Adam and the Ants
Adam and the Ants: Kings of the Wild Frontier (1980)

Adam and the Ants ‘Ant Music’ from Subculture to Image Culture

Adam of Adam and the Ant’s original costume is in the Victoria and Albert Museum but you can get Ant-style highwayman and pirate costumes online if you want.

The 16th of October 1980 saw Adam and the Ants beamed into family living rooms across the UK, a breakthrough crossover moment and the commencement of a blueprint that would contour the decade. Music journalist Dave Rimmer documents this movement of new music, clubbing and dressing up, coining the title “The Look” to encompass a brief but essentially central new romantic scene with loose ends that sprawl back into punk and forward into new pop.

Indeed, Adam and the Ants were the lynchpins in bringing this into mainstream visibility in a celebrated glory. The single ‘Dog Eat Dog’ was their first song to threaten the pop charts and led to their debut on Top of the Pops as 1980 slumbered through autumn towards Christmas with an abundance of trite in the pop charts.

Though Adam shared a similar deep punk heritage with bands such as the Clash, he did not share Joe Strummer’s terror that appearing on the glib and inane programme would somehow contaminate any punk authenticity. In fact, Adam had a polar opposite view.

This was about the fourth overhaul of Adam and the Ants, with a significant change exacted at the immediate start of 1980 when the Artful Dodger of pop Malcolm McLaren was hired to advise the singer on maximizing his potential. As detailed in Paul Gorman’s Malcolm McLaren biography, the arrangement included insight into a new sound (Burundi drumming), some more general principles in producing and creating music (to take singing lessons, to appreciate songwriting as a craft), and some guidelines towards a new image.

The band had just released their delayed debut album Dirk Wears White Sox (1979) to critically lukewarm reviews from the music press who were more fixed on other strands of post-punk swirling in the autumn 1979 mix.

Reflecting the long gestation period that traversed the earlier line-up changes, the album is inconsistent and less focussed, failing to hit the high spots and capture the early energy, primitive edge, and ingenuity of the band. Hardcore Ants fans in the Ripped and Torn / Kill Your Pet Puppy fanzine collective gave voice to the deflation felt by many of the dedicated followers, suggesting that the album sounded like “the Ants parodying the Banshees parodying the Ants”. It did, however, sell in good numbers as an independent release, topping the specialist independent charts for many months.

Having completed a 1979 summer tour of typically grotty provincial punk venues such as Retford Porterhouse and the evocative Grey Topper in the Nottinghamshire mining village of Jacksdale, the band did not immediately recommence touring to promote the album. In fact, in early autumn 1979, they split apart, with Adam and drummer Dave Barbe changing direction to record a never-released session of beguiling soul and funk-influenced tracks.

There followed a hastily arranged reformation (apart from bassist Andy Warren, who had committed to joining distant-ex-Ant Lester Square in the Monochrome Set) to play a single date at London’s Electric Ballroom, immaculately timed on New Year’s Eve. As well as the ’70s being officially over, it would be the end of the band in the form nurtured since spring 1977.

Ditching the nascent experimental funky direction that tantalisingly remains as a “what if?”, McLaren offered Adam a package of advice under what was termed a consultancy, contracted to one month. The arrangement included insight into a new sound (Burundi drumming), some more general principles in producing and creating music (to take singing lessons, to appreciate songwriting as a craft), and some guidelines towards a new image. Adam was sent away to do the equivalent of homework.

Previously, the band had drawn from a turbulent mix of visual tropes, channelling an Allen Jones world of subverted and celebrated erotica with a fluctuating procession of films such as Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and kabuki theatrical images encased within a punk spirit of dressing to confront and confound. In tandem with the visual impact, Adam (and the band) had an equally complex and explosive mix of musical and literary influences, drawing from degenerate rock ’n’ roll, high art, and Italian Futurism to construct complex and often contradictory lyrical themes, looks and postures.

This mix and match of disparate and controversial sources were very much hit and miss when brought together in practice, evidenced by Fred and Judy Vermorel’s hastily assembled 1981 book on Adam that tried to cash in on his early 1980s success and nail down a coherent backstory to this complex character. In contrast, McLaren argued for a more focused approach and emphasised two areas of visual and cultural heritage that were informing his own projects and fashion work with his partner Vivienne Westwood; Indian braves and historical pirates.

In his previous thinking and experiments, Adam had already entertained an American Indian influence, but here was the prompt to bring that into a clear and foregrounded focus. One specific thing that McLaren suggested was the white stripe of face paint to resemble an American Indian brave ready for war. The singer had used theatrical make-up and stage paint in previous guises, but this was a stark new look. The progression from the start of 1980 to taking to the screen on Top of the Pops, resplendent in his full costume and becoming the first pantomime pop star of the 1980s, is often portrayed as a simple off/on switch flicked by McLaren.

In effect, it is more blended and complex: with McLaren suggesting certain specifics and planting seeds for Adam to explore and bring in his own concrete manifestations. One notable corollary of the McLaren consultancy is him promptly poaching the band for his own Bow Wow Wow project, which would use the same ideas McLaren had imparted to Adam. Licking his wounds, Adam came back with a new band and a reinforced look, taking on McLaren’s suggestions. The role of Marco Pirroni should not be understated, providing important musical direction and ideas. Pirroni stepping in is an example of how Adam’s transformation involved a hybrid consensus of inputs rather than just a pure gestation of McLaren’s props and prompts.

With a new band and a suite of new tracks (but still no record label), they launched into their ‘Ants Invasion’ tour – a hectic schedule sandwiched into the last week of May and the first week of June, visiting more prestigious venues than they had previously engaged with. The tour is announced with a small feature and photograph in the music newspaper, Sounds, Adam and Marco dressed in relatively plain clothing. However, for this tour you see a partial movement towards the larger transformation – the white stripe is there, with a billowing white shirt or bare-chested pose combined with leather trousers. There is also the legendary jacket – but this is downplayed as a promotional device.

Journalist and photographer Mick Mercer captured an evening from the tour at High Wycombe (23 May 1980) as a scripted striptease of unravelling costume layers. Amongst dedicated Ants fans of the past (self-styled soldier ants or Ant People) this tour is seen as the precursor to the tipping point, with the celebrated outbreaks of violence, disorder, and associated tension still peppering each gig and carrying through the Ants flavour of engagement. The common practice of amateur recording of gigs and subsequent tape-trading meant that aural footage of many of the gigs on this tour have survived and can be experienced on platforms such as YouTube. You can still sense the violence, with the band playing a mix of their new songs which would form the basis of 1980 album Kings of the Wild Frontier, alongside old favourites like ‘Plastic Surgery’, ‘Fat Fun’, ‘Fall In’ and ‘Beat My Guest’.

A recording from Huddersfield breaks down into extended warring with proceedings halted mid-set, and comments from the Middlesbrough gig suggest the evening can be summed up as “violence with music as a backing track”. The year 1980 was very much a critical mass of warring subcultural tribes, with the Quadrophenia-inspired mod and skinhead cultures added to the mix, alongside football casuals always looking for a scrap. A double-page feature in The Face for September 1980 reports from the final gig in this tour, at London’s Empire Ballroom on 8 June. Taking a barometer reading both outside (“an intimidating tribal cocktail”) and inside (“violent catharsis”), you can see that something of the old Ants essentialist menace and power is still in evidence.

At the same time, there is a perceptible shift. In the contemporaneous fanzine reports of Tom Vague, who is embedded in the Ants way of things and part of the devotional culture that the Ants encouraged, you detect in his remarkably perceptive and poignant writing how the ground that he stands on is being taken away. Additionally, listening to the live recordings you get a sense of how the dialogue is as scripted as the costume striptease. This tremor becomes a tectonic subcultural shift by the time of the subsequent Ants tour at the end of 1980.

In late July 1980, the single ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’ is released, with the sleeve depicting a still of a bare-chested Adam in mid-performance at the London Empire gig that concluded the tour. Cut off at the midriff, cast in a red glow, and touched up in the design studio, he twists his torso under a single spotlight in the midst of a war cry, his white stripe enhanced in the post-production process of honing in on the correct image. None of the other band members are in shot. Neither is the iconic cavalry jacket, but it can be seen in a matching quartet of live photographs (said to be taken from the 31 May gig at Middlesbrough Rock Garden) on the reverse of the sleeve.

A promotional video is made in support of the release, a continuous take with the band performing cornered into a featureless white-wall space. The energy is evident, as the band cavort through the recording, and here we see the full costumes that Adam and the Ants will make famous. How much exposure this video received is difficult to ascertain, as the single never quite broke through into the charts, in the era before wall-to-wall music video programmes dictated viewing schedules.

Dressed down in plain leathers and tee-shirts, Adam and Marco next feature in an NME article in late August, with the magazine reiterating their stance on Adam and his music as being laughable and unworthy. He is painted as a castaway or cast-off from punk (headline: “From the Vanguard to the Guard’s Van”), as NME march forward to continue setting out the inclusion criteria, syntax. and ontology for post-punk. It is an interesting non-article of sorts, more indicative of the power and confidence of the music newspapers than a document of the band – Adam (and Marco) clearly have a future vision, but NME seem determined to paint them into an eternally returning past.