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.

Three months after the single, which just failed to dent the all-important top 40, the follow-up ‘Dog Eat Dog’ is released as a preview to the new album and a longer tour through November and December. Make or break. This time the picture sleeve forms an important cultural marker of the 1980s. The front of the sleeve is a compressed still from the video for the previous single, a frame from near the end of the sequence where the camera moves up close to the singer as he tilts his head back, raises his arms in a clasp, and closes his eyes.

That the still comes from a video of the previous single suggests two things – firstly, that the video wasn’t widely seen, and secondly, it expresses the motif of ‘living on video’ that would define the decade. There is a chain of relationships here with the pop video as the carrier: Adam stares into the camera and we stare into the television screen. The image (and indeed the concept) is by Peter Ashworth, who repeated the technique for the sleeve (front, back. and inserts) of the accompanying album Kings of the Wild Frontier released in early November. In an interview in The Guardian from 2018, he recalls how he created the image by photographing the monitor screen replaying a live video of the band in the studio. Ashworth is precise about the date, 5 August 1980, a week after the release of the ‘Kings…’ single when Ashworth is present at the video shoot. In his words:

 Adam Ant got the band together in a small rehearsal room in Brixton to create a video test. Shooting stills from the monitor screen during the band performance produced some powerful images. Two days later a repeat shoot from the video recording, in a blacked-out studio, produced the sleeve image, the first time a video image had been used on a record sleeve.

If anything, Ashworth’s sleeve image for the album is more powerful than the sleeve image for ‘Dog Eat Dog’. The album cover image is marked primarily by the obvious grain of pixilation from the video playback, adding a conceptualist twist by making it markedly a picture as observed in a mediated process. At this point, the music as pantomime flexes an awareness of its own artifice. Ashworth deconstructs the assumed privilege of the rock music photographer and places himself effectively amongst the audience of onlookers, the masses in mediation, soon to swell into a teen army of adoring fanatics.

The effect is not quite as evident on the ‘Dog Eat Dog’ single sleeve. However, an important style motif is foregrounded as the cavalry jacket is glimpsed for the first time in this expanded context. Adam’s shoulders bleed off the bottom corner of the sleeve, with the whole image pushed up against the edge of the sleeve as if he is energetically refusing to be captured in a standard promotional pose. On the reverse, accompanying the b-side (and Ants classic) ‘Physical (You’re So)’, we are shown the first outing of the Warrior Ant logo designed by Danny Kleinman, a one-time guitarist from Adam’s former band Bazooka Joe and an accomplished film director and visual artist. The Warrior Ant cleverly hybridises a red ant and an American Indian brave. Visual motifs are coming thick and fast, soon to be replicated on tee-shirts and neckerchiefs.

Unlike the previous single, ‘Dog Eat Dog’ just breaks through enough to secure the Top of the Pops opportunity. This was their one shot to go for the pop jugular, simultaneously perplexing many of their hardcore followers who supported them through their kinky and underground take on punk through the late 1970s – gigs which often involved Jordan screaming for 30 minutes.

Early film footage of Adam and the Ants is hard to source. There are scenes in Derek Jarman’s 1978 film Jubilee and a TV appearance on the Granada TV programme What’s On in April 1978, presumably with Jordan in full battle cry. What’s On was the successor to So It Goes, effectively a continuation with the same presenter Tony Wilson of Factory Records and Hacienda fame – though the punk mythology machine tends to suggest that So it Goes was so outrageous it was quickly curtailed and banned. I have never managed to source this What’s On footage of the band.

Strangely, there was an Ants feature for the BBC Wales programme Twndish (Welsh for funnel) in July 1979 where they performed ‘Family of Noise’ and ‘Zerox Machine’, but (tantalisingly) only audio of this survives. Hence, the appearance of the band on Top of the Pops in October 1980 was a special moment. They are swimming against the current, with rock DJ Tommy Vance hosting the show and other featured acts leaning towards safe popularity and pop singularity (George Benson, Barbra Streisand, the Police) and bland rock ‘n’ roll retro (Showaddywaddy, Matchbox) interspersed with a studio chat with newly engaged members of Dollar (this engagement was actually faked as a desperate publicity stunt).

In a downwards punching ignominious move, they are given a novelty introduction by a studio guest – former Monty Python collaborator Michael Palin – who adopts a silly voice to complement Vance’s thinly disguised disdain at the band. Brushing this aside, Adam and the Ants weigh in with an energetic, highly theatrical, and meticulously choreographed performance. They are in the flow instantaneously, as if they are a quintet beamed down in Star Trek action mode. Adam whirls and struts, occupying a fixed spot at the front of the stage, and you can see how bassist Kevin Mooney standing to his left is a rival with his looks, style, and demeanour (he would be the first casualty of the band’s success, departing in March 1981). Stan Hawkins, in his 2009 book The British Pop Dandy, pinpoints Adam as having the required attributes to produce “disciplined self-referential performativity”, and of being able to turn on a “self-conscious state of being an object of desire”. In October 1980, the singer and his band have this one shot, and they take their chance.

Nearly a year after his subcultural consultancy with McLaren, the elements are now in place, not least the iconic cavalry jacket. This is sourced in advance of the ‘Ants Invasion’ tour, from Bermans and Nathans costumiers, a relic from Richardson’s 1968 film The Charge of the Light Brigade starring David Hemmings (Adam actually purchased a number of them over time). The same costumiers, based on Camden Street, had already played a significant role in the British pop dandy movement, fitting out the Kinks in red hunting jackets and breeches as they lampooned the ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’. Adam’s cavalry jacket is an explosion of fluting, gold beads, and brocade – known as spaghetti in military circles – combined with a black frilled shirt, rags and scarfs tied to the arms, a leather studded belt with chain and feathers, black leather trousers, and fringed boots.

The single climbs the chart, earning a repeat performance on Top of the Pops two weeks later. The glossy music mags and teen mags pick up on Adam and the band, and the Kings of the Wild Frontier tour commencing in early November suddenly takes on a new charge. Audiences are split between a dwindling old hardcore, expecting the frisson and subversion of the past, and a new teen audience expecting pantomime pop. This transition and subsequent contrast are exemplified in Mick Mercer’s fanzine Panache. He had spent the latter part of 1979 and the entirety of 1980 trying to assemble an Ants special issue, finding that the band members had little time for his efforts as the spotlight of mega-stardom suddenly shined upon them.

Panache #16 from early 1981 is an insightful read – it has that classic punk fanzine quirk, redolent of the French writer and pursuant of literary games Georges Perec, in which a letter on the typewriter is broken (‘q’ in this case), but the issue also offers an evolving commentary of the band’s marketing of themselves. As Mercer smoulderingly states, the band are now offering themselves as a fashionable alternative to “Madness fans who have grown out of their baggy trousers and fancy a pair of moccasins”.

Backtracking slightly, May 1980 saw the launch of The Face, a glossy monthly magazine by Smash Hits founder Nick Logan, looking to blur boundaries between style culture, pop culture, and post-punk musical experimentation. This ground-breaking magazine was soon joined by i-D and Blitz, as British subculture forged in music and fashion proudly asserted itself as a roar from the underground. Editor Logan understood that performance and artifice were re-emerging as a post-punk currency, and he narrated this new sensibility through the pages of The Face.

We associate The Face at the time of its inception with new romantic culture, but it would not be until the November 1980 issue when ‘the cult with no name’ was formally christened. The first six or so issues of The Face were a joyous mix of 2-Tone, rockabilly, mod, post-punk – cut and paste from multiple pasts, cross-pollination in the present. In terms of taking a sensibility of post-punk performance and artifice to the realm of the mainstream, Adam and the Ants beat the new romantics to it. The deluge quickly ensued.

By the following month, November, Spandau Ballet had made the charts with their much-hyped first single, ‘To Cut a Long Story Short’, and brought to the screens an image of dandy gladiators draped with highland blankets. The first thing I did, as an enthusiastic teenager, was to find an old pair of ‘Birmingham Bags’ (high-waisted multi-buttoned, wide-cut trousers) and sew in a line of distanced press studs below the knee. Fastening the press studs instantly transformed the trousers into jodhpurs–a new romantic staple.

In March 1981 another McLaren cast-off and Sex Pistols fellow traveller, Edward Tudor-Pole with his band Tenpole Tudor, would produce a video and promotional imagery for their single ‘The Swords of a Thousand Men’ dressed in medieval chainmail, heraldic tunics, and wielding broadswords. By the time they performed this on Top of the Pops they were pared down to dirty denim and voluminous trousers, the heraldic influences confined to patches and prints looking like discarded or pilfered bar towels. Unlike Ant, perhaps they had just hired their historical costumes.

They would advertise their final album, Let the Four Winds Blow, at the end of the year once again wearing full suits of armour, but soon vanished off the new-pop landscape. Eddie Tenpole Tudor would fleetingly resurface in 1983 with a desperate attempt at a new image (straw-drenched country bumpkins) and a failed attempt at pop success with ‘The Hayrick Song’.

Adam and his changing images were a mainstay of 1981’s fixation on a look, effectively plotting the path of its phenomenally rising importance. The costume for ‘Dog Eat Dog’ gained instant notoriety and credibility, evolving to legendary status with the clothing now deposited with the Victoria & Albert Museum. By April 1981 the back page box advertisements from NME are offering two avenues to purchase this pre-packaged look. A dedicated ‘Ant Gear’ company (replacing the ‘Clash gear’ of 1980) is selling a replica of the military jacket and PVC trousers, using the video still picture sleeve image. Closer inspection of the small print foreshadows an inevitable disappointment, as £9-90 (plus postage) buys you a black cotton drill jacket with yellow-gold spandex and printed transfer braiding.

Photo by Ian Trowell

An adjacent advertisement from Printout Promotions has a dual Ant look amidst a melange of 1981 images, including a lesser-spotted branding of something called ‘para-punk’. The Ant selection is polychronic, pitching a new romantic billowing shirt and tight trousers look (1981) alongside an olive-green military mac look (1979). These back page advertisements were partly appealing to readers of the music newspapers and tended to steer clear of clothing branded to teen-pop audiences or mainstream pop bands.

Initially, this ‘Ant Gear’ and associated early new romantic clothing style had an underground appeal, though quite likely functioning at a provincial level away from the sneering looks of a London fashion elite. As 1981 quickly progressed, these looks would shift across and become the currency of mainstream pop and teen magazine bedroom wall posters. The transition to the decade of ‘The Look’ was complete.

Adam changed his image from video to video through 1981 and into 1982, taking on guises such as a dandy highwayman with ‘Stand and Deliver’ and errant peacockish regalism with ‘Prince Charming’. There was both a flow and continuity between each image, everything was both grand and throwaway at the same time. As was quickly established, this was no longer about nurturing an edgy subculture, instead becoming a succession of quick-change acts for a teen audience.

According to his autobiography, a main driver for his success was to be “bigger than Bow Wow Wow”, with McLaren’s audacious poaching of his initial musicians still nagging at his pride. With one cultural pole having his original costume in the museum, the bathetic descent of Ant’s images flourishes in the current nostalgia-laden times with the highwayman and pirate costumes available as go-to fancy dress from online retail sites such as Amazon or Wish. Amazon Ant is a far cry from McLaren’s initial plans and expectations for Adam, though maybe he is having a sly laugh up there somewhere.

Works Cited

Du Noyer, Paul. “From the Vanguard… to the Guard’s Van”New Musical Express. 23 August 1980. p. 27

“Frankie! Eurythmics! Tina Turner! Peter Ashworth’s 80s pop mavericks – in pictures“. The Guardian. 12 December 2018

Gorman, Paul. The Life and Times of Malcolm McLaren: The Biography. Constable. 2020. p. 443

Hawkins, Stan. The British Pop Dandy: Masculinity, Popular Music and Culture. Ashgate. 2009.

Mercer, Mick. ‘Meet the Ants’. Panache #16. 1981

Rimmer, Dave. New Romantics: The Look. Omnibus. 2003.

Vermorel, Fred and Judy. Adam & the Ants, Omnibus. 1981