THE WORLD'S FORGOTTEN BOY
"I remember one time in Middlesbrough. The skins were throwing sharpened up 50ps and kung fu stars, so I said, tactfully: 'If they dropped an atomic bomb on this town it would do £5 worth of damage. I've travelled all over England, I've seen every skinhead in the country and you, standing at the back, you've got the ugliest girlfriend around'. And then this big riot broke out."
Richard Cabut interviews Kevin Mooney about the punk days, Adam & The Ants and his current project, Lavender Pill Mob.
COPYRIGHT © 2004, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Musician Kevin Mooney's talking about his old bands -- Adam and the Ants, for whom he played bass; cool, cult outfit Max and his new underground rockers collective Lavender Pill Mob. He's feeding me these tossed together random images, with nerve endings feedback black: evocation with the aid of evostikschtick, gluing and pounding together all the parts that add up to the big bad whole -- where Kevin, seemingly the world's forgotten boy, can twirl around his head a luminous bar of light and hit shadows reflected in no other's face. Like a shooting star.
Mooney's always been about rapid transits. From A to B but fast so that the edges are blurred with the type of charisma that only sustains itself at miles per hour. And home is really some downtown bar full of B-boys, prostitutes, punks, dykes and other outlaws from justice and bad luck. That place is damned for good with crosswire barriers that burn and hum. A neon wilderness full of coiled heretic visions and supra-beatnik dreams. There, the finger is firmly on the fast forward button of desire and disaster while chatting about, for instance, Imaginist poet Sergei Esenin, death and lost love that screams silent like a supersonic whistle. It's better than jerking at the flailing of useless dreams and tensely contorted musculature as the disempowered drop sheer down into the void, expressions not even set with violent shock.
Meanwhile, a flow of verse comes via a drunken dandy who is ready with tongue and fists, like some tainted Arthur Rimbaud. And when the poetry and atmosphere merge, the result is something akin to a dazzling crime ("I'd rather steal antiques for a living than get a proper job"). Like a twisted, ruined rock'n'roll story.
"It all started in a great place in North Road, Islington, London, where I lived in an old bus depot," says Mooney. "I was going out with Eve, who happened to be the wife of Adam Ant. It's written up in all the Ants histories, but it's true: I was sitting around the depot plonking Glen Matlock's bass line from 'No Lip', and was spotted by a visiting Adam, who recruited me for the Ants. Six months later, we were No 1 in the charts."
At this time, the Ants were making the transition from prime bondage punk to pantomime. At first, Mooney revelled in the spotlight, and was even used by Adam as something of a barbarous deterrent, threatening skinheads with: "Don't mess, Kevin means business". And of course Mooney, who had something of a hothead rep, did mean business. "I remember one time in Middlesbrough," he says. "The skins were throwing sharpened up 50ps and kung fu stars, so I said, tactfully: 'If they dropped an atomic bomb on this town it would do £5 worth of damage. I've travelled all over England, I've seen every skinhead in the country and you, standing at the back, you've got the ugliest girlfriend around'. And then this big riot broke out."
Clearly, Kevin was enjoying himself, but for an inveterate punk such as himself (a pic of the young Mooney at the Pistols boat trip can be seen in Chris Sullivan's Punk book) the popishness soon palled. He says: "All the punk rockers were stoning us -- we used to turn up to gigs and all our ex-fans were stoning us, killing us, and I kinda felt that way myself. I wanted to stone me, too. Yeah, throw a few more. Get some Molotov cocktails out there. Kill us all."
The final straw in the quickly deteriorating Adam/Mooney relationship was a ruckus caused by the bassist while performing in front of the Queen at a Royal Variety Performance. "I was out of the band, but I didn't do too badly out of it," he says. "No royalties but I got a good pay off, which wasn't bad for 2 years work. When I first worked with Adam, I looked up to him like a brother, I really did admire him. He's got a certain way of doing things which I was happy to go along with... for a certain amount of time."
There followed the inspirational junk funk outfit Wide Boy Awake, formed with school pal John Keogh, and managed by Mooney's then wife Jordan. In fact, Kevin's relationship with the Sex/Seditionaries saleswoman and punk rock muse contributed to his exit from the Ants. "It caused problems," says Kevin. "Adam and Jordan were very close, but weren't sleeping together. Then I came along to upset the dynamic. I spoke to Jordan the other day, she's a lovely woman -- I still do love her." Strangely, Mooney's marriage to Jordan ended after he killed her cat. "This is really sick," he reveals. "It's something I 'm ashamed of -- I murdered her cat, but didn't mean to do it. However, if there's a hell, I'll go to it for that." Wracked with pangs of Dostoevskian proportions, he remembers: "I kicked it. I woke up in the morning really sick. Very, very ill and it had done a shit on my pillow. That's how Jordan and I ended. She is a wonderful person. She loves animals more than humans." These days, of course, Jordan works as a veterinary nurse and breeds cats in Brighton. Wide Boy Awake dressed, first in Westwood togs, and then in cool camouflage, cut a dash with a, well, insomniac insouciance, pacing the streets with a careless gait, looking for love and trouble, keeping on the move and living intensely. They made three records that moved -- Billy Hyena, Chicken Outlaw and Bona Venture -- and a video with Derek Jarman before splitting. Interestingly, the cover of Chicken Outlaw features the band going about their glamorous business, aided by the fat lines of heroin conspicuously laid out on a mirror. Here were a bunch of guys unashamed of their pharmaceutical preferences.
Mooney created the first incarnation of his next band Max in the mid-80s. They talked about artificial intelligences and using computers to make art and create possibilities on an up-to-date Billy the Kid tip before anyone had heard of William Gibson. Live, they existed in an amusement arcade, all crashes and whirs; a great luminosity where it was all electric.
By this time, Mooney had found a new partner in Leslie Weiner, a Vogue model, radical and intellectual, who had worked with William Burroughs in the Bunker. "In 1983, Leslie had all the technology -- a Texas Instruments computer, which was shit by today's standards, but a revelation back then," Kevin remembers. "We put words into it, thousands and thousands of words -- it took about a month, and then we got the computer to chop 'em up with a totally random programme, and it came up with some magical stuff, better than we could ever have done." Max signed to Chrysalis and made an LP with Marco Pirroni on guitar which, for one reason or another, wasn't released -- one of the great lost records of our time. The single "Little Ghost", which did see the light of day, remains a bright treasure trove and an indication of promise unfulfilled.
Life at this time was being lived at high speed, with peddle to the metal. Mooney, Weiner and co were at the centre of the avant-garde arts'n'drugs scene based at London's infamous Taboo Club. Situated in Leicester Square and run by the late Leigh Bowery, Taboo was home to a bunch of provocative eccentrics following their own mad logic while out of their heads on a cocktail of highly dangerous drugs. Mooney and Weiner lived with doomed artist Trojan, a leading Taboo figure, who half-sliced his ear off as an artistic act and later died of a drugs overdose. "Trojan's art was quite clever," says Kevin. "I remember him telling me that the concept behind everything he did was based around either fucking or fighting: the primal urges." Other Taboo characters, driven and disordered, teetering tween drunkenness and mania, included Big Bird, Princess Julia, Mark Vaultier and John Herlihy -- many of whom are no longer with us. A somewhat peripheral character was Boy George, who has made a killing from it all with his diluted theatrical version of the decadent Taboo underground. "I'm glad for Boy George that he's done a little play, Taboo, but the truth is, Lee Bowery didn't even like George, they weren't even friends," says Mooney. "I find it scary that Boy George can take Lee, his look, and create a pastiche of what was part of the counter culture. It's a dull and shallow thing to do. I had a great time at Taboo," Kevin concludes, "I remember Leigh saying to me: 'You've got carte blanche in this club, you can do whatever you like.' That idea, the attitude of freedom, that's what it was all about."
At a recording session for Sinead O'Connor (Mooney wrote and played guitar on "Just Call Me Joe" on O'Connor's Lion and the Cobra LP), Kevin met drummer John Reynolds and formed another incarnation of Max. A performance at the Camden Underworld saw Mooney as Joe Orton's Mr Sloane, all leathers, white T-shirt and swooping big rock music. An LP was made with an all-star cast and Trevor Horn at the controls. This was a mistake. By the time the LP was released, yet another Max line-up had been formed -- this time for real -- with the welcome return of John Keogh, plus ex-Bow Wow Wow and Chiefs of Relief guitarist Matthew Ashman. The Horn WEA/Red Dot LP Silence Running was put out against everyone's wishes. "We took the money and Trevor Horn had fun in the studio," says Mooney. "But that's not our album -- we would never have released that. It's his album, not ours."
The two Max entities, the real one and the one represented on the album, illustrated the difference tween recklessness and risklessness. Without Horn, Max had blood, bones and bowels, a deep rooted craving to escape normal limitations, full of hurricanes and emotional shocks, strengthened with a vocabulary naturally heightened as well as toughened by poetic suss. Yet, even the LP offers an occasional peek at the extraordinary: noise and theatrics mount to sub-rabble rousing climaxes filled with little sparks of beauty, sincerity and tawdry blazes of showroom spectacularity. It is almost heroic, but ultimately, a rogue is worth a 100 heroes.
Around this time, in the early 90s, Mooney was holed up with John Keogh in flat on Elephant and Castle's brutalist Aylesbury Estate. I remember turning up one night when the place had just been been robbed, ransacked and graffiti-ed. To escape the glum chaos, I accompanied Mooney across London on his regular trip to buy heroin on the similarly depressing White City Estate -- a hurried scurry to scenes of despair and violence. We're talking bleak world here, a vast cold space.
"With Wide Boy Awake in the 80s, we were the original Elephant and Castle scag crew," says Mooney. But by the 90s, the lifestyle was crashing down around his ears. Trojan, Bowery, Vaultier and Herlihy were dead, and band members John Keogh and Matthew Ashman were soon to die of drugs-related causes. Mooney, meanwhile, lost the thread of the track of his life. "Max was finished," he says. "Everyone died, basically. And people like Sinead O'Connor had had enough of being around it all. Warner Bros had more than enough of me, they weren't making any money, and they chucked us off the label. I pissed off to Miami, to Leslie, from whom I had earlier split, and started living in America. I had a little bit of money left from Warner Bros, and became a beach bum. I stopped taking drugs and sunbathed on the beach. I stayed there for about a year and got it all out of my system. I started treating myself a little better. Coming off was quite easy really -- you can't keep going through the same door over and over again. I cold turkeyed in 95° heat, instead of grey old London. It was possible for me to start a new life, and I don't miss heroin at all. I'm an advocate for marijuana -- I like a spliff and a nice cold beer -- and that's it. All the glory I once associated with Sid Vicious is straight down the crapper. That's not where my head is at. When I was a kid, my heroes were Lenny Bruce and William S Burroughs, so I suppose I was predestined to walk that road."
In 1993, Kevin started working with Leslie, who had released the cult classic LP C, and was more recently heard on a TV advert after contributing vocals to Mekon's "Calm Gunshot" single. They signed a deal with Geffen and later Virgin France, but nothing was ever released. "It's the story of my life," says Kevin. "I've been on so many labels, CBS, RCA, Chrysalis, ZTT, Warners, Red Dot, Geffen, Virgin France, and hardly had anything put out. What is more, you can't put a record out on a major label without them changing it. Which is why I'm kinda glad to be living in the period of the death of all major labels. I would rather have Napster than BMG any day. I would rather have people hear the music than have the A&R guys, and the executives have their way. As soon as these corporate record assholes choke on their beluga caviar, the better I'll feel."
The final straw in America came via a dispute with Virgin France. "It was a really small deal -- $7,000 -- but they made a mistake and sent us $70,000. We kept the whole fucking lot and had a great time until Virgin France sued us. They shut down our house in Boston, which we'd taken a mortgage out on, and took everything away -- it all went very bad. Ironically, the guy at Virgin France was later given the boot himself for embezzlement." Mooney split from Weiner once more, and a nadir was reached when he was slung in an American jail for a few days after trying to retrieve a recording studio from Weiner's house. A return to England beckoned.
We're sitting in the Yacht, a pub on the Greenwich riverside, to which south Londoner Kevin was taken as a youngster by his grandfather. "What's happening now with the Lavender Pill Mob is the best thing Mooney's done -- he just doesn't know it yet," says Gary Ainsworth, Kevin's Pill Mob partner and former member of the dubtastic Renegade Soundwave. "I've know Gary since 1977, when we did a gig together at the Nagasaki Ballroom," says Kevin. "He was in Rema Rema, I was in the European Cowards, and we've only had one argument in all these years -- when he brought a murderer round to my house. We haven't fallen out yet, which bodes for a working relationship, we can get stuff done. When I returned from the States, I bumped into Gary and, not only did we form the Lavender Pill Mob, but started a label, Le Coq Musique, on which was released the first, eponymous Pill Mob CD."
"It's the most complete album nobody's heard," says Ainsworth of the trippy, coiled affair which sounds like it's filled with hot cinders -- dehydrated, motionless, hallucinating beneath the surface: shocked, buckled but alive. "With Le Coq Musique, we want to get younger people involved," says Kevin. "We wanna use our punk rock experience to help out others." To this end, the Pill Mob album includes contributions from Japanese toasters the Tokyo Monsters, glitterati faves Zoltar the Magnificent (Dan Macmillan and former Ants maniac Barnsley) as well as a track featuring none other than Rammellzee, the madcap genius who, along with K Rob, produced perhaps the definitive B-boy track in 1981's "Beat Bop", produced by late artist Jean Michel Basquiat, who also designed the sleeve. You can't get much cooler than that. "If I came across a new Rammellzee track, I'd want to talk about it," complains Ainsworth. "But no one does."
The LP doesn't have the benefit of a major label promotional budget, but the band have friends who help spread the word. Meanwhile, the next Pill Mob offering, Mike's Bikes, will include a song from none other than Mooney's old mucker Adam Ant, who chose to sing a version of the Wide Boy Awake single "Chicken Outlaw". "Which is strange," says Mooney, "Cause that song was about him. When I left the Ants, I said to Adam, as a parting shot, 'You're not an outlaw -- you're a chicken outlaw.' But that's the track he wanted to do, and he did a better version than Wide Boy. When I left the Ants, I hated him, but, when I bumped into him again at a pub in Primrose Hill, it was, 'Hello, brother!' Time changes things and it heals. I was a defector from the Ants camp, but through the prism of time, I really appreciate it."
"I don't think he's crazy, but someone might," says Kevin regarding Adam's much publicised fight for sanity. "He's no more crazy than anyone else as far as I'm concerned. We all need a bit of help occasionally. Adam's got his problems and he's dealing with them, sorting them out himself."
However, Kevin's rapprochement with Adam has led to a rift with another old cohort, Rema Rema, Ants and Max guitarist Marco. "Adam recorded some stuff for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund -- "Stranded in the Jungle", "Monkey Man" by Toots and the Maytals, the main one being "Save the Gorilla" ("Stand and Deliver"). But guess what fucking happened. The Men, the People, grabbed Adam for whatever reason and put him away. As soon as he was gone, Marco blocked the whole thing for copyright reasons and I'm pissed off with Marco for that. That was wrong. It was kicking someone when they're down -- an uncharitable act."
Mike's Bikes will probably be available only on download from the band's site, which is already giving away 6 or 7 free tracks. Despite the presence of Adam Ant, the band are, as Kevin drunkenly says, "Making records for queens, not the Queen."
So Mooney, hipster, solipsistic, subterranean, committed to creating music with a new nervous system in which ordinary wiring is omitted, continues to dream the dream, of how youth and culture is good but the idea of survival is better -- immediate and forceful and the stuff of everyday. It's meta-punk really, the next stage after listening to the records and seeing the gigs, where on the way home via the cloakroom, the old Surrealist text impacts: "There are no more coats, no more homes." So, here's to friends of the underground: a dose of alchemy, golden; a fugitive vision into space, the one between words and music where there are only pretty funny shapes stretching out. Flailing the wires, gold, except this serpent shines without glittering in the eye of a tuneless moon, strung out on lazers and climbing the chimney stacks along those paths which lead to here and now. Where the world's forgotten boy can twirl around his head the luminous bar of light and hit shadows reflected in no other's face. Like a shooting star.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Cabut has written for a bunch of papers, etc: The Guardian, Time Out, the BBC, the NME. Pen names include Richard North. He played in the punk rock group Brigandage, and published the famous fanzine Kick. He writes fiction, cycles around London and takes pictures.