Saturday 16th March 2013, 10:00AM GMT.
Adam Ant is due to play in Guernsey in May. Colin Leach spoke to the artist on returning to the island 32 years after he was topping the charts…
(A shortened version of this interview appeared in The Week)
The ant is a tenacious creature.
Formidable strength and a workaholic, this is no doubt why a young Stuart Goddard adopted the sobriquet Adam Ant.
For a time in the early 80s Adam and The Ants were the biggest band and its frontman the biggest pop star in the UK.
There were everywhere, you couldn’t get away from them.
They even played in our own little idyll in July 1981.
In pop music terms it is hard to think of a modern day equivalent of a band that has dominated the singles and albums charts the same way Adam and The Ants did 30 years ago.
Together with his solo career Adam scored 22 hits between 1980 and 1985.
Then came a brief appearance on Live Aid where he played his latest single.
He switched to acting, made a few albums then spent years in the wilderness.
A much publicised assault charge brought him into the spotlight as his subsequent sectioning and revelation he had mental health issues (it is something his PR people insist I don’t mention in the interview).
Now back in the saddle and with his first LP in 18 years – the 16-track Adam Ant Is the Blue Black Hussar in Marrying the Gunner’s Daughter – the artist is on a promotional tour with his band the Good, the Bad & the Lovely Posse.
Speaking to Adam a few weeks ago the musician sounds particularly chipper and raring to go, something of a contrast to the recent national media obsession as presenting him as unstable.
After swapping pleasantries about the weather I ask him if he remembers his visit to Guernsey in 1981.
‘Yeah, yeah I do actually. It was phenomenal, it was as if the whole island turned out to see us as I recall.’
You’re not wrong, Guernsey Airport probably has seen that level of hysteria since. You were all over the charts at the time, how did you handle that level of fame?
‘Well, we just did the shows, y’know.
I mean, I had three years prior to that with very little critical success, no financial success and I think when you do get that level of success you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth; you embrace it and do as much work as you can.
So I enjoyed it as much I could.
It was a lot of work but it was great.’
You set yourself a punishing schedule. Do you think you drove yourself too hard at the beginning?
I think in the beginning, when you’re in your 20s, you’ve got an inexhaustible amount of energy.
I don’t know if people realise it but when I went solo I did six tours of America – quite an exhaustive touring schedule after Adam and the Ants.
It was a full on thing from 77 to 1985, so it was a long stretch but it’s never been a job to me.
But if it is I suppose, it’s the best job in the world.’
Image is obviously very important to you – with the American Native look, The Dandy Highwayman, and Prince Charming etc – they’re all kind of anti-establishment figures in a sense, aren’t they?
‘I think there was a certain heroism to it but obviously you’re quite right, they’re … outsiders let’s say and they don’t kind of run with the pack.
I wanted to something a bit different and that was part of my attitude in both making records and then presenting them live.
I wanted to make a record and put on live shows that didn’t sound or look like anybody else because otherwise I’m not thinking out the box.
I suppose these influences, all these styles, and ideas come from things that interest me.
You can study, take from the past, adapt and give them a new take.
And it was surprising just how effective it was and in terms of the kids.’
Do you think it’s harder for new acts nowadays to have success compared to when you started?
‘Well the idea that the actual loss of the physical side of things, ie the loss of vinyl which from my side I’m still doing – I’ve done a double gatefold sleeve on vinyl.
I’ve done a vinyl single, I’ve also done a CD with a booklet but it’s not gonna deter me as I think there’s a place for it and that works hand in hand with download.
But what can you say about the music business? I mean it’s like The Brits [referring to the awards show a few weeks ago] – that’s the state of the music business.
I think its answered it own question, really, because visually I think it needs a bit of a kick up the bum.’
I ask Adam about his latest ‘incarnation’ as the Blue Black Hussar.
‘It’s a character that I set a scenario for.
I looked over my repertorie and playing live over the past few years and my favourite record to do is Kings (of the Wild Frontier, 1980 LP).
So I sort of set up the idea that what would that young buck I presented in 1980 what would he look like 30 years later? Perhaps he’d been a hussar in the Napoleon army and walked to Moscow and back.
I’ve read a lot of accounts about that.
It was a kind of metaphorical thing and I had a photo session done by Lord Snowdon as the Blue Black Hussar and it was all in the eyes all in the face, so it gave me a very clear vision for this character.’
The phrase ‘Marrying the gunner’s daughter’ is an archaic nautical slang for being tied across a cannon and flogged isn’t it?
Is that a reference to the music industry or the media?
‘I think it’s just some of experiences you encounter such as signing contracts when you’re younger and literally signing your life away – I mean everyone in my generation did that to a certain degree.
I think band’s nowadays, thankfully, are a little more savvy because the music industry these days can’t afford to pull those kind of stunts.
It’s a metaphorical reference for a few things that have happened around those times, really .
The conversation turns to the late Malcolm McLaren, former Sex Pistols manager who poached Adam’s band to form Bow Wow Wow. He did help you though, didn’t he?
‘Well Malcolm came into my life at a time where he was really generous to me.
I only worked with him for a four-week period, really.
During which time he put Bow Wow Wow together with the three guys in my band but it was time really.
He listened to [first LP] Dirk Wears White Socks and track by track and asked me what the songs were about and said “do you realise this isn’t a pop record? Do you want to make a record that charts?” And I said I really I want to make a record that everyone hears and he said “Well you’re going the wrong way about it.
You’ve got to do your homework, you’ve got to study the structure of great pop singles and rock ‘n’ rolls records” and he guided me in that way, both with arrangement, scanning the lyrics properly and he really guided me not only as a great rock n roll historian but someone who really knew his stuff.
This was the reverse of what he was saying publicly ‘cos privately he was a really learned music guy.
That was special time of my life that I wanted to include on this album [the track Who's A Goofy Bunny Then?] With Malcolm’s passing I was devastated and I’m really good friends with his sons.
It was nice to make a dedication to him because I think over the years people have thought there was bad blood between us, there never really was any bad blood between us, bruised egos at the time maybe, but no bad blood.’
Is it true he gave you the idea for the distinct drum sound by playing a record by African Burundi drummers on the wrong speed?
‘Yeah, well when we were working together I think he wanted me to join Bow Wow Wow, which would have never happened.
But he walked in one day with a Burundi Black single and he put it on 78 instead of 45 – so really the idea was there and if you listen to Bow Wow Wow that is exactly the way it sounds, which worked splendidly.
I was always a big fan of Bow Wow Wow and David Barbarossa was an excellent drummer.
For a solo drummer to get that kind of sound and speed – if you listen to his playing it’s absolutely unique.
If you listen to my version on Kings of the Wild Frontier, which is tympanis, it’s a lot slower, a lot grander, more classical if you like and our drum arrangements were much different and that was down to Merrick, Chris Thomas and Terry Lee Miall.
We kind of went a different way with it and it’s kind of how you interoperate it.’
Having two drummers in the band, was that your idea?
‘Yeah. I saw James Brown at the Hammersmith Odeon and he had two drummers.
It had such an impact.
I’m a great fan of drummers, I don’t think they’re “people who hang out with musicians”, as they say.
I’ve got a lot respect for them.
If the drums aren’t right you’re in real trouble.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with some great drummers; I did an album with Phil Collins I worked with Stewart Copeland.’
You went into acting in the mid 80s, didn’t you? Do you now regret not carrying on with the music?
The chance to do a Joe Orton play in The Round in Manchester was possibly the greatest challenge I’ve ever been handed.
I kind of didn’t have an idea of what was going on so I kind of dived into the deep end.
I enjoyed it but realised I had to do some work, some studying.
Then I got Equaliser in LA [which starred Edward Woodward] and Spielberg’s Amazing Stories.
I moved to LA and enrolled in an acting class and got a lot of work out there.
It didn’t mirror the success of the music but then why should it? Just because you’re successful in one area doesn’t mean you’ll be successful in the other.
But I worked with some good directors Wayne Wang, John Frankenheimer, and I learned a lot about performing, I learned a lot about waiting around for hours at a time and how to interoperate other people’s work.
When I go on stage I sing my own words, play my own songs, but when you are doing other people’s work, someone else’s vision, someone else’s work, that’s a challenge.
You learn to be less self indulgent and learn to work with a group of people.
They [music and acting] really are two different things – they’re chalk and cheese.’
With performing live, has it been good to be playing the old stuff?
‘Yeah, I’m playing stuff I haven’t played before and I’m getting a real good reaction from songs from the first LP and before that, b-sides and such.
They’re getting as good a response as stuff like Ant Music and Dog Eat Dog and I’m trying, with my six-piece band to get those songs to sound right as they were all created in the studio.’
You were offered the 80s package tour thing but you turned it down didn’t you?
‘I did. It’s a lucrative things to do, and there’s nothing wrong with it, people have a good time – I think there were some great songs in the 80s, it was probably the era, along with the 80s and glam, when we had the classic three minute pop single.
I love playing my catalogue but I like there to be a few surprises in there and also, over the past few years, I’ve played a couple of samples from the new album.
And now when I play Cool Zombie [first single released from latest LP] they know it.
So they’ll be a few more from the new album.’
So what’s you aim, Longevity?
‘I think it’s consistency.
I think I have longevity cos I’m still alive.
I think you need four things really: success, survival, longevity and consistency.
I think I’ve had all three except consistency, that’s side of it is hard cos to keep producing new work
Regardless of commercial success and regardless of critical reception you’ve just got to plough in through.
And keep producing … this is me now and this is the sound I wasn’t to produce now.
So it’s really producing more work, and that’s what I’m looking forward to doing.’
So how do you feel about playing in Guernsey after 32 years?
‘I can’t wait to come over. It will be special, we’ll have a good night.’