How Adam & The Ants’ daft cultural collision began the ‘80s with a bang
A pirate, a punk, a Native American, a glam rocker, a Spaghetti Western composer, and a Burundi drummer walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Adam & The Ants! I love you guys!”
Despite the wildly eclectic pot-luck aesthetic of the band that helped usher in the ‘80s with Kings of the Wild Frontier, Adam & The Ants started out on an entirely different footing. They began as art-school punks in the late ‘70s, fronted by Stuart Goddard under his nom de punk Adam Ant and originally including two future members of the Monochrome Set. They released Dirk Wears White Sox in 1979, but were regarded mostly as a curiosity. By early 1980 the band consisted of Adam, guitarist Matthew Ashman, bassist Leigh Gorman, and drummer Dave Barbarossa. Notoriously sneaky Svengali Malcolm McLaren’s previous charges The Sex Pistols had long since crashed and burned by that point, and he lured the instrumentalists away from their singer to start Bow Wow Wow with Annabella Lwin.
Adam’s new Ants were guitarist Marco Pirroni, bassist Kevin Mooney, and drummers Terry Lee Miall and Chris Hughes (a.k.a. Merrick). The British musical landscape into which they emerged was one where the post-punk movement was in full glower, with bleak sentiments and doomy riffs a-go-go, but they aimed to offer an alternative to the alternative. In the process, they assembled a postmodern patchwork of visual and sonic signifiers.
Pretty much every rocker of their generation had Bowie fandom in their background, so the glam-indebted side of the Ants’ new sound wasn’t too much of a stretch. But they dug a bit deeper for their rhythmic base. Nearly a decade earlier, French musician Michel Bernholc had a semi-novelty U.K. hit under the name Burundi Steiphenson Black with the track “Burundi Black,” grafting his riffs onto a field recording of Burundi drummers. It became the foundation of the Ant beat, necessitating a double-drummer approach that had scarcely been seen in rock since the jam-happy salad days of the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band.
Equally crucial were the contributions of Pirroni, whose counterintuitive chord progressions were full of gloriously skewed surprises. His punk background (he was in Siouxsie & The Banshees for a hot minute) offers little to explain the Ennio Morricone-via-Duane Eddy twang he brought to the band, with the Spaghetti Western side of that equation helping to fuel some of Adam’s band-of-outlaws imagery. On the image side, a fondness for Native American accoutrements and face paint was a visual counterpart to the music’s exoticized tribal beats. Mix that with pirate chic and an in-your-face New Wave color scheme, and the Ants were off to the races.
The seemingly random fashion jumble was not only in keeping with the grab bag nature of the band’s sound, Adam & The Ants were also tapping into the spirit of the burgeoning New Romantic movement, where plundering looks from disparate sources was all the rage. That said, the Ants were never a part of that scene and their music was as far from the Spandau Ballet/Duran Duran axis as it was from just about everything else in British pop/rock at the time.
Adam had something to say on the lyrical side too — In July of 1980 the forthcoming album’s title track introduced the band to the world, opening with a chant that perfectly captured their combination of urgency, elegance, and all-for-one spirit — “A new royal family, a wild nobility, we are the family” —arriving atop a brash burst of that double-drummer attack and Marco’s Clint Eastwood-gone-punk riffs. It would quickly become apparent that this was one of the most unabashedly self-referential bands to come along in ages, establishing their brand by singing about “Antmusic” and “Antpeople” throughout the album.
VIDEO: Adam & the Ants”Kings of the Wild Frontier”
But the zealous proselytizing was just a means to an end. When they shouted “we are the family,” they were thinking beyond the band itself; Adam & The Ants sought to embrace their listeners with a sense of community. In fact, Adam, who turned 26 the day of the album’s release, played an instructive, almost paternal role towards his largely teenage audience. On the band’s next album he would explicitly decry the use of alcohol and drugs and espouse a moral stance that was simultaneously sex-positive and abstinence-supportive (see that LP’s “S.E.X.”) And on Kings’ opening track, “Dog Eat Dog,” he sings, “It makes me proud, so proud of you, I see innocence shining through.”
On the faux-disco “Don’t Be Square (Be There)” Adam alternates between pushing the band’s artistic mission (“music for a future age”) and their social agenda (“for good clean fun, whatever that means”).
Only the era’s first-generation rappers were delivering self-aggrandizement as attractive as “Unplug the jukebox and do us all a favor/That music’s lost its taste so try another flavor: Antmusic” so it’s no surprise that “Antmusic” became the album’s biggest single, helping to make the band a sensation at home and abroad.
The boys also spent much of the LP having fun playing dress-up, both literally and lyrically. “Jolly Roger” makes good on the pirate gear, and “Los Rancheros” taps into the Spaghetti Western end of things, even dropping Clint Eastwood’s name in the choruses. The lyrics of “The Human Beings,” however, consist entirely of the names of Native American tribes plus repetitions of the title phrase, which was the way the indigenous Americans referred to themselves.
VIDEO: Adam & the Ants performing on the Old Grey Whistle Test 1980
Adam & The Ants took a lot of stick at the time for appropriating elements of African and Native American culture into their music and lyrics. They would almost certainly be admonished even further today by the kind of self-appointed cultural police who bad-rapped later bands like Vampire Weekend for analogous issues. But their rhythmic core had as much to do with Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll” as anything else, and the idea of the Ants sitting around during the making of Kings plotting to strike it rich by bringing international influences into their sound is patently absurd. For what it’s worth, when the band first toured the U.S., Adam was actively solicitous of Native American organizations’ approval (which he ultimately received). And if you think Adam wasn’t aiming squarely at himself when he sang “down below those dandy clothes you’re just a shade too white,” there’s a lovely bridge at an attractivve price that you simply must see.
Ultimately, Kings of the Wild Frontier is simply the sound of outlandish ideas being brought into play with swashbuckling bravado and an overwhelming sense of fun. As Adam sang in the title track, “No method in our madness, just pride about our manner.”
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