Friday, October 24, 2008

Adam & The Ants

Adam & The Ants
handkerchief, 1980
designed by Danny Kleinman
When I worked for Bronze Records in 1977, a demo cassette by Adam & The Ants crossed my desk. It had a couple of tunes on it, neither of which were very compelling. However, Adam had gained some press by then, had been given a small role in Derek Jarman’s film 'Jubilee' and was quickly building a reputation so I went to see him at the Vortex, a punk rock club at the top end of Wardour Street. To be honest, I wasn’t a big punk rock fan. I liked the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and there were several punk 45s I enjoyed a lot, but generally I was more drawn to bands like the Modern Lovers, Television, The Stranglers, Eddie & The Hot Rods, Dr. Feelgood, Elvis Costello, the Flamin’ Groovies and Blondie. A lot of them had the energy and some of the attitude of punk, but their music retained a certain old-school rock & roll charm. The Vortex was a punk's home away from home. I went there twice. A load of coloured Mohawk hair-dos, black leather, tartan bondage pants, black make-up, buttons and pins slouched around the joint and unless you were one of them, you didn’t belong. I felt weird going there and not relevant at all. Adam came out, did his thing and I left thinking "what a racket". I couldn’t relate to him, his fans or the tunes and found the whole thing slightly depressing. He ended up being signed to Decca and they put out the 'Young Parisians' single. Then they promptly dropped him. In 1979, indy label Do It Records picked him up and, this time, Adam got to release his first album, Dirk Wear White Sox. Despite more press and touring, the album failed to do the requisite numbers and once again Adam was forced to regroup and look for another deal. Hiring Malcolm McLaren to re-image the band backfired when McLaren persuaded Matthew Ashman, Dave Barbarossa and Leigh Gorman to jump ship and form Bow Wow Wow with Annabella Lwin. Adam is nothing if not persistent and to his credit, he had enormous faith in himself and his vision. He brought in guitarist, Marco Pirroni (ex-Models), bassist Kevin Mooney and 2 drummers, Terry Lee Miall and Chris “Merrick” Hughes, who had released a couple of singles with Dalek I Love You. He hired a manager, Falcon Stuart, who I’d met when he was doing the rounds with former charges, X-Ray Spex. I went through a change myself when my boss, David Betteridge, was offered the position of MD at CBS Records, so having brought Andy MacKay, Sally Oldfield, Goldie, Motörhead and the Red Star label (Suicide, The Real Kids) to Bronze that year, we left Chalk Farm for Soho Square where I found myself working in Muff Winwood’s a&r department alongside Chas DeWhalley, Nicky Graham and former Byzantium guitarist, Jamie Rubinstein. I was quite happily working with the Psychedelic Furs and (not quite so happily) The Only Ones and Judas Priest when Falcon Stuart called and asked for an appointment. When he walked in with a new demo by Adam and The Ants, I sighed. He’s already gone through 2 labels and by now had been pretty much written off by the press. None of the labels had particularly liked him, even when he wasn't damaged goods and now most didn't want to know. But I liked Falcon and so I put the tape into the machine, happy that it only had 2 songs on it. The first song was ‘Kings Of The Wild Frontier’. I played it again. I turned it all the way up. It sounded fantastic. Whoever came up with the "Burundi beat" idea had hit on a brilliant idea. Falcon told me that Adam was ending his tour that week and asked if I would check him out at the Empire in Leicester Square. Sure, what the hell...why not?
Apparently, there was a lot riding on this tour. Adam had financed it himself by spending his advance from a recent publishing deal he’d made with EMI Music. If he couldn’t get a record deal now, he probably wouldn’t be able to keep the band together and his publishers would have no way to recoup their costs. Comes the night, I walk into the ballroom to find about 3,000 rabid punks, ALL kitted out as 'sex people', fervently waiting for their man to hit the stage. 2 large drum kits on tall risers at the back of the stage created a powerful visual and finally, when the Ants walked out, dressed, and made-up to the gills, the place went berserk. The show was stunning and it took me very much by surprise. The sound was thunderous, the beat was relentless and Marco’s guitar rang loud and pure. Everybody on stage looked fit and fabulous and there was very little ‘punk’ to be seen or heard, onstage anyway. The fans went mental. It was fantastic and you'd think they were coming off a string of chart-toppers by the way the fans were behaving. I scoped the audience for competition but only saw someone from Virgin Records. The following day, I told Muff and David about the show and played them the tape of 'Kings'. They decided to lock up a deal, quickly, before reviews for the show hit the papers. I called Falcon and asked if he and Adam could have lunch with us. At the table, after we’d made our interest clear, I asked Adam, "apart from all the things that go along with a record deal, what do you really want?" He looked at me, narrowed his eyes and with all the seriousness he could muster said, "Howard…I want to be a household name". Well, that sealed it for me. London Zoo was chosen for the signing photos but Maurice Oberstein (CBS Chairman), David Betteridge (MD) and Muff Winwood (head of a&r) didn’t show. Staff photog, Terry Lott, took some pictures near the rhinos and the polar bears and outside the Insect House with his, and my camera, and that was that.
Adam & The Ants, ht
photo: Terry Lott - Insect House, London Zoo
Adam & The Ants, ht
photo: Terry Lott - Rhino Pavilion, London Zoo
While we were preparing the release of the first single, I went to Rockfield Studios where they’d already recorded a few tracks. Adam had wanted Chris Hughes to produce and that was ok by me. I liked his production for Kings and once I’d heard Dog Eat Dog, Antmusic, Los Rancheros and some others it was obvious he was the right man for the job. Later, when I realized Adam was such a control freak, this made even more sense as having a fellow band-mate produce, he wouldn’t have to fight with a stranger to get his way in the studio.
"Kings Of The Wild Frontier" acetate

"Kings Of The Wild Frontier" label copy
(written out by Adam)

We put out 'Kings Of The Wild Frontier' and it stalled at #48 on the charts. Adam was furious and made his feelings well known around the office.
Around this time, Michael Jackson came to London to promote his 'Off The Wall' record. He bumped into Adam in the CBS offices and next, we started seeing Michael in ornate military jackets. 'Dog Eat Dog' was chosen as the next single and it reached a respectable #4.
"Dog Eat Dog" acetate

"Dog Eat Dog" label copy
(written out by Adam)
"You're So Physical" acetate

'Antmusic' followed and made it to #2. We re-released “Kings” in ’81 and, this time, it reached a deserved #2. Antmania set in and it was just fun to watch the craziness. Screaming teenage girls hanging around all the time. I'd not seen this kind of thing from the inside before. I met one of Adam’s best friends, a punk scene originator, Jordan, at the Top Of The Pops studio. She’d just had some new contact lenses made. They’d been tinted a deep crimson red, giving her eyes a wild, startling look. She was fascinating, and turned out to be a very cool person indeed.
gold record presentation
CBS Records, London
back l-r: Kit Buckler, Kate Mundel, Jeff Gilbert, Tony Woolcott, Adam Ant, Angie Errigo, Greg Lynn, ht, Kevin Mooney, Louis Rodgers, Chris Hughes
front: unknown, Marco Pirroni, unknown, Terry Lee Miall

When things go right, my instinct is to maintain...keep things the same. But with all this success, the first thing Adam did was get rid of Falcon, replacing him with his head of security, part-time villain and eventual guest of Her Majesty, Don Murfet, who proceeded to immediately alienate most people at the record company. Suddenly, Adam was "unavailable" and I never saw him at Soho Square again. Then Adam fired Kevin Mooney after his guitar strap broke during a 'Royal Command' performance. Without any support, Kevin had difficulty playing his bass, so he bounced it off the floor a couple of times, kicked it and got all ‘pirate-y’ with it. This embarrassed Adam and, later, I was told he fired Kevin backstage. (Whether it was before the band was presented to Princess Anne or whichever royal was there that night, I’m not sure). Kevin went on to form Wide Boy Awake, a marginal ‘new romantic’ outfit who released a couple of singles, 'Bona Venture' and 'Chicken Outlaw' and an album. He's now part of the Lavender Pill Mob, and guess who guests on their new album, ‘Mike’s Bikes’...Adam!
With ex-Vibrator/Roxy Music bassist Gary Tibbs filling the gap, the band checked into AIR Studios to begin work on the follow-up album. During an overdub session at the Townhouse, I spent most of an afternoon watching Marco lay down the 4 bar guitar solo for ‘Stand And Deliver’. The vibe in the studio was good, and it seemed like a refuge from all the madness that was now surrounding the band. When I heard someone on The Comedians, a ‘Variety’ show Granada broadcast on Saturday evenings use "Adam Ant!" as the punch-line to a crummy joke, I realized then Adam had, indeed, become a "household name", although perhaps not in the way he'd hoped.
'Prince Charming' was released in 1981 and the Ants got even bigger. Things started to get silly. The stage set looked like it had been stolen from a Great Yarmouth pantomime production of Peter Pan. There were galleons all over the place. Adam had was losing his punk cred and gaining a teenybopper audience. And we all know what happens then, don't we? For one week during the year, Adam had FIVE singles in Music Week’s Top 75. Stand And Deliver, Prince Charming, Ant Rap, Kings Of The Wild Frontier and something from (the now re-released, on CBS) Dirk Wears White Sox. Cartrouble, I think. Because Adam had become so huge, CBS let me sign Roky Erickson, New Math, Aswad, The Stroke (featuring Barb Jungr) and The Slits. I was having a blast and by this time, I’d visited the U.S. about 16 times, either on business, vacation or even just a quick weekend visit. I'd grown to love NYC and wanted to live there. I didn't like the direction British music was starting to take (Duran Duran, the 'new romantic' movement, etc) and thanks to Margaret Thatcher, the general vibe in the UK left a lot to be desired, so I started to put out feelers. I got some calls. Irving Azoff inquired about me working at MCA but he was based on the West Coast. RCA's Don Ellis flew me to NY for an interview, put me up at the Drake Hotel. Arista's Clive Davis called and I flew out for an interview. After I met with Mr. Davis, he took me to meet with Bob Feidon, his head of a&r. Bob kept his office door locked. I couldn’t think why. I met head-of-promotion, Richard Palmese, about whom I’d been told great things and he said I'd get on well with Mike Bone, who ran their AOR promotion dept. Mike had a tropical fish tank in his office - showbiz! - and the first phone head-set I’d ever seen. He was excited about a new act called Krokus, the antithesis of everything I liked in music. Mike was cool though, and I was seriously thinking about working there but finally, after saying they weren’t interested, Al Teller at Columbia Records came through and said they’d have me in New York at $35,000/year, the minimum (I'd been told) I needed in order to scrape by in NY. Sounded good enough to me, so I left England for new pastures.
Thanks, Adam.

Slideshow: HERE


Peter Stanfield said...

Another fine trip back in time, thanks Howard. I always rather liked the Ants, I too saw them at the Vortex (supporting the Banshees, I think), 'twas indeed a horrible place. I liked "Dirk" a lot and still think "Kings" a great pop album, up there with many of the classic glam LPs,and despite what legend tells us they were the best act on Live Aid . . . There was something terribly sad when Adam gave up on his original fans -- all those now hidden Ant People tattoos. On the other hand, I always relished each new 45 release to see what rerecording he would put on the b-side of one of his pop hits. I loved the idea that ardent teen fans were obsessively listening to Red Scab on the back of Goody Two Shoes, or Beat My Guest on the back of Stand and Deliver -- what evil did they hear?

Best, Peter

ht said...

One of the reasons I liked AA so much was his combining a great pop sensibility with a radical (but healthy) in your face appreciation for pervy, consensual sex. Apart from Genesis P-O, there wasn't much around on the scene and NOTHING on the charts for fans of Atomage and the like. Thanks for checking in, Peter.

Anonymous said...

As an ant fan over in the USA, i loved reading your perspective after reading his book. thanks for such an interesting and fascinating article.