Like Genesis and Ministry, Adam and the Ants had two distinct phases, each with fan bases that don’t always quite overlap 100%. Pre-1980, they were a raw, spiky post-punk band with sharp, fetishy lyrics. Things changed quickly for them in 1980, when their manager, the infamous Sex Pistols impresario Malcolm McLaren, poached most of the band for a new project called Bow Wow Wow. But eviscerating the group proved not to be such a terrible idea. Singer Stuart “Adam Ant” Goddard continued with an entirely new band, and a major sound and image overhaul. On the presentation end, the band dove headlong into an embrace of the new romanticism, favoring an overwrought leather-pantsed-new-wave-pirate look which unaccountably struck people at the time as just absolutely dead sexy. Well, it actually DID look good on Ant. Most of the rest of the band just kinda looked goofy.
On the musical end, the Ants adopted a distinctive dual-drum attack inspired by the Royal Drummers of Burundi, and, just as critically, enlisted Siouxsie and the Banshees’ founding guitarist Marco Pirroni, who’d become Ant’s co-songwriter and a major influence on the band’s direction just as it started to find wide fame. This version of Adam and the Ants released Kings of the Wild Frontier and Prince Charming, both of which featured more sophisticated song craft than the band’s first iteration, and both of which ate the charts for breakfast. The single “Stand and Deliver,” for example, entered the UK charts at #1, and remained there for weeks.
The band broke up in 1982, and Ant embarked on a solo career, but it was an in-name-only breakup, really, as the creative nexus of Ant and Pirroni remained together. In fact, Pirroni has contributed to every Adam Ant solo album, all the way up to one that came out last year.
Live video of the first incarnation of Adam and the Ants is damnably difficult to find. The most widely available representation of that period is the album Dirk Wears White Sox, released in 1979 in the UK, 1983 in the US (A Jack Sparrow-lookin’ Ant recently reunited with band members of that era to play the album in its entirety), but the best video I could dig up is this delightful miming along with “Plastic Surgery” from Derek Jarman’s Jubilee:
Here’s one that features their early manager Jordan singing the song “Lou,” and Adam Ant backing her on vocals for “Puerto Rican.”
When I sought live footage of the far better-known second version of the band, holy shit, motherlode. Search for them on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. Their visual presentation made them a sought-after act for televised music shows—and of course, the band’s early ‘80s heyday coincided with the launch of MTV, who couldn’t play their videos enough—but among the best footage I’ve found is this late 1981 show taped in Tokyo (setlist). I had always wondered if the distinctive vocal harmonies that featured prominently on their LPs were pulled off well in a live setting. Answer: actually not bad.
And then there’s this heavy performance of “Dog Eat Dog” in Manchester, 1980:
When Kings of the Wild Frontier was released in America, Epic Records, probably sensing that they might have a HUGE new act on their hands—maybe even a teeny-bopper phenomenon—lowered the price of the album to just $3.99 at a time when most albums were in the $6.98 list price range. Between that, Solid Gold and MTV, Adam and the Ants soon became famous in the US as well. Here’s a contemporary documentary about the American Ants invasion that is tons of fun: