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King of the Mild Frontier

Adam Ant is still dressed up, and now has somewhere to go

Like so many of his British brethren who would later choose careers in music, Stuart Goddard began his career as an art-school dropout, fascinated with punk because it was as much about the packaging of image -- torn clothing, men wearing makeup, performance art creeping into concert, treating the audience like shit -- as about the noise of three chords strung together randomly till noise coalesced into song into statement.

Goddard became part of the London punk crowd, born again on the screaming sounds of the Sex Pistols. In the fall of 1975, while fronting a '50s-fetished American greaser-styled rock band called Bazooka Joe, Goddard even had the opportunity to headline a bill on which the then-unknown Pistols opened. That small fact, and that he would later hook up with the Pistols' impresario, Malcolm McLaren, cemented his place in the punk-rock history book as, at the very least, a footnote.

Goddard's first outings as a musician proved him to be a rather talentless, ham-fisted songwriter fascinated with religious iconography and sexual perversion. He often wore bondage gear on-stage and attacked audience members, and he revered David Bowie and Marc Bolan as much as John Lydon, becoming fascinated with the way each man assumed a different persona through which to make music. As Goddard immersed himself deeper into the underground, he revised and revamped his persona, molding his influences into his own guise -- and so was born the man now known as Adam Ant, a name that, at 40, Goddard still uses as his moniker.

After a series of singles, a role in Derek Jarman's punk homage/kiss-off film Jubilee and an indie release (Dirk Wears White Socks), Adam and his Ants hit pay dirt in 1980 with Kings of the Wild Frontier, an album that knocked the Who's Face Dances out of the number one slot in England's pop charts. Built upon a series of clever gimmicks -- two drummers pounding out a tribal beat, riffs and lines stolen wholesale from various spaghetti Westerns, war paint replacing the eyeliner of glam-rockers past -- Kings of the Wild Frontier subverted punk's dangerous elements into something kinkier, with sex and S&M imagery replacing politics as a manifesto.

"Antmusic for sexpeople, sexmusic for antpeople," Ant chanted, presumably ushering in a new sound to replace the old one. He was point man for the charge of the lightweight brigade that was the second British Invasion, leading hordes of New Wave bands that would storm American radio in the early '80s -- acts such as Culture Club, Flock of Seagulls, Gary Numan and many more bred on punk's image, if not its sound. The punk became the pop star, and in an instant, through such venues as MTV, Adam and the Ants and a whole host of British pop acts provided the soundtrack to an era.

"MTV made music more accessible -- people see music now as much as they hear it," Ant says now. "I thought it was a time to exploit what MTV gave me to be theatrical, and the sort of work I was doing then was very focused on that. Video could capture some kind of fantasy world for people and make it very accessible."

Following Kings of the Wild Frontier, Ant released a handful of mediocre albums (Prince Charming, Friend or Foe, Vive Le Rock) and a couple that were absolutely dreadful (Strip, Manners and Physique). With each successive release, Ant faded further from memory. His career stalled quicker than a '53 Olds with a bad carburetor and old plugs, with Ant plunging into a series of B-grade film roles and a four-year period in which MCA Records killed a whole record and finally bumped him right off the label and onto his ass.

But, like Lazarus back from the dead, Adam Ant has been resurrected through the strength of one single, "Wonderful," which is in moderate rotation on modern-rock radio and, more important, on MTV, the cable dance-party station that made the former Stuart Goddard a very wealthy man more than a decade ago. And it's quite deserving, damn it all: the song is catchy and moving. It may not set the world aflame, but it's hardly lethal.

Like his Capitol Records labelmates Duran Duran -- fellow video creations once thought eradicated from existence -- Antmusic returns. Ant has been seen on TV once again, his fey, handsome mug shedding tears in a stark black-and-white video; he has also been spotted sharing the stage with Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, running through a trio of old Anttunes -- "Physical (You're So)," "Red Scab," and "Beat My Guest." He's even held his own with Howard Stern. And coming soon to a video store near you: Adam Ant and Debbie Harry in a rock and roll mystery called Drop Dead Rock, presumably shot direct to video.

"The four-year break [between albums] was a bit inadvertent, really," Adam Ant explains by way of introduction. "My last album was with MCA in 1990, Manners and Physique. I did make a follow-up album for MCA called Persuasion ... but unfortunately, there was a big shootout in the boardroom in 1992, just prior to its release, and my album got caught up in the rush and they didn't want to put it out, so it got lost in the shuffle. I had no real tangible way of getting it out, so I had to start again. I put myself on tour in the States about 18 months ago, the Persuasion tour, and we did about 30 shows.

"After I did that I got a deal with EMI and started again and did a whole new album, which is Wonderful. So, in a way, it was a long way 'round ... but hey, it makes ya strong."

Ant has indeed been rescued from obscurity, validated by the revered Reznor, forgiven his past crimes and allowed to continue on with a career long presumed over by those who cared about such things. Pop music audiences live by the motto "forgive and forget," allowing the discarded refuse of one era to resurface in another even bigger than before, stars reborn with nary a mention made of past indiscretions and failures.

So Ant returns, this time as a dewy-eyed romantic writing wimpy, twisted love songs strummed on an acoustic guitar -- personal, he calls them, natural. But he's back, all right, singing of holes in his heart and flesh-eating angels, bemoaning the fact "you can't beat your meat." He still performs all the old hits -- "Antmusic," "Friend or Foe," "Strip," "Goody Two-Shoes," "Vive Le Rock" -- and often speaks of the good old days with fondness and enthusiasm.

But, Ant insists, "I don't want to sit back and think, 'Oh, the old days were great and now is rubbish.' I don't think that's the case. Now is a great time, and that's all that concerns me. I just follow my heart.

"In 1977, '78, there were lots of people doin' a lot of the softer stuff and a lot of the more melodic and very personal stuff, and that's why I did the hard-edged stuff. Now I feel that the hard-edged stuff is being very well taken care of by the likes of Soundgarden and Nirvana and Pearl Jam; I think Nine Inch Nails are the top of the scale of the hard stuff. I want to do something I've never done before, so I focused on songs and lyrics that aren't dressed up and are very simple, actually. Simple and easy. I love doin' the old stuff, but I don't want to be a cabaret act."

At age 40, Ant is in a unique position -- old enough to be the grand old man of New Wave, but young enough to still participate in the music without seeming too ridiculous sporting leather pants on-stage with Reznor. He was raised on the Pistols and has witnessed the so-called rebirth of punk with Offspring and Green Day and D-Generation; he was a Wire fan and now sings the praises of Elastica, a new British band that so closely mimics Wire as to warrant a lawsuit.

His association with Reznor is particularly interesting, perhaps because there's a vague similarity between the two that extends even to a physical resemblance. Nine Inch Nails may well be the Adam and the Ants of the '90s -- producers of catchy pop songs with a dark, perverse subtext, wrapped in bondage gear and pseudosexual imagery. The roots of both men's music run deep through punk, but it blossoms as a warped sort of pop that's at once danceable and depressing. Like Ant circa 1980, Reznor has been hailed as genius and dismissed as gimmick; and Reznor's version of Ant's "Physical" on Nine Inch Nails' 1993 EP Broken is little changed from the original.

"Trent is a very focused person, and every single thing you see of his is presented as a vision," Ant says. "Trent's work is extreme, and that's what I like. I think we're both people that like extremes and pushin' it a bit.

"Performing with them was a real eye-opener for me. In a way, it was kind of like going full circle ... it's just generations, ya know? I feel very proud of them, that they've had the guts to go out and grab a piece of action for themselves on their own terms. But even then, that's not necessarily an influence from me but from generations before me. And maybe one night, we'll do one of their songs."

Adam Ant performs between 5 and 10 p.m. on Thursday, April 27 at Party on the Plaza, Jones Plaza. Free. Call 845-1000 for info.

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