BY MIN CHEN
Adam and The Ants was launched in 1980 with a mutiny. Obviously, an early form of the band existed in the late ‘70s; they were familiar faces on London’s punk circuit and had released the 1979 post-punk platter Dirk Wears White Sox, which wasn’t at all warmly embraced by critics. Frustrated by the group’s failing prospects, frontman Adam Ant forked out £1,000 to recruit Malcolm McLaren, the man who rocketed The Sex Pistols to notoriety, as manager to reverse the Ants’ fortunes. But what McLaren eventually did was to walk off with Ant’s band, luring musicians Matthew Ashman, Dave Barbarossa, and Leigh Gorman to his other project Bow Wow Wow.
Unsurprisingly, Ant was livid, but not daunted. “I wasn’t motivated by revenge,” he remembered, “but the humiliation and the shock of it sort of put me into a gear where I thought, ‘Okay, you’ve said your piece. Now, I’m going to get on with it.’” And he did: in quick order, he’d gathered around him a new band—including ex-Banshee Marco Pirroni, Kevin Mooney, and two drummers—the lineup with which he would embark on an adventurous, landmark run of hits.
At a moment when British post-punk bands from Magazine to Joy Division to Throbbing Gristle were digging into gritty realism and existential grappling—backed by the polarized politics and economic crises that roiled the land in the ‘80s—Ant headed the opposite way. His output in the new decade would be brashly animated and polychromatic in its construction of an escapist fantasy powered by “something heroic and celebratory,” in his words. “I wanted to be like a king,” he added. “Not just some guy hanging on the corner moaning about everything and spitting and wearing safety pins.” As “Kings of the Wild Frontier,” the 1980 single that debuted his new group, so declared, his would be the formation of “a new royal family, a wild nobility.”
McLaren, it turns out, didn’t really depart with everything. Besides subjecting Ant to “hours and hours of philosophy,” the provocateur left him a compilation tape containing “Burundi Black,” a 1971 bestselling track by French musician Michel Bernholc. On it, Bernholc sampled a recording—originally released on the 1968 album Musique de Burundi—of 25 drummers from the Ingoma tribe in Burundi in east Africa, overlaying that profound rhythm with his own noodlings on guitar and keyboards. The peerless work prompted Ant to dig further into “all these traditional ethnic albums” for insights into beats and “different ways of using my voice.” He would liberally apply that vocal aggression and rhythm to 1980’s Kings of the Wild Frontier, an album run through with a primal pulse, yawning bass, and stabs of guitar (see “Dog Eat Dog”)—generating a world-shaking new wave sound that would come to be dubbed Burundi beat.
Ant was not done there, because, according to him, “I wanted to do something that looked as good as it sounded.” Cue the clothes and makeup. To project that “playful, heroic thing,” Ant arrayed a wardrobe of military jackets to be worn over billowing white shirts, silky trousers, cummerbunds, bandoliers, and a careful curation of scarves (Dave Whiting and Yvonne Swindon designed the outfit that featured on Prince Charming). And from his research into American Indian cultures—since “the Native American thing was as close to a religion as I had”—came the painted streaks, smeared across his nose or on his cheek. “It was more like a war stripe,” he clarified. “A declaration of war on all that kind of nonsense in the music business and the political stuff that I didn’t like.” In that now-iconic getup, Ant cut a raffish figure, bearing strict martial authority as much as a deviant, marauding air. He looked, in short, like a king, even if his realm was that of a wild frontier.
Ant’s look and sound—and the combination of—were unique, but at this time in British pop culture, not entirely singular. The Ants’ ascendency coincided with that of the New Romantics, a loosely defined movement headed by the foppish likes of Culture Club and Spandau Ballet, and borne from the belly of London’s Blitz club, where fashions and attitudes were taken to theatrical extremes. At the same time, Bow Wow Wow had emerged with tracks “C·30 C·60 C·90 Go!” and “Go Wild in the Country,” palpably undergirded by that so-called Burundi beat.
In 1981, too, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, McLaren’s creative partner in SEX and Seditionaries, would also present her first solo collection, guided by that trending motif: pirates. It was a bounty of primary-colored breeches, intricately embroidered jackets, pirate hats, and shirts printed with a striking rope-like pattern (this squiggle would become one of Westwood’s key signatures, notably seen on Boy George, Bow Wow Wow, and yes, Adam Ant). The silhouettes here were gleaned from the 17th and 18th centuries, but given a rakish, asymmetrical update. Westwood called it her “romantic collection,” fired by an impetus to escape to another era, another fantasy, another vantage point. “To people of the time, the trousers looked somewhat heroic,” she said, “because they made you look like you rode a horse. It was a bit military or adventurous.”
For a woman who once asserted, “My stimulus is always intellectual,” the parallel that ran between her method and muse could not be lost on her. She was indeed like a pirate, culling from British portraiture as much as African textiles for the collection—“plundering ideas and colors from other places and periods,” wrote Matteo Guarnaccia. And as she once asked, “Where do you get your ideas from, if not from the past?”
It’s here that Westwood and Ant converge in their processes (both, after all, did come under the influence of McLaren), in their expansive and raptorial adoption of cultural pasts and practices. Ant’s appropriation of Native American tribal ornamentation and Burundi drumming (and much later, hip hop, as on “Ant Rap”), while inventive in the context of new wave, raised the thornier aspects of exploitation and misrepresentation. Aside from the royalties he earned off the backs of these traditions, his casual commandeering of these customs and rituals trivialized their centuries-rich significance. Of course, the 1980s were hardly the most politically correct of eras, but even in 1981, critic Robert Palmer was giving the Ants a pointed drubbing, calling out the band for “transmuting worthy sources into objectionable trash.” Ant himself has apparently been confronted by American Indians about that problematic white stripe. In his telling, he won them over with his act, though the story sheds finer light on the American Indian leaders than it does Ant, whose sensitivity simply led him to conclude, “Speaking to the Native Americans was a real test for me.”
But such is subversion and such is piracy. “What’s the point of robbery when nothing is worth taking?” sang Ant on the 1981 hit “Stand and Deliver,” the video of which marked the florid heights of his campy, dandy highwayman act. No doubt: the band’s jangly, rhythm-driven syntheses were thrillingly renegade pop excursions. Ant, though, seems less than aware of how aptly he’s dressed for the part of pirate and plunderer.
While he dropped the look from 1985’s Vive Le Rock on, he sank right back into it with refreshed vengeance on his 2013 comeback Adam Ant Is the Blueblack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner’s Daughter. On the latter release, the Burundi beat was gone, and the Ant heard on record was rubbed raw from years battling depression and the music industry. But resurrected here was the king of the wild frontier, the disheveled Hussar, “the character who had the stripe on his nose, who has virtually come back from the dead,” he declared. Cue, again, the pirate hat, the scarves and feathers, the military jacket. Hoist the Jolly Roger too. Then and now, Adam Ant, looking heroic, will count himself one of the buccaneers—in song and style, literally and figuratively. “When they raided somewhere, they would take all the stuff they could carry or wear,” he once explained, “and not take anything else.”