Adam Ant‘s alright in my book. Those barmy, height-of-fame singles still stand and deliver today, because his meta chrouses rocked a fierce joie de vivre – “unlock the jukebox and do yourself a favour/that music’s lost its taste, so try another flavour” reads like a tagline for iPod Nation’s ADD-afflicted listening habits – and he had the good sense to dress like a pirate just in case you thought he was serious.
The British strain of Adam Ant delerium never made it across the ocean (eight top five UK singles over three years; nary a top 10 in America), which renders his appearance on NBC’s Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever special a genuine WTF moment.
Motown’s biggest acts – most of whom were deserters by 1983 – had buried hatchets and sore feelings to gather for the quadranscentennial of one of America’s greatest entertainment industry successes, the indefatiguable assembly line of brilliant soul pop as familiarized by the likes of The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and The Jackson Five. Motown 25′s really remembered for one performance, of course – Michael Jackson’s astonishing “Billie Jean” routine – symbolized by a pair of two-and-a-half-second-long moonwalks (they were that short?) into the firmament. Jackson rang the changes for music’s cultural relevancy at a time when MTV and Top 40 radio were still denying Black artists their due. Motown 25 thus has cachet, babe.
But on the lame side of the ledger, consider the headscratching addition of Adam Ant to the itinerary. Ant wasn’t ever on the Motown roster. He hadn’t any Motown covers in his repertoire. He was there, in NBC’s wisdom, to ensnare young white viewers, a safety booking to impart a hipness quotient Motown’s middle-aged vets supposedly lacked. Never mind Michael; Adam’ll draw ’em in! (Click on Adam’s scissor kick to enjoy the show.)
There’s a refrain to Adam’s “Prince Charming” single that probably came in handy during his one big shot at the American mainstream: “ridicule is nothing to be scared of.” I hope he retained that during these three painful minutes.
Adam sang the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go?” Poorly. Over a burbling, declawed, showbizzy backing tape, Ant quickly wore himself out with a series of Karate Kid-styled scissor kicks and sashays, before a black tie audience who’d clearly never tried his flavour of Antmusic. This is what they call “drowning,” okay?
Oh, but then Diana Ross crashed the stage.
Di was on edge all night, backstories (such as Nelson George’s Motown history Where Did Our Love Go?) reveal. Kept a regal distance from everyone backstage. Shoved fellow Supreme Mary Wilson during the confused show finale, a widely reported incident edited out of the May 16, 1983 broadcast. And here, possibly threatened by Ant’s desecration of her song, possibly high – possibly both – she materialized at stage right, bumping and grinding to the lifeless backing track. Upstaging is a showbiz no-no, and this was a crummy move. To his credit, Adam adjusted and managed a quick, simulated dirty dance before Di trotted off to the wings. You can almost hear her chalky cackle. The audience, no wiser at the time, loved the bit of upstaging because it probably hinted they’d sing the song out together.
This didn’t kill Adam Ant’s career. His star was already on the wane in England – not so much he didn’t get an invite to play Live Aid, though – and he managed top 40 American singles in ’85 and ’90. But NBC’s strange booking decision nonetheless created a genuine new wave WTF moment.