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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Adam Ant Strips Down

John Mendelsohn remains one of the most truly amusing writers ever to grace the pages of rock publications. This '80s Creem encounter with the Ant-less Adam is as dryly hilarious as anything the former Christopher Milk frontman wrote--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

Adam Ant materialized in the lobby of a West Hollywood hotel that employs a lot of very stupid Englishwomen and offered me his hand.

In the 63 years that I've been interviewing rock stars I've found that only one in twenty can be bothered to address you by name. Adam was the one, and his handshake was firm. He wore a suit that was tailored peculiarly enough to have been by some terribly chic designer. Except for his ponytail, he looked a perfectly normal sort.

We walked together up to Sunset Blvd., Adam Ant and I, to a place where we could sip cappuccino while we chatted. He treated. I like that in an interview subject. I hoped that we'd get on swimmingly. My wife goes into a rapturous daze whenever she thinks of Adam, and I hoped later to invite him over for supper so that she'd be thrilled.

Maybe it was my own fault that I got bored nearly comatose listening to him prattle on incoherently about various aspects of The Business and his rightful place in it. He was far from moronic, after all, and his cheekbones really are amazing to look at. But if ever a fellow had no inkling as to when to put the proverbial lid on it, Ad's the lad.

I usually begin an interview by lulling the subject into a false sense of security by asking something easy like, "Have you had any interesting experiences on your current tour?" or "If you suddenly realized that you were homosexual, which member of Duran Duran would you most like to discover taking a bubble bath in your bathtub?" In Adam's case, though, I wondered why he'd seen fit to record his latest album in Stockholm. In the time it took him to finish answering, I was able not only to finish my cappuccino, but also to resume smoking and then quit again.

"Recording anywhere in London is like being in Piccadilly Circus," was one of the things he said. "You're here and another band's right next door. Everybody's going for a Top Ten and nicking everybody else's stuff. That's why so much English music is so similar - because everybody's got their ear to the studio next door.

"Stockholm's dead - dead. There's not even any television after eight o'clock at night and all the porn places have been shut down for tax evasion. The only thing I did in six weeks was go to an Ann-Margret concert."

I asked him which of his career moves he'd regretted most. "Between '77 and '79," he revealed, "I got involved in one or two tacky management things. Of course, I know that I'd probably do the same today. All you want to do is to make a record, and the legal bits that surround that don't concern you.

"The way I did it was with a sort of an ignorance that I had in an industry where there was a lot of ignorance about the music I was trying to get over. On the positive side, when the thing eventually came together and the look worked, I knew a lot about touring, and I knew some of the bad people. I'd been working clubs for four years, just building up a following. So when I finally put an album out, it sold 30,000. And I was used to the worst reviews in the world, so there was nothing anybody could say bad enough to hurt me."

The poor devil can hardly take ten steps out of his hotel suite without someone taking a candid photograph of him with Jamie Lee Curtis, so I dared hope for an especially interesting response to my question about what he liked most and least about his sex symboldom. I was disappointed. "The bulk of the time," he reported, "people really do just come up and say, 'It's nice to meet you.' And the industry knows what you can do, 'cause nothing speaks as loudly as a platinum record or a triple-platinum album. But then you get the occasional one person in a hundred who'll say, 'You're a dork. You suck. Your music stinks. Your mother's a hamster and your father smells of elderberries' - people who want to destroy you.

"Of course you're asking for that, because basically what you're asking people to do is buy you. 'Buy this - it's wonderful. It's worth five dollars! You've got to have this record - it's important to you. And it's important to spend three minutes watching this video.' Your whole life is a self-promotion."

Let's understand one another. I get no pleasure whatever from reporting that Adam's one of rock's great bores. I think his swashbuckling shtick is marvellous fun, and find his songs pleasingly reminiscent of T. Rex's in their unabashed self-fascination and childishness. But when he began to tell me about his latest album being About the Stripping Away of Inhibitions, rather than a very-slightly-more-explicit variation on his customary narcissism, I thought to myself, "Oh, brother."

"I'm at a point," Adam apparently felt called upon to confide, "where I feel, purely because I've survived and the work is progressing in a different way, that I'm not so intimidated by the business or the media, 'cause they can't take away what you've achieved. If you don't look back you can be quite happy. The only time I'm aware that I've got gold records is when I go round my mum's, which is about once every eight months. It's more important that the records are being played and the videos have some content and not just style, because most of them nowadays are just style, and nothing to do with the artist."

A point forcefully made, whatever it might have been!

"I've been part of three British Invasions so far," he noted, "but who wants to invade, you know? Invasion's the wrong word. It's like stealing your attention for one night. Adam And The Ants was originally thought of as a punk band, a cult band, so there was that whole thing before it actually happened. Then there was the New Romantic thing, which was just a joke, and now there's the latest one, which is a sort of the real fashion job.

"That article in Rolling Stone about the new English bands? None of them had had a hit! They look good, but how many of them have toured America in a serious way? It's one thing to play the 13 major cities that everyone plays, but it's quite another to play Normal, Illinois and all these tiny little places in the big scary Midwest. The psychology's different. I just found it gratifying to go into some little town in the Midwest and find that the kids knew the words to the second track off the first side of Kings Of The Wild Frontier. Or that I'd just make a move that was in a video and they'd know immediately what the song was going to be. That's the real worth of video that sometimes gets missed."

We talked about his working-class background. "The only way out in England is through an education or shouting very loud." He received his own higher education at the same North London art school of which Ray Davies is an alumnus. "Art school's the only place you can spend most of your time writing songs and get subsidized for doing it. I did study quite hard, though, and it's been useful. I can storyboard videos and do layouts and typography for album covers, which gives me more control of what people are going to see."

I asked him if he felt at all strange about having made so much more money in just a few years than his chauffeur father and housewife mother would in their lifetimes. "I don't feel guilty about success," he snapped. "I don't feel guilty about having money. I spent 25 years without it. My parents are happy and content and they don't want anything from me.

"There's a sort of inverted snobbery amongst working people in England. The working-class hero thing went very much against punk and new wave - that I'm-from-the-gutter-and-don't-you-forget-it-'cause-I-won't syndrome. Most of those people are middle class or better anyway. You're supposed to hide your money and say, 'I don't really want a hit. I'm quite 'appy doin' me own thing.' Well, I worked hard for mine.

"You've got a lot of these people talking in Cockney accents, mostly stringing four-letter words together into some kind of philosophy about the workers, and then they go out onstage and play for 50,000 people. They come to the gig in limos, but jump out a block away and get into a van to pull up in.

"On the other hand, a working class hero really is something to be because people identify with you, just as people in the South did with Elvis. Taxi drivers stick their heads out the window and yell, 'Adam, stand and deliver, mate!' They say, 'Give us an autograph and I'll be the guy in my house this week.' That's nice because it's sincere. They feel a part of your success."

I predicted that The Serious Rock Press would ridicule him a lot for baring so very much of his sultry self on the inner sleeve of his latest album. He snorted so loudly that he might have startled passers-by outside the cafe. "The Serious Rock Press has never sold a record for me," he snorted. "I'm not playing to any particular market, but if I had to pick the sort of person I'd most like to play for, it would be someone who's young and who can be excited and inspired.

"I can't separate the sexual side from the rock 'n' roll idol - right from Elvis I can't separate it, right from bobby-soxers screaming at Frank Sinatra. There's even a certain sexual enigma around somebody like Elvis Costello. It's part of the price of fame."

The more annoyed he became, the more working-class his accent got, and the worse his grammar. "Don't think that walking onstage with some of the make-up and some of the clothes and some of the songs I've sung has been any piece of cake. Some people thought it was hardly serious. Some people thought it was taking the mick. Some people thought it was tongue in cheek. But at the end of the day, if it's giving a lot of people a lot of enjoyment - and I know it is, because they're buying it, and people don't buy things they don't like - I don't have any second thoughts about it at all."

My question about his self-exposure on Strip's inner sleeve had apparently hit a nerve. "There is a fine line, but I never really cross it, I'm not mad. I don't say I want to flash my d*ck at you and get my brains blown out by a local cop. But I think the lyrics are about the sensual much more than the sexual. You can interpret them that way if you're experienced that way. I can play ball or I can not play ball! If someone don't like my record, they don't like my record! They probably ain't liked any record I ever made. I am not going to put on a pair of denims and write an acoustic album and grow a beard for them.

"Videos aren't just promotional vehicles anymore. They're a serious art form and I've made 12 in the past three and a half years. I write them, script them, and direct them. I'm not the product of some production company who told me to stand over there and look this or that way, which is what 90 percent of music videos are.

"Any article about MTV seems to have the word hype in it. Well, it ain't any more a hype than their putting your record in bag. Hype to me is payola. I don't want anyone telling me that something I worked my butt off for, and have been working my butt off for four years, is hype, 'cause it ain't!"

I hadn't uttered a syllable about MTV. The word hype had never passed my lips.

"There's a lot of talk about exploitation of women on record covers," he concluded. "But it's usually a case of people saying they've been exploited for them. We're all human beings, and it's a free country, so you can exploit yourself. If you're going to be exploited and you're in the music industry, you should at least be holding the reins."


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