Where’s Your Head At, Adam Ant?

THE ROOM WAS full of balloons. A bouquet of balloons, sold nowadays like helium-filled, high-tech clusters that cling to the ceiling. A bundle of mail was strewn on the table counter, next to a cheesecake and a carafe of juice. Most of it remained unopened, but several drawings sat propped against the envelopes. They were pencil drawings, and they were good. An eight-by-twelve of an ant, tattooed with hearts and daggers, was the best. It was from a teen-aged girl.

Adam Ant — who, when he spells his name in capital letters, reverses the “D” — had just turned 28. The balloons and the mail were gifts from well-wishers. Most of the messages were polite, even demure; most of the envelopes were adorned with daggers and hearts and Adam Ant with a backwards “D.” Mostly, they were from teen-aged midwestern girls.

The original sexperson sat on the edge of a vinyl couch, his hands on his knees, and intent expression on his face. Showtime was only an hour or two away, and nothing preoccupies Mr. Ant — he legally changed his name four or five years ago — like a live performance. When he is performing, he wants no distraction. He mentioned that his record company had arranged for him to attend a party, for Christ’s sake, an hour or two before a show next week. It would be good promotion for his album. He said he had no intention of showing up.

He was glad this was an early show, he said, because he could get some sleep. He likes to get up at 9:00 or so, even when touring, and eat a good breakfast. He feels it’s a good habit to get into.

So, relatively at ease, he looked down at his high-laced boots and talked. Quickly but fluidly, neither condescending nor overbearing. Subtle innuendo follows.

* * *

CREEMI saw the album (Friend Or Foe) got a double bullet in Billboard.

ADAM: Yeah, It’s a surprise to me — I can’t really — I can’t really put it…

Why?

‘Cause it just is. I mean, there’s no particular reason for it at all. The single’s been out for six months, y’know? I think a lot of it has to do with MTV. A lot of it has to do with video and the fact that kids have been seeing this thing happening. And, really, the demand to hear ‘Goody Two Shoes’ on the radio came from the kids.

Do you see yourself more as a musician or an entertainer?

Urn…entertainer. ‘Cause I’m not a musician; I can’t write music.

You’ve got credits on the songs.

Oh, yeah, but I go by ear. I write by ear.

Don’t most rock musicians write by ear?

Alot do. A lot don’t. You’d be surprised how many are classically trained.

Eddie Van Halen.

Is he? Well, that’s good. I’m not knocking him.

Does it bother you when people knock you? Or your albums?

Yeah.

What about the criticism that you said it all on your first album?

No. No, I don’t think so. I think the albums sell more with each one, so I’d think that these sales would diminish rather than increase. And they certainly wouldn’t be selling in America at this stage of the game.

I presume you’ve got a solid base in Britain.

Yeah — Europe, Britain, Australia, Japan.

How about the States? What’s your impression of America?

America. It’s the biggest market; it’s the most diverse market. You can never make a total statement like you’ve “toured in America.” or that you’ve been “successful in America” unless you’re talking about three or four years of your life. It doesn’t happen overnight here; it doesn’t happen over the course of months here — it doesn’t happen over the course of a small period of time at all. It’s a long-term investment. You’ve got to put aside six months at a time to come and do justice to it.

Are you going to be doing that?

Yeah, I’m coming back in January to tour. It’ll be great.

Are you going to have new product out?

No. This album really needs quite a lot of promotion. There’s a lot of towns I haven’t played that I want to play. Y’know, I just don’t want to play to main markets.

How do you feel about your material being categorized as the new bubblegum? Have you heard that?

No, that’s all new to me. I’d really like to read Rolling Stone —

I didn’t say Rolling Stone.

I don’t really read it — I don’t like (mixing) politics and music. And, therefore, I don’t read the bulk of those papers.

You don’t like mixing politics with music?

No. I see no need. I see no reason. And a lot of people are doing that.

A lot of British people?

A lot of British people have been doing it for a long time. Uh — I don’t know, if they want to call it bubblegum, it’s their mind. I don’t think it’s bubblegum. I mean, what can you say? It’s just like (you) saying, ‘So-and-so thinks you’re an idiot.’ Well, if they come and say it to my face, they risk getting floored. Everyone has their own opinion; I think they should form it on the work.

One of our writers, Bill Holdship, wondered what in the world Adam Ant was celebrating.

Well, I think life, for a start. I think it’s a case of I enjoy writing songs, I enjoy performing them. I don’t have to do it for fame or money anymore. So, therefore, I’m lucky in having worked for six years from club level to theater level. Enjoying a lot of success, which I think I’ve earned. I now do it for the quality of the performance. So, therefore, at the moment, I’m delighted to come into America and concentrate on the nitty-gritty, which is performing. That’s the challenge.

People are familiar with your — let’s say, costumes. Your manager told me it takes you an hour to do your make-up. Is this true?

It can take as much as that; it can take less than that. It’s like a footballer — I don’t know how long it takes for an American footballer to prepare for a game. It’s more or less like a ritual: you put certain things on in order to perform. It is very much a ritual.

Are you an actor, then, in that sense?

Well, I suppose that anybody who gets behind a mike and expects people to pay money to see him perform a song that they can go and listen to on a stereo is an actor. For me, it’s an event. I think good entertainment is escapist.

That’s good. Because what you present is kind of a fantasy.

Well, I’m really a fantasy merchant. I’m not professing to remind kids of problems they’re going to see when they walk out the door. It’s an imagery, just as if they’re going to see Star Wars. They come out after the show and, hopefully — hopefully — it’s instilled some sense of the right kind of optimism. As much as it’s going to be a memory, it’s going to be something that they’ll carry with them, maybe for the rest of their lives. I know certain shows have touched me that much.

That’s an interesting phrase: fantasy merchant.

I’ve definitely been more involved with being an entertainer than with being a rock ‘n’ roll performer.

Do you like rock ‘n’ roll?

I really think that needs definition. When you’re talking about rock ‘n’ roll, I prefer someone like Gene Vincent or early Elvis Presley to the stuff I see now. I think Bruce Springsteen is about the only thing that I can relate to in that framework.

Why?

Because I think he’s honest. I think he gives it everything he’s got, and I think that he does epitimize a lot of the good things about rock ‘n roll. If he writes a song about a car or he writes a slow song about his family life on Nebraska, for instance. I think it’s very classic work. I think it’s very much in the tradition of the Everly Brothers or Chuck Berry or some of the early Shirelles stuff.

How about the rockabilly bands?

Not much. I prefer Hank Williams.

Early Elvis I can see. He was quite a showman himself, I presume.

Well, Elvis Presley and people before him like Sinatra —

Liberace…

No. I mean, really: pop stars, if you like. A pop star is a relatively new phenomenon, y’know. Sinatras and the Johnnie Rays and then the Elvis Presleys… Elvis Presley really started a kind of sexual thing.

Are you a pop star?

I’m called that.

Do you think of yourself as that?

No, I don’t. I think of myself as a writer and a performer.

And an entertainer.

Yeah, it encompasses all three, really. I try to make the songs entertaining, musically, lyrically, the performance and the video that goes with it. Each part is, relatively, as important, as it demands my attention.

You must have a special relationship with Marco.

Marco is my partner in the whole idea, the whole early concepts. And the success has been 50% Marco’s. So, we have a certain writing relationship that works for us — there’s no strict rules.

I’d like to get back to your role as a fantasy merchant. How do you think the audience perceives Adam Ant? Do you think they’re coming to see a freak show?

No, I think they’re coming to see — I hope they’re coming to see me. Whether or not they think it’s a freak show is for me to deter during the course of the performance. Let me say, for kids to part with their money these days — and you’ve only got to look at the music business and the sales drops — I think if kids wanted a freak show, they could go out and buy a pulp magazine, it would cost them a lot less. I think that for someone to get out and go and see a show — I don’t know, it’s quite an effort. Once they’re in the place, it’s all sort of speculation, as far as I’m concerned. I just want them to like what they see onstage, or not like it. That’s why I called the album Friend Or Foe — there’s no room for middle ground.

None at all? No gray area?

What’s the point of being average? There’s no point. I’ve never really operated on that premise; I think you’ve got to go for the top.

You seem pretty straightforward. Do you really give a flying fuck what people write about you?

Let me say: when you say, ‘What do you think about Rolling Stone,’I’ve got to be very honest. You get the cover of Rolling Stone and you suddenly get acceptance in America. And people like the Clash and the Human League have given their left legs to do so. I don’t.

Would you elaborate on that?

If you put me on the cover, no. Because they want to put me on the cover because I’m going to sell papers.

How have the Clash and the Human League given their left legs, though?

I don’t know. Because they’ve had hit records over in England? And because maybe the editor likes them?

I don’t know.

I know for a fact that the editor of that magazine, two years ago, thought I was very much too much love, peace and Max Factor, so he didn’t like it. So that’s up to him. He’d rather have something a little bit more…

Political?

A little bit more intellectual, maybe a little bit more aesthetic. Maybe a little bit more basic, which is up to him… Y’know, I’ve never seen — for instance — Bryan Ferry on the cover of Rolling Stone, and I think that Bryan Ferry’s one of the most important writers of this decade. Or the last decade. I would rate him alongside Dylan and Springsteen and Lennon/McCartney, without any doubt at all. Maybe Bowie would get a cover of that magazine because he was so enormously successful that the guy would look like a dick if he didn’t put him on. But I do read criticisms, because sometimes they have an insight that you haven’t thought of. And I think it’s good to have the balls to read it when somebody dismisses what you do. When they just kill it. You think a bit harder the next time before giving any ground at all, any leeway. I’m at the point now where —

Idoing interviews trying? Talking to someone you’ve never even met?

No, not particularly. As long as the interviewer’s decided what kind of questions he’d like to ask.

Well, in your formative days — when companies were turning you down — it never occurred to you to say, “Oh, I’ll start playing songs like the Clash”?

No, because I’d seen the Sex Pistols and I was very much in tune with what they were trying to do. Which was, basically, nothing to do with what the Clash are all about. I think the Clash went about martyrdom, which doesn’t interest me at all. It doesn’t interest me. And now they just write rock ‘n’ roll songs, so it seems false in the first place, really.

Then who were your influences? Not just musically.

The New York Dolls. They were a good band… a great band.

Even artists, writers whatever.

Lenny Bruce. I like Lenny Bruce and I think he had a lot of courage to say things that were, at the time, risqué. And he’d get slammed up for doing it. When I watch Richard Pryor, I find it funny — half-funny — when I think of all the suffering a guy like Lenny went through for a guy like that to get away with it. I like the Doors; they were quite an influence on me when I was a teenager, in fact. When I was about 14 or 15 the Hendrix thing and the Doors thing had hit England, and you couldn’t ignore that. In a way, it was kind of strange for me, because I was getting involved in that and a lot of my friends were listening to, maybe, the Beatles or the Monkees or something like that. I tend to like the Doors. But, then again, I used to read a lot and I liked English a lot, so the Doors really appealed to me poetically. And Morrison was a great performer.

What about comparisons between Bowie and yourself?

Well, they’re inevitable. Anyone who wears make-up and walks around on stage in a theatrical vein is called David Bowie. But I think David Bowie ripped a lot from Lou Reed, personally. Judging from the production of Transformer it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility. And he might’ve done the same with Iggy Pop, as well. I think the best thing Bowie ever did was the Ziggy Stardust thing, but a lot of that had to do with Ronson as well — Mick Ronson was fucking great. That was his peak to me.

What’s your overview of the music business at this point?

If you look at it, the most ludicrous statement — the most ludicrous phrase — I’ve ever heard in my life is “music business.” There can be absolutely no way those two words fit; they’re not compatible. However business-oriented the artist is, or however liberal or music-minded the guy at the record company is, he’s still got someone upstairs who’s going to bust his chops if he doesn’t sell records. And if you don’t sell records, then you’re out the door, anyway. They only get you in the door if they think you can sell.

I’ve been involved in all the standard, idiotic mistakes that artists make — signing management deals, signing shitty record deals — all that. And I’m still paying the bills. But, at the end of the day, it all amounts to the fact that — outside of all the technology and all the wonderful gimmickry — if I walk out on that stage and I’m crap, then the audience is going to give me shit. And that isthe big challenge.

Because, to have a number one album…so many people from England have come here with hit records and walked out onstage — and that was the worst thing they could’ve done. Because they haven’t worked with audiences. They haven’t sweated; they don’t want to sweat. I don’t know, maybe that’s just my personal opinion. I’m not very fond of my contemporaries in England that much.

* * *

Adam Ant’s road manager told him it was time to get back to the hotel to prepare for the show. He explained that he liked to enter a theater five minutes before he went on, and leave five minutes after he was done.

Bob Alford, the photographer, and I sat around and tried to figure out if Adam Ant was on the level. His mesmeric teen (and pre-teen) appeal is a little scary. We agreed he was on the level. We helped ourselves to some cheesecake and salad.

Then I went outside, where a dozen or so girls of all ages were waiting patiently in a frigid wind. I told them about Adam Ant’s late-arrival policy, but they didn’t seem to mind. They were still waiting as I walked to a nearby bar for a shot and a beer.

© J. KordoshCreem, March 1983

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