Adam Ant Interview: ‘You need the time away from the spotlight as well as the time when you’re involved with it.’
Having toured his hits for a couple of years, Adam Ant is now ready to revisit one of his most challenging albums. Friend Or Foe marked the end of The Ants and the start of his solo career. In an exclusive interview to promote his new tour, Adam explains why he was finally “ready to take the make-up off” and reveals the future of his new music…
The last time Classic Pop saw Adam Ant, he was on stage swinging an imaginary baseball bat around, signifying how he was smashing it out of the park. His confidence was justified – for the past couple of years, Adam has been touring Anthems, his singles show which features classic B-sides among the expected smashes. He could tour Stand And Deliver, Dog Eat Dog and Room At The Top forever if he wanted. Instead, Adam’s next tour is pretty much an unexpected move: as he’s playing his first solo album Friend Or Foe in full.
Adam has twice toured complete albums. First, he was reunited with some of the original punk era line-up of Adam And The Ants when he played his landmark 1979 debut LP Dirk Wears White Sox at Hammersmith Apollo in 2014. Two years later, he took Kings Of The Wild Frontier back on the road. Friend Or Foe, though?
It’s a superb album, its maverick Cajun-flavoured mayhem has grown stronger over the years since it was greeted as something of a head-scratch on its release. But doesn’t it bring back awkward memories of the fallout from Adam And The Ants’ sudden split in March 1982? Friend Or Foe was released just four months later, with even Adam’s record company taken by surprise: early copies of lead single Goody Two Shoes are still credited to Adam And The Ants. Any baseball bats being swung in the offices at CBS Records at the time would not have been in celebration.
“I enjoy performing my albums in their entirety,” is Adam’s simple explanation for why he’s revisiting Friend Or Foe 37 years later. “I’m really going to enjoy Friend Or Foe, because it’s a challenge. It’s quite an experimental record, and a very adventurous one for me. This is one that’s really going to test me out.”
Adam seems in good shape for a challenge. It’s fair to say he doesn’t much enjoy the prospect of being interviewed – right back to the height of Antmania when, to quote Desperate But Not Serious, “Mr Press Man, with your penknife, always asking about my sex life,” he’s wary of his words being twisted. But he likes Classic Pop and, once the recorder is on, he’s sparky, funny and not at all hesitant. Besides, facing thousands of people in concert is far more enjoyable for Adam. “It’s so exciting to get out and play,” he beams. “Nothing substitutes for playing live. I embrace the prospect, and I’ll always give it my best shot. I’m so happy to be doing it. It’s more important to play live than ever, since the demise of physical product.”
Having toured Dirk Wears White Sox and Kings Of The Wild Frontier, the logical album to perform in full next would have been Prince Charming. But, more than Friend Or Foe, that’s the record Adam associates most with the demise of the Ants. He doesn’t think the LP holds up either; made too quickly to fulfil his punishing album-a-year-or-else record deal when the band were trying to cope with sudden megastardom. “I really loved the Ants and we did something special,” he reflects. “We had a ball and we pulled it off. But it went wrong through overwork and too much pressure. We allowed ourselves to dive in and do a second album too quickly after Kings.”
Not everyone of the “Marco, Merrick, Terry Lee, Garry Tibbs and yours truly” line-up namechecked in Ant Rap wanted to carry on being Ants, at least not without a break. “Different band members wanted to do different things,” says Adam. “We were living in each other’s pockets and exhaustion had set in. But I wanted to keep getting stuck in. I had a drive to do more, to keep making music. I thought the only way to do that was to take away the band.”
Marco Pirroni wanted to stop touring, but he and Adam were enjoying writing together far too much to quit the latter. The result was an album that showed off their gift for melody, but with all kinds of new touches thrown in. Lyrically, it wasn’t the bolshie Dandy Highwayman or Prince Charming: here, suddenly, was vulnerability. “It was my first solo album, and I’d made a conscious decision to take all the make-up off to let people see what was happening underneath,” Adam explains. “I always reflect the situation I’m in, and Friend Or Foe was very much that. I’ve always tried to be as open as I’ll allow myself to be. Goody Two Shoes was a manifesto of what it’s like to be involved with success. Success is just as challenging as failure, they’re just different challenges. Friend Or Foe is me saying ‘This is how I feel about things.’ A lot of people had been asking me about every minute detail of my life – what I was doing, what I was feeling, what I like, what I don’t like.” He gives a delighted laugh. “That record is me saying ‘OK, well, here you go then!’”
One of the key lyrics on the album arrives in Here Comes The Grump, with Adam singing “When you get a No.1, the only way is down.” Was that pressure to keep up the hits from the record label or Adam’s own ferocious drive? “That pressure is there anyway, sure,” he accepts, before explaining that he shouldn’t be taken too seriously: “Look, there’s totally a sense of humour in all this. I felt that humour was missing from a lot of rock ’n’ roll and pop at the time. I’ve always had my tongue tucked firmly in my cheek, but I think a lot of people missed that. Some people think music has to be deadly serious and analytical all the time. The truth is, there are a few red herrings in those songs for people to take the wrong way.”
That said, Adam admits he was The Grump in the song’s title, being an extremely stern bandleader. “All lead singers are grumps,” he chuckles. “If you take on the role of the one who gets things together, you’re going to get grumpy. Hopefully, people will take Here Comes The Grump in the spirit it was intended. It’s me apologising, saying ‘I didn’t mean to be that much of a grump.’”
Newly solo, the sessions for recording Friend Or Foe were far from grumpy. Having produced all the Ants albums, drummer Merrick also worked on Goody Two Shoes at Abbey Road. Having begun producing in his previous band Dalek I Love You under his real name Chris Hughes, Merrick was unable to continue collaborating with Adam, having landed his first major non-Ant production work, on Tears For Fears’ debut album The Hurting.
Instead, Adam and Marco produced themselves for the first time. “With the demos we’d made, we felt confident enough to go in and get the job done,” Adam explains. “The Ants had worked with some great engineers in the past, and we’d learned from that experience. Marco and I had great help from our engineer, Allan Douglas, as we needed someone to interpret our technical demands. I had a vision, a sound in my head, and we went at it until it was ‘Bang, there you are.’ I welcomed how much of a challenge a song like Cajun Twisters was to get right. It has to be a challenge. If it’s too easy, it’s not right: the harder it is the studio, you tend to benefit. I don’t mean ‘hard’ as in there were tempers flaring, there was very little of that. But you have to give people their corner. I’d experiment with harmonies, Marco would experiment with layers of guitars, things you can only discover in the studio. It might be that take six is the best, but you need to try 66 in case that ends up the best. That’s where an engineer comes in, you need an umpire in there.”
The sound in Adam’s head moved away from Adam And The Ants’ tribal onslaught. In its place was brass and Cajun rhythms, inspired by Adam’s travels in the Deep South, where he discovered zydeco. Not the obvious influence for a newly-solo singer who’d just split up the biggest band in the country. “The success of the Ants allowed me carte blanche to do something this experimental,” reasons Adam. “I knew I was under the microscope, but I shrugged that aside and thought ‘This is something that intrigues me, so I’m going to pursue it.’ I think now that Friend Or Foe was what it was always meant to be; a step into the unknown. There are elements of the Ants’ Burundi stuff in there, but I didn’t want to do just that sound anymore. Zydeco and Cajun music is really exciting, and something I thought would work well in a rock ‘n’ roll direction. Songs like Cajun Twisters and Crackpot History And The Right To Lie are imaginary hoedowns. I’m picturing a local dance, where the singer shouts out a line for a call-and-response reply.”
Ah yes, Crackpot History And The Right To Lie. Your Classic Pop writer tells Adam that, aged nine, Friend Or Foe was the first album he ever bought. And that, 37 years on, he’s still not heard a song quite as odd as Crackpot History And The Right To Lie. “Good!” is Adam’s delighted response. “That’s really good to hear! The song started when I became friends with Liza Minnelli. When I saw Liza in concert, I’d never seen anyone perform like it. We became friends afterwards, and she was such a fantastic friend that I wanted to write a dedication for her. The lyrical framework is that I wanted to sing about things that make me laugh or things that annoy me about the profession we’re both in. It’s an ‘Oh, the daily papers’ song, but humorously done.”
Adam might be emphasising the humour in suddenly being front page news not long after being written off by the music press as a failed punk. But, more than most, Adam has suffered from press attention: first the inevitable success-fuelled intrusion in the 80s, then the horrifically sneering tone from some quarters during his health problems in the ‘00s. Adam might not exactly be a fan, but nor does he think that the intrusive nature of social media is something to complain about too intensely. “It comes with the territory,” he shrugs. “No-one can know to what extent that intrusion is when you get involved with rock ‘n’ roll and putting records out. But when it happens and people embrace you, you can’t suddenly say ‘I want to be alone!’, because that’s when you go out of work. When you work, you invite that attention. And if you’ve got something to promote, then you really have to go at it.”
He’s always known how to bat away any questions about his personal life, anyway. Respect the boundaries and Adam Ant will talk away, saying: “There is an element where you have to cherish your private life. You need the time away from the spotlight as well as the time when you’re involved with it.”
When Friend Or Foe was about to be released, Adam was aware that complaining about the downsides of fame too earnestly was likely to have elicited zero sympathy from a public who would have loved to have swapped places. “I had nothing to complain about,” he laughs. “I was getting paid to do a job I love doing and it was exciting. I just had to have the energy in an industry that moves very, very fast if you want to keep going and you want to compete. And I wanted to compete quite a lot!”
Asked for his happiest memory of Friend Or Foe and becoming a solo star, and Adam Ant’s response is typical of his headstrong work ethic. “The enjoyable thing about it was that it didn’t take an enormous amount of time,” he considers. “It never got boring, as everything had a good flow. While we were recording the music, it was giving me inspiration to do the storyboards for the videos. I’d find myself sitting there doing playbacks of the songs, and immediately starting to create storyboards. It was inspiring me to draw ideas for the videos for Goody Two Shoes, Friend Or Foe and Desperate But Not Serious, so there was never a dull moment. I’d sit out in the hall listening to the music and think ‘Oh, hang on, this would be a good scenario to do for the video.’ It was an inspiring time.”
A former student at Hornsey College Of Art, Adam designed the sleeve for Friend Or Foe as well as creating the storylines for its videos. The front and back cover are stills from the Goody Two Shoes video. Adam previously gave the best advice on how a song should start Classic Pop that has ever heard, explaining his singles always began with something attention-grabbing so that DJs couldn’t talk over the intro.
His rationale for the video-still look is just as brilliant for getting the public to take notice: “When you look at the sleeve close up, it’s millions of dots from the video, so they become out-of-focus – but if you look at that image from the street or the side of a bus it really kicks in and stands out. I’d started that idea with the Kings’ sleeve and I wanted to pursue that. I think it really worked again on Friend Or Foe.”
As with the recent Kings Of The Wild Frontier tour, Adam’s current backing band will be the musicians recreating Friend Or Foe for the new shows. Guitarist Will Crewdson, bassist Joe Holweger and drummers Andy Woodard and Jola have all played with Adam since 2010-11, with second guitarist AP Leach from goth mainstays Fields Of The Nephilim a relative newcomer, having joined in 2017. “It can take a long time to find the right people, so when you do, you hang on to them,” says Adam. “They’re not only fantastic players individually, they combine so well as a group. They’re not people who sit back and go ‘Yeah, that was OK,’ they push themselves to the limit and give it their best shot every night. A lot of bands are great in the rehearsal room, but they pretend to themselves and say ‘Yeah, we’ll tour it at some point.’ But we like playing as much as we can. We get out there and we do it.”
Which leads to the big question – will the six-piece Adam Ant line-up be playing together on new songs any time soon? It’s been six years since Adam’s ninth album Adam Ant Is The Blueblack Hussar In Marrying The Gunner’s Daughter reached the Top 30. Its 17 songs represented each of the years since Adam had last released new music from previous album Wonderful. “I was embracing the opposite of what I should have been doing again,” he laughs. “I made a double vinyl album, when that’s the last thing anyone wanted! I think Gunner’s Daughter is quite an extraordinary record, really.” Quizzed on why he’s rarely played songs from the album live lately, Adam demurs: “They’ve gone in the catalogue of songs I can pull out whenever I want. I don’t think you can know what I’m going to get out of the bag next, they’re in contention.”
Anyway, yes, NEW SONGS, Adam? “New songs are being made,” he vows. “I’m a bit reluctant to say when they’ll be released, because I don’t want to commit myself to a date that might not happen. I’ve got a bit more live work to do before I release an album, I’ll say that. There is new music, it will be coming, and the band have touched some of the songs. Who else is involved, I’ll only say when it’s totally ready to be announced. It’s not a concept album or anything like that, it’s topics I find interesting and intriguing, same as always. The new songs sound different to anything I’ve done before, that’s all I can say.”
Rather sweetly, as the interview wraps up, an anguished Adam apologises for being so vague about new songs, saying: “I want to make a big announcement when it is time for it to be released and I can reveal who’ll be on it. I’m sorry I can’t hint more until it’s totally done.”
Adam is also diplomatic when asked about a reissue to accompany the Friend Or Foe tour. The boxset accompanying the Kings Of The Wild Frontier tour was exceptional, but it took a long time to compile. “Boxsets come out when you’re ready,” he reasons. “There will always be the demand for them, but they’re an enormous undertaking. Friend Or Foe is something that could be done, but then any of the records could get the treatment. It’s a case of whether or not you’re behind it.”
It’s this total commitment and personal investment that Adam Ant has carried into his music for over 40 years. Let’s hope the next music for the right-minded admirers isn’t too far away.
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