250 tons. While only one was ever made, it is still in service with Ukrainian Anatov Airlines for the kind of cargo lifts that absolutely have to have the biggest plane in the world.
In October 1988 Buran-Energia finally took off for the stars. With the manual control and life support systems not yet finished, the decision was made to carry out the first flight entirely on automatic — a unique and extraordinary feat, which earned Buran a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the first, and until NASA’s Boeing X-37’s maiden flight last year, the only spacecraft to do so. Lift-off and separation from Energia went without a hitch, and Buran orbited the Earth twice for 205 minutes before a practically pixel-perfect landing at Baikonur only a few feet from its designated landing point, without any human intervention. The onboard computer even detected the 40mph crosswinds at the landing strip and made the last minute decision to land from the opposite direction — correctly, but in the process no doubt taking years off the engineers nervously watching.
And what has become of all this technology, billions of roubles and the efforts of the finest technical and scientific minds the Soviet Union produced?
After the breakup of the USSR, the project’s funding evaporated. Baikonur, in Kazakhstan, suffered from the same economic hardships that faced the rest of the disintegrating Union. In 2002, OK-1, the only Buran orbiter to have made a space flight, and its Energia rocket were destroyed when the ill-maintained hanger at Baikonur collapsed, killing seven workmen.
Several mock-ups and test models remain at Baikonur Cosmodrome museum, including one which visitors can clamber inside and sit at the controls. Others that were under construction when the Soviet Union collapsed have been dismantled or unceremoniously dumped, like OK-2, which now sits without wings or tailfin in a carpark in suburban Moscow.
The flight test model OK-GLI, equipped with functioning engines, appeared at several airshows around the world before being sold and brought by boat from Bahrain in 2008 to the Speyer Technik Museum in Germany.
The Energia program ended, but the booster rockets lived on as the Zenit launcher, which performs space launches for commercial customers to this day. The rocket engines, the efficient RD-170 and its derivatives, have become a great Ukrainian export and power Lockheed-Martin’s Atlas V in the US, South Korea’s Naro-1 and the future Russian Angara rocket program.
One of the two remaining VM-T Atlas carriers, complete with Energia cargo module strapped to its back, is being converted into a tourist attraction to transport passengers 60 miles into the atmosphere to experience zero gravity for a few minutes. The first flights are slated for 2012.
Buran’s technology has not gone to waste, even if the hardware has: the techniques used in the heat tiles for Buran are now used to insulate Russian housing. You can even find original tiles on eBay now and again, ‘liberated’ by enterprising and cash-strapped looters.
This month marks 25 years since Challenger, the second NASA Space Shuttle, exploded shortly after take off, killing all seven astronauts onboard. The disaster, and that of the loss of the first shuttle, Columbia, in 2003 threw NASA into a tailspin, with questions asked at the highest levels what the organisation’s huge budgets were for. Questions and criticisms NASA to this day struggles to shake off, and the results of the organisation’s work apparently taking on progressively more military dimensions as a result as budgets are pulled.
It is 50 years ago this year that Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth for the first time, and more than 40 years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon. Yet the high ideals of spaceflight and exploration have foundered. Political will, vision and hard cash generated by the Cold War has given way to navel gazing and the commercialisation of the space programmes, on both sides of the Atlantic.
The NASA Space Shuttle program ends this year, with Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis making their final flights into the heavens in February, April and June respectively. The replacement, Project Constellation, was cancelled by Obama last year, despite his pronouncements on the importance of space. Despite the nascent beginnings of a private spaceflight and space tourism industry, the lack of viable launch vehicles could endanger the International Space Station – the most expensive object ever built at somewhere over $100 billion dollars, and our only manned ‘off-world’ presence.
There have been enormous technological leaps since the 1960s — look at how powerful, cheap and ubiquitous home computers have become, yet the Space Shuttles contain Intel 8086 16-bit processors, decades older than those found in a bog-standard PC, and in fact similar to that used in the original IBM PC.
Apparently neither the will nor the way to project humankind beyond our wet ball of rock three from the sun has kept pace. Despite the resources, the scientific discoveries, and the potential for not life-changing, but species-changing events and knowledge to be found beyond the skies, in a world of ever-increasing costs mired in national, ethnic and political squabbles, the dreams of science fiction seem destined to remain just that.