Adam and the Ants: Kings of the Wild Frontier (Deluxe Edition)

Adam and the Ants
Kings of the Wild Frontier [Deluxe Edition]
Sony Legacy

Make no mistake: the box set for the deluxe edition of Adam and the Ants’ seminal 1980 new wave album Kings of the Wild Frontier is nothing short of epic. With its reflective-gold cover, complete vinyl of the original album, added-on studio demos, fan club trinkets, audio of a 1981 show in Chicago, video of a show in Tokyo that same year, and so much more, it is catnip for completists, the kind of thing that labels try so hard to pull off and make cool but so few actually end up achieving.

However, there is something off about this massive collection of consumable ephemera. It’s hard to pin at first, but as you dive in further, a shocking revelation awaits you: despite its multiple charting singles and accrued acclaim from over the decades, Kings of the Wild Frontier hasn’t aged well at all.

Adam and the Ants, afterall, were the epitome of what post-punk sounded like prior to releasing Kings, their 1979 debut Dirk Wears White Socks following in the pattern of great bands like the Pop Group before them, using the punk songwriting toolkit to fashion songs that hued closer to proper pop melodies with dashes of art-rock tossed in the mix for good measure. Frontman Adam Ant showed off a knack for interesting, twisting songwriting, unafraid to use vocal samples on tracks like “Catholic Day” while using songs like the catchy “Cartrouble (Parts 1 & 2)” and the still-iconic “Never Trust a Man (With Egg On His Face)” to bring his undeniable brand of strange right into the British mainstream. He was properly praised, but anyone who saw him in a live setting knew that this was the start of something genuinely different.

After the album began to stall out on the charts, the backing lineup was hand-picked by the influential producer Malcolm McLaren to form Bow Wow Wow, leaving Ant rudderless until he was placed in the path of guitarist Marco Pirroni. A bond was formed, and before long the group left all pretensions of art-rock behind in order to grab some pirate outfits and truly gloss up their image. Ant brought in not one, but two drummers to help bolster his sound, with the Burundi drum playing a very specific role in grounding the pop-noise squall he was aiming for in the group’s newest incarnation. The album was a total success, winning Ant awards, great sales, and even the adoration of a generation of young people who looked up to him as a sex symbol. Their motto, of course, was “Ant Music for Sex People”.

So when Kings of the Wild Frontier blasts open with one of their best-ever songs, a funky slice of new wave called “Dog Eat Dog”, the end result feels like refined chaos, blown-out melodies working with playful guitars and, of course, Ant’s so-plain-it’s-great vocal cadence. It’s thrilling, goofy, fun. Yet by the time the riff-by-numbers workout “Feed Me to the Lions” and the unfortunate vocal squall that dominates “Killer in the Home” start rearing their heads, it becomes increasingly clear how Ant’s supposedly-revolutionary blend of pop and punk comes off as nothing more than a glossy imitation of what Plastic Bertrand was able to accomplish three years prior with landmark one-off “Ça plane pour moi”.

There is a lot of clever repackaging going on with Kings of the Wild Frontier, gussying up tropes and templates from other artists but coating them here in a sexgod sheen. “They believed in sex and looking good,” Ant declares in the extremely self-referential “The Magnificent Five”, a great piece of legend-building that nonetheless shuffles with knuckle-dumb fuzz riffs and a lot of “hey hey” background breaths. The music, to this day, feels like a product of the era, drummer Chris Hughes’ production forgetting to add any real low-end to the drums, which made the group shine live but makes the resulting album far more monochromatic than something of its stature should sound. “With their own brand of music / They weren’t pandering” Ant shouts at one point, his meta observations still belying the fact that his music, at times, remains trapped in its timeline, impossible to transcend the decade that spawned it.

Shame too, as Ant’s lyrics were better than the performances they appeared in, the album’s title track mixing observations of race along with crass commercialism in equal measure:

I feel beneath the white

There is a redskin suffering

From centuries of taming

I feel beneath the white

There is a redskin suffering

From centuries of taming

No method in our madness

Just pride about our manner

Antpeople are the warriors

Antmusic is the banner

So much of Ant’s lyrics were about the band themselves in their own self-aggrandizing way (“The music’s lost its taste / So try another flavor / Antmusic!”), but rarely does it come off of as truly egocentric, the band instead gallivanting around like pop music’s bad boys, upending the system. It’s a fun gambit, and one they weren’t able to fully master, as on the following album, they launched the horrendous sequel to “Antmusic” that is “Antrap”, which is proved that, no, you can’t capture lightning in a bottle a second time.

That being said, the makers of this album’s deluxe edition tried getting everything a collector would need here, and while some of the songs sound genuinely more fun in a live setting (“Ant Invasion” gets the biggest jolt of pep, while “Dog Eat Dog” has the rest of the band hooting along), the additional B-sides and rarities are truly worth writing home about. “Press Darlings” is a lost mini-masterpiece in its own right, punk-flavored and winking as always, Ant’s voice hitting a sweet falsetto on that chorus that helps drive the hook home. “A.N.T.S.”, meanwhile, remains a glorious outlier, the group totally goofing on the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” in a gloriously bratty fashion. While the live Tokyo concert is worth it for fans, an included of-the-era documentary detailing the group’s first U.S. tour captures the energy and excitement that helped launch the group in the States better than anything else.

“It’s your money that we want / And your money we shall have!” the band shouts during “Jolly Roger”, and despite the of-the-era-collectibles and bonus recordings that make this Kings of the Wild Frontier deluxe edition a must-have for fans, note how Ant’s photo remains the same, eternally stuck in 1980, pretty and daring while the songs inside decay and show their age in an unfortunate fashion. It’s like a musical version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, but here — he’s a pirate, and yes, iconic outsider status or not, it is your money he shall have.

RATING 5 / 10