I have a confession. Up until the past month I hadn’t listened to Adam Ant for decades, and for that I am now deeply sorry. Maybe it was meant to be, because I would not have had this exquisite period of rediscovery that I am currently in the midst of; caught between feeling the giddiness of the 16 year old version of me that was head-over-heels enamored with the sexy, beautifully adorned dandy highwayman, and the current version of me that is completely stunned by how beautiful he still is decades later but has, much more importantly, rediscovered his music and can hear it with a new level of appreciation that perhaps only age, time, and maybe even distance, can bring.
The dead man eyes a giveaway
His baby blues a thousand miles away
A cool zombie
-Adam Ant, “Cool Zombie”
When I was in high school I would watch the videos with rapture and dance to the songs with abandon. I even got to see the band play live at least once, if not twice. (Who can remember after all these years?) As a teenage girl living in the suburbs all I cared about was music, and I dreamed of a life beyond the tract houses and strip malls. I fantasized about living in the beautiful, debauched world the Ants created. One punctuated with that aboriginal Burundi beat the band became so well known for, with its glorious mixture of visual imagery, sensual tribal sounds, quirky lyrics about pirates, Indians, princes, and sex. Ultimately, it was a call to arms. In this case, a gathering of proud ant warriors who didn’t care about the status quo and were preparing for the coming new world order. It was the early 1980s – a time of decadence and experimentation on so many levels. It was also a period rife with original new music and new fashion to go along with it, the likes of which we may never see again. Boundaries were being pushed and you either embraced it or rejected it. I embraced it, but even among so much fresh creativity during that time, nothing remotely resembled what Adam and the Ants brought to my generation.
As a teenager I owned Kings of the Wild Frontier, Prince Charming, and Friend or Foe. I can’t recall being aware of the earlier 1979 release, Dirk Wears White Sox, but as I listen to it today I recognize songs from that album, in addition to many of the B-sides released throughout that period. It seems Adam Ant dominated the radio and video airwaves even more than I realized. Friend or Foe produced Adam Ant’s biggest US hit, “Goody Two Shoes.” While I enjoyed the record, my attention began to wander and then, just like that, Adam Ant disappeared from my life. This parallels the beginning of Ant’s disappearance on a larger scale as well, although on a much slower trajectory than my separation. At the time, my musical tastes were going darker and seemingly more dangerous – clearly I wasn’t listening close enough to some of Adam’s lyrics – and when we parted ways I never looked back. It was a beautiful, youthful fling.
A couple of months ago, Craig casually mentioned that Adam Ant was going to be playing a show in Seattle, and he suggested we go. My first thought wasn’t shock that Adam Ant was touring, but that Craig would want to go see what I was recollecting as really-fun-but-somewhat-kitschy new wave music. It just didn’t seem like Craig’s style, and I wasn’t sure if it was mine anymore, either. I put off getting tickets because I was blind to any sense of urgency, until I finally tried to get tickets and realized the show was sold out. I saw how much it would cost to acquire tickets at this late date, and I hesitated. I still wasn’t convinced Craig really wanted to go, despite the fact that it was his idea, and I was so out of touch that I didn’t even know what the tour was about. Was this simply a nostalgia tour? Would it live up to my memories? Would I leave disappointed or sad? But curiosity about the show kept nagging and taunting me, as if missing out would be a bigger regret than the money I needed to spend to get tickets. Finally, one day I just bit the bullet and bought tickets. And then, and only then, did I start my research. I began to download records, read reviews of recent shows in the UK, and digested as many other articles as I could find time for to catch up on what Adam Ant had been doing for the past few decades. I became enlightened and obsessed.
I realized I never knew much, if anything, about Adam Ant. In my teenage years there was no social media and we certainly didn’t have the instantaneous access to global information that we have now. I knew the records and the videos and maybe an occasional article in a music fanzine; in other words, I knew the commercial image that was presented to me, and at the time that was sufficient. I didn’t know anything about his difficult childhood, the suicide attempt that led to the Adam Ant persona, the depth of his issues with the press and record companies, the manic work schedule and, ultimately, his bipolar disorder diagnosis which would have an immense, devastating impact for his life and career. In 2007, he penned an autobiography, Stand and Deliver, where he opens up about the trials and tribulations of his life that were mostly masked from the public by his extravagant persona. It’s this tragic story of the struggle of a musical icon that makes his comeback all the more meaningful.
I also learned that Adam Ant had been touring for the past few years to rave reviews, with reports of his sounding and looking as dandy and better than ever, and putting on wildly energetic shows. He has evolved his persona into the Blueblack Hussar, and in 2013 released his first record in 18 years, recorded on his own record label. Adam Ant is the Blueblack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner’s Daughter – the gunner’s daughter being a euphemism for a sailor being tied to a ship’s cannon and flogged as punishment – is a sprawling double album that is brash, raw, very personal, sensual at times while difficult at others, with a demo-style production value that is controversial among both fans and critics. For me, it’s achingly poignant, and stylistically, while it varies quite a bit throughout its seventeen songs, it ultimately harkens back to the energy of Dirk Wears White Sox. As part of his re-invention, Adam Ant was also the subject of a documentary, The Blueblack Hussar, directed by Jack Bond, which portrays the iconic figure as he works toward resurrecting his music career and transforms into his new persona.
For the two weeks leading up to the show I obsessively listened only to Adam Ant. I literally couldn’t bring myself to listen to anything else as I became fully re-engaged with the magical world of ant music. To be honest, I still haven’t been able to stop, as if I’m subconsciously attempting to make up for lost time. But it gave me the opportunity to really start paying attention and noticing things I was only peripherally aware of decades earlier. I really heard the pounding Burundi beat that is heightened with the double drum kit the band has always had. I focused on the unique and quirky lyrics and subject matter of the songs; testaments to Adam Ant’s fascination with history and sex. I listened to his voice in a way I’ve never heard it and noticed how he plays with it as an instrument beyond just singing the words, and I recognized how talented and proficient the various incarnations of the band have been. I also connected all the self-referential lyrics about himself, the band, and their music to rap, which was in its infancy at that time and a music style that the band explored much to the chagrin of some fans. But the biggest revelation for me was the fact that the music had so much punk influence, which I never noticed back in the 1980s probably because the image of the band was far removed from punk rock as I knew it. Adam comes from a punk rock background, and it seems to me that both the music and the Adam and the Ants concept was based on punk, even if MTV and record labels chose to market the band otherwise. The music empowered its fans much like punk did by uniting those that didn’t feel like they belonged, and the songs were anthems for our generation. When Adam Ant sings, “No method in our madness / Just pride about our manner / Antpeople are the warriors / Antmusic is the banner!” he is rallying the troops with a sense of belonging, commitment, and pride to spread the good word to the masses.
All of that aside, the songs, with their cheeky sense of humor, are just plain fun to listen to. Those obsessive weeks before the concert were particularly stressful at work for me, and yet I felt happier and lighter than I had in a long while. I felt like I was smugly walking around with an important life-altering secret that nobody else was aware of as I listened to Adam Ant through my headphones. That sense of elation was thanks in large part to the music, but also due to the excitement of rediscovery. This wasn’t the trip down memory lane that I thought it might be; this was an appreciation of the music as it exists in the world today, something that caught me by surprise and makes my heart race. You can call it post-punk, new wave, or new romantic, but it’s so unique and really outside of any of those genres that it doesn’t sound dated, because there is no genre to associate it with. Adam Ant was then, and to this day is, unlike any other musician out there.
The North American tour started January 23rd in Washington, DC. It was billed as The Kings of the Wild Frontier tour following on shows played last year in the UK. Kings – the record many would say is his very best – would be played in its entirety and followed by a set of hits, B-sides, and Ant’s personal favorites, including a remarkable cover of T. Rex’s “Get It On.” I was excitedly following reports of these first shows when tragedy struck. Just hours before the band were to appear on stage in Philadelphia for their third show of the tour, Adam Ant’s lead guitarist, musical director, and good friend Tom Edwards passed away unexpectedly of suspected heart failure. The band immediately postponed their next two shows.
I was torn. At this point, I was so excited to see Adam Ant perform that I was inappropriately feeling sorry for myself that I might not get see him. At the same time, I couldn’t imagine how they would go on with the tour. How do you enthusiastically and energetically go on stage and perform sold out shows when you look next to you and your band mate, your friend, is not there? As a tribute to Tom, and with the blessing of his family, the tour continued – and from the minute the band took the stage, their stoic courage was palpable.
The stage at Seattle’s Neptune Theatre darkened, and the band came out one-by-one, with the lights coming up as Adam Ant approached the microphone. The energy was electric and it felt like being at a punk rock gig. Yes, there was that pounding tribal drumbeat by the drumming duo, Jola and Andy Woodard, and references to Indians, warriors, and Prince Charming, but this wasn’t the pretty, polished, MTV version – it was better. It was raw, energetic, and passionate; it was loud and fast; it was punk rock, and I’m sure this is exactly how these songs are meant to be heard. The songs from Kings are 37 years old but feel completely fresh and relevant. If Adam Ant was misunderstood by critics back in the eighties, I propose he was just ahead of his time. The perfectly coiffed and made-up Adam Ant in the MTV videos was great fun, and the songs were powerful, but this night it felt like he really owned them. Adam Ant as a live performer is a rare and true showman, and his swagger and charisma were captivating even with the tragic loss of Tom Edwards hanging in the air. At 62 years old, well, you might never believe it but Ant looks incredible. I dare say that he looks even better these days wearing the character he’s earned with survival, and the edginess he’s adopted in lieu of the polish. It suits him.
I can’t help but wonder how Adam Ant feels about playing songs from his early career. It’s a question I’ve wondered about with many musicians from that time period who are still touring – some with new music and some without. Adam Ant continued to release albums through 1995, but they took a different turn musically. Ant has said that he intentionally tries to make every album different, and songs from those later records were not part of the set list this time, with the exception of “Vive Le Rock” from 1985. But it would seem that Adam Ant today has the freedom to do what he wants, how we wants, and without the pressure from record labels and sales figures. If there was any frustration or lack of enthusiasm about playing the early songs, it certainly wasn’t evident. They were performed with absolute passion and confidence.
Fans – myself included – will always want to hear his stellar early work, but I know I’d be more than happy to hear him play songs from Adam Ant is the Blueblack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner’s Daughter. In fact, there are several tracks just begging to be heard live, and if I hadn’t been so out of touch I would have had my chance of hearing a fantastic set of these songs, intermixed with several older classics, in 2013. And then there’s always the possibility of hearing even newer music. Fans are still waiting for Bravest of the Brave, an album that was supposed to be released on November 3, 2014, Ant’s birthday. But over two years later, there has been no sign of it. Whether this missing album or a different one, as someone who seems restless and unable to settle down, I can’t imagine Ant doesn’t have new songs in the works.
Adam Ant has an ardently committed fan base that will always be there for him. There’s an abundance of passion and respect for the man who created his own unique genre of music, who revolutionized music videos, and who has suffered so much over the years only to rise up again to create great new music and consistently sell out live performances. It’s a daunting comeback, but one that should be viewed as a success story. My hope is that Adam Ant is doing what he wants, and that he feels rejuvenated and encouraged by performing live and seeing his engaged and dedicated fans, because I know I do. As everything is seen with more clarity in hindsight, it appears he is finally getting the acknowledgement and critical praise he deserves and has longed for.
As for me, I know what I want. I want to see Adam Ant up on stage again back in the States, performing whatever songs he wants to. If it’s a Prince Charming tour next year, I will be right there at the front. If it’s a continuation of the upcoming UK Anthems tour, count me in. If it’s introducing new music, I’d be absolutely thrilled. I am thrilled. I am also simultaneously joyful and heartbroken. I feel like the rediscovery of Adam Ant and his music has not transported me back in time but towards the place I’m meant to be. Something that was so important to me decades ago is apparently still important; maybe even more so now. Maybe all this time I’ve been missing my tribe. So thank you, Adam Ant, for finding your way back into my life. I promise I will not forget about you again and I will never set you aside, no matter what the future holds for either of us. I have renewed my unabashed commitment and support to you and hope you will forgive my past transgressions.
A new royal family, a wild nobility
We are the family
-Adam Ant, “Kings of the Wild Frontier”