A little more than 30 years ago, when British punk was moving on from the raw sound of early Sex Pistols and Clash, Adam Ant suggested we "unplug the jukebox" and "try another flavor."
His suggestion was "Ant Music," a blend of punk with a Burundi beat all dressed up in swashbuckling 16th-century pirate garb. It was tailor-made for the fledgling days of MTV, which was in hot pursuit of flamboyant antiheroes.
Adam and the Ants, like many acts from that period, was a flash in the pan, lasting for a few hit albums, notably 1980's "Kings of the Wild Frontier" and 1981's "Prince Charming." When the band split in 1982, after six years, frontman Adam Ant went on to score his biggest U.S. hit, "Goody Two Shoes," from his first solo album, "Friend or Foe."
Within a year or two, the bigger bands -- such as U2, The Police, The Smiths -- had risen to the top and the rest were starting to fade. Adam Ant (born Stuart Leslie Goddard) signed off for a while with 1985's "Vive Le Rock" and steered his ship toward Hollywood.
Over the years, he has revived his music career a few times (1990's "Manners and Physique" and 1995's "Wonderful"), but he's been pretty quiet due in part to his struggles with bipolar disorder and bad reactions to the medicines. He also had a few scrapes with the law, including a 2002 incident where he threatened people in a pub with a replica World War II firearm.
Of his mental health issues, he told the BBC, "You need the dark side and you need the light side to be creative. If it's all great, then you're a Teletubby. And I'm not a Teletubby."
In 2010-11 he started to play some shows again in England and returned to the States in 2012. In January he released "Adam Ant Is the Blueblack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner's Daughter," his first album in 18 years, recorded with Morrissey collaborator Boz Boorer.
Although it has been under the radar, the sprawling 17-song album, ranging from tribal rock to glam-rock to hard industrial, is much more vital than what you'd expect from a 58-year-old star who has been out of action for almost two decades.
Ant has performed only twice in Pittsburgh -- the Stanley Theatre in 1983 and 1984. On Friday, he plays his first show here since then at Stage AE. Here's what he had to say about his newest project.
That heyday between 1980 and '83. How do you look back on it now? Did you enjoy it?
It was fabulous. It was a great time to finally have your work received well and to be making a living out of it. We met some exciting people and it was a good time. I just wish I'd had a bit more time to enjoy it. I was working solidly through it, so there was that element to it, too. But it took me around the world. I had not really been out of England prior to that, so it was a great opportunity. It was quite a surprise to have that success. You're quite lucky if you get that kind of response in your life.
You were a big part of bridging punk to New Wave. You had gotten into punk, and the next thing you know you're wearing a pirate costume. So, was there some resistance to that, some push-back that it was going against punk ethos?
Not really. I think Adam and the Ants, we did start in 1977, but our record came out and I think it would be part of the post-punk banner, as it were. I think to me punk was an attitude, and it had a kind of simplicity to the music, but clothes-wise, I was evolving out of the punk [thing]. I never really wore safety pins or any of that. I got the basis of the look -- leather trousers and making your own T-shirts and stuff like that -- and was beginning to wear stage makeup. From day one, we were always a little outside the punk thing anyway.
I think when "Kings of the Wild Frontier" imagery evolved, for me it seemed to be a logical progression, but I think there was certainly a degree of, not resentment, but we lost a percentage of the original audience once we started having hit records. Unfortunately that's one of the things that happens when you have a group coming out of a cult status into a commercially successful status. So there was a bit of that. But we were too busy to think about it.
How did you come to put so much rhythm into the music Were you always as a kid into that kind of rhythm?
Yeah. There was always music around the house. I was brought up, the radio was on all the time and my mum used to play a diverse selection of records, like Elvis, Gene Vincent, Matt Monro, Frank Sinatra, I'd listen to many kinds of music. So I think in a way it went into kind of a sponge with me. I think the Adam and the Ants sound was a hybrid. The influences on that were quite diverse. So sometimes you put something together and it works. In terms of the two-drum idea, it came from seeing James Brown at the Hammersmith Odeon. That gave me the idea for the two drummers, and the influences of the New York Dolls, T Rex, Lou Reed, Roxy Music, but also I was listening to some ethnic albums of tribal music chanting all recorded in the field in different parts of the world, all synthesized down into a percussive element. So it was a hybrid, I would say.
The new record has a tribute to Malcolm McLaren ["Who's a Goofy Bunny?"], and yet it seems like he betrayed you [when he took the original Ants for Bow Wow Wow]. What were your feelings about him over the years?
I think at the time he created a kind of mutiny situation. Adam and the Ants, that particular lineup we had been together for 21/2 to three years and not getting a great deal of positive response, media wise. We built up quite a good live following, but it had really come to a bit of a standstill. Malcolm came in and I think was hungry to get some success after losing the Sex Pistols, so he really had this Bow Wow Wow idea, probably before meeting me. He realized it wasn't really going to work with me. I didn't really want anyone making decisions for me, creatively or visually, so I wasn't going to work. So I think he encouraged the rest to make the move.
But I think in hindsight, over the years, I think the time I spent with Malcolm and the time that he was working with me as a writer and mentoring me, I was grateful to him. He sat down with me and went through my first album track for track and helped me with the scanning of the lyrics and to listen to great rock 'n' roll records in his collection, because he was a great historian of rock 'n' roll. He got me understanding the structure of writing a hit single. I am self-taught. So until then, nobody had sat down and talked to me about structure. There's a difference between making an album like ["Dirk Wears White Sox"], which is quite dark, quite art school and quite self-indulgent, and something that is going to be a hit record. So I thought it was time to pay homage to Malcolm. Sadly, he died, so it seemed like a good time.
It doesn't sound here like you were trying to revive Ant Music.
I've been touring for the last three years and I get enough of Ant Music live. I do play the hits live. I'm constantly working on that to try and replicate the sound, which is quite difficult. But I think there's always been a conscious effort with me, album to album, to change the look and sound. No two albums are the same. So that's something that has stayed with me. This album was quite different, but there's a nod back to "Kings of the Wild Frontier," which is probably my favorite album, and updating it to a fictional scenario of what that character would look like 35 years later.
By the way, a lot of people credit Keith Richards for the "Pirates of the Caribbean" character, but I'm wondering if you think there was some of you in that look.
Yeah, I think there was some of me in that. I think I could play Johnny Depp's big brother or something. I'd be quite happy to be in a "Pirates of the Caribbean" film. I felt the attraction with the sort of romantic outlaw, the piracy and the dashing officer, which is fortunately something I have a personal interest in -- the 18th century. I did quite a lot of research on those subjects and those characters and still do to this day. There's always a wealth of spontaneity there. It was just different for the time. Right around 1979 the punk scene got all dark and gloomy and industrial and really violent and quite absurd really. It was a bit of a caricature of itself. So I consciously wanted to put some color into it. I felt like we were on our own, like we were at the Alamo, the only band in town worth listening to, so that's why the lyrics have a kind of bravado.
The song "Shrink," which almost sounds like a Nine Inch Nails song, deals with mental health issues. How emotional is that song for you?
It's like a nightmarish visit to a psychiatrist, if you get a bad one. I think psychiatry is obviously something that many people find helpful, but I find if you went for an appointment, you pay for 50 minutes, and 10 minutes you pay for is for them to get ready. I think the whole thing was quite a nightmarish experience. So I kind of put it into that song and I thought it was quite a relevant thing to do really in terms of what's happened to me in my life. I think my description of depression would be it felt like a fist in the skull, so it came from that. That song is probably the most poignant track on the album.
Are there stations in England where there is a place for your music?
They have stations that play like '60s through till '80. My stuff is outside of that, but it does get played on shows that play hits from the past. My stuff now, this album is quite a tough record. "Cool Zombie" is quite well received, and I'm finding that new stuff live is coming across really well. We're playing it and the response has been really splendid. The album is not over-produced. So you can always take it a bit higher live. I listen to radio all the time. I'm usually listening to a classical station at night, and then during the day I'll listen to classic songs, because you can always learn from listening to the structure of songs.
You play a lot of festivals that have a mix of new and old bands. Are the young people coming to see your sets?
Yeah. I did a number of them last year and the year before. The American ones seem to be the best ones. I did one I think in Atlanta last year and we ended up doing a big festival and there were people like Foo Fighters on, and we'd go on right after a band that didn't do anything like our sound. So you'd have 30,000 people moving from one side of the field to the other side of the field. It's quite an interesting experience for me. You do have the advantage of playing cold to an audience, and if you win them over, and get them going by the end of your turn, you're getting a new audience, and that seems to be happening. It's taking a chance, but it's been quite good so far.
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576.