Adam Ant was the chart warrior, the gypsy soldier, the man who said ridicule is nothing to be scared of. He was also the punk in pain, an attention-seeker and sex addict tortured by mania and fear. As he launches a new single and tour, he discusses 10 of his songs that tell the story of a dark and wonderful life.
Loading article content
"I've got a fetish for you/ A fetish for me/ And that means I'm sick/ So very sick"
Christian D'or, 1978
Adam Ant, the punk who became Prince Charming, was 23 years old when he wrote those words and at 57 he still means them. He still lives them. In the den of his house in London, all his fetishes are on display and they're garish, quirky and a little bit dark; the obsessions of the pop star brought down by depression, of a dandy highwayman stalked by the black dog.
Let's stop and stare at them. There's a huge picture of Sean Connery as James Bond; a cardboard cut-out of Admiral Nelson, a book on General Custer; a model Messerschmitt and a plastic Elvis that sings Hound Dog; a picture of Jamie Lee Curtis, naked, a souvenir of the time she and Adam were lovers; and Rocky Marciano and Steve McQueen in Bullitt and Barbara Windsor in Sparrows Can't Sing.
What is all of this? It's the ephemera of the man who was born twice: the first time in 1954 as Stuart Goddard, the boy from a London slum, the son of an alcoholic, the descendent of Romany gypsies; the second time in 1976 when Stuart couldn't take the pressure of being married, and being at college, so took an overdose and woke up and invented a new person: Adam Ant.
Here he comes now, walking into the room, eyes to the ground. He can't be shy, can he, the king of the wild frontier? At least he looks the part: huge jewellery, skulls everywhere, staring out from his fingers and his feet; a cool musketeer moustache and a tattoo that creeps up his arm. He's a frayed punk, a middle-aged man with a pop star's genetic code.
He lights a cigarette and fusses over his dog Billy, a French mastiff, then asks me, in a barely-there voice, if I've seen the cover of his new album, his first for 17 years. It's a striking picture of a girl painted by the artist Mary Jane Ansell. He loves Ansell's work, he says. Her paintings are hanging on the wall. It's another of his fetishes.
"A fetish is just an obsession with an inanimate object," he says, talking about that song from 1978. He says the lyrics were about what he was doing, and wearing, that summer: lots of black leather, rubber, as well as some hardcore stuff like walking down the King's Road with the word "f***" carved into his back with a razor. It wasn't a political statement for him, he says; it was experimentation.
"I was never interested in politics," he says. "I try to keep politics out of music; there were plenty of people doing that in punk, The Clash and whatever. But my songs were subversive sexually." He means the girls he sang about: "I've got a fetish for blondes/ I've got a fetish for brown-haired girls."
When he listens to the song again, he's surprised by how good it is and by how accomplished Adam And The Ants were in those early days. "We could play," he says. "But Adam And The Ants got pretty much overlooked. It wasn't until the album [Dirk Wears White Sox] came out in 1979 that we got noticed." Suddenly, the underground was mainstream.
"Remember the curls of the Deutscher Girls?/ A lover of mine from down on the Rhine"
Deutscher Girls, 1978
More girls. We've gone outside to sit in the sun and Adam's started another cigarette and there's a mug of builder's tea at hand. He's single now and lives on his own; he thinks it's best even though he's lived with a long list of famous women: Amanda Donohoe, Heather Graham, Jamie Lee Curtis of course. None of those relationships was easy, and some of them were operatically disastrous, often because of his mental health problem, eventually diagnosed as manic depression. "I can't live with other people," he says. "I wouldn't want to put anybody through what I feel I put them through when I was unwell. I don't think it's fair. I'm better off spending time with somebody I care about or I like in the time I have free."
And it's clear his focus has changed anyway – this was the man who wrote a musical manifesto for "puresex"; the idea that a higher happiness could be found through sex. But now, in his den, there are just as many pictures of his 14-year-old daughter Lily, who lives with her mother, as there are of his girlfriends. This family responsibility is keeping him well and providing a focus. "I've got a family now, I've got a daughter," he says, "You grow up, basically."
"That music's lost its taste/ So try another flavour"
When it happened, it happened big. After years of making no money, Adam And The Ants became the No.1 band of the early 1980s, a celebration of male beauty and garish excess and highwaymen.
But all of it, all that light, came from a dark place: the band was invented because Stuart Goddard didn't want to live any more. When he woke in hospital after taking an overdose, he came up with a new version of himself and called him Adam Ant.
"I wasn't a happy person and sometimes you have to make very brutal changes," he says. "You start from the beginning again."
This new creation wasn't the skinny Bowie alien everyone else wanted to be in the late 1970s; it was a muscular warrior, a reincarnation of the Apache with a slash of white make-up across his face, pirate boots and a jacket from the 1968 movie The Charge Of The Light Brigade; he was a hero with a manifesto that said: look how you want to look. It was a celebration and an escape from a difficult childhood.
"Music, sport and crime are the three avenues out for the working person," he says. "We felt like kings, a new royal family, a wild nobility."
"Don't you ever, don't you ever/ Stop being dandy, showing me you're handsome"
Prince Charming, 1981
Just up the road from where Adam Ant is sitting now, working his way contemplatively through his cigarettes, is the Victoria And Albert Museum and in the museum is a glass case and in the glass case is the outfit he wore as his Prince Charming alter ego. Adam is proud it's there; it's evidence that he was a success, even though the success eventually broke him.
You might need reminding of the scale of that success: 10 top-10 hits including three No.1s, but also the feeling among pop lovers, and children especially, that they had a new leader.
Punk purists hated it, music journalists sneered at it, but everyone else loved it. The only problem for Adam himself, the man behind the make-up, was that the scale of it all made him ill.
"I had 11 days off in three years; I let myself do that because I didn't think it would last," he recalls. "A record company isn't going to say no if you're making the kind of money we were making for them."
The evidence of it all is on the wall of his house – gold discs and awards – and in a box on the floor: the albums and on the covers, pictures of Prince Charming, shoulders back, arms akimbo, confident. But not a single visual clue that behind it, Adam was depressed and anxious and ill, and that the slide from success would only make it worse.
"When you get a number one/ The only way is down"
Here Comes The Grump, 1982
Slowly, the public that once loved Adam And The Ants shrugged, and the records slid from No.1 down the top 10, then out of the top 20, then into the dark reaches of nobody caring, and suddenly Adam Ant was on Live Aid singing songs nobody wanted to listen to. It's only now that he can see the damage this period did to him, how it drew blood.
"With a boxer, you've got to be prepared to take 10,000 punches," he says, "and when you're a pop singer, you're taking them but you're just not acknowledging them.
"I was taking these blows and thinking: 'That didn't hurt,' but it f****** did. I just didn't show it."
"All the streets lead to somewhere/ And the pavement's gold"
Puss 'N Boots, 1983
We're inside the house again and Adam is sitting on a stool looking through the memorabilia and time-travelling back to 1983. "By the time I was doing Puss 'N Boots," he says, "I was giving it my best shot and it wasn't getting the kind of buzz I was expecting because the audience can only take so much of a group."
All he could do was furiously pursue the thing that was getting further and further away: he wrote more, he toured more, spinning faster and faster round the black hole. "It was album, tour, album, tour. It was non-stop. It was beyond work, it was obsessiveness and if you do that for five or six years it takes its toll. You don't realise it but it does."
"Could this be a dirty night?/ It could if they're doing it right"
But at least there were the girls. From the beginning, Adam And The Ants was about sex and dirty nights; in many ways their lead singer has spent much of his life looking to repeat the excitement of his first time. "Doing a concert is a bit like going out on a date," he says. "You start off all dressed up and then it all comes off by the end of the show. It's sweaty, it's intimate and you're showing off."
But relationships weren't the same as sex; they were different; they were harder. They always ended in apologies, shame, anger. "It's very hard to have a relationship with sailors and singers. If my daughter said, 'Dad, I'm going out with a singer,' I'd have a word with her. I'm not going to stop her but it's not a great move if you're going to have a nice, settled life. It never has been and it never will be."
Take Adam and the actor Heather Graham, for example. There's a picture he has of them sitting on his parents' sofa in 1993 – he was the pop star on the way down, she was the film star on the way up, and their trajectories crossed.
"Heather is lovely, very caring," he says. "I think I was a bit battle torn and she was just starting out – it was unfair to be in a relationship where they were giving up their career to take care of you. I don't think that's fair so it had to end and I'm glad it did, for both of us."
"I won't take that talk from no-one/ Inside it makes you ill"
By the mid-nineties, things weren't good. Adam was living in Los Angeles, the success had happened 15 years ago, which in pop years is 100. He had a big house but the shutters were always down partly because of a stalker but partly because of the fear in the evenings and the boredom in the mornings. There was paranoia too, and hysteria, but at least it had a name now: bipolar disorder.
"Everything went bang," he says. "I went to a doctor and said, 'I can't get out of bed, I can't lift a cup up.' I was on stage hallucinating; I could actually watch myself perform. Something was wrong but no-one was going to say 'stop the tour' so I did another 20 shows before they diagnosed bipolar disorder."
The most famous manifestation of the disorder was in 2002 when, inflamed by what he said were threats to his daughter from the jealous husband of a woman who had made clothes for him, Adam went out into the street looking for the man. He got embroiled in a row in a pub, smashed a window then threatened security guards with a starting pistol.
"It was the biggest mistake I've ever made," he says of the incident, "I've always been law abiding but someone threatened my daughter when she was five so I took the bad decision to deal with it myself. I should have gone to the police.
"It was like a boil. You're just filling up but you can't take the law into your own hands. It doesn't matter if you're famous or infamous or whoever the hell I was, I'm not promoting that. It was a stupid thing to do. You've got to be willing to pay the price and I think I did." After pleading guilty to affray, Adam was sentenced to six months on probation.
"Sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you"
Very Long Ride, 1995
Look back and it sometimes seems like Adam Ant has always been fighting the bear, he's always had to live with a character called Bad Adam. It was Bad Adam who had the black thoughts and the tantrums; it was Bad Adam who pulled out the gun. After the incident in 2002, he spent several spells in psychiatric wards but is now living free of medication.
"I spoke to my doctor and said, 'I've been on these things for years and they don't make me feel good,' and the doctor said, 'It's your life, I'll help you,'" Adam recalls. He lights another cigarette and his voice gets quieter; his head goes down until the eyes are hidden under the brim of his hat. "We know f***-all about the brain," he says, the voice suddenly rising again. But he's coming to terms with it; he's learning to living with the mysterious machine in his head.
"Leather and chains/ So damn vain/ Never seen his like again"
Vince Taylor, 2012
So here we are in 2012 and Adam Ant is recording new songs and on the road again. He's still wearing the Prince Charming jacket and make-up: a black cross on his cheekbone instead of a white slash across his nose. This character, this Prince Charming, has lived longer than Stuart Goddard ever did but it has matured and morphed into something new: a punk hussar, a pop Napoleon.
More importantly, Adam Ant feels like he's in control. There's none of the excess of the 1980s: there's him, his own record label, a tour manager and a small band; he's a pop bandit doing his own thing. "It's a bit like the Wild West. No-one really knows what's going on in the music industry. But the buck stops with me."
And the music is good: punky, spiky songs, with those doubled-up drums that still make the skin vibrate. The new single is called Cool Zombie because that's what it's felt like sometimes for Adam Ant. But he's in recovery now, and so is his career. The only word for it is a comeback. "Every single album I've brought out was a comeback," he says. "It's what I do."
Adam Ant & The Good, The Mad And The Lovely Posse play the O2 ABC, Glasgow, on November 1. Cool Zombie will be released next month, with an album scheduled for early next year.