King of the mild frontier

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

Stuart Goddard, like so many of his British brethren who would later choose careers in music, began his career as an art-school dropout, fascinated with punk because it was as much about the packaging of image--torn clothing, men wearing makeup, performance art creeping into concert, treating the audience like shit--as about the noise of three chords strung together randomly till noise coalesced into song into Statement.

Goddard became part of the London punk crowd, born again on the screaming punk-rock of the Sex Pistols. In the fall of 1975, while fronting a '50s-fetished American greaser-styled rock band called Bazooka Joe, Goddard even had the opportunity to headline a bill on which the then-unknown Pistols opened.

That small fact, and that he would later hook up with the Pistols' impresario, Malcolm McLaren, cemented his place in the punk-rock history book as, at the very least, a footnote. (Unless that book was written by Dallas DJ-turned-author George Gimarc. Then he'd be a leading man.)

Goddard's first outings as a musician proved him to be a rather talentless, hamfisted songwriter fascinated with religious iconography and sexual perversion. He often wore bondage gear on stage and attacked audience members, and he revered David Bowie and Marc Bolan as much as John Lydon, becoming fascinated with the way each man assumed a different persona through which to make music.

And so, as Goddard immersed himself deeper into the underground, he revised and revamped himself, molding his influences into his own guise--and so was born the man now known as Adam Ant, which, at 40, Goddard still uses as his moniker.

"There were people like Roxy Music, who presented a whole idea, a whole vision, a whole look, a whole sound, a whole attitude," Ant says now. "Or early Bowie or T. Rex or even Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, who, I think, made one of the best seminal albums for punk with the first Modern Lovers album that had 'Road Runner' and 'Pablo Picasso.' Or the Ramones, or Debbie Harry and Blondie. I saw the New York Dolls when I was young, and that really influenced me because I didn't know where that was from because they looked great and they sounded better. It was a life-changer."

After a series of singles, a starring role in Derek Jarman's punk homage/kiss-off film Jubilee, and an indie release (Dirk Wears White Sox, later reissued on Epic), Adam and his Ants hit paydirt with Kings of the Wild Frontier in 1980, which would knock the Who's Face Dances out of the Number One slot in England's pop charts. Built upon a series of clever gimmicks--two drummers pounding out a tribal beat, riffs and lines stolen wholesale from various spaghetti Westerns, war paint replacing the eyeliner of glam-rockers past--Kings of the Wild Frontier subverted punk's dangerous elements into something kinkier, sex and S&M imagery replacing politics at his manifesto.

"Antmusic for sexpeople, sexmusic for antpeople," Ant chanted, presumably ushering in a new sound to replace the old one. He led the charge of the lightweight brigade that was the second British Invasion, leading hordes of new wave bands that would storm American radio in the early '80s--acts like Culture Club, Flock of Seagulls, Gary Numan, Thomas Dolby, ABC, and so many more bands bred on punk's iconography (if not its sound) and images. The punk became the pop star, and in an instant, through such venues as MTV and its low-rent counterpart MV3 (available in 1982 to homes without MTV), Adam and the Ants and a whole host of British pop acts provided the sound track to an era, as inescapable on radio as commercials.

"MTV made music more accessible--people see music now as much as they hear it," Ant says. "I thought it was a time to exploit what MTV gave me to be theatrical, and the sort of work I was doing then was very focused on that. Video could capture some kind of fantasy world for people and make it very accessible."

Following Kings of the Wild Frontier, Ant released a handful of mediocre albums (Prince Charming, Friend or Foe, Vive Le Rock) and absolutely dreadful and dismissible records (Strip, Manners and Physique). With each successive release, Ant faded further from memory, an MTV creation forgotten as soon as the set was turned off. He became the dandy highwayman of which he sang, dolled up in puffy shirts and eyeliner and styling mousse, hiring Phil Collins as his producer and bringing in a string section. His career stalled quicker than a '53 Olds with a bad carburetor and old plugs, with Ant plunging into a series of B-grade film roles and a four-year period in which MCA Records killed a whole record (Persuasion, recorded with Cameo's Larry Blackmon and Chic's Bernard Edwards) and finally bumped him right off the label and onto his ass.

But, like Lazarus back from the dead, Adam Ant has been resurrected through the strength of one single, "Wonderful," which is in moderate rotation on modern-rock radio and on the cable dance-party station that made the former Stuart Goddard a very wealthy man more than a decade ago. And it's quite deserving, damn it all: the song is catchy and moving where Ant's most recent material has been lifeless and sterile, driven by the warmth of the acoustic guitar instead of the ice-cold dance beats of 1990's Manners and Physique. It may not set the world aflame, but it's hardly lethal.

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.

"Trent is a very focused person, and every single thing you see of his is presented as a vision," Ant says. "Trent's work is extreme, and that's what I like. I think we're both people who like extremes and pushin' it a bit. They are very scary.

"Performing with them was a real eye-opener for me. In a way, it was kind of like going full circle for me...It's just generations, ya know? I feel very proud of them, that they've had the guts to go out and grab a piece of action for themselves on their own terms. But even then, that's not necessarily an influence from me but from generations before me. And maybe one night, we'll do one of their songs."

Adam Ant headlines EDGEFEST '95, which also features Blues Traveler, Veruca Salt, Letters to Cleo, Hagfish, Deep Blue Something, and others.

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