Adam Ant: White Line Nightmare

THE BOY looked at Paul McCartney. “I saw him through a crack in the door, going up the stairs chatting with my mum,” says Adam Ant, né Stuart Goddard. In the mid-’60s, his mother used to clean the bachelor Beatle’s St John’s Wood home. Young Stuart wangled his way in as often as possible and took McCartney’s dog Martha for walks. But that was the only time he caught sight of the Moptop charmer.

“It was quite a precious moment,” he murmurs, sitting across the dinner table from Q. Together we ponder and picture it a while, then tacitly think better of trying to draw any direct lines between that 10-year-old lad’s proximity to one earth-shaker and the glorious insanity that Adam Ant was to bring to the land a generation later. Logic can’t always be to blame and almost never when a pop group grabs a nation by the lapels and reduces all life’s tatty bits to a maniacal baroque knees-up the way Adam & The Ants did at the start of the maligned ’80s.

Before he decided to drop the bondage strides and reinvent pop stardom it was fin de decade. Punk had gone off like a bomb, then it had just gone off. New Wave was what you called a wave you couldn’t really think of a name for. Certainly, those who were milling about feeling snarly as the early import of Thatcherism nibbled their vitals could do a ferocious dance to 2-Tone.

But there was frankly no one prepared to get togged up as an Apache Indian and a Treasure Island pirate and Regency rake and a Hell’s Angel highwayman and yell “Don’t you ever, don’t you ever, stop being dandy, showing me you’re handsome”. Though, admittedly, there was no great call for it either, until Adam Ant unleashed his wild imagination and showed the charts what they’d been missing. Then suddenly the handsome bloke with the pigtail at the front was all over the shop, busting records with 91 singles chart weeks in the routine 52 of 1981, but more cockle-warmingly getting the population at it. The little girls understood and screamed a wall of scream. The teens and up got it and laughed and stomped and thought he was rather dishy anyway. It’s not to be held against him that he probably gave the New Romantics permission to happen.

The Ants, in their pomp, came like Vikings. Without the horns and the infrequently laundered goatskin, that is. But they saw, they conquered, they got away with almost anything.

Now though, the former pop phenomenon Adam Ant is 45, a husband, a father. Definitely no white stripe across the chops. His quiet demeanour matches the dark wood panelling of this Soho club. His face is barely lined, if a little chunkier than of yore. However, when he did interviews for his 1995 album, Wonderful, his hair was “thinning”. Now he wears a hat.

Ever the trouper, with a 3-CD Antbox career compilation to sell and a story to tell, he settles in to deal with whatever comes his way, the preposterous and the painful.

*

OF COURSE, Adam Ant was a punk before he was a pop star. For real. He knew how to prove it – have “FUCK” cut into his back with a razor blade. Natch.

“I’d been reading about the Masai and other tribes,” he says. “Rites of passage. I thought, Could I take the pain? I asked my friend (punk priestess) Jordan and she obliged. At the Sex shop in the King’s Road. If there were any customers in they didn’t stay. She got this Gillette razor blade and she started to slice away (small, stoic grunt of a laugh). I didn’t scream, I gritted my teeth. Now it’s no end of embarrassment when I have a massage.”

It was Adam Ant’s idiosyncratic way of starting an ascent from the lowest depths of his life. Around 1975-6, studying at Hornsey School Of Art he had sunk into a mire of exam horrors and worry about whether he should abandon graphics and turn to his first love, music. Worse, probably, he had married at 20 and it was all going wrong. “I got very depressed,” he admits. “I had a very uncomfortable 18 months. I just remember thinking, How can I deal with this?”

With extreme difficulty. Then with furious intensity. He took an overdose. His wife, Carol, tended him through a six-month recovery, physical and emotional. He decided music was his calling after all and announced that, henceforth, he was Adam Ant. To show willing, Carol changed her name to Eve.

Then, on November 6, 1975, he witnessed the Sex Pistols first gig, because they were supporting his band, Bazooka Joe, at St. Martin’s School Of Art. That sorted him out. “I took one look and knew they were the bringers of change,” he says, then hesitates. But he seems to have ventured the whole truth of the occasion a few years ago when he said, “I left my group, my college course and my wife because of The Sex Pistols.”

That flesh-mortifying “FUCK” proved his first career move. It landed him a leading role in the movie Jubilee after director Derek Jarman saw him sashaying down the King’s Road with his shirt ripped just so, displaying Jordan’s handiwork.

But for this ever-changing line-up of Ants the notoriety hardly improved matters. Unexceptionally, they sang about ‘Ligotage’, the ‘Whip in My Valise’ and ‘Deutscher Girls’ – “Nazi!” howled some, to the consternation of the gypsy-blooded Ant – and worked their ticket via Rock Against Racism gigs and Peel sessions. But come 1979, with their debut album Dirk Wears White Søx on top of the indie chart all they had was cult status when an early Ant epigram asserted, “Cult is just a word for loser”.

Finally he turned to Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols “Svengali”. Ever slippy, McLaren said he would advise him if he handed over £1000. Ant produced the cash from one London gig. So, according to the singer, McLaren played him the ‘Burundi Black’ single at 78, then stole his band. On January 24, 1980, at a supposed strategy meeting, The Ants announced they were leaving to form a new band, Bow Wow Wow, with McLaren’s 15-year-old protegée Annabella Lwin.

Adam Ant stomped away. Then, as soon as he was out of earshot he broke down in floods of tears. “It was very upsetting,” he notes evenly. “They were mates. But, in a way, he did me a favour.”

Not many.

*

ADAM ANT didn’t mope. Four days later, with a drumbeat and a lode of anger from McLaren and a seething host of ideas he’d been cooking up over years of reading about African and American Indian tribal cultures, he started again from scratch. He asked guitarist Marco Pirroni, then 20 and already a former denizen of Sid Vicious’s Flowers Of Romance, Siouxsie & The Banshees and the Models, to join him at a Covent Garden patisserie.

“He talked at me for a couple of hours,” says Pirroni.

The Ant rhetoric was tidal, overwhelming. “Every single element of what you do has to be thought about,” he insisted. The band and their audience were a warrior tribe, valiant and noble. “I represent a reaction against greyness in this country,” he proclaimed. “I want to tell kids they’re not worthless because they haven’t got a job.” The Sound had to be right – Antmusic, of course, “Antmusic for Sexpeople.” The Look had to be right, starting with a white line across the face: “Warpaint: declaring war on everybody” – especially Bow Wow Wow.

While Ant still blandly insists “It all seemed quite logical to me”, he snagged the easy-going Pirroni because he was looking for “something loony, loony but fun, loony but commercial”. Within days they were writing their first song, says Pirroni, “trying to put all these ideas into the one track”. The fantastical result was Kings Of The Wild Frontier. Burundi drums, Duane Eddy guitar, chanting grunt-and-holler vocals Ant reckoned to have picked up from what would soon be called “world music”. It declaimed “A new royal family of wild nobility” and “Ant people are the warriors/Ant music is the banner” and “I feel beneath the white there is a red skin suffering from centuries of taming”. Less grandly, remembering that the audience was composed of Sexpeople, it observed “All that grunt and groanie business that we played last night/Isn’t worth a sausage”. Whatever else it had going for it, this was definitely the best sausage in rock and an early hint, confirmed by his panto-on-ice videos, that Adam Ant’s bug-eyed intensity spilled over into self-parody at the drop of a cocked hat.

Chris “Merrick” Hughes, drummer/producer and second recruit, says that Ant promised him, “‘Honestly, mate, six months from now we’ll be household names.’ And he was right almost to the day.” Launching the new songs with a nationwide “Ant Invasion” tour, inevitably, at first, they pulled the old punk pogopeople who berated them as “sell-outs” for their trouble. Middlesbrough Rock Garden was the nadir: a flobfest of greenie, grolly and horrific hockle – Ant copped a few in the mouth. Vile. Then they needed a police escort to get out of the building.

“We just asked ourselves, Do we want to be spat on or drive in a limo and have everyone throw flowers at us?” says Pirroni.

Prayer-answering CBS signed them as the tour ended and by October the new line-up’s second single ‘Dog Eat Dog’ had transformed their lives. One week the cult bought 50,000 and hoisted them into the Top 30. Then they played Top Of The Pops and in the next seven days 250,000 more bought into Apache glamour, Valentino looks and lyrical lunacy: “It’s dog eat dog eat dog eat dog leapfrog the dog and brush me daddio”.

An instant avalanche of hits ensued. For two years Adam Ant owned the UK charts, executing what producer Hughes calls ” a rapid cross-fade from punk to panto”, with the camp cameo of ‘Stand And Deliver’ – “I’m the dandy highwayman you’re too scared to mention/I spend my cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention” – and Prince Charming with its universally appealing motto “ridicule is nothing to be scared of” and uproarious window-smashing, banquet-table-dancing video.

Ask Adam Ant about his glory days and initially he says it was just a blur of work: touring and recording. With an occasional pause, he allows, for a visit to the London Library to research books of historic fashions so that the new hit would have its requisite new look. “It was the French Revolution that gave me the designs for Prince Charming,” he says. “They were very dandyesque. I like the idea of the male peacock, the colour, the strutting.”

But rockin’ in the reference library was hardly the complete picture. Although his last Number 1 single ‘Goody Two Shoes’ was autobiographical in regard to his abstinence from drink, drugs, smoking and even chocolate, Adam Ant did indulge one craving without inhibition: sex.

He declared an interest openly enough. At the time, he often urged that “sex is the last great adventure left”. Clinging to discretion now, he still hazards that “You’re like a sailor. You get about a bit.” But his old friend Hughes’s fond recollection is unbridled: “Adam was a driven, sexual character. I can assure you that was in the forefront of his thinking. He had a phenomenal sense of that person, whether it was in a hotel, or a TV studio – and he would be pretty visceral, pretty sure of making it happen. He would achieve, he was good.”

“Well, it really is like the films,” Ant adds mildly. “All that getting chased about. I couldn’t knock it. When it happens it’s a lovely surprise.”

*

A PECULIAR ASPECT of Adam Ant’s fame was his Zelig/Forrest Gump quality of turning up in unlikely places and unexpected company. Perhaps that childhood encounter with Paul McCartney stirred some curiosity in him.

A mere four months after their first hit, Adam And The Ants cauterised their vestigial punk following by appearing on the Royal Variety Performance – at the meet-and-greet line-up afterwards Her Majesty said it was “very naice” while Princess Margaret nabbed signatures for her kids.

Responding to criticism of uncool conduct, Ant cast his lot with family entertainment unabashed, saying “It will be a sad day when showbiz is a dirty word”. Pirroni took a more perverse pleasure in the occasion: “I didn’t want to be playing the end of the pier. But I used to lie awake at night thinking about what I could do to piss off the NME and the Royal Variety show was part of it.”

When it came to Americans, they made even more extraordinary connections. Liberace watched the show and “loved” them – Pirroni was “so impressed by how fake he was. He even had a glass eye.” In 1983, Berry Gordy bumped into Adam Ant and invited him to sing The Supremes’ ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ on Motown’s 25th Anniversary TV show, next up after Michael Jackson’s legendary ‘Billie Jean’ moondance spot as it happened – “And now, all the way from London, England,” Ant with trouperly irony, “Please put your hands together for Adam Ant.”

But afterwards Jackson befriended him by phone, ringing up to find out where he got those nice old uniforms he sported on stage. And Prince took a shine to him on Saturday Night Live. And he had a fling with Jamie Lee Curtis, whom he warmly endorses as “a very lovely girl, a very kind person”.

“Yeah, things happen to me,” he muses. “Or I make them happen.”

Adam Ant made it happen all right. Stardom by design, by a supreme effort of will and imagination. But for a limited period only. His power faded and Live Aid – the ultimate setting for his Forrest Gumpery – proved a last, muted hurrah.

Professionally, he describes it as “a magical event”, manifesting no bitterness at the memory. But the jig was up. He was one of the first artists to commit, then his set was cut from the standard three songs to one, early on, just after Status Quo and The Boomtown Rats. Notoriously, he was the only artist featured whose record (the ‘Vive Le Rock’ single) went down the following week.

“It was the end of five years non-stop,” sighs Pirroni. “We had run dry. Perhaps we had been away in America too much. Our party was over. But that’s OK. We were a pop act. We had a three-year lifespan. So, you reassess your life. Now what?”

Pirroni went on to record and tour with Sinead O’Connor. Hughes, who had left earlier, produced Tears For Fears, Robert Plant, Paul McCartney and, recently, Tom McRae. Adam Ant, rather to the surprise of British pundits, did not sink without trace; in 1990 he recorded the Manners And Physique album, produced by Prince sidekick Andre Cymone – it did well, boosted by ‘Room At The Top’, a Top 20 single in UK and America. If that re-emphasised black American artists’ surprising interest in him, Ant then began to receive some gratifying declarations of admiration and influence from a new clutch of white American rockers including Marilyn Manson, Rockets From The Crypt and Nine Inch Nails.

Silent for five years, Ant now lives in London with his wife and two-year-old daughter Lilly. Although he has developed a solid acting career of support roles in many movies and TV series from Miami Vice through to La Femme Nikita, once again he is writing songs with Marco Pirroni – who also masterminded Antbox.

“Listening back wasn’t as depressing as I thought it was going to be,” says the carefully non-hyerbolic Pirroni. “We may have been contrived, but at least we were contrived by ourselves.”

That was Adam Ant then, a real man who made himself unreal to his complete satisfaction.

Thanks to Chris De Niro, former Ant bassist now fronting JackieonAssid, for background interview. Additional information: Adam And The Ants by Chris Welch.

© Phil SutcliffeQ, December 2000

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