As my father and I stood patiently in the fifth row of the Southampton Guildhall, overlooking the backs of old faces that waited before us, we were mixed in emotions. He was probably expecting his ancient hero to come out in a zimmer frame and oxygen mask. Me, I was anticipating a two-hour set of non-stop leaping about.
I proved correct, in this instance.
The act we were waiting for was no other than Adam Ant, once-mighty (ant)warrior of the charts and fans alike. With multiple hit singles from across his artistic career – from the Burundi, Native American beat of Kings of the Wild Frontier to his more recent, solo success – he was a giant in the music community. A pretty titan of punk, new wave, and pop rock all rolled into one. And though you may be forgiven for thinking he’s not ‘relevant’ anymore, you certainly can’t question his spirit.
At the age of 65, even I was astonished that night, on December 5th, when he leapt onstage, adorned with two huge signs behind him, ‘ADAM’ and ‘ANT’ (bit obvious, really), eagerly throwing the microphone stand about like it was his property. He dominated the stage from the very second he stood upon it, and looked damn good for his age.
The reason for the show was to celebrate the debut album of Ant, Friend or Foe, released in 1982 and bolstered with big hits like ‘Desperate But Not Serious’, ‘Goody Two Shoes’ and the title track itself. He played the whole album from start to finish, from filler to fan favourite.
Barreling through the title track and ‘Something Girls’, one of my top picks from the record, I was in awe of how much energy the man still had. This was one of twenty or so UK dates, following on from a US leg only a few months before. I had no idea how he still had the stamina – two hours every night will probably do that to you – but it was phenomenal all the same.
As Ant struck the relatively uneventful track of ‘Place in the Country’, however, he brought us right back in with one of the album’s singles, ‘Desperate But Not Serious’. A track famed for its flawless use of trumpets (the whole album has that instrument woven throughout, in fact), I was impressed to see how well the band did in its absence. Ant mimicked the iconic fanfare from start to finish, and nowhere in between did it sound awkward or childish. It still rocked, and Ant knew the best way to make up for a missing instrument. Just chuck more guitar over it.
Two of my favourites from Friend or Foe came next, the downbeat ‘Here Comes the Grump’ and Doors’ hit, ‘Hello, I Love You’. The former always had a bleak undertone I really enjoyed, and sounded good, though perhaps served as a reminder that some tracks aren’t quite the same in a live atmosphere. ‘Hello, I Love You’ was perfect, though, building and building in a way the original never really attempted.
The industry commentary and energetic pumps of chart-topper, ‘Goody Two Shoes’ were just as ferocious onstage, and the guitar licks from ‘Crackpot History…’ were impossible for me not to jive along to. That, curiously, is probably the only time I’ve written the word ‘jive’ in a piece, but it’s an apt description. Much of Ant’s stuff isn’t rocky enough to headbang to per se, but the man would rectify that soon enough.
The next few tracks sailed by, and I was pleasantly surprised to see the band embark on the full ‘Man Called Marco’, a track notable for its lyrical absence. Still, Ant joined in on backing vocals and it was good to see him have some fun when he didn’t have lines to worry about. The man was on fire.
And then, before we had time to recuperate, he was barraging into ‘Dog Eat Dog’, one of the singles from his critically acclaimed, Kings of the Wild Frontier with the Ants. One of my dad’s favourites, I could sense the smile on his face to see his icon plough through it with the same vigour of old.
‘Vive le Rock’ was another great hit to hear live, complete with nonsensical vocals and science fiction-eqsue riffs. But as I heard the opening drumbeat(s) to ‘Antmusic’ sound from the stage, I was in heaven. It reminded us all of the reason we were there. Whether young, old, poor, rich, this way or that way, we all enjoyed the weirder things in life. We were outcasts, perhaps, or just liked a punkish beat. But we were Antwarriors, and this was our antmusic we came to adore. It’s a moment tough to put into words, but it was electrifying to say the least.
‘Zerox’ and ‘Cartrouble’, relatively early hits of the Ants, proved a storm, with the man himself donning a beautiful black axe to use onstage. And as he plucked at the strings and filled the room with the iconic riff of ‘Ants Invasion’, I pulled out my phone and pressed record. I had to. Possibly my favourite song Ant ever did, it has a piercing guitar sound that’s just so infectious. Who cares if the lyrics don’t make much sense? We were stomping along to our queen ants behind the drums, and that’s what matters.
You could tell how much Ant loved performing ‘Prince Charming’ – one of his biggest hits – live, leading us into a minute-long chant at the end that repeated the chorus over and over again. And why not? It’s a great message; ‘Ridicule is nothing to be scared of… Don’t you ever stop being dandy, showing me you’re handsome’ are words we can all take home.
‘Puss ‘n Boots’, a hit off his 1983 record, Strip, was full of energy live. Interestingly, it was replaced with the title track for the first half of the tour. Whilst a great track in itself, I never felt it achieved all it could have in a live setting, so I was secretly happy when he changed it for ‘Puss…’. It’s playful, amusing, and full of the kind of odd charm a children’s book has. It’s a favourite of mine, and it sounded awesome.
The fusion of early B-sides, ‘Lady/Fall In’ was nice to see, exploring more of his repertoire than he likely needed to (not to say, of course, that I didn’t enjoy it – quite the contrary; ‘Fall In’ is one of his catchiest tracks), but ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’ really garnered the cheers and applause. ‘I feel beneath the white, there is a redskin, suffering…’ are probably not lyrics you could write nowadays. But even so, they resonate with the need to be accepted in today’s society, which can often prove judgmental and corrupt. It was a five-minute tour-de-force live.
‘I feel at this point in the show, we should play a slower song, yeah? Something all dreamy…’, Ant joked as one of his many antguitarists blasted into the hectic ‘Beat My Guest’. And then, at the end of the main set, the moment we had all been anticipating (not a pun).
‘Stand and Deliver!’ he shouted at the top of his voice, taking us into possibly the band’s signature. Whilst even the well-honed vocal chords of his had taken a battering, he sounded remarkably good on each chorus, milking each word of its novelty power. He was a real highwayman that night, stealing us of our attention, pilfering our very wills. I would have happily stayed in that man’s company for another two hours.
The encore consisted of ‘Press Darlings’, ‘Red Scab’ and ‘(You’re So) Physical’, all B-sides from the early years of the Ants’ career. It was a really odd choice, to both my father and I, who felt he probably should have kept a more well-known hit of his to end the night. Still, I’d acquainted myself with the tracks and loved each one. It was a real punk rock closer to a popstar’s performance.
Whilst the setlist was chaotic at times, I really enjoyed Ant’s inclusion of B-sides, outtakes and deep cuts, showing that even the nooks and crannies of his musical career were gold in themselves. While he never quite got the serious recognition he deserved, there was no doubt about how much the man could take. Two hours of pop, punk, new wave and rock. I salute you, Mr. Ant, you were incredible.