[Jefito’s Note: His first Idiot’s Guide was a controversial one for many of you — but I loved it, and he wanted to come back for more, so this week, we’ll be taking a look at the recorded output of none other than Adam Ant, courtesy of our good friend Allen at Septenary. To most Americans — the ones with long memories, even — Adam Ant is a two-hit wonder at best, which is exactly why I was so interested in reading Allen’s take on his music. Sit right back and hear the tale of a man who had his band stolen out from under him and lived to sell a few million albums. And then go batty, but better to burn out than fade away, or something:right? —J]
For my 40th birthday my late daughter, Elizabeth, presented me with the bestest of all birthday gifts: The remastered box set of Adam Ant. It is a prized possession of mine and a pleasure for me to now examine the works of one Mr. Stuart Goddard, A.K.A. Adam Ant.
Born out of the ashes of the punk movement of the mid ’70s, art student Stuart Goddard was sufficiently impressed with the doings of the Sex Pistols to go out and start a band of his own. But his approach was less the destruction of rock and roll and more an attempt to join its ranks:on his own terms.
Having already dismantled his first band, “Bazooka Joe,” and rechristened himself with the Ant moniker, Adam and his band were starting to gain popularity in England with a series of herky jerk singles like “Plastic Surgery” and “Deutscher Girls” (download), also featured in the punk film Jubilee. Subsequently, a record deal with Do It was in the offing. The result? The strange and disjointed semi-new wave bizarre album Dirk Wears White Sox.
The opening track, “Cartrouble (parts 1 & 2)” (download), an ode to self gratification and impotence heralds Dirk as an exercise in a new sound emerging from the art rock London underground. There is none of the posing “new romanticism” (which would be Ant’s calling card later) to be found on this album, and many of the songs are difficult, to say the least. When he won back the masters to Dirk, “Cartrouble” would be reconstructed and released as a shorter, more accessible song but, in the process, would lose all of its revolutionary style and substance.
Adam would never be known for subtlety, but he had a serious knack for production. And what he lacked in craft, he made up for in his vocal work. Doubling and overdubbing his own voice would prove to be his signature, as well as a penchant for backing himself with bizarre nonsensical warblings. It is this talent that powers trifles like “Day I Met God” and “Catholic Day.” By themselves they are barely songs, but since experimentation was carrying the day in music (this was a time when Laurie Anderson could not only get a record deal, but score a hit with a ten-minute song) and Adam was a master. The fact that he was backed by some pretty talented blokes, like Matthew Ashman and Dave Barbe, helped as well.
“Never Trust a Man with Egg on His Face” (download) would foreshadow the ominous stylings of “antmusic” and its trippy, Twilight Zone overtones somehow make the nonsense work.
If one can get past the obvious songwriting immaturity in pieces like “Cleopatra” and “Tabletalk” and take them, instead, for the late night post-punk art gallery rock that they really are, Dirk is quite a curio; never for one second showing the pop genius that was just a year away and in no way indicating that Adam was about to take Britain by storm, becoming an international pop idol and fully cemented superstar and fashion icon. Dirk‘s innocence is rendered timeless by it’s creator’s future crossover success.
Kings of the Wild Frontier (1980)
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It isn’t enough to just call Kings one of the most important New Wave albums of the ’80s. Like many of its contemporaries, this album has somehow gotten lost in the MTV Kajagoogoo shuffle. It’s nothing short of a revelation.
After the underground success of Dirk, Adam turned to The Sex Pistols svengali, Malcolm McLaren, for guidance. The new manager did two things to Adam and the Ants that would forever change the musical landscape of the time: First, he introduced Adam to the tribal “Burundi Beat,” swearing it would be the next big thing, the holy grail of musical stylings. Second, he stole Adam’s band. His idea was to drop Adam and front the group with an underage cutie (Anabella Lwin), but he would let Adam keep the name. From then on it was a race between a bandless Adam and Malcolm’s new group, now known as Bow Wow Wow.
Rather than let the fact that he was, effectively, kicked out of his own band deter him, Adam sought out an acquaintance, a gifted local guitarist named Marco Pirroni. The two of them cobbled together a band, using the ideas that McLaren put in Adam’s head about rhythm and beats, then scored not one, but two drummers in the process and, on the strength of singles and the previous record, scored a deal and proceeded to take the world by its antennae.
From the opening dual drum attack of “Dog Eat Dog” (download) it is apparent that this is something different. Describing his music as “Ant Music for Sex People” and dressing up as pirates, Adam offered one hypnotic rock and rhythm track after another. “Antmusic” heralds their arrival (genius and ballsy to write a song ABOUT what kind of music they play, I would say), “Feed Me to the Lions” drives issues of abandonment home, and just when you think you have a handle on things, “Los Rancheros” turns everything on its ear, running spaghetti western motifs through the punk/art school taffy machine.
This is an album replete with themes of desolation, not just in lyrical content, but, musically as well. “Ant Invasion” is a stark horror show. “Killer in the Home” is as paranoid as it is dramatic. “Kings of the Wild Frontier” (download), an unlikely hit single, is another announcement of the band’s arrival, as is “The Magnificent Five,” proclaiming that “long ago in London town, a man called Ant sat deeply sighing:he was wondering what side of the fence he was on:prick up your ears” (thank you, Mr. Orton).
Sprinkle a little disco and a smattering of pirate chanting, and Kings of the Wild Frontier is one of the most listenable curios in the rock canon.
Prince Charming (1981)
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Adam was one of the first to realize the power of the video medium for rock. Even Michael Jackson took cues from him (note the brocade jacket, something Adam stole from Hendrix, who was much less concerned about presentation and probably just thought it was cool; legend has it Jackson spoke to Adam and inquired as to where Ant got it). So, on Prince Charming the Ants took on their next incarnation — buccaneer dandies.
As wildly reviled as it was popular at the time, this is the album that started Adam’s true ascent to pop idoldom. The hit singles “Stand and Deliver” and “Prince Charming” were all over MTV and flying up the British charts. Another hit, “Ant Rap” (download) would be, along with Blondie’s “Rapture,” the first rap crossover to the mainstream, easily a half decade ahead of its time (French lyrics notwithstanding). I think it’s important to note that Adam’s rap entrÃ©e has all the requisite bravado and ego and, for some reason, it works. Or, at least, I enjoy it.
But this album, while calculated to capitalize on “Antmania,” which was talking over the UK, was not without its forays into the bizarre. The opening track, “Scorpios” (download), is, arguably, the best track on the album and something of a divergence. The tribal rhythms are counter-measured by a horn section sending the listener into the realm of glam. It also contains one of my personal favorite breakdowns — check it out at 2:29. “Pablo Picasso Visitos Los Planetos De Los Simios” may be the worst-titled song in history, but it isn’t without its charm.
Adam’s obsessions with all things 19th century and sexual charge pieces like “Mowhok,” “S.E.X,” “Five Guns West,” and “Mile High Club,” and while they aren’t great, they fit in and aren’t an annoyance:just weird. However, they aren’t as inspired as anything on the previous album and suggest a change in direction might be needed to keep audiences interested.
Adam was about to do just that.
BONUS DOWNLOAD: “Beat My Guest” (download). The b-side to “Stand and Deliver” has become a better-known Adam song over the years, having been covered by the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Epoxies as well as being available as a T-Mobile ringtone.
Friend or Foe (1982)
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Jettisoning the Ants (save for Pirroni), Adam Ant became a full-on solo act in 1982. Pulling back the artsy-fartsy songwriting he (along with Marco) landed in America with his first bona fide chart-topping hit. “Goody Two Shoes” could be called the first New Wave song to break the form wide open, and, in a way, that would be true, but it’s really nothing more than a great, hip swiveling, rockabilly tune, infused with as much teeny bop sex as Adam could get away with. The formula worked, and it would propel him into the stratosphere.
FoF is pure pop confection. Chewy bubblegum if I ever heard it. Adam and Marco have taken everything they learned over the past three albums, dumped out the fat, increased the horns, magnified the ego, revved up the 1-4-5 and the result is the most accessible, commercial work they would ever turn in.
The double drumming signature sound is given a makeover on the title track (download), which also continues the exploration of a brass section. The ominous terror of “Ant Invasion” has reformed itself as “Desperate But Not Serous”; Adam is perfectly comfortable singing about himself as he “wants those who get to know me, to become admirers or my enemies” and the theme of what it’s like to be Adam Ant is all over the Friend or Foe album. But who cares? He’s having too much fun.
Calling attention to his sexual prowess or his taste in women (“Something Girls”) seems natural. And the pining for a simple life in “Place in the Country” is, to me, the true heart of the album. It’s where all the ideas coalesce and are cohesive — “Antmusic” at its most malleable and frothy best. Friend or Foe is, in some ways a confessional album but it isn’t sickly; the only downside is what makes it truly a sign of the ’80s times; the songs have no idea that they are over (or that we are growing weary of them) as they repeat their choruses ad nauseam until their inevitable end.
There is a lot to love on Friend or Foe and only a very little to hate. The cover of the Doors’ “Hello, I Love You” is not only dreadful, it’s embarrassing to Morrison as well as to Ant. And there is a big, pointless instrumental piece called “Man Called Marco” that features, of course, Mr. Pirroni and his guitar. But for each of those, there are two neat little numbers, like “Try this For Sighs” (download):oh so subtle, Mr. Ant.
Friend or Foe is a near forgotten piece of pop-culture fluff that remains enjoyable to this day.
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With all of his vocal gymnastics, I’ve often wondered what it would be like if Adam were produced by different people. If his music was wrung through someone else’s taffy machine. Would he sound better, worse? Would they add or detract? I started to get my wish on Strip, and it wasn’t all that pleasing.
Starting with the come-hither in the hay photo on the cover, (a play on a Jean Harlow movie poster) it’s pretty much downhill. Adam is overt about who his target audience is now and he was going to leave the boys behind. Too bad. Once you lose those fans, it’s so hard to get them back.
Where was I? Oh, yes, production. Strip is the album where Adam attempted to go mainstream in a big way and, in doing so, hired Phil Collins to produce the singles. On the one hand, this makes a lot of sense, Collins being a drummer and all. On the other, it makes even more sense, since who was a bigger hitmaker in the early ’80s?
Does it work? The title track (download) is catchy, yes. And its string arrangement is:interesting. But what becomes immediately apparent through Collins’ minimalist production is that bringing Adam’s voice so far to the front is not necessarily a good thing. Richard Burgess takes over production chores for the rest of the side and keeps up, save for the opening track on Side Two. Collins’ second single, “Puss in Boots,” is the other good song on the album. Burgess’ job is just to try to maintain the theme that Collins has laid out, and it’s a pretty banal one.
To me, Strip plays like a dopey East End musical production whose central theme wants to be sex. However, the sexual protagonist is just a poser, someone who has had a lot of sex, but has never connected to anyone, so he can’t really describe what it’s all about. Truly atrocious songs like “Baby, Let me Scream at You,” “Libertine,” and “Vanity” fill up Side One, and only “Spanish Games” hearkens back to the fun theme-filled days of yore. It’s a struggle to get through the pseudo-disco, and it leaves one wondering just what happened in less than three years to take us from Kings, which had such teeth, to this impotent album?
After “Puss,” there just seems very little reason to keep going at all. I’ve often tried to enjoy “Navel to Neck” (download), but that’s just because of the groove that almost sounds like the old Antmusic struggling to be heard — quashed, of course, by Adam’s ego.
Tony Visconti takes the reins on Adam’s first album after a two-year hiatus. So what did Bowie’s old dial-turner do for our struggling Ant? Just the opposite of Collins and Burgess. Employing an almost “wall of sound” construct, Adam is all over this album, just close enough to be heard, but far enough away to be more of an instrument than a vocalist. I think the AMG put it best when they said that Adam is rendered anonymous on his own album; I couldn’t really put it any better.
I have always been partial to the title track (download), and while Adam is knee-deep in the post-apocalyptic exploding drum sound, this album, which is supposed to be about the LIFE of rock, is almost lifeless. Plodding, albeit determined.
This is Adam’s most aggressive offering since Kings, and it almost succeeds. Playful tunes like “Rip Down” and “Razor Keen” almost redeem him after Strip. And there’s even a hint of danger in the likes of “Scorpio Rising” (Adam has now clocked in with two tracks titled after the Scorpio sign of the zodiac), but the teeth are without venom and it’s rather tedious.
Side Two has more energy. “Apollo 9” was something of a dance hit, and “Hell’s Eight Acres” (download) suggest a return to the dirty but accessible rockabilly of the “Goody Two Shoes” days. “Mohair Locker Room Pinup Boys” and “No Zap” (download) follow and, believe it or not, one might find one’s self wishing for more.
It would take five years to get it.
Manners & Physique (1990)
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Adam disappeared into the sieve of Hollywood and tried to become a star, trading off his fame and good looks — but the closest he came was Billy Crystal’s impersonation of him on SNL.
One day, I was co-DJing a bar mitzvah. The other DJ asked me to get “Room at the Top,” by Adam Ant, out of his bag of just-released junk.
“What? Who? Huh?”
Yep, all the 13-year-olds in 1990 wanted to get their groove on to Adam Ant. At first, I thought these kids:they have no idea who Adam is, who he was, what he meant, scratch that, means to me and the whole history of:
Then “Room at the Top” (download) came on. An infectious little dance tune, it sounded absolutely nothing like Adam. And, for all intents and purposes, it may as well not be. Produced and co-written by Prince disciple Andre Cymone, Manners and Physique is as anonymous an album as Ant has ever made. “Rough Stuff” (download) has Adam almost sounding like the old pirate we knew, but by now he’s really just making sounds on plastic. The title track, “Bright Lights, Black Leather” and “Picadilly” are vapid. “If you Keep on” and “Can’t Set Rules About Love” (download) sound like Adam was:oh, I can’t. It isn’t horrible. It’s just:crap.
So the record company wouldn’t release Adam’s next album. At least that’s the story. But instead of having the muscle to buy back his recordings, the way he’d pushed around Do It Records over a decade earlier, Persuasion stayed in the vaults. Nary a track can be found on the (fantastic) three-disc AntBox. And it’s for good reason.
We won’t go into too much detail here, except to say that the success of “Room at the Top” must have inspired Adam to try to capture lightning twice. It didn’t happen. I will say, I don’t hate the title track (download) — in fact, I prefer it to just about anything on Manners — but it’s a cold and calculated piece of clubhopping pseudo-dance music.
The whole album is just a mess; it’s no wonder it wasn’t released. With tracks like “Charge of the Heavy Brigade” (download), the world was better off without it.
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Adam closed the door on his musical career (and his sanity, apparently) in the mid ’90s. Now fancying himself a singer/songwriter, Ant released Wonderful as a sort of melancholy coda. As with most of his albums, the title track isn’t half bad. And once again, my childhood hero surprised me. At the time it was released I was hosting a daytime talk radio show; during the news breaks, I would switch to the FM easy listening sister station, and dammit if Adam Ant wasn’t back with a Top 40 hit!
“Wonderful” (download) is, in many ways, Adam’s best song in years. It is easily his only song you could bust out at a campfire and sing with pride (can you imagine pulling out the old Takamine and serenading a girl with “Ant Invasion” by the crashing tides?). Of course, this is the first time that Adam was really pouring his soul into his work and trying to be understood, and not just writing songs to try to sell them or his image. “Wonderful” works. (I especially like how his voice goes high when he says it’s “too deep, I can’t get under it.”)
The haunting “Beautiful Dream” (download) is a good indication of what Strip should have sounded like, but it’s really a few years too late.
I grew up loving Adam Ant. I saw him twice in concert. Once at the Capital Theater in Passaic, NJ, on the Prince Charming tour, and once at Radio City Music Hall for the Strip Tour. Kings of the Wild Frontier was one of the most important albums of my youth.
Flash to a few years ago. I’m at LAX. Baggage claim. Striking up a conversation with a professor from Dartmouth about how we are on the verge of an American epoch (his words, not mine). Out of nowhere this English bloke in a cape(!) and big, goofy wide-brimmed hat starts screaming about his lost luggage. (Well, it hadn’t been lost yet, but he was sure that it would be and he would hold them all accountable!) He was on a tirade and, after awhile, was led away to some safe (we hope) room.
The professor looked at me and said, “Do you know who that is?”
“Oh, god.” I replied.
“That was Adam Ant,” he said.
And we both just stared at my hero as he screamed and shouted at anything within earshot.
With that, I need to consider what to leave you for some bonuses.
What would an Adam and the Ants compendium be without their greatest single, the popular flexidisc reworking of “YMCA”: “A.N.T.S” (download) (and yes, I had it on flexidisc:thank you, Trouser Press)? And, of course, the great single from the early days, “Zerox” (download).
Adam Ant. The Dandy Highwayman.