By Thomas Michalski
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In a backwards-looking pop cultural landscape, permeated by nostalgia and meta-quotation, it is worth noting that no one seems to be trying to make it big aping Adam and the Ants. With post-punk, and indeed the wider sphere of 1980s pop, serving as popular reference points, Joy Division, Depeche Mode, Talking Heads and many others have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity and influence, but you’d be hard pressed to find any hip teenager sporting the New Romantic look, except perhaps as a winking Halloween costume. That motley amalgam of Day-Glo glam, punk outrageousness and, um pirates, now seems gaudy and pretentious, which, incidentally is much the same words that New York Times critic Robert Palmer used to describe the band’s brand of “tribal pop” in 1981.
But if their fashion sense resolutely refused to become timeless, and ultimately eclipsed anything else about the group in the popular imagination, the actual music, conversely, stands up admirably even after all these years. Any band that draws on post-punk or new wave owes a debt to Adam and the Ants, even if they only choose to name-check their more canonized contemporaries. Formed in 1977, the original incarnation of the band was rooted firmly in post-punk, albeit a particularly accessible strain of that famously gloomy genre. Their debut album, Dirk Wears White Sox, released in 1979, is full of the punchydrums and buzz-saw guitars that were de rigueur for English groups at the time, pulled together by a kinetic, catchy song-craft.
But even though Dirk was to become something of a forgotten classic, it still wasn’t stirring up much action for them at the time, so they made the somewhat dubious decision to hire Malcolm McLaren to rework their image. Although McLaren’s status as a manager, provocateur and taste-maker is now rightly entrenched, at the time he was known to many musicians, including his former charges The Sex Pistol -- again rightly -- as a creep and a con-man. Not long into their working relationship, McLaren convinced Adam’s band-mates to jump ship and court controversy in Bow Wow Wow.
Although Ant would later describe McLaren as, “a sort of mentor in my life, as close as you can get to a surrogate father”, he wasted no time in recovering from this slight, forming a new version of the Ants that included, most notably,Marco Pirroni. Formerly of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Pirroni and Ant would form an enduring song-writing partnership, which first bore commercial and critical fruit on 1980’s Kings of the Wild Frontier, which featured a brighter, more rhythmic sound that spawned several hit singles, including “Ant Music”. The next album, Prince Charming, followed the previous year, producing two number one hits for the band, namely the title track and “Stand and Deliver”. It is this high-flying period captured in the live footage above.
Despite the group’s success, Ant decided to pursue a solo career. With song-writing help from Pirroni, Ant released 1982’s Friend or Foe, best remembered for another chart smash, “Goody Two Shoes”. Although he continued to release records to some success in the following years, Ant was also pursuing an acting career, taking on several roles in films and on television. Interestingly, Ant’s first role had actually come in 1977, a full two years before Dirk Wears White Sox, with a part in Derek Jarman ’s hallucinatory punk epic Jubilee, which also sported appearances by Wayne County and The Slits.
At seemingly random intervals, Ant would occasionally return to trouble the charts, most notably with 1990’s“Room at the Top” and 1995’s “Wonderful”, which found the singer transitioning, rather awkwardly, into a kind of bland adult-contemporary vein. But even by that point, the bands that had benefited from his influence, including Elastica and Nine Inch Nails (whom he also performed with a few times), had begun to build on the foundation that Ant helped lay, in turn influencing other performers who may never even have heard any of his hits. Although he still tours frequently, giving even young audiences the chance to experience his music, it seems doubtful that Adam and the Ants will ever become the signifier of cool that, say, Ian Curtis has become. Still, if an intrepid listener can see past the frilly outfits and the unfortunate makeup, there’s plenty of hidden gems to be discovered.