King of the mild frontier

Adam Ant's back, so unplug the jukebox and do us all a favor

Like his Capitol Records labelmates Duran Duran--fellow video creations who, like tuberculosis, had once been thought eradicated from existence--Antmusic returns. Ant has been seen on TV once again, his fey handsome mug seen shedding tears in a stark black-and-white video; he has been spotted sharing the stage with Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, running through a trio of old Antunes--"Physical (You're So)," "Red Scab," and "Beat My Guest." He even held his own with Howard Stern, and coming soon to a video store near you: Adam Ant and Debbie Harry in a rock and roll mystery called Drop Dead Rock, presumably shot direct to Super-8.

"The four-year break [between albums] was a bit inadvertent, really," Adam Ant explains by way of introduction. "My last album was with MCA in 1990, Manners and Physique. I did make a follow-up album for MCA called Persuasion...but unfortunately, there was a big shoot-out in the boardroom in 1992, just prior to its release, and my album got caught up in the rush and they didn't want to put it out, so it got lost in the shuffle and is still sitting in limboland. I had no real tangible way of getting it out, so I had to start again and write Wonderful with [guitarist] Marco [Pirroni], who I worked with since Adam and the Ants. I put myself on tour in the States about 18 months ago, the Persuasion tour, and we did about 30 shows.

"After I did that I got a deal with EMI and started again and did a whole new album, which is Wonderful. So, in a way, it was a long way 'round...but hey, it makes ya strong."

Ant has indeed been rescued from obscurity, validated by the revered Reznor, forgiven his past crimes, and allowed to continue on with a career long presumed over by those who even cared about such things. Pop music audiences live by the motto "forgive and forget," allowing the discarded refuse of one era to resurface in another even bigger than before, stars reborn with nary a mention made of past indiscretions and failures.

Now, these musicians are the MTV superstars of yesterday made over for today--their once-frothy images now darker and dirtier, their music brooding where it was once bouncing, their music art where it was once product. Redemption is never any further away than an unexpected hit single or an MTV "Buzz Clip."

Duran Duran has the deplorable ripoff-remake of Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines" all over the Edge; Thomas Dolby has returned with a collection of greatest hits (which were?). The Go-Go's received new-found legitimacy last year with the release of a double-disc retrospective; Devo was invited by Courtney Love-Cobain to recut "Girl U Want" for the ultra-hip Tank Girl soundtrack. And one-hit wonder Jim Carroll, he of "People Who Died" infamy, has been recast as icon by the likes of Pearl Jam and a new self-mythologizing biopic.

Now, Ant has returned as dewy-eyed romantic, writing wimpy, twisted love songs strummed on an acoustic guitar--personal, he calls them, natural. But he's back, all right, with Morrissey and Ronnie Dawson sidekick Boz Boorer, singing of holes in his heart and flesh-eating angels, bemoaning the fact "you can't beat your meat" (though, presumably, you can still beat your guest). He still performs all the old hits--"Antmusic," "Friend or Foe," "Strip," "Goody Two Shoes," "Vive Le Rock"--and often speaks of the good old days with fondness and enthusiasm.

But, Ant insists, "I don't want to sit back and think, 'Oh, the old days were great and now is rubbish.' I don't think that's the case. Now is a great time, and that's all that concerns me. I just follow my heart.

"In 1977, '78, there were lots of people doin' a lot of the softer stuff and a lot of the more melodic and very personal stuff, and that's why I did the hard-edged stuff. Now I feel that the hard-edged stuff is being very well taken care of by the likes of Soundgarden and Nirvana and Pearl Jam; I think Nine Inch Nails are the top of the scale of the hard stuff. I want to do something I've never done before, so to me I focused on songs and lyrics that aren't dressed up and are very simple, actually. Simple and easy. I love doin' the old stuff, but I don't want to be a cabaret act."

Ant, though, is in a unique position at age 40--old enough to be the grand old man of new wave, but young enough to still participate in the music without seeming too ridiculous sporting leather pants on stage with Reznor. He was raised on the Pistols and has witnessed the so-called rebirth of punk with Offspring and Green Day and D-Generation; he was a Wire fan and sings the praises of Elastica, a new British band that so closely mimics Wire as to warrant a lawsuit.

His association with Reznor is particularly interesting, perhaps because there's a vague similarity between the two that extends even to the physical resemblance. Nine Inch Nails may well be the Adam and the Ants of the '90s--catchy pop songs with a dark, perverse subtext, wrapped in bondage gear and pseudosexual imagery. The roots of both men's music run deep through punk, but it blossoms as a warped sort of pop music that's at once danceable and depressing. Like Ant circa 1980, Reznor has been hailed as genius and dismissed as gimmick; and Reznor's version of Ants' "Physical" on Nine Inch Nails' 1993 EP Broken is little changed from the original, perhaps only a bit more techno.

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