Obituary: Matthew Ashman

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The Independent Online
American punk bands like Offspring, Green Day and Rancid are at present cleaning up all over the world with a sound (selling millions of records) very similar to what British acts were producing in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Matthew Ashman, the former Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow guitarist, who died aged 35 after being admitted to hospital with complications arising from diabetes, was one of the characters involved in the post-punk scene which spawned groups like Siouxsie and the Banshees and Culture Club. To this day, his distinctive Mohican hairstyle (no doubt influenced by Robert De Niro's look in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, 1976) is imitated by wannabe punk rockers the world over.

Born in 1960 in Mill Hill, north London, Ashman picked up his first guitar while still at school. In 1978, he got his break when joining the second line-up of Adam and the Ants. With the flamboyant Adam (ne Stuart Goddard) at the helm, the group had just appeared in Derek Jarman's punk movie Jubilee (1978) and was a regular on the John Peel show on Radio 1. However, the sado-masochistic subject matter of some of their material - titles like "Physical", "Ligotage" and "Whip in My Valise" were more the norm than the exception - had made big labels wary of signing the band.

Decca took a chance on the gimmicky "Young Parisians", which flopped, but word of mouth and constant touring soon propelled the "Zerox" single and Dirk Wears White Sox album (released on the small Do It label) to the top of the newly established independent charts.

By January 1980, Malcolm McLaren was managing Adam and the Ants, who seemed poised to break big. However, the former Sex Pistols svengali had other plans. He convinced the Ants (who by then comprised Matthew Ashman on guitar, Leigh Gorman on bass and Dave Barbarossa on drums) to split from Adam and form the nucleus of a new band fronted by the 15-year-old Annabella Lewin, a Burmese vocalist he had supposedly discovered in a launderette. Strangely enough, the three jumped ship and, while Adam and yet another bunch of Ants went on to big chart success ("Kings of the Wild Frontier", "Dog Eat Dog", "Antmusic", "Stand and Deliver" and "Prince Charming" were just around the corner), Matthew, Leigh, Dave and Annabella struggled to find their own identity under McLaren.

The impresario saw Bow Wow Wow, as they were by then called, as his Sex Pistols for the Eighties. The fashion designer Vivienne Westwood used them to introduce the pirate look while Jamie Reid, who had created most of the Sex Pistols artwork, worked on the sleeves and logos. Having got the usual large advance from EMI, McLaren helped the group write "C30, C60, C90 Go" (simultaneously released as a cassette single and a seven- inch 45, a first in Britain), which extolled the virtues of home taping to an infectious tribal beat. Back then, the slogan "Home Taping is Killing Music" was a regular feature of many a company's letterhead. The big wigs at EMI were not amused, especially when Bow Wow Wow put out as a follow-up, Your Cassette Pet featuring risque songs like "Uomo-Sex-Al Apache" and "Sexy Eiffel Towers".

In a series of events duplicating the Sex Pistols' moves from EMI to A&M and then Virgin (as depicted in Julian Temple's movie The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, 1979), Bow Wow Wow got a free transfer to RCA. The sleeve of the band's debut album (simply entitled See Jungle! Join Your Gang Yeah, City All Over! Go Ape Crazy!) for their new label featured the three musicians sitting around a naked Lewin in homage to Manet's Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe. On a tide of press hype, "Go Wild in the Country" reached the Top 10 in January 1982.

An inspired reworking of the Strangeloves' "I Want Candy", featuring Ashman's incisive guitar playing, followed it in the charts but McLaren was still tinkering with the formula: following Ashman's suggestion, the impresario got George O'Dowd to appear on-stage with Bow Wow Wow as Lieutenant Lush before he became Boy George. Following "When the Going Gets Tough the Tough Get Going" (masterminded by the Blondie producer Mike Chapman) in 1983, McLaren lost interest in the group and started to plot his own solo career later scoring hits with "Buffalo Gals", "Double Dutch" and "Madam Butterfly").

Annabella opted to go her own way while her three former associates launched Chiefs of Relief with Duncan Greig on keyboards. Ashman was one of the vocalists heading various incarnations of this band which at one point included the former Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook.

In the late Eighties, Ashman became a session guitarist (he played with Oui 3 and Transvision Vamp's Wendy James) and then started his own project called Agent Provocateur. After two singles on their own Wall of Sound label, the group had recently started to work on their debut album for Epic Records with the Black Grape producer Danny Sabre (they intend to use the guitarist's contributions to their demos for the eventual release next year).

Matthew Ashman's re- emergence as a musical talent would have coincided with the present upsurge of interest in the British scene of the early Eighties.

Pierre Perrone

Matthew Ashman, guitarist, singer, songwriter: born London 1960; died London 21 November 1995.