ALBUM REVIEW by Victor Stranges
Adam and the Ants’ debut independent album release, “Dirk Wears White Sox” (1979), peaked at number one on the UK Independent Albums Chart. Indie success had caught the ear of Sex Pistols’ manager, Malcolm McLaren, who agreed to manage the band.
Unfortunately, McLaren took possession of his backing band to form Bow Wow Wow. But before parting ways, Adam Ant said that McLaren “…didn’t think much of me as a singer, but he said: ‘You’ve got muscles and you look all right, your face should be on the cover.” McLaren insisted that the current wave of artists was not filling the void of a ‘teen idol’ and that Ant should do it.
Armed with looks and punk smarts, McLaren also left Ant with a compilation cassette featuring a French musician, Michel Bernholc, playing over an old recording of drummers from Burundi’s musical ensemble, Ingoma Tribe. It drove Ant to research “all these traditional ethnic albums – hours and hours of tribal music and people grunting and whooping, different ways of using the voice. I wanted to use my voice as an instrument, like a battering ram.”
Fortunately, as fate would have it, Adam Ant was able to recruit an entirely new group with new members, including Marco Pirroni to release their second album; their major-label debut with CBS Records, “Kings of the Wild Frontier” (1980). Pirroni brought to the table some icing on the cake with his guitar sounds. “John Barry, Duane Eddy, The Shadows,” Pirroni says. “We didn’t sit around thinking: ‘Wow, this is a recipe for success.’ It’s just not, is it? We weren’t really sure what we were doing. There was this South African musical called Ipi Tombi on in the West End at the time and, at one point, Adam had this idea that we should get the drummers from that.”
Ant claims the inspiration to feature two drummers in the new lineup came from soul singer, James Brown. Their sound transcended their contemporaries with the hitting of guitar cases, clumps of wood, doors, and walls to culminate in “an enormous barrage of percussion”. The new members also adhered to Ant’s in your face, and larger than life colourful dress code.
“It was all the things I’d grown up with that I felt were heroic and sexy and had a warrior bravado to them. I’d been reading about and studying pirates and the Native Americans for a few years – the Native American thing was as close to a religion as I had."
Putting the Apache war stripe across my nose was a declaration of arms against the music industry, which I felt had ignored me and treated me very unfairly. I wanted to look like a buccaneer: when they raided somewhere, they would take all the stuff they could carry or wear and not take anything else. And then I got the Hussar jacket, the one worn by the 11th Hussars in the Charge of the Light Brigade. They were the most ridiculed regiment in the British army because they were thought to be too well-dressed. People called them “the Cherrybums” because their uniforms were so tight, and all the young ladies came out to look at them when they were on parade. They were despised by the rest of the army, but they did this heroic, disastrous thing.”
And so the die was cast for the look and percussive, mysterious sound of the band. “Kings of the Wild Frontier” reached number one on the UK Album Chart, with three hit singles, “Kings Of The Wild Frontier”, “Dog Eat Dog” and “Antmusic”. The LP ended up being the number one highest-selling album in the UK in 1981. It was produced by Chris Hughes (AKA Merrick), who was also one of the band’s drummers. Hughes went on to be a highly successful producer, most notably, producing Tears For Fears’ albums, “The Hurting” and “Songs From The Big Chair.” He also co-wrote “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.”
Pioneering a highly individual sound, Adam & The Ants combined a post-punk attitude with pop-savvy, romantically heroic lyrical themes and a unique percussive sound. They were a record label’s dream come true as they dressed like no one else and rode the new romantic wave to its peak. With a massive scaling of work hours, the band took to the road and led an extremely busy schedule capitalising on their newfound success.
Historical documents of the band often cite them as a passing fad or a band without any real talent. In a cookie-cutter post-punk musical landscape, the band would not have existed if it weren’t for the vision of their leader, Adam Ant, who was a highly skilled performer, not wanting the band to be pigeonholed. Their carefully crafted lineup developed their own sound, “Antmusic” as they called it. Teaming with Marco Pirroni, Ant embarked on a songwriting partnership that lasted years. Using highly complex chord arrangements and percussion, their sound highlighted the age-old pop idea that handclaps and unique percussive rhythms can be a nicotine-like hook in a pop record.
There was no doubt the band was influenced by visual musicians like Roxy Music and David Bowie. In fact, when bassist Kevin Mooney left the band in 1981, he was replaced by Gary Tibbs (Roxy Music). Pirroni recalls ...
“I was totally a child of the glam era. I basically consider glam rock to be the pinnacle of all human achievement. I’d seen Bowie doing Starman and Roxy Music on Top of the Pops and, in the back of my mind, that’s exactly what I wanted to achieve. You wanted to cause that argument in the playground the next day.”
Their follow-up album, “Prince Charming” (1981) had, at the time, received indifferent reviews, even though it contained two number-one songs, “Stand And Deliver” and “Prince Charming.” In retrospect, at least for this listener, the album has stood the test of time and contains some insanely well-written pop songs that would be hits in a parallel universe. It contains off-the-wall rhythms, weird melodies, and perfect art-pop. It is bold as it is creative and needs to be revisited as a lost treasure.
The album starts off ambitiously with “Scorpio” sounding like a James Bond instrumental. That is until Ant starts rallying his troops to be confident in themselves. He exclaims to his enemy onlookers that “watching us is stopping you from cruising Ugly Avenue.” A tapestry of multifarious vocal stylings and harmonies brings joy to the ears as the melodies take you to harmonic corridors of your mind that you thought never existed.
“Picasso Visita El Planeta De Los Simios” is a thrilling piece of pop near-perfection. It starts with a remarkably oblique verse that immediately falls into the most drop-dead gorgeous heartfelt chorus you’ve ever heard. All the while, the song sounds like you are swinging from the trees in an Amazon forest, though I also hear a laughing kookaburra at the start. There is so much going on. There are tribal background vocals blending in with guitar-slinging licks. I recall enjoying this song as an eleven-year-old listening to the cassette of this album. Today I listened closely to the complexity of it all and how it really holds together. The band was really breaking new musical ground which really left their contemporaries in the dust musically.
“Don’t you ever, don’t you ever stop being dandy, showing me you’re handsome Prince Charming, Prince Charming ridicule is nothing to be scared of”
- Prince Charming
Next up is what can only be described as the weirdest number-one song of all time. “Prince Charming” starts off with rhythmic screaming and boasts the finest display of Ant’s prowess as a noble warrior .. and proud to be so. Interestingly, the song has an amazing resemblance to Rolf Harris’ song called “War Canoe” from 1965. In March 2010, Harris claimed on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Danny Baker Show that an out-of-court settlement had been reached with a large sum of royalties received after a musicologist had found the two songs to be musically identical. “Prince Charming” producer Chris Hughes has stated that Harris withdrew his complaint “with a bit of a giggle” when Adam Ant pointed out that both tracks borrowed heavily from an old Maori recording of a ‘War Canoe’-type song.
“5 Guns West” is a fabulous spaghetti-western workout. The glamour of it all is infectious. We seem to have gone south of the American border with the next track, “That Voodoo.” Twangy guitars and schizophrenic vocals are the order of the day with a Mariachi horn section to boot.
“Stand and Deliver” most resembles the previous album with its signature percussion, guitar motifs, and a rousing chanting of “stand and deliver your money or your life.” Another tilt at 18th-century England, with the “dandy” highwaymen demanding the traveler halts and surrender their money or goods. “We’re the dandy highwaymen and here’s our invitation, throw your safety overboard and join our insect nation.” I still don’t know what “da diddley qua qua” means but its use is effective in asserting their “Antmusic.” The song at the time was huge and no wonder. A pop jewel.
“Mile High Club” harkens to their early experimental period building vocal layers and harmonic textures. It is an awkward but beautiful rendering of psychedelic chants with an angular guitar band playing in the background, juxtaposing rhythms with stops and starts.
The most controversial song on the album was “Ant Rap.” It received widespread criticism for a former punk band experimenting with rap. I’m not sure what all the fuss was about. Everyone did it. Blondie sang “Rapture” and The Clash” produced “This Is Radio Clash.” It was experimentation. Ironically its lyrics were scathing of so-called punk ‘purists’. “So tired of anarchists looking at me. Don’t need their credibility. “Destroy” they say, “defy, condemn”. As long as you don’t destroy them.” The song was somewhat dippy but had some amazing samba rhythms going on. I believe if the song was called “Naughty North And The Sexy South” it would have received much more praise than calling it “Ant Rap.”
“Mowhok” combines Victor Feldman smarts using vibraphone with a dusty Cowboys and Indians landscape. “S.E.X.” closes the album with some strange vocal meanderings interspersed with reverberated guitar from Pirroni. The album’s bookend is a Hawaiian-like piece of dreamy music with “a-wim-a-way” repeated to a fade-out.
Apart from the two huge singles on this album, the album would have been hard to market the rest of the album tracks (at the time). Perhaps the band suffered from an indelible stamping of their image in the mind of the listener. Such an easy band to write off. Many bands suffered this fate over the years and were musically brilliant but somehow ‘went out of fashion.’ Maybe so but the music today stands tall as it ever did.