By 1981 Adam Ant was like a combination of Trextasy and Beatlemania rolled into one. The dark star of the undergound debut album ‘Dirk Wears White Sox’ had gone supernova and into the mainstream. The hipsters had turned on him but he was still dealing an off kilter music that managed to combine a poptimism with a dark energy.
On release, Prince Charming was a big hit slamming into the charts at number 2 but compared the astonishing success of the number one for months of the Kings Of The Wild Frontier album it felt like a flat success, the reviews were lukewarm and the band’s younger fan base were starting to move on to less interesting pop pastures. There was still enough petrol in the tank though to propel the band’s to two preceding single releases and album cuts to massive number hits with Prince Charming and Stand And Deliver but the album has spent years being looked on as a disappointment.
The pop genius of Adam was still there though and years later like a team of archeologists discovering a golden city under the ruins of a rubbled ancient settlement decades later we find an album that is as bizarre, brilliant and beautiful as Kings.
Prince Charming has moved on from Kings whilst retaining some of its hallmarks. It’s full of odd rhythms, strange songs and a perfect art-house pop that needs to be celebrated and makes it one of the great lost albums of the period despite its then big chart status.
We have already the staggering moment when Adam And the Ants went from underground freaks to mainstream Antmania and it was always going to be difficult to replicate that shock of the new value.
It’s still quite staggering how such a strange band managed to turn themselves into pure pop with a thrilling dark undertow, sex and an art school obliqueness. That whiff of cordite danger is what makes the greatest of great pop and Adam understood that and that fine line between the weird and the toppermost of the poppermost has stood his music in good stead for decades.
The narrative is now set in stone…his debut Dirk album was a monochromatic cult oddity beloved by his kung fu slippered Ant fans and the remnants of the freak fierce punk scene who gathered around the band after the Sex Pistols imploded.
Adam was the sound of the early punk squats and the freak scenes up and down the UK – those strange post-punk dark disco songs of sex and violence and post-modernism were perfect for the time. His breakthrough album Kings Of The Wild Frontier was a glorious technicolor masterpiece that was the gateway album for a whole new generation of fans.
In that early eighties pomp Adam, like Bowie, was the gateway artist who opened the doors for all kind of underground artists, musicians and authors that Adam was referencing. Goth would never have been as big with Adam or even industrial and even Britpop and beyond with many of the later generations of musicians retaining a huge affection for him. Dealing his fantastical pop and an esoteric culture hinterland he took his fans on a trip. Kings was huge and it glorious Burundi pop was carved into shape by his band of merry like the wonderful Marco and into one of the great British pop records.
Where do you go from there? Prince Charming was the swift follow-up after the brief regal reign of the banD and is yet another gem that needs revisiting. If it lacks those thrilling Burundi drums of songs like Kings Of The Wild Frontier and Dog Eat Dog off the preceding album it was because it had moved on into yet another brave and exotically strange collection of rhythmical pop perfection.
The visual themes were less piratical and were now about the dandy highwayman – the outlaw was still being celebrated as well as that glorious tradition of the English dandy. The album’s biggest hit and the biggest hit of the band’s reign was Stand And Deliver which embraced these themes – themes that hark back deep into the heart of Malcolm and Viviene and the Sex shop – that combination of Dickensian waifs, rubber wear, dandys, pirates and outlaws – Adam was perhaps the only musician who took these themes and really ran with them – his art school background connecting perfectly with Maclolm’s themes and obsessions. He also had the charisma to pull off the genius of ridiculous – Adam understood that ridiculous is a key part of pop culture vision – those who dare win!
Stand and Deliver itself is a romping rush and the closest to the classic Ants tribal sound as it gallops along like Dick Turpin taking the loot whilst flirting with the occupants of the carriages as they took the hazardous route into London. The handsome outlaw as a combination of Robin Hood and james Dean – the outsiders outsider raiding pop’s gilded palace. The album’s other huge hit was Prince Charming which is arguably the weirdest sounding number one of all time. A mid-paced ooze of the song, it’s a tribal reaffirmation of self respect and warrior pride that Adam was so genius at. The empowering anthems that were part and parcel of his oeuvre. The classic lyrics have been tattooed onto the minds of so many of that generation who were grappling with the early teenage complexity and insecurity of life and needed that pop empowerment. The song itself, which is borrowed from Rolf Harris’s War Canoe is an example of the sheer breathtaking scope of influences Adam and Marco were dealing with – they were not hamstrung by snooty snobby cool and were as likely to be treasuring a Rolf b sides album as much as they loved the Velvets and Roxy Music. The song has huge drums and a dark heavy undertow and was driven by a strident acoustic guitar and the avalanche of sparse tribal drums – its a magnificent work.
After the debut’s astonishing success the musical themes had to be a style switch – pop gets bored quickly but somehow you have to retain the hallmarks that made you. The album kicks off with Scorpio which swiftly deals with this – ditching the Burundi beat but embracing a more Samba type percussive feel – it’s like a street party in Rio transposed to rainy day UK and it sees an even more full colourful Ants emerging musically and sartorially. Scorpio is a perfect fusion between the new Ants – the dandy full colour glam highway men as first seen in the album photo and this stretching out of their sound. The song is perfect embrace of world rhythms and a chorus that is pure Adam that harks back to the Dirk period – it also sounds like the theme tune from one of those sixties detective shows that also informed the band’s aesthetic.
Picasso Visita El Planet a De Los Simopis is my favorite track on the album and one of the great Adam and the Ants songs – again it seems to fuse the warped humour of the Dirk period of the band and is a comfy bedfellow to older wonk songs like Puerto Rican or Young Parisians – those quirky off-kilter pop songs that the band always dealt in but with a new improved version. The song itself comes from this earlier period and the chorus is sublime and the subject matter bizarrely and beautiful barmy. There are even the deep tribal aaaahs in the backing vocals and a nice guitar line from Marco – this is such a fantastic song.
Contemporary reviews of the album complained about the lack of melodies on the album – maybe they were listening to another record? songs like Picasso are pure melody albeit unconventional. 5 Gun West is another of those hang them high western workouts like that the band loved and all the better for it. That fantasy of the Wild West was such a huge cultural shadow in post war UK. It seemed like a fantasy place full of cool clothes and big country soundscapes. Of course the cool kids like Adam quickly worked out that that native Americans were the heroes but retained a love for the twangy outlaw theme.
That Voodoo brings the pace down like Human Beings did on Kings Of The Wild Frontier. It hangs on a yearning feedback drenched guitar line switching to a big Glitter glam groove and is a song that could have fitted perfectly onto the preceding album with its updating of glam to a post tribal eighties. Mile High Club is another lost track – it features some of those fantastic layered Adam singing – vocal lines that come with so much detail as he builds up his layers that some still leave breathing space in the song. This is a trick that is really hard to pull off and adds to the quirky originality of the song that is full of great sounds and off kilter textures. It sounds like the very early demos from Kings when Adam and Marco were trying to make sense of the new ideas of combining African music, rhythms and chants into western pop – those demos are fascinating with the African chants being sung by Adam as he seeks whole new vistas and spines for songs – could Mile High Club be a hangover from that fascinating and fantastic period of pop experimentation?
Ant Rap is the song that is singled out for the most critical beating but still hit number 4 as the post album single release. Its cod rap is kinda goofy but no more goofy than Blondie’s wonderful Rapture. The sparse song is full of clattering and propulsive rhythm from the samba drumming workout the twists the then proto hip hop beat into different spaces the bands. The vocal roll call is funny and the lines ‘From the naughty north to the sexy south’ have become iconic. You can understand why Mowhok would have confounded critics at the time – it’s more like a piece of film soundtrack and a nod to the sounds and atmospheres of Native American cultures who Adam had already written to to ask for permission for their influence. It underlines just how far away Adam And The Ants were from their pop contemporaries like Duran Duran and is classic Adam weird wonk . From its tribal chants and marimbas and lines of guitar filth and native American leanings, its Kings Of The Wild Frontier Adam reworked and reinvented for Prince Charming. It’s vocal layers are spellbinding and that marimba is a great flavour and is a welcome reminder of the kooky side of the band and a fantastic track. In the hands of another band it would have been a much hallowed John Peel session track – an example of the experimental rhythmic experiements that were going on in late night radio land at the time. The song being wedged towards the end of what was considered a teenybop record had somehow lost its true audience! It’s another high point from the album.
S.E.X. closes the album and is return to Adam’s favourite theme in one of those sparse pieces that is constructed from a collection of great Marco guitar feedback drenched lines interspersing with a grinding disco groove creating space for Adam to build the tension towards the chorus that is like a yodel jamming with classic Syd Barret – perfect weird English pop. It’s yet another fantastic oddity and a seductive addictive slice of perfect weird pop. I’m not sure anyone else could ever make this work but the hands of The Ants it’s a perfect and weirdly downbeat end to the album and the end to the band’s glorious pomp.
There would be great records after this and bigger worldwide hits but the tribal Ants and their wam bam glam outlaw tribal pirate pomp was over after, like the band after Prince Charming.
To signify the end of this period, Adam ended the band and future releases were as as Adam Ant singular. The most bizarre period and journey of any band in British pop was now over leaving a fascinating legacy of fantastically off records to unpick for decades after.