Adam Ant : Kings Of The Wild Frontier : in depth look at an album of pop genius
LTW boss and frontman from the Membranes tells the detailed story of one of the great post punk period albums
Details about the Kings Of The Wild Frontier tour from here
This spring Adam Ant will be touring his classic Kings Of The Wild Frontier album.
It’s a rare album revisit that makes sense. A celebration of a pop culture artifice and a fantastically bizarre pop record that broke into the mainstream but was perhaps even more art school weird than the preceding Dirk Wears White Socks debut. This is one of those revisits that is more like an archive museum tour -a reminder of the potent brilliance of pop music at its most thrilling and imaginative.
History has painted this album as the coming of Adam Ant – pop star – the escape hatch from his underground Dirk to fully flowered pop icon status. Whilst this is true in many ways the album that saw him go from the genius claustrophobia of Dirk’s dark, strange, dank world to the glorious technicolour pop it was anything but a straight commercial ploy.
There had been talk at the time that Adam was going for the pop jugular. Times were changing. Punk had electrified a small but vital community and whilst the rest of the UK was still immersed in pastel shades the battle lines were drawn in the punk fallout. By 1979 there was a feral and wild post punk scene as people made sense of this punk fallout – creating their own culture from the scraps of information that were coming out of punk, making sense of the electricity on their own terms . This could range from experimental music to noise, from angular pop to thrash punk, from anarcho punk to proto goth and new romantic to brave new pop.
What was someone like Adam Ant going to do?
Already cemented with rock solid cult status Adam was in a curious position. With his fervent following of Ant fans – a gung ho gang of real characters and maniacs who were dressed to kill/dressed to thrill – this was a micro culture of mohicans and kung fu slippers, Ants or Seditionaries t-shirts, moccasin-style shoes or creepers, studs, wild dancing and hitch hiking around the UK following what was considered the last man standing from the original punk rock big bang, Adam Ant.
The debut Dirk Wears White Socks album had been released the year before and despite not being a pop thirty hit had venerated this cult status with its bizarro songs and strange brew atmospheres and sharp and angular music that was bass driven stark songs that combined new disco and funk with the awkward brilliance of punk experimental and lyrics laced with dark humour and taboo challenging artfulness sung in this most English of voices.
Adam was convinced that the album was going to be a proper hit but it was too weird for the mainstream ears and Adam was confined to being the biggest cult star in the UK – marooned with virtually no press or radio play. His song Press Darlings summed up the war of attrition between him and the bemused music media – a sometimes hostile all out war that left him more and more on the fringes, on the outside looking in.
Torn between cult status and a natural aptitude to be a pop star Adam made his boldest move yet by calling in Malcolm Maclaren for advice on where to go next. For all his fame with the Sex Pistols it’s this curious and explosive interaction with Adam that could arguably have been Malcolm’s key pop intervention. Despite knowing eachother from hanging in the Sex shop it was a meeting at a late October 1979 wedding that saw the sparks fly.
The pair chatted about where Adam was at and he talked about the Dirk album and how it had failed to break out of cult status. Malcolm was intrigued – in many ways Adam was his perfect pop star – he had always recognised the flash in these eccentric youth that had gathered around his shop and Adam had the looks and the grit and the determination and the imagination to make it – he just needed someone to light the touch paper. Six weeks later Malcolm would become Adam’s manager – it was going to be a short lived yet explosive ride that would go on to create the biggest pop star of the early eighties and a brilliant second album of musical scope and imagination.
The first managerial duty that Malcolm did, after Adam handed him a £1000 for the privilege of managing him, was the classic Malc move – he handed over a cassette with 17 songs on it to the young singer and told him that it would help him understand the construction of songs and find his own style.
This was no mere collection of current hits but a quixotic and fascinating eclectic cross section of songs from all backgrounds and cultures -a multi coloured dayglo collection of musical brilliance that fired up Adam’s mind and would eventually, after a long and tortured year lead to the creation of Antmusic.
‘I suppose the music was a soundtrack to what I had learned before I met Malcolm. He was great. He listened to Dirk all the way through, and he would stop and say ‘what’s that song about boy? and I would have to tell him and he would say, ‘right next one!’ The Day I Met God with the bit about the size of his knob was a bit too much, and I paid the price for that by being banned in Smiths.’
Malcolm looked at the cover of the record and said ‘what’s this cover?’ and I said ‘it’s a woman walking…’ and he said ‘no, no, no! you got good looks and muscles put that on the cover. He said what do you want to be? a cult? that’s all right but if you want to go to the top you are going the wrong way about it- put your face on the cover and in colour.
No one had taken any notice of me until then, and Malcolm was really interested in what I was doing.
He talked to me about scanning the syllables in the songs like when Elvis sings, ‘since my baby left me’, he said listen, it’s 6 then 7 syllables- listen to these singers and the way they sing and he also pointed out the structure- verse chorus solo chorus verse- he said listen to Blue Moon by Elvis and sing it and that’s what fed into Dog Eat Dog and the new songs. It simplified what we did and made it into songs. I remember recently, Mark Ronson saying he finds that song extraordinary and that he plays it before every session to get into the mood.
For a few weeks it seemed that the Adam/Malcolm team was going to be unstoppable but things never ran smoothly with the firebrand manager. Famously Adam turned up for rehearsal one day to find the Ants in a strange mood and leaving the room and the band one by one – Malcolm had stolen his band to form Bow Wow Wow and back up the then 14 year old singer he had discovered in a laundrette – Annabella Lwin and left Adam high and dry.
Heartbroken and without his gang of droogs Adam leafed through his address book and set across London and knocked on the door of Marco – the last gunslinger left from punk who had been the youngest person hanging out in in the 1975 Sex shop. Marco had famously played the first Siouxsie and the Banshees gig and was the engine room in the 1977- almost made it – the Models and was making some of the best post punk obscurities in the feedback drenched Rema Rema
The last of the two punk originals Adam and Marco sat around the kitchen table and hit it off. Bonding over a big bold feedback drenched glam rock pop they talked through ideas…
A couple of months later in May 1980 they had put a new Ants together and hit the road for the defiant Ants Invasion tour which featured three of their new songs as well as drastic reworks of the back catalogue that now sounded bigger with Marco’s powerful guitar beefing up the songs. Summer 1980 saw the new Ants re-established as cult heroes playing packed venues of happy bizarro Ant fans. Adam had a new look – a kinda wild west/ vive le rock/rocker style of cowboy boots/capped black t shirts and leather – this was the curious period that was the just before the germination of the Kings Of the Wild Frontier album music and style – the moments before the pop apocalypse, the moments before the iconic white stripe.
In July 1980 they released the first single of the new partnership. Word was getting out that Adam had gone pop
I clearly remembers someone bringing the pre-release of Kings Of The Wild Frontier up to Blackpool where I lived at the time to play it at our post punk cub that we ran in the town – the Vinyl Drip Club. there was a lot of curiosity – Dirk had been popular in town amongst the small clutch of underground types. Everyone was expecting some kind of plinky plonky style pure pop but this insane explosion of tribal drums, twanging feedback drenched guitars and strange genius exploded from the speakers and these fantastically inspiring lyrics sung in this whirling dervish voice filled the room.
It was powerful, strident and life affirming and yet a gloriously strange piece of music. No-one knew what to do apart from the resident Ant fan who was a blur of feathers and warpaint who shamanically owned the dancefloor. He had already co-opted the new Ant look, one month before Adam broke huge.
Like Bowie, Adam was shape shifting – creating his pop as a soundtrack for his personnaes – he had worked through the Kabuki SM freak style and was now remoulding his art school music and art school look into something more bizarre and more flamboyant. The rocker look was morphing into the king of the wild frontier but with a gunpowder potential to ooze into the mainstream. The look matched the music and the looks and sound was explosive.
It’s difficult to remember now just how underground Adam was at the time. He may have been selling out 1500 capacity theatres in London with his Dirk album but the press ignored him. Adam and The Ants were looked on as the last vanguard of the freak punk rock scene – the dressed up flash, sex warriors – the true hear and soul of punk in many ways and the direct descendants of Sex shop and the Sex Pistols stream of possibilities but they remained an awkward pop culture cargo cult.
Handsome charisma is never an easy bedfellow with great press and the Ants had been confined to media leper status. Not that this affected their fierce fan base who were selling out venues across the UK. The Ants Invasion tour was the last stand of the freak Ants – by the time the album came out and the autumn tour happened there was the curious crossover with the teeny fans and the Ant fans.
Adam was convinced he was a pop star – this was from a time when pop stars mattered – it was still a noble profession for art school rockers in the late seventies. He could be just another in the long lineage from the Beatles to Bowie to Roxy Music to half of punk itself – the artful dodger pop star as artist.
The result was King Of The Wild Frontier. An unexpected technicolor explosion of pop and noise and a collision of music from glam to Burundi drums to soundtrack to punk to pop to weirdness – like the soundtrack to the greatest film that has never been made like all the best albums should be.
In many ways Kings was even weirder than its predecessor. When most people ‘go pop’ it’s normally time to bring in the songwriters and the ballads. For Adam it was a detailed artist’s gimlet eye for the great moments in pop culture, art and graphics and in that perfect post modern sense reconstructing them in a totally different order to present himself.
Like Bowie’s famous shapeshifting in the early seventies Adam returned to the frey as the charismatic Jimi Hendrix brocade jacket wearing, electric warrior Ant with the iconic white stripe and tales of wild west. This was the outlaw culture of the British youth in the fifties and early sixties. The vast panorama of the wild west was the ultimate escape in the smoke ridden claustrophobia of post industrial UK – the cinemas ran the Technicolor films with heroic cowboys who became the template for so much in rock culture with their macho swagger and cool gear but the smarter souls were now hooking into the native Americans – the ultimate symbol of resistance to the American machine – the proud and noble and fierce warriors who had been crushed by colonisation but were powerful symbols in culture. Adam appropriated the feathers and the warrior talk without ever claiming to be a warrior – this was an empathy and also and artful eye for the beauty of a dying culture which he explained to the native American when he met representatives a couple of years later.
In many ways Kings Of The Wild Frontier is the last great western – the final piece in the jigsaw after the spaghetti westerns – this is the last pop culture visit to the wild west that made any cultural sense before the new horizons of the modern age.
The album is a pop culture dream. There are so many references and shades and colours – an embracing of the sound and violence and sex of the very best of pop culture. It explodes from the very start with Dog Eat Dog the second single released from the album and the first top ten hit that autumn that had kick started the pop mania. Shortly after the single’s release, the band performed the song on Top of the Pops on 16 October 1980, which sent the song to number 4 in the charts and set the scene for the early November album release.
The thundering swagger of the Burundi drums recorded in sensuround sound at Rockfield studios dominates the single. Decades later their power is still breathtaking and the warm, enveloping full on sound of the track is as powerful soundwise as the Sex Pistols Never Mind The Bollocks released in 1977 – it has that same kind of Tsunami of sound – that daredevil, can do, rush of all great pop. The Burundi drums copped from Burundi Stephenson Black ‘s ‘Burundi Black’ are a stunning pop statement- their thundering rolling power was a whole new pop template- a brand new beat that was super great dance music and also had a thundering life affirming power that instantly made a powerful statement.
This was a brand new beat and one that worked. You can feel the joy of creation in Dog Eat Dog and can only imagine the thrill of being in Rockfield in August 1980 as this came together. It had all the power of Pistolian punk reimagined in thundering tribal drums and the flash of glam but also a world view by listening intently to those powerful tribal grooves from the unique Burundi drummers.
In his 2007 autobiography, Stand and Deliver, Adam said that “Dog Eat Dog” was inspired by a Margaret Thatcher quote he’d read in a newspaper. The expression refers to a situation of fierce competition in which people are willing to harm each other in order to succeed. The lyrics of this song are about bands in competition with each other, and doing just that.
The album sounds like a series of 3D singles – track two is the iconic and manifesto set to song “‘Antmusic'” – the big hit of the album that entered the charts as John Lennon was assassinated and the sixties culturally came to the end at mark Chapman pulled the trigger with a brutal murder and yet another self referential track.
Antmusic is a song of empowerment and affirmation. The sound of someone standing up against the tide and singing of heir art struggle. In many ways this is what poop does best – songs about yourself and your struggle are instantly identifiable and especially comes super coated in glam rock anthem as good as this. Antmusic like the album itself is perhaps the last glam rock statement – the end of another era at the end of punk and the end of the sixties…those closing months of the seventies saw an awful lot of full stops!
Pre punk, glam rock had been the heart beat of teenage music of the early seventies. We were just too young to know of the magical stuff like krautrock and better end of prog that was also going on at the same time. Top Of The Pops was a great conduit to all the lunatic dressed up glam madness that was fascinating the first post sixties generation. Bolan had invented it and Bowie was pushing the envelope and Roxy were doing the smooth and there all kinds of lunatic droog bands doing it as well. It could be argued that Adam was the last chapter in this glorious arena – with the added tough attitude of punk and also his arts school mentality spun in. Antmusic is the closest he got to pure glam rock with the stomping Glitter beat and the huge guitars from Marco and the classic anthemic chorus about unplugging the jukebox and listening to the Ant Music.
The song is from the heart of classic rebel pop ‘so sad when your young to be told your having fun…’ as images flash into your mind of tepid youth in rank youth clubs at the time not sure how to react to modern culture that now in fast forward or its shiny fringes like punk rock. Adam cast himself as the dashing saviour of youth culture with his pied piper listen to me clarion call – on paper a preposterous task but with an album with this much pizzaz and tracks as pop perfect as Antmusic he actually managed to pull it off.
With many of the demos of the album now available or floating around it’s fascinating to listen to this song’s development from its scratch chords to its thundering neo tribal swagger, glamour stomp.
The album is a world to get lost in so by the time the third track, Feed Me to the Lions kicks in you are hypnotised by its panoramic vision. Lions is the closest the second album got to the angular obtuse thrills of the debut Dirk Wears White Socks with it’s oozing riff and brilliantly skewiff melody lines. If Adam has always made a big point of this album being a step away from the debut that he could never understand why it was never a hit there were still moments like this that you could well imagine lodged on the debut and yet, yet this has now become a pop music. Pop music at it best – taking weird and wonderful ideas into the mainstream.
Lyrically it’s a defiant Adam literally singing his heart out – he may have ‘gone pop’ but the raw emotion is on display here – the performer in the blinding spotlight opening up emotionally in a stuffy country – the gladiator in the ring – the performer bearing their soul with all in their emotional nakedness surrounded by the slavering critical barbs of the surrounding critical lions. It’s classic stuff and delivered with the powerful emotional sincerity of fellow post punk now operating in unlikely lion strewn colosseum of pop, Dexys Midnight Runners .
Not everything is heavy though. The album is dotted with cinemascope moments like the twanging high chaparral western of the next track, Los Rancheros. Adam is typically vocally great on this track and makes what is a fun track sound fantastically and hypnotically serious with his trademark holler. The gunfire effects add to the 3D of the track that surfs along on Marco’s tremeloed guitar twang and the shuffle beat of the drums and the track exits with those distinctive deep backing vocals and chiming bells and is a warm and enveloping wall of sound. You can almost see the posse riding across the great plains. The big country.
Ants Invasion is one of the key tracks on the album – a dark and heavy song that is quite strange for a number one album. It’s rare that pop music can sound this enticing and darkly strange. The track enters on a simple twisting psychotic guitar figure from Marco operating in the shadows of the feedback laden Rema Rema track he had released on 4AD. The song is again brilliantly hypnotic and lyrically a series of thought provoking shards and snippets like ‘Antics in the forbidden zone’ – where did that come from! classic Adam phraseology – a master of writing lyrics that sounded like slogans that could be tattooed on to the hearts of a vibrant fan base.
The album may be defined by its famous hits but the darker tracks like Ants Invasion and the next track, Killer in the Home are at its core. A tribal stomp incorporating native American melodies and ghost dance atmosphere with some really great drumming Ants Invasion sees the drums switch from fractured patterns to reverse reverbs as the song strips everything away to create a powerful atmosphere and is a real high point on the album.
Adam is also working overtime on the vocals with many layers of backing vocals helping to create an impassioned and powerful paean to the native Americans. From this song you can hear the soon to come real Ants invasion of fellow brilliant groups like Bauhaus, Southern Death Cult and even the Fall coping some of the feel and sound from the Antman creating the pounding tribal sound that was at the core of the so called goth music and surrounding indie bands.
Opening side 2 Kings of the Wild Frontier was the opening seven inch salvo from the album and the first sonic missive from the record that people heard of this new sound. It was the debut of the two drummer Burundi beat which is still most people’s aural image of the group. The drums, of course, sound fantastic pounding away with the vibrant Burundi beat but it’s Marco’s feedback that entwines with the drums that is so effective – reminding the listener of the guitarist’s previous work in the great Rema Rema and the pure sex of the electricity of guitar.
The song packs a real power and has the ebb and flow of great dynamics and sees the singer lay out the case for the warrior culture within the white man ‘suffering from centuries of taming…’ what a powerful line, what a powerful image that added to the verse is a defiant paean to warrior culture.
A new Royal Family, a wild nobility, we are the family
A new Royal Family, a wild nobility, we are the family
A new Royal Family, a wild nobility, we are the family
I feel beneath the white
There is a redskin suffering
From centuries of taming
Released late July 1980 the single had caught the Uk public unaware and peaked at number 48 in the charts but after Dog Eat Dog went Top Of the Pops and Ant Music followed it into the top five Kings was rereleased the following February and in the middle of Ant-mania became one of the greatest singles of all time to hit number 2 in the charts.
Band as gang, gang as band. All the great groups have manifestos and all the cool ones write a song about it.The Magnificent Five is stuffed full of references to the new Ants whilst Don’t Be Square (Be There) is another great song of affirmation and another hint at the spiky neo disco weirdness of the preceding Dirk album. The lyrics even manage to break out into chant of the Dirk album title. The bass works overtime as it plays against the super angular guitar lines. If Adam had not been the sex pin up of 1980 and this song had been released by a post punk Peel band it would have been looked on as some long lost underground classic – the type of weird and wonderful tune that you wonder why it as never a hit- the cool thing about Kings was that it was turning these weird and wonderful ideas into hits. Sex music for Ant people sang Adam laying out the slogan that would capture the next eighteen months of his life.
This is the new insect nation with a dose of the inky sex that was the key part of the earlier Ants – that dark, subversive sex that enthralled and appalled a UK still trying to escape its Victorian stuffiness. Fucking in the streets may be common place in the 21st century but seventies UK was a curious place full of seaside postcard sex, weird TV perverts and sex scandals whilst real sex, pop culture sex was tabloid controversial – figure that out! Bringing sex into the open was pop music’s most acute political gesture. The Stones had been raw sex, Elvis had hips and Adam had songs that dripped with the stuff.
Even the lightweight moments like “Jolly Roger” are loaded with meaning, punk always liked to represent itself as rebel music, appropriating all the images and ideas of the rebels from film and pop culture – from bikers to pirates, from wise guys to native americans – rebellion in pop may ultimately have no real meaning apart from being sexy but it’s very much at the heart and soul of the whole culture.
I love this period – the post punk cultural crossroads where ideas were the currency – this insect intersection between the wily fox Malcolm Maclaren and his head full of pirate garb, rebel lore, biker chic, that list of records he handed to Adam – the entwining and defining of punk as some kind of descendent of the dread pirate culture – the culture outlaws on the fringes of society and even if this came with no cultural baggage then the clothes looked great. The pirates were the rock n roll stars of their time and had been part of the heart of rock n roll culture for ever from the great Johnny Kidd onwards. In 1980 a skull and cross bones was a novel symbol in pop – now every shop has endless items covered in te damn things.
“Making History” is a deceptively dark song of murder and morality that keys up the closing cut which is perhaps the final cornerstone and the epic the throbbing shamanic dance of ‘The Human Beings’ . With its pounding beat and its list of Indian tribes decimated by the wave after wave of white faced immigrants pouring in from Europe in the 18th century the sound is a powerful piece epic in its scope and sad in its tragic subject matter. Musically a powerful work – the spooked intro bass line and the powerful throb cold be straight off a Swans album from the 21st century. How the fuck Adam got away with slipping tracks like this onto a pop record is testament to his powerful vision and his command of pop culture.
Kings Of The Wild Frontier has gone down in history as a moment in time, a white stripe painted across the face of pop culture and whilst this analysis is short and sweet it kinda glosses over the sheer avalanche of great ideas and delivery that make Kings arguably one of the most innovative and to be honest weird and wonderful albums to ever have whole packed theatres screaming up the charts.
Adam Ant had now been crowned the king of the wild frontier.
A victory for pop music.