Now an outrageously well-preserved 66, Adam Ant is a fine old English eccentric whom Edith Sitwell would have recognised. He’s the dandy highwayman, in case you didn’t know.
40 years ago I willingly handed over 99 English pence – three week’s pocket money – so that I could buy the seventh Adam And The Ants single on the day it came out. In fact, Stand & Deliver was the first vinyl record I ever bought, the song that kickstarted a lifelong love of owning music. Upon its release on 27 April 1981, it smashed records by going straight to the top of the UK charts for five solid weeks. It’s an achievement that seems commonplace now, but back in the 1980s singles rarely if ever entered in pole position. This is the story of how one seven-inch piece of plastic changed my life.
The iconic white panstick – an Apache war stripe – across the face. The unusually pigtailed and braided hair. That beautiful hussar military jacket. And the way he proudly strutted across the stage affecting war cries and tribal chants, Adam Ant was like no other pop star before or since. Electrifying, exhilarating and incredibly manly, I didn’t know how lost I was until I found Adam.
The music was a revelation. Of course, in retrospect there was an element of cultural appropriation, from the Burundi Beat to the ethnic makeup and feathers. But Adam was officer class. He was fascinated by and spoke – incessantly – of historical figures. Pirates, warriors, redskins (Native Americans to you and my Iowan Apache ancestors). In a contemporaneous Swedish television interview, the chief Ant was keen to point out how unorthodox the Ants’ musical influences were “mainly from tribal music, listening to a lot of tribal LPs: Burundi, Zulu, Maori, American Indian; all sorts of non-Western music.”
The epochal, breakthrough Kings Of The Wild Frontier album had only been in the shops for five months but I hadn’t the money to buy it. But time stood still for no man in pop land. Already chief insect Adam, no doubt pressured by his record label, CBS, to capitalise on his newfound pop domination, was moving on, and this would be the death throes of his ‘white stripe’ image that had inedibly ingrained itself on the nation’s consciousness. I was two months away from my twelfth birthday and all of a sudden Adam Ant seemed to make pop music matter. I needed to know everything about this Antmusic phenomenon, and fast.
So when it was announced in the spring of 1981 that Adam And The Ants would be releasing a brand new single entitled Stand & Deliver, the 11 year-old me figured it would be the ideal way to start collecting records – start with something fresh and new and work my way back.
To paraphrase some music for a future age, I wanted to throw everything I’d ever known overboard and join his insect nation immediately. I even managed to get some classmates in on the act.
Having saved up three whole weeks’ pocket money, that wet April Monday I skipped off from Springfield School to buy S&D. I have an unbelievably vivid memory of standing at the rear counter of Virgin Megastore in Central Milton Keynes and asking for the single, only to be presented with two options: “There’s a limited edition poster sleeve as well,” said the helpful sales assistant. I carefully studied both and, I have to admit, was slightly disappointed the poster version didn’t have the same front image as the regular edition. It felt somehow slightly less ‘official’, especially as I’d already seen the main image (below, right) in advertisements.
But when I unfolded the poster I was transfixed. Grabbing my attention within seconds were a fascinating assortment of stills from Stand & Deliver’s forthcoming video; they were beautiful, intriguing and impossibly exciting. The poster won: my very own First Day Cover, if you like. And with delicious irony records soon replaced spotty stamp collecting in my budget affections. I was now the immensely proud owner of a slab of black vinyl and I really couldn’t have wished for a better start to this record buying business.
You got the impression Adam exerted a maniacal gripper-like control over everything to do with his work. Adam was a trained graphic designer and much of his early Ants artwork were exceptionally evocative, even down to the ABBA-inspired backwards letter twisting of the D in AⱭAM, and later, his ex-Bazooka Joe colleague and future Bond film scenester Danny Kleinman’s innovative band logo which showed the anthropomorphic profile of a chief Ant figure resplendent in an Indian head-dress combo.
After narrowly missing out on a No.1 when Antmusic was kept off the top due to the death of John Lennon, Adam must have had a good idea that his first brand new song of ’81 would conquer the charts. Though even he couldn’t have foreseen just how quickly that would occur. On Tuesday May 5th I’d gleefully consumed the contents of my lunchbox and was sitting in the school’s TV room when my classmate Craig Margrove breezed in.
”Steve, Stand & Deliver’s gone straight in at No.1!” “Are you joking?” I replied. “No, I just heard it on the radio.” He had indeed tuned into the chart preview Radio 1 would air every Tuesday lunchtime. I was incredulous. The Jam, Paul Weller’s first beat combo, had been the only act to manage such a feat in the previous eight years, so you could have knocked me down with a feather. Or silk or leather or a… Oh, hang on, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The news felt like a kind of validation. I’d made the best choice possible. And guess what, lots of other people up and down the country agreed with me. I felt utterly vindicated that even my classmate Sean Smith ripping the piss out of me at the next Springfield School disco couldn’t rain on my poptastic parade. To mark this momentous occasion, I donned a second-hand black cape and, for the face, tried to replicate Adam’s white stripe with a small pot of acrylic paint I’d bought from the art shop next door to Melson Wingate opticians. It started to crack within the hour.
After what seemed like an eternity of enduring the DJ’s diet of OMD, Toyah and the Stray Cats, the Ants suddenly wafted over the sound system. My classmates goaded me on to Do My Thing, but I hadn’t even planned any moves. I was just happy dressing up, celebrating my idol. Eventually I did my own funny little dance which consisted of me pogoing self-consciously on the spot. The only bit of me that moved were my legs. I looked ridiculous, and when half the crowd stopped circling me and defected to watch older pupil Michelle Soden doing a much more impressive and very theatrical tribal Ant dance I soon followed them. “Oh, so that’s how you do it”, I thought to myself. Truth be told, Steve’s not the greatest dancer. Nothing has changed.
The B-side of Stand & Deliver was a fierce and piercing rocker called Beat My Guest. That’s a pretty unnerving title for an 11 year old to get their head around, even before they’ve taken the record out of the sleeve. It transpired that the majority of the Ant flip sides were re-recorded demos from Adam’s kick-ass punk days, and this was actually one of his earliest compositions: a visceral, yodelling squall of high-octane heaviness dating right back to the very first Ants gig at the ICA in 1977.
Two worlds for the price of one then.
With the 45 released on his 22nd birthday, Marco Pirroni’s guitar work on Beat My Guest was positively brutal, the vocals defiant and suggestively in your face. The shrill, piercing notes Adam hits at song’s end are wondrous, and the song manages to combine the raw punk-based side of the Ant sound with the warrior rhythms, and the two styles work together perfectly. Ant’s lyrics tell the disturbing story of a masochistic narrator desperate for his lover to tie him up and “use a truncheon or a household brick” to “make me bleed.” It was inconceivable you were going to get Bucks Fizz tackling such provocative subjects. I was transfixed. Looking back at the single now, has there ever been such a dynamic pop pairing?
Stand & Deliver was the Ants’ first chart-topper, a wildly busy historical and often hysterical romp through pre-Victorian England, adding a flash of contemporary culture (“The devil take your stereo and your record collection”) and turning it into a succession of slogans us pre-pubescents could understand in the playground: “I spend my cash on looking flash”; “The way you look you’ll qualify for next year’s old age pension”; “It’s kind of tough to tell a scruff the big mistake he’s making”; and finally the slightly moronic chant, “Da diddly qua qua”. Adam is singing about the joy of dressing up, of let’s pretend – grabbing a look or sound and living it large.
Sonically, the double drum tribalism from the Ants’ breakthrough singles stayed but the everything else had evolved, starting with the costuming. Warrior chic gave way to 18th century swag: dashing highwaymen, Georgian blades and romantic Robin Hood heroics. That fed back into the wall of sound – the unyielding Burundi patterns had been superseded by the heart-racing rhythms in Stand & Deliver are full of fancy flourishes and gallops. And it’s fast: at a rough estimate the track’s careering along at around 140 bpm and often feels like a steeplechase, punctuated by those stick-clashing breaks and dizzying war whoops.
The other striking thing about it is how Stand & Deliver feels like a complex marriage of two worlds colliding: light and shade. The lightness is in Adam’s frequently hilarious lyrics, but if you were to strip the song of its half sung-half spoken vocals and that pantomime horse, there lies a patchwork of multi-layered textures driven by Marco’s astonishing, coruscating guitar work. Quite possibly the axeman’s most eventful three minutes on record.
Certainly Stand & Deliver is built as an event, from the proclamation horns that announce it to the emotional cry of “No!” from an unnamed female in the fade-out. These whistles, whoops and hollers added much needed colour and complexity to Ant tracks – Adam was more of a collagist than a melodist – and reinforced the impression that being an Ant was a pretty wonderful job, a life of brigandage and fellowship.
And then there was that video. On Thursday May 7th, Top Of The Pops premiered the breathtaking, swashbuckling promotional film, and an insect nation of school boys and girls squealed. There’s a scene at the beginning of the clip that saw Adam, looking impossibly gorgeous, leaping from a tree to do his Dick Turpin act and loot a stagecoach containing Charles David Whiteing, Adam’s costumier major domo from Bermans & Nathans, and his on-off girlfiend, the actress Amanda Donohoe. Even my mum was impressed. “Ooh, I like her dress,” she exclaimed. The highwayman then proceeds to smash their vinyl records with his pistol, almost as a metaphor for what was to happen back in the real world.
Adam had started storyboarding his promotional films and boy, does it show. Later he would play the pantomime card a little too often, but on Stand & Deliver he pitches the costume drama just right – a blazing riot of colour and a tiny hint of danger. Seeing this marvellous mini epic I knew the record was more of an all-encompassing event than anything I’d heard before.
Again, the Ant takes the juxtaposition of the old adage “something old, something new” to another level: medieval banquets are kitted out with Sony Walkmans and Space Invaders, while the controversial and often censored gallows scene had Burundi beat boys dressed as saluting marines. The Mike Mansfield mini-epic even features Mark Wardel of Bowie masks notoriety… and he brought his Kitty along for a ride. “That’s a sexy pose,” Mum exclaimed, as the camera showed Adam looking pensively at himself in the mirror, before fading to black. Indeed, I played the video to an Italian who was lodging with me a few years back. He had no idea who Adam Ant was, but remarked, approvingly, “What a beautiful man.”
Fittingly, Stand & Deliver is the only vinyl single I still own. Furthermore, since I became a journalist I’ve been lucky enough to interview Adam twice, first by telephone in 2000 for Mojo magazine, and then in 2011 in person at his intimate mews house in Kensington.
A decade ago, the fine old dandy was kind enough to deface the inner poster of said 7″ with the inscription: “14/03/2011 For Steve, nice lurking with ya! Best wishes x Adam” and then underneath the daggered ‘heart on his arm’ symbol with the PS (‘it says Pure Sex!’ finishing at the bottom with the anarchy symbol. He’s a one!
Thirty years earlier, the fantastic five saw out the year with Prince Charming, featuring a slightly disturbing intro that sounded like a Venusian death chant, and Ant Rap, which didn’t quite predict Public Enemy, but still found room for a three-second harpsichord break. Just because it could.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why detractors saw the Adam Ant of 1981 as a sell out. A year earlier, Antmusic heralded the start of every Ant single being poppier and more commercial than the last. Even so, looking back over the pop landscape Adam And The Ants were easily the most experimental pop pin-up act since The Beatles.
Despite the often obscure subject matter, our Stu clearly had a knack for earworm refrains, and the interesting thing about that 12-month run of singles from Antmusic in December 1980 to Ant Rap in December 1981 is how each of them are remembered for a bunch of incredibly memorable lyrical slogans, among them “Ridicule is nothing to be scared of” and “Marco, Merrick, Terry Lee, Gary Tibbs and yours truly.”
The mysterious disbanding of the Ants in the spring of 1982 still puzzles some of his insect warriors today, but what is certain is that “Yours truly” did so reluctantly.
“I had to. Three of them were on drugs!” he told me during the interview at his London home.
“But you used Chris Hughes on the Goody Two Shoes single,” I reminded him, helpfully.
“Maybe it wasn’t three then.”
Alas, that’s a solo story for another day.
An earlier version of this article was published in 2018 here