Kings Of The Wild Frontier : The Ants talk about the making of a classic
It was one of the greatest transformations in pop, an unexpected switch from toneless to glorious Technicolor, and a significant jump for a band once marked out as one of the monochrome set from the post-punk period, to one of biggest success stories of the eighties. A mess of feathers, leathers, war-paint, walloping drums and twangy guitar, Adam and the Ants made their debut on Top of the Pops in October 1980 performing ‘Dog Eat Dog’, a new single from their soon-to-land LP, Kings of the Wild Frontier. Their appearance was as memorable to a generation as Bowie’s ‘Starman’ was on said show in ’72. Overnight the Ants became a household name, the talk of the playground, and their leader Adam the first real pop pin-up of a new decade.
A year earlier it was a different story.
From their formation in late 1976 through early ’80, Adam and the Ants had built up a loyal following notably around small clubs in the U.K and some cities in Europe. Fronted by an often kilt-clad Adam waxing lyrical about fetishism, futurism, bondage and the killing of Kennedy in a tight leather gimp mask, the band’s act remained a talking point, but by the close of ’79 and the discouraging sales of debut LP, Dirk Wears White Sox, it appeared to be the end of the road for Ant and all. After three years of blood sweat and tears the group were written off by press and major labels as just another zips-and-pins punk act with a couple of low-flying indie singles to their name. One last attempt at snatching some serious public interest saw Adam appoint (former Pistols) svengali Malcolm McLaren to manage the group for a month, only to have his Ants abducted by the impresario (who re-assembled them as Bow Wow Wow), leaving Adam with just the band name and a fancy idea about mixing pop with pirates.
“You may not like it now but you will” yelled Ant through the disco-driven ‘Don’t Be Square (Be There)’ from Kings – it was a line so poignant it could have been lifted from one of his diaries from the time. Yet still scarred from his mauling from McLaren, the one-time graphics student still believed he and his Ants would be stars and within the space of six months miraculously made it all happen. Enlisting the help of guitarist (and key face from the ’76 punk scene) Marco Pirroni, the pair forged a song-writing partnership, assembled three young hombres (bassist Kevin Mooney and drummers Merrick and Terry Lee Miall), and set about making what would be become one of the most iconic, esteemed, eclectic, influential albums in pop – Kings of the Wild Frontier.
Crawling with infectious songs that amalgamated rock , disco, glam, surf, spaghetti western and Burundi influences, the record was released to instant acclaim in November 1980 and spat out three smash hits in ‘Dog Eat Dog’, ‘Antmusic’ and the violent, drum-thumping title track. It went to number one, became the best-selling album of ’81 and like “Beatlemania” in the ’60s and “T-Rextasy” in the ’70s before it, “Antmania”became an international commotion. From their first big hit and untimely split in the spring of ’82 Adam and the Ants were everywhere. More hits with movie-like videos followed and for 18 months were the biggest band in the land.
To mark the release of this recently re-issued and lavishly re-packaged LP, not to mention the national tour from Adam delivering the disc live in its entirety, Mark Youll grabbed some time with guitarist and co-writer Marco Pirroni, producer and drummer Chris “Merrick” Hughes and bassist Kevin Mooney to talk about their time as Ants, their rise to superstardom and making of their masterwork.
Marco Pirroni (guitar and co-writer): I remember we were all quietly steeped in punk rock, ’76 punk rock, and so what we were trying do with this album was something totally anti-punk. One of the reasons me and Adam ended up working together was we were so sick of punk, and what it had become. We were just bored of the whole thing. So punk was an influence (on Kings) for all the wrong reasons.
Kevin Mooney (bass): I saw the Ants play many times early on when it was all about leather and fetish and I thought they were really fantastic. The first time I ever spoke to Adam was on the Kings Road, I was with an anarchist friend of mine called Mark Schlossberg who ran Scum magazine. We bumped into Adam near the Worlds End Market and Mark kind of started an impromptu interview right there. I remember Adam wearing one of those green U S air force WW2 trench coats and had one eye made up kind of Clockwork Orange style. I was particularly impressed with how he had painted his fingernails with black nail polish. I liked the sort of Carry On film humour of his songs like ‘Lady’. ‘Young Parisians’ is also one of my favourite Ant songs ever.
MP: Adam called me up and I told him I wasn’t up to much. I’d just left my previous band (the Models) and didn’t know what to do. He said he’d just been thrown out of Adam and the Ants and I thought “how do you get kicked out of your own band?” he told me and we went from there. Like me he was just sick of the ghetto we were in and wanted to get out of it and do something new. He re-formed the band again because there was no other option. I didn’t have an option either, we had nothing else. It was that or get a job and I had no real world skills whatsoever, I can’t even drive a car.
Chris “Merrick” Hughes (producer/drummer): I’d been doing some production work up in Liverpool and by the time I got asked to help (work with the Ants) the band I was also working with (Dalek I Love You) had collapsed. So I took the recordings I’d done in Liverpool down to Phonogram and was waiting to see the A&R guy when I got chatting to a guy called Ian Tregoning. He asked what I’d been up to and I said I’d been doing this experimental drumming and electronic music at home. He asked me for a tape and after a couple of weeks he rang and said he’d listened to the tape but didn’t really like any of it. He said he enjoyed chatting with me and had a mad idea he wanted to speak to me about.
MP: We had an idea to make punchy two and a half minute songs. We didn’t think too much about it, it was just ‘let’s not do punk’. We had Adam’s b-sides, some of his old songs, above average punk songs (like ‘Press Darlings’, ‘Physical’ and ‘Fall In’) but even then they weren’t shouty 1234s. So in a way we let our punk side out on those.
KM: Punk exploded very quickly and by the end of 1978 it was all over. The greatest genius of all was Malcolm McLaren, I don’t care what people say about him, it’s true, but when Malcolm stole Adam’s band he picked the wrong pirate to fuck with because in return Adam took all of Malcolm’s ideas and did them better. Adam made off with the blueprints and improved upon them and in the process sold millions of albums, whereby Malcolm did not.
CMH: So another time I was in the label office, Adam walks in and asked who I was. I’d been asked if I’d would remix, edit or faff about with some Adam and the Ants recordings, some over-spills, which I was happy to do. So I was there and Adam came in and said something like: “I don’t know who the fuck you are but if you think you’re any good and wanna work on stuff of mine why don’t you record me? I’ve got Marco in tow and we’re ready”. Everything happened really fast. My meeting with Adam was one, not out of desperation, but close to Adam needing people around him that could help him make this record.
MP: It was the first time I’d worked with a producer. I didn’t know what a producer did. We’d had very little experience in making records. Adam had made an album but I’d never made an album before. Chris (Hughes) was the only producer we knew. When we signed to CBS we were in a meeting with Maurice Oberstien (the label’s former chairman). We were sat talking about producers and one producer (Muff Winwood) was interested in doing it. He’d done two albums with Sparks. But then Maurice said ‘what’s wrong with the guy you’ve been working with?’ and we said nothing, so he said ‘ well you got this far with him why not stick with him?’ So Chris was in.
CMH: Within a week or two it was suggested we go down to Rockfield (studios in Wales). I’d done some bits and pieces there before and knew the lay of the land. Obviously I played drums and was well versed in how they work but never the less I didn’t want to tell them that. We got (future Culture Club drummer) Jon Moss down and he played on new versions of ‘Cartrouble’ and ‘Kick’. Adam and Marco were very tight and held the attitude of the day; they wanted everything to be loud, aggressive and angry. I don’t think either of them were that arsed about hearing my thoughts or comments, they were just wrapped up in their own world. I was saying “look you think that’s loud and tough, well this is fucking loud and this is tough”. Through the course of the day they realised I wasn’t a tosser and that I knew what I was talking about.
MP: We recorded ‘Cartouble’ to fulfil Adam’s Do It (label) contract. This whole new Burundi glam Adam and the Ants thing we wanted to save that for a whole new launch. This was a sort of full stop on the old Adam and the Ants.
CMH: After recording the ‘Cartrouble’ single, Adam realised there was something to be had with me, Marco and him. He asked if I’d help him choose some drummers for this new group he was setting up with Marco. We held some auditions and there were a couple of kits set up. I was showing some of the drummers beats that might work and at the end of the day Adam turned to me and said “fuck it, why don’t you do it, why don’t you be in the band?” So that’s how I got involved with that incarnation of the Ants.
KM: I remember (Adam’s ex-wife) Eve and myself were living in an industrial space in North Road Islington. She invited Adam around to look at a possible rehearsal room and as they walked in I just so happened to be playing bass guitar. The next day I had a meeting with Adam at a place called Tootsies in Notting Hill where he told me the whole plan for the new band.
CMH: Prior to signing (with CBS) Adam and Marco came to my house with Burundi record or cassette. Adam played it and began explaining about the whole Burundi concept and I said “mate, that’s French recording, I’ve got it” and I picked the album out of my rack, I knew that record at an atomic level. I had studied it and I could tell you what part of the beat was a carrier beat for example
MP: We had no way of recording demos back then. We didn’t have access to studios, there was no home recording facilities. It was a case of strumming ideas out and keeping them in your head until we could get into the studio. So me and Adam demoed all the songs before we recorded them.
KM: The songs of course were completely down to the skills of Adam and Marco. Marco had been in the Banshees, the Models, Rema Rema and was considered one of the best guitarists out there, But for all that effort the financial reward it was pretty much zero. Same with Adam, three or four years of really hard work and at the end of it no cash. So Marco and Adam had no interest whatsoever in being some kind of cult band.
CMH: We got the band organised and rehearsed and I remember we played the Electric Ballroom. I’ve listened to tapes of that gig subsequently and I wish it had been recorded well. We played really well and we were tight. Adam seemed really confident and quite powerful. Not long after that, still unsigned, we did the Empire Pool in Leicester square. Howard Thompson (A&R for CBS) said he came to that gig, saw the chaos that was going on in the hall, stayed for about three numbers and thought “fuck it, this is amazing, I’m gonna sign them”. And he did.
MP: Things happened very quickly in those days. We formed the band, rehearsed, did some gigs and got signed in a matter of weeks. Punk developed over a matter of weeks but it was dead within six months.
CMH: I had this duel relationship with him. On one hand I was producing the record so we discussed ideas and how things should sound, and other side it was him saying you’re in the band and the band is gonna be how I want it to be, which was great. He also suggested the clothing, the design, the flair, all the things you associated with the band at that time. All the engine came from Adam.
MP: Well we didn’t know what (the single) “Kings” was supposed to be. This strange Morricone thing and a Burundi beat, we were kind of scrambling around in the dark. It’s a little bit easier if you have stuff going on around you, contemporaries that you inspire to be as good, but to have nothing around you, nothing that you like happening, it was really difficult. We didn’t even know when the song was finished.
CMH: Somewhere I’ve still got the original bedroom recording of (the single) ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’. Even on that there were lots of drum ideas and Adam had some of the words down. I remember endlessly creating a kind of wall of that tom tom beat that I think we multi-tracked. Multi-tracking wasn’t new but we used like 13 or 14 tracks of toms racking away and then mixed that all down to Stereo to build the track from there.
MP: I thought (Adam’s) writing was direct and to the point. We were floundering around, we weren’t really sure what we were doing, plus there was nobody around that we were really looking up to. There was nothing happening at that time that we liked. Of course there were things like Gary Numan coming up, and there was Madness which we liked. Electronic music was bubbling under. I’m a huge Kraftwerk fan, as is Adam, and people said ‘you’ve done everything without synthesizers, is that because you hate electronic music?’ and we said no we loved it; we just wanted to do something else.
KM: Rockfield (studios) was a really good place to work. It’s on an isolated farm somewhere in Wales. Having no distractions really helped us focus very clearly on the music. The place is haunted though and I got spooked a few times.
CMH: The classic drum sound that a lot of people talk about is the real slamming drum sound on ‘Dog Eat Dog’. That was done in the big studio at AIR. That was fibre drum cases played by me and (drummer) Terry (Lee Miall), then it was multi-tracked to death. The idea was supposed to replicate all the Zulu warriors lined up on the hill and they stand there and bash the back of their shields.
KM: I don’t think there were any computers at all in the studio, everything was recorded to analog and Chris was just incredible at finding new ways to approach sound. Most of the songs had been rehearsed real hard, it was a strict regime. Before we ever got to the studio the band was very tight, Adam was very driven in that way. I remember we recorded the songs in many different ways but as a general rule it was first get a live take, strip it all apart and then overdub layer by layer.
MP: It was my first album and so all I could do was record to a standard you were happy with. It was about pleasing ourselves really. I had no idea if this music was commercial; the charts were just a dream. To an extent we were free to do what we wanted. We had nothing to follow up. Hardly anything was done live. It was a challenging album to make.
CMH: I think the whole session for the album took about 12 weeks. Everything was done quite quickly. There was an air of excitement and an air of impatience, both in healthy amounts. We would establish the tempo and flavour of the beat and start. It wasn’t done as straight takes with the whole band playing at once. Adam or Marco would lay out any chords and pretty early on we stick shit loads of drums on and then throw on some vocals. I also have to mention that the bulk of the work on bass was devised by, and played by, Adam. I mean, Kevin (Mooney) was great but when it come to playing the stuff and getting it laid down Adam knew what he wanted and could really play it. On that record the bass playing and bass invention is incredibly over-looked.
KM: Adam played bass on some of the songs although I played on most of them. Sometimes there are multiple takes where we are both playing, like on the song ‘Ant Music’. I also did quite a lot of the backing vocals and some percussion. I very much enjoyed watching Marco do all this technical stuff and learnt quite a bit at the same time. He did some great set ups with the guitar and his Marshall stack up on full. There was also a lot of processing and going direct to desk for that kind of James Bond, Link Wray-type sound.
MP: When we first did Top of the Pops and it went in at 20 we were all excited that we had a top 30 hit, then it went to number 4 and it was like that dream I’d had since I was a kid came true. From there came the excitement of being young in a big band going places, a band that influenced people’s lives. Not having to scrape or borrow and getting people to listen to us, not having that awful feeling of turning up at a gig and only six people being there. It went from that to (our gigs) always being sold out.
CMH: I remember our first appearance on Top of the Pops was recorded as an after show slot. The way it worked was if your song went up the charts during the week, they would drop that recording into the next week’s show. It was really exciting and because of Adam’s look and general vibrancy of the band it was exactly what telly land wanted. I think we knew that the band, and what we were doing, was pretty exciting and people latched onto it quite quickly. Before that first Electric Ballroom gig we had an in-house party at John Henry’s rehearsal room and invited friends and people around us at the time to come and watch us run through a complete set before we took it onto the stage. It was for our benefit really, to play and get a reaction. We knew from the response, and it wasn’t because it mates, that people were like “fucking hell, that’s amazing”. From then we kind of knew it had an effect, but had no idea of how big it was about to get.
MP: I’d been wearing make-up since I was 13 so it wasn’t a massive change for me.
CMH: The make-up and costumes was very much in Adam’s realm, he took all of that very seriously. It was part of the sound, the atmosphere and the feel, he knew how the whole thing had to be looked at, it was all in his head. It was his forte, his baby and we thought it was great, we felt important dressing up and it was good fun. You had grown men traipsing up and down hotel corridors in pirate gear, so there were aspects of it that were really funny. I think there were times when Adam got concerned about the whole feel and look of the band; he carried a lot of the stress which later on of course became more obvious. You have to remember the band was living in a bubble really and there was lots of chaos, lots of mayhem, lots of people that wanted to party with the band, extend what we were doing and make it greater than it was. We never really spotted that Adam was agitated inside. We thought it was chaotic reaction of it all being successful.
KM: I think the live sound was quite close to the record, maybe better in that there was more adrenalin.
MP: I have no idea why the record was so successful. If I knew I’d make another one. Does anybody know what makes something successful and why people like what they do? Why do people like music? It’s impossible to quantify. I can’t sit down and explain to you why ‘Starman’ is better than ‘Crazyfrog’…
KM: I would describe the album as beautifully crafted Ant and Marco songs extremely well recorded by Chris Hughes. And the tribal elements of the record resonated in quite a powerful way among the youth of the early 1980s.
CMH: I’m immensely proud of the album and also what we achieved as a band. We had a feeling everything made sense so we followed our thoughts and ideas and it came out ok. I’m always charmed and pleased when we people tell me the record was important to them. I like the fact the album has a history to it…
Adam and the Ants ‘Kings of The Wild Frontier’ Super Deluxe reissue is out now through Sony/Legacy