The Adam Ant story is remarkable even when pared down to its bare, sleeve-note essentials. To wit: London art student Stuart Goddard forms punk outfit Adam and the Ants, who cause a bit of a stir with the sort of fetishist lyrics and imagery you might expect from a band managed over-the-shop at Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westward’s King’s Road SEX Boutique.
McLaren then steals the band from under Goddard’s nose to back his own teenage protégée in Bow Wow Wow. Goddard, now trading under the name Adam Ant, wastes no time in reassembling his group, whose innovative sound – ranging plangent, Duane Eddy guitars against a backdrop of Burundi drums – and visual flair (by this time, Ant has adopted his iconic Hussar jacket and Native American warpaint look) ushers in the era of full-blown Antmania.
Over the next couple of years, Adam and the Ants score a string of strutting peacock pop hits, including the chart-toppers Stand and Deliver and Prince Charming, while Ant restlessly restyles himself as, variously, a Regency fop, a dandy highwayman, a pirate and a medieval knight.
(From a 21st century perspective, worn down by years of sopping wet balladry from stool-monkeys like Boyzone and Westlife, it’s hard to believe that schoolkids used to rush to Woolworth’s to hand over their pocket money in exchange for records by a man with the wit and imagination to perform African tribal rhythms while raiding the dressing-up box of world history. But they did – and I should know: I was one of them.)
Dismissing the rest of the band, citing lack of commitment to the cause, Ant finds solo success with the Friend or Foe album and its brassy single, Goody Two Shoes, earning the title of Sexiest Man in America from MTV viewers into the bargain, before gradually ceding his pop crown to a man in a dress who wears even more make-up than he does.
A poorly received Live Aid performance, in which he unwisely chooses to devote his truncated set to performing his new single, seals his decline, and he sees out the rest of the decade in LA, acting in TV shows like The Equalizer and any number of straight-to-video movies you’ve almost certainly never seen.
At the start of the 90s, Ant returns to music, enjoying modest success on both sides of the pond with the album Manners and Physique and single Room at the Top, but his record company declines to release the follow-up. His last album to date, 1995’s Wonderful, is supported by a UK tour that plays to packed houses, but ends abruptly when both Ant and long-serving sideman Marco Pirroni succumb to glandular fever.
And that, until now, was where the official history of Adam Ant pretty much ran out. But the official history is only half the story because, behind the swaggering buccaneer façade, Ant has faced a very personal struggle in the form of a lifelong battle with mental illness.
Even prior to assuming his new identity, the 22-year-old Stuart Goddard had spent three months in a psychiatric hospital after attempting to starve himself to death and then taking an overdose. He was subsequently diagnosed with bipolar disorder (though to this day he continues to reject the term).
Hard work sustained him through much of the next two decades but, when he found himself pursued by a stalker – whose torments included poisoning the fish at his LA home and trying to kill his dogs – in the early 90s he suffered a breakdown, and admitted himself to the Cedars-Sanai Medical Centre.
In 2012, Ant was poised to make a comeback as part of the Here & Now Eighties nostalgia package tour, but had to pull out after he was charged with throwing a car alternator through a pub window and threatening drinkers with an imitation firearm. The following year, he was arrested again after attempting to smash his neighbour’s patio door with a shovel, before curling up, half-naked, on the floor of a nearby café – events which led to him being sectioned under the Mental Health Act and spending a further six months in psychiatric care.
Three years later, he wrote a candid, bestselling autobiography and, in September 2007, gave his first public performance in more than a decade. It marked a renewed period of live activity, culminating in a sold-out show at London’s Scala in April 2010. A month later, he was once again admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a period of several weeks, before returning home under outpatient supervision and resuming a schedule of regular live gigging.
On March 29 this year, Ant engaged in a frank discussion about his mental health with John Humphrys for Radio 4’s On the Ropes. Later that day, he held a press conference announcing his first UK concert tour in 16 years, including a sold-out date at Cambridge Junction this Tuesday, in which he will combine a greatest hits set with tracks from his forthcoming album (deep breath) Adam Ant is the Blueblack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner’s Daughter. He will be backed by a new band, The Good, the Mad and the Lovely Posse, whose members include his current girlfriend Georgina “Sachsgate” Baillie. (Ant, who has a 13-year-old daughter, Lily, is no stranger to celebrity squeezes, having previously dated Amanda Donohoe, Jamie Lee Curtis and Heather Graham.)
Last month, I caught up with the man who once adorned every inch of my bedroom walls – and most of the ceiling, too – to talk about his life and career, and his slow return to match fitness. Though a little hyper at times, with a deep-rooted suspicion of the record industry and the health service – the two institutions that have dominated his life – I found the 56-year-old to be an open, warm and candid interviewee. Quite the Prince Charming, in fact.
Hello Adam. The Prince Charming Revue at the Queen’s Hall in Leeds was the first – and possibly still the best – gig I ever saw. So it’s pretty exciting to hear you’re coming back out and playing those songs 30 years later. I guess the obvious question is: Why now?
It’s been a long time, and it wasn’t necessarily a conscious effort on my part to do that. I did contract acute glandular fever on the tail end of the Wonderful tour, which kind of put me out for two years, and then I kind of did some acting and I had a daughter, and I didn’t want to be a stay-away dad. It’s been a long period of time but I’ve been writing throughout. And now I’m out of my contractual obligations to Sony after 30 years and I’ve got my own label now and a double album coming out, and we’re all raring to go.
How do you feel the songs have stood the test of time?
I don’t mess around with the arrangements and I don’t do medleys or jazz versions of them and all that stuff. I try and do a version of them with the new line-up. Think The E-Street Band playing Adam and the Ants songs – it’s quite a hard sound. It’s good.
Your ideas, the way you blended punk and new wave with those Burundi drums and those twangy guitar riffs, and then the whole swashbuckling dandy imagery and all that stuff, they were just so original and interesting and actually quite strange for mainsteam chart music. Where did it all spring from?
I was an art student at Hornsey College of Art and my first love was graphics, so when I became a musician I wanted to do the visual side of Adam and the Ants. And when the video revolution came along I did a film course so I could storyboard and direct. So my education didn’t go to waste.
But I had so many influences: people like Elvis and Sinatra and Roxy Music were a big influence, because Bryan Ferry was an art student like myself. When a new Roxy album came out, your life changed – you knew every word of it, you knew every groove of it. And it was vinyl, and I’m doing vinyl and CD cassette [for the new album] – no downloads – because of that. I want to do vinyl because I want a beautiful piece of work. I don’t like the internet very much. I don’t like the people who gave us it; I don’t want to look like ‘em. I’m not a Trekkie – I don’t want to sit there with my bag from Millets going ‘oh look at this’ and go and sharpen my pencils. I’ve got a life.
Isn’t that commercial suicide in this day and age?
Maybe. I’ve done that before. What has happened is that it has robbed songwriters and musicians of their livelihoods, and I don’t like it. Kids can download my work for free – it ain’t right. If you do a job of work, you get paid. But everybody’s so used to it, they’re quite happy to accept it. But I don’t, so I’m making a stand. Maybe someone in a position to will join me one day, but I don’t care anyway.
You seemed to change your image every six months, back in the day. Did you just get easily bored?
No, I had to fulfil contractual obligations to Sony to deliver an album and four singles, and tour behind it and do the videos, otherwise they’d penalise me for another album. I had a schedule – I got signed up for 10 years, which was financial sodomy, you know? Not just that, I was signed to the UK company and they didn’t want me going to America, so when we were number one in the world they kept us in Europe. So there you go. We were allowed three weeks in Japan and two days in, you know, wherever. You can’t do that now, but in them days you could. It was a bit like the old Rank system for actors. There was no emphasis at all on art.
Your music was heavily sexualised, yet it had this massive kiddie following. Was that difficult?
No, not at all. It got a bit difficult because I was doing punk clubs and then I did Top of the Pops and suddenly, to get in the charts, to sell records, I had to go on Tiswas. And Tiswas unfortunately wasn’t a sort of 9.30 in the evening with David Dimbleby, discussing futurism: it was get on there or you won’t chart, and I’d waited three years to be recognised, and when I did I thought, I’d better stick at it, mate. And I didn’t mind it but getting, you know, The Phantom Flan Flinger… really high art! And now you’ve got Jools Holland, which is even more boring. I’ve got a pianist – I don’t need someone to jam on my record! But with me it became like, “Does it sell records? Good, let’s do it.” And I had three number ones, you know? Which is good.
You’ve said about the music you’re working on now: “This is me coming back to life”. What did you mean by that?
Because I think I died – a certain part of me died in the hospitals that I was sectioned into. And that will never come back. This character, the Blueblack Hussar is like The Terminator: he’s like the kid with the white stripe went to Moscow, on foot, got there, lost or won, came back, got locked up in Bedlam and then got out, like Casanova, climbing over the roof… I’m trying to make it a little bit like a a Clint Eastwood film. Because if you live in real life, it’s boring. There’s loads of people doing real life – Plan B does real life, all the Manchester bands like New Order do real life. But I don’t do that, I don’t care about that. I’m not a working class dole queue martyr. Never have been. I was a Sex Pistols man, not a Clash man, you know what I mean?
There are elements of your life in those characters, but writ large…
The background I came from, living where I was living [Ant spent his childhood in a two-room flat in St John’s Wood and, from the age of seven, was brought up by his mother, a cleaner, after she divorced his alcoholic, abusive father], had to be escapist. I buried my nose in a book about King Arthur or a Spitfire pilot and I escaped. I love history, I think it’s the most important subject there is for children: if you don’t know where you’ve been, you don’t know where you’re going. It’s being put on the back burner ‘cos everyone wants kids that can, you know, fly jet planes – it’s just Star Trek, and I don’t like that. I always start with history and combine it with the ideas that interest me. And this album will be different because I’ve got a little bit of… I’ve never really been a political animal, but now I am: I’ve got a BIG opinion on this mental health scene, because it’s a joke, and I want to say something that’s relevant, on TV, with the people responsible for setting it all up.
What is it you want to say?
Wait and see. I’ll be asking a few questions. Why is it worse than the gulag system in Stalinist Russia?
The NHS mental health system?
There isn’t a health system, there’s a gulag. It’s based on shame, it’s based on guilt, it’s based on economy. It’s the second most important, most serious health issue in the world. Everybody in the world has got someone who suffers from it and they don’t want to admit it because it’s the ultimate taboo. No-one wants to deal with it – certainly not the Prime Minister, he’s got better things to spend his money on, like a new pair of shoes or something.
You’ve been very frank and candid about your bipolar disorder…
There’s no such thing as bipolar disorder, it’s just a label. It’s just ignorance. You know, we have a society where there are no Sundays any more, so there’s one day less. It’s a 24 hour, 7 day a week fight.
I talked to my grandmother about the Second World War and she’d talk about coming home and the whole street had been blown up. Now that’s gonna cause stress. But that whole generation – the guys coming back from the war – people just hid it in those days, “have another cup of tea, luv”. Now we’ve got shrinks, and all of psychiatry is based on the opinions of two Austrian and German psychiatrists, Freud and Jung. I don’t think they’re right. I would like to know what took place in their private sessions with those lovely young girls in private. Cos I think they did a few things, ‘cos it was all about dick, wasn’t it?
You talk about the 24/7 pace of modern life, but you’re stepping back into the fray with touring and all the hoopla that goes with that. Are you strong enough?
It’s my job, that’s my work. It’s like an actor, you know. If you took away the stage and the theatre from Laurence Olivier, you have a very sad Laurence Olivier – the greatest actor I’ve ever seen. It’s the same with me. The only difference is they’re closing it all down because they don’t really want that. They can do karaoke now.
Looking back on the last three decades, what’s your overriding impression: it seems like a lot of success but also a hell of a lot of struggle?
I’ve been consistent, I think. I have a style. I’ve always made records that don’t sound record like other records that are coming out. I haven’t looked like them and I haven’t thought like them, and you have to be willing to pay the price of not being accepted at that time. I don’t care. I have this very low boredom threshold.
I think that comes across. So what are your hopes and ambitions for the next few years?
To keep making records more consistently and bring them out on a regular basis. I’m putting Adam and the Ants Mark 3 together after this.
Oh that’s my band. It’s a registered trademark. So a couple of the old guys are coming in.
Is Marco coming back?
No. I don’t work with Marco.
So which boys are you bringing back then?
Ah, that’s another story...
Published in the Cambridge News, May 12, 2011. © Cambridge Newspapers Ltd