As Adam Ant releases his comeback album after an 18 year absence, Martin Copland-Gray remembers the impact of the popular dandy highwayman on his younger self.
It’s March 1981 and I’m standing in my parent’s bedroom in my pyjamas with tears tolling down my face. The radio from my bedroom plays The Boomtown Rats. My mum sits at her dressing table anxiously toying with a bottle of 4711 cologne as she awaits the reaction to what’s just been said. My dad hovers at the other side of the bedroom, cigarette in hand and still in his business suit. His free hand is thrust into his pocket, fiddling with the loose change.
As I feel my own tears begin to burn my cheeks, I shout at them both, “I’ll never treat my children as you have me!” I run into my bedroom, slam the door and turn the volume up to ten. “I don’t like Mondays”. My parents were getting divorced.
For several days following this event, both of my parents would try and reassure me that ‘everything would be okay’. Dad worked in Sheffield and would be moving up there. Mum had met someone else and I would remain here in the Midlands. I remember thinking it had worked out for Adrian Mole when his parents split up so maybe it would for me. On this occasion though life did not imitate art. Adrian Mole, I surmised, was a lucky git!
And so at the age of 12, it felt like my life had ended. But unbeknown to me, it was only just beginning.
Rewind twelve months and it was here that I made my first musical discovery. Adam & the Ants were about to take the charts by storm. Their first release and title track from their 2nd album Kings of the Wild Frontier had barely grazed the charts at 48, but it was the second single, “Dog Eat Dog”, and a starring appearance on Top of the Pops that had broken them big time. The record hit number 4 and instantly woke music fans from their post-punk slumber.
But it was “Antmusic” that really grabbed me by the shoulders and made me pull myself together. The sound was everything. Two drummers!! Not one, but two! Okay, so he wasn’t the first to do it, but no-one had ever made it sound this damn good!
Tribal drums mixed skillfully with Marco Pirroni’s 50’s surf punk guitar and Adam’s oh so cool vocals. What was not to like? The look as well was key. It was flamboyant and sexy, and to a 12 year old kid from a quiet housing estate it was thrilling. Unplug the jukebox and do us all a favour!
Born out of the dying embers of the punk movement and the hijacking of his band by Malcolm McLaren, Adam had fashioned something truly special that captivated the hearts and radios of the listening millions. For the very first time in my life, posters appeared on my bedroom walls. I danced and sang along to ‘Kings’ as I tried to shut out the awfulness that was being played out beyond my bedroom door. I even pestered my mum to buy me a set of drumsticks so I could recreate the opening of Antmusic on the frame of my small single bed.
In my new role as custody child, it was agreed that I would spend every other weekend with dad in Sheffield. On one of these first visits I was promised a shopping trip to the city centre. I’d heard from school friends about Sheffield’s goldmine of independent record shops and I could barely contain my excitement. As I traveled up from Birmingham in the kind of railway carriage one might now find in a Harry Potter movie, I began to think there may be some benefits to all of this upheaval.
Adam’s new single “Stand & Deliver” was his best yet and now belonged to me. Dad bought it for me from a small stall in The Castle Market. I insisted on the limited edition poster sleeve, of course. The video for the single, directed by Mike Mansfield, was incredible. Adam had now clearly defined his look and the whole style directly appealed to what I now recognised as my dramatic leanings.
And what a first line – “I’m the dandy highwayman who you’re too scared to mention. I spend my cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention.” In the empty compartment on the train home I sang it again and again as I pored over every inch of the cover, learning all about Marco, Merrick, Terry Lee, Gary Tibbs & yours truly.
Back in the Midlands, I was given jobs around the house to occupy my time. Mowing the lawn, washing the car, etc. It was during one of these mind-numbing occasions that Adam chose to release his next single “Prince Charming”. As I wrung out the battered sponge for the umpteenth time, I saw a pal from school returning from town with a small plastic bag from Boots clutched in his hand. Boots did records in those days, and there, sliding out of the bag in all it’s glory, was a brand spanking new copy of “Prince Charming”. Oh god, it was out now…and in a gatefold sleeve. I chucked the remaining water over the green Morris Marina and tear arsed through the leafy footpaths to the town centre. Ten minutes later it was in my damp, wrinkled hands. But more excitement was waiting for me on my return home.
“What?…I’m…we…”, I spluttered, my heart racing at the news I’d just been given barely two minutes after racing through the front door. I was staring at a small orange piece of paper that my mum had just handed me. She beamed as I read out “’The Prince Charming Revue!” We were going to see Adam & the Ants in concert!!
The gig was scheduled for 18th January 1982 at the Birmingham Odeon. For the next few weeks of December, I could barely contain myself. “Prince Charming”, with its wonderfully choreographed video (we all did the dance in the school gym) had hit no. 1, and even though the follow up “Ant Rap” had only made No.3, my excitement increased even further.
The tickets had been my birthday present from mum, and dad duly delivered the album for Xmas. Perhaps this divorce malarkey wasn’t so bad after all. I loved that album and still do to this day. From the title track through to “Scorpios”, “Five Guns West”, “Mowhok” and the ‘secret’ track “The Lost Hawaiians” – this was the soundtrack to Xmas 1981.
The day finally arrived and mum was taking us in the green Morris Marina to the gig in the city centre. My nan had made me a replica of his Charge of the Light Brigade jacket from some black nylon fabric with gold braiding. With make up purchased from the local market, I carefully drew the single white line across my face – a bold move for one so young attending his first ever gig. So much so that in the car park at New Street Station I rubbed it all off in embarrassment.
I needn’t have worried as there were countless others in similar attire, including one stunning girl in full highwayman costume who strode dramatically through the foyer. Clutching my programme for dear life with my new Ant scarf (purchased from a hawker outside), we made our way to our seats.
The Ant Disco was first, a collection of songs The Ants had chosen to keep the audience occupied in the moments before it all began. My heart was beating uncontrollably and I read the programme front to cover at least three times as I tried to keep calm. Suddenly the lights went down and a huge scream erupted in the room.From the rear of the hall, an image of Adam as Prince Charming in a picture frame was being projected onto the stage curtains. The audience went wild. Then suddenly he moved, placed his hands on the frame and…leapt through the curtain itself!
As the opening bars to “Picasso” kicked in, I turned to my mum and smiled. I knew then that I was going to be okay.
A footnote – a few years ago I was walking down Oxford Street when I had the good fortune to meet the man himself. He was still recovering from his personal problems and hadn’t had a hit record in years, but I recognised him instantly. I quickly found a pen and paper and held it out to him, saying, “Excuse me Mr Ant, would you sign this for me please?” Mr. Ant??? As he signed it, I stood there dumbstruck, a 40 year old man unable to think of what to say. I wish I’d said something profound or even just a simple thank you for all the great music. As it was, I stammered “I got Marco’s autograph a few years ago”. He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Well, now you’ve got both”.
And then he was gone, disappearing into the crowds of shoppers thronging the street. I wonder if he knew the effect he’d had on me all those years ago and what it meant to me. I stood for a moment taking it all in and smiled, a smile from nearly 30 years ago. I was still okay and pretty soon he would be too.
All words by Martin Copland-Gray. More of his writing can be found on the site here.