How Adam Ant made the ’80s his bitch

How Adam Ant made the ’80s his bitch

“Hurl defiance at the stars / Futurist manifesto!” Adam Ant chants over a jittery, jazzy beat in “Animals And Men.” It’s a song from Dirk Wears White Sox, the 1979 debut album by his band Adam And The Ants. It’s also the most grandiose statement of intent he’s ever uttered—and he’s uttered many. From his rise through the post-punk rank-and-file to his coronation as one of the unique stars of his generation, Ant demanded nothing less than total domination. Even his new album—which bears the unsurprisingly bombastic title Adam Ant Is The Blueblack Hussar In Marrying The Gunner’s Daughter—pays homage to his own influence and legacy. It also reinforces an undying truth: At his peak, Ant wasn’t content to merely capture the eyes, ears, fashion, and imagination of the new-wave era. He had to go and make the ’80s his bitch.

For Ant, defiance wasn’t an empty word. The Sex Pistols’ first performance in 1975 was as the opening act for his pre-Ants band, Bazooka Joe. Ant immediately picked up on the snarling spectacle of Johnny Rotten; soon, he started his own punk band. A fan of glam and showtunes, Ant brought a florid showmanship to the otherwise dour, monochromatic post-punk scene. Accordingly, neither music aficionados nor the music industry took him very seriously. Rather than curbing his contrarian streak, though, Ant turned it into his greatest asset. In 1980—as Public Image Ltd. retreated deeper into dubscapes and Joy Division imploded in a sigh of suicide and synthesizers—Ant kicked off the new decade by shedding his last vestige of post-punk austerity. Aided by former Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, Ant assumed the most extravagant identity imaginable: that of a musical pirate.

That’s “pirate” in the literal sense. Never one for half-measures, Ant launched his 1980 album, Kings Of The Wild Frontier, with a bizarre new sound that mixed rollicking sea shanties, polyrhythmic Burundi drumming, and Native American war-whoops (at least as they’re portrayed in Hollywood Westerns). David Byrne was just beginning to tinker with multicultural sounds at the time, but Ant—with the guts of a gutter-rat rather than the brains of an academic—dove in feet first. And he wasn’t coy about his intentions. “Hoist the Jolly Roger / It’s your money that we want, and your money we shall have!” he declares on “Jolly Roger,” one of Kings’ catchiest tracks. He’s addressing his audience in blatant terms, and it’s a risky gamble that paid off. By overtly expressing his desire to fleece his fans and swipe their lucre, he’s exposing the underlying paradox of early punk—a movement that bashed commercialism while not-so-secretly aiming for mainstream success. 

There’s another layer to Ant’s complicated persona, though. Long before MP3s, Napster, and all the subsequent legal and ethical wrangling concerning music piracy, there was the quaint-by-comparison campaign called Home Taping Is Killing Music. Cooked up by the British Phonographic Industry, the campaign tried (in vain) to convince consumers that taping vinyl LPs onto cassettes was not only illegal, but detrimental to the art form of music as a whole. Bow Wow Wow—later of “I Want Candy” fame—issued its first single, 1980’s “C·30 C·60 C·90 Go,” as a celebration of such piracy. (It’s no coincidence that Bow Wow Wow was also managed by McLaren and contained former members of The Ants.) Much of the ludicrousness of the Home Taping campaign stemmed from its official logo: a Jolly Roger symbol, only with the skull replaced by a stylized image of a cassette tape. Meant as an ominous warning, it actually looked cool, which glamorized music piracy instead of scaring people away from it.

By the same token, Ant’s “Jolly Roger” latched onto that admittedly innocuous act of rebellion. If home taping was a crime, then every kid in England was a criminal. McLaren may have masterminded this ingenious marketing coup, but it was Ant who supplied the soundtrack. And an amazing soundtrack it is. The formative, bare-bones sound of Kings Of The Wild Frontier gave way to Ant’s best two albums, 1981’s Prince Charming and 1982’s Friend Or Foe. The former contains “Stand And Deliver,” a hit single in England, which fleshed out the band’s bone-rattling percussion with galloping glee and the twangy hooks of The Ant’s understated guitar genius, Marco Pirroni. Its video remains spectacular: Ant—dressed as some outlandish amalgam of Beau Brummell, William Kidd, Sitting Bull, and Gary Glitter—proclaims, “We’re the dandy highwaymen, so tired of excuses / of deep-meaning philosophies where only showbiz loses.”

Ant’s embrace of showbiz was no idle threat. Friend Or Foe contained a fluke hit on both sides of the Atlantic, the single “Goody Two Shoes,” an improbably animated anthem that flew in the face of the smooth, neutered croon of New Romantic groups like Duran Duran. Ant yelped like a madman and shot straight from the groin; in fact, the lurid sensuality (and unrepentant S&M theme of songs like “Beat My Guest” and “Whip In The Valise”) helped propel Ant from stage to screen. By the end of the ’80s, with his musical career in decline, he began appearing in more and more movies, and seemed set to become a box-office sex symbol—he even dated Jamie Lee Curtis and Heather Graham. When his 1990 album, Manners & Physique, flopped, he seemed more than ready to leave behind his old identity—that is, a musical icon of the decade he’d beaten into submission.

In the ’90s, though, nothing seemed to work out for Ant. His film career never took off. He released only one album that decade, 1995’s Wonderful, a pleasant, innocuous album of alternative rock that paled in comparison to his explosive, idiosyncratic ’80s work. Although bands like Nine Inch Nails and Elastica paid tribute to Ant, the alternative nation of the ’90s found little use for him. In public, his behavior grew from mildly eccentric to dangerously erratic; diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he was arrested for multiple violent incidents and spent time in a psychiatric hospital. The wildman image he’d cultivated in the ’80s—all id, impulse, and ever-changing identity—was more than a pose. In many ways, it was an amplification of the man within.

With his new album, Ant is doing his best to make a comeback. After going the mellow, mature route with Wonderful—an act no one bought—he’s trying on his old tricorne. It doesn’t fit as well as it used to. The Blueblack Hussar has some decent tracks, but overall, it’s a slapdash, discombobulated rehash of what once made Ant so great. It isn’t the ’80s anymore, though, and the pirate shtick doesn’t carry the same context. Even worse, he’s reduced to referencing The Pirates Of The Caribbean in a feckless attempt at relevance; in the new song “Gun In Your Pocket,” he sings, “You ain’t no Johnny Depp / And you ain’t no Adam Ant.” In all fairness, Adam Ant circa 2013 is no Adam Ant, either. But that doesn’t diminish the enormity or audacity of what he once accomplished: breaking every rule in the pop playbook, building an ethic out of perversity, and whipping a decade into his own image.

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