If, like me, you have the misfortune of being in your early 50s, then 40 years ago to the very day I am writing this (3 November) the chances are you were excitedly heading off to your local record shop to buy the second album by a post-punk band who were about to go truly stratospheric.
Adam & The Ants were a perfect storm of a pop band: a pirates/cowboys/indians schtick that was pure catnip to 12-year old boys (a pop group who dress as pirates? Take my (parents’) money now!!!); a frontman whose smouldering good looks and frequently exposed torso were a massive hit with the girls – ‘The sexiest man who ever lived’ according to legendary Smash Hits journo Sylvia Patterson; art school/punk origins that gave them credibility and a whiff of dangerous anti-authoritarianism; and a sound that mixed tribal drumming, rumbling bass, crunchy guitar riffs and glam rock choruses that were designed for shouting along to. They simply couldn’t fail.
But of course, they almost did. Following their debut album Dirk Wears White Sox, a decent but unremarkable set of scratchy post-punk that bore no indication of what was to come, impresario Malcolm McLaren nicked Ant’s backing band to form Bow Wow Wow. In retaliation, Ant pretty much filched Bow Wow Wow’s signature sound and threw in some pirate and native American imagery (thankfully the ridiculous concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ hadn’t been made up at that point), at which point the band, fronted by the most charismatic British pop star since Bowie and Bolan – and who, like both of them, crucially appealed to both the boys and the girls – left McLaren’s act in the dust and became the biggest band of the day.
Almost overnight the Ants went from a band with underground appeal to TOTP fixtures, teenyboppers and their anxious parents mingling with disgruntled punks at their gigs; and within 18 months they’d be making videos with Diana Dors, appearing at the Royal Variety Performance, and, Spinal Tap style, touring with a full size pirate galleon on stage. When Ant sang “It’s your money that we want, and your money we shall have!” on ‘Jolly Roger’, he bloody meant it.
The cause of all this mayhem was Kings of the Wild Frontier, the album on which the band largely left their punk roots behind and transmogrified into a camp, over the top art school/glam pantomime. Ant’s “Ridicule is nothing to be scared of” manifesto may have been a year away but the philosophy was well and truly already in place. With top five single ‘Dog Eat Dog’ ramping up anticipation (the title track had limped to no48 in the charts in July but, shorn of its context, meant little to record buyers – it would later be rereleased and reach no2), Kings of the Wild Frontier flew off the shelves, even more so when ‘Antmusic’ also reached top five in December, and for me and many other kids my age, it was our first taste of obsessive pop music fandom. We owe it all to Adam.
Given the record’s cultural impact and its place in our collective memory, it probably matters little that the album itself isn’t that great. Listening to it this week, for I think the first time since about 1982, the singles still stand out, along with a couple of others, and the rest is serviceable but unremarkable glam pop, elevated to the level of pop art by Ant’s obsession with the high seas and the wild west. Because when an album is this preposterous, this ludicrous, this much fun, the fact that some of it isn’t that good or hasn’t aged particularly well is of little importance.
The singles, well, anyone of my generation knows them by heart. The magnificent opener ‘Dog Eat Dog’, with its brilliant spaghetti western guitar riff, its gleeful call & response section (“We’re gonna move real good!” “Yeah right!” “We’re gonna dress so fine!” “OK!”), and of course its joyous, ridiculous chorus (“Leapfrog the dog and BRUSH ME DADDIO!!!”), still thrills me as much as it did when I first saw it on TOTP in 1980 and was instantly smitten. The wonderful, self-referential ‘Antmusic’, arguably the first post-modernist, consumerist hit of the decade (“So unplug the jukebox, and do us all a favour/That music’s lost its taste, so try another flavour – ANTMUSIC!”); and best of all, the phenomenal title track, with its audacious intro (“A new royal family, a wild nobility, WE are the family!”), cavernous bass and twin drum attack (if you can listen to it without drumming on the nearest available surface you are simply not human). There were a lot of great singles released in 1980 but I’d argue that the best three were all by one band.
In an age when albums were generally milked for singles the label stopped there, mainly because there aren’t really any other singles there. The menacing ‘Ants Invasion’ is about as close as it gets, whilst the pirate hokum of ‘Jolly Roger’ is engagingly silly, and ‘Don’t Be Square (Be There)’ entertainingly sets out the band’s manifesto of ‘ant music for sex people’, which certainly appealed to my 12-year old self. I had no idea what a sex person was exactly, but I knew I wanted to be one, and if I listened to this album often enough I might just turn into one (I didn’t).
The biggest problem with listening to KOTWF today is the production. There’s very little low end on it, and whilst that isn’t a problem on those songs where the band stick to their post-punk roots (the intro to ‘The Human Beings’ sounds straight off Joy Division’s Closer), the glam rock-inspired singles can sound rather tinny and lacking in low end. Certainly if you’ve got two drummers you want to sound a lot heavier than the title track does here, particularly when compared to its ferocious live incarnation (see the video below for possibly the most exhilarating live music clip you will ever see).
But KOTWF isn’t just about the music. For millions of us it’s a landmark, a door opening to a new, exciting and occasionally scary world of men in makeup, posters on walls, saving our pocket money for records, reading Smash Hits, Melody Maker and NME, and so much more. Listening to it today provides a huge Proustian rush, memories of singing along to ‘Antmusic’ on the car radio on the way to school, of banging out the intro to the title track on our desk lids, of painting Tipp-Ex across our noses and getting told off for it; and, later, getting detention for doing the ‘Prince Charming’ dance in school assembly, and singing “Marco, Merrick, Dairylea” along to the brilliant (oh come on, it IS) ‘Ant Rap’. Everything that pop music should be about when you’re a kid basically, and 40 years on, my palms are red from banging on my desk as I listen to it again.