Some years back I posted a piece called ‘The Prettiest Punk‘, about the most fetching three-minute wonders. Scandalously, Adam Ant appeared nowhere in the list.
Perhaps this oversight was an unconscious censorship – because otherwise none of the other candidates would have stood a chance. Or more likely down to the fact I was born a bit late for punk and so only remembered Adam Ant in his much more successful, much more made-up new romantic ‘dandy highwayman’ phase, which twas technically new wave musically, but very much new romantic visually, and ideologically.
When he transformed from a punk Cinders into a glamorous, baroque butterfly, drowning in lip gloss.
Born Stuart Goddard in 1954 and raised in an unplumbed two-room north London slum, this art school ruffian chose the punk name ‘Adam’ because “he was the first man”, and ‘Ant’ because “they will survive nuclear war”. He personified more than anyone else (even, dare I say, that other London boy made good, D**** B****) the open secret that British youth cults of glam, punk and new romanticism, although they officially hated each other, were all part of the same aesthetic rebellion.
One that eventually culminated (or degenerated, depending on your point of view), via the assimilation/proliferation of glossy magazines, consumerism and advertising, and the increasingly mediated nature of masculinity, in metrosexuality.
The tongue-in-cheek but seriously extravagant by the standards of the time ‘dandy highwayman’ promos for ‘Stand and Deliver’ and ‘Prince Charming’, both shot in a day and released in 1981 (forty years ago next year), were at least as influential in shaping the sensibility of the 1980s as Paul Schrader’s more ‘adult’ Hollywood feature film and young Richard Gere panopticon, American Gigolo, released the previous year.
‘Stand and Deliver’ was a pitch perfect pop song, noisily celebrating male narcissism and declaring, with wailing war cry, a national uprising against naffness – while holding grown-ups to ransom.
“It’s just stealing people’s attention. I’m a very big history fan of certainly the Georgian era and I like the flamboyance and sexuality and bawdiness of the time. I’ve seen films like Tom Jones and I grew up going to Saturday morning pictures and seeing all these other influences. I put them all together and “Stand and Deliver” was just purely grabbing people’s attention and using the whole sort of classical English highwayman feel as a theme.”Adam Ant
The promo, directed by Mike Mansfield, begins with us enjoying in close-up a fully-made-up but apparently naked Adam gazing smolderingly at himself in the mirror as he applies his ‘war paint’ – while the hunting horn sounds. The ‘threesome’ mirror-shot that invites the viewer to gaze on a beautiful young man gazing at himself is a trope which has become a cliche in the decades since, in a world where metrosexuality is completely mainstream and corporate, and social me-dear is rampant. In 1980 however, it was still an arresting vista.
I'm the dandy highwayman who you're too scared to mention
I spend my cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention
Mr Ant is entirely upfront and personal about his ravenous desire to be desired. In fact, he wields it as a weapon. Instead of holding up travellers with a pistol he holds a mirror to their faces. (Perhaps inspiring 1980s Taboo nightclub ‘door whore’ Mark Vaultier’s infamous habit of holding a mirror up to hopeful punters, asking: “Would you let yourself in?”).
Stand and deliver your money or your life
Try and use a mirror no bullet or a knife
Tossing the phallic pistol and replacing it with a mirror is a provocatively fey gesture, as befits the ravishing passivity of male vanity. It also perhaps references the raucous Sex Pistols-style guitar chords that open “Stand and Deliver” (who also styled themselves as ruffians).
Working class Adam completely embraced the nascent medium of glossy, aspirational pop promos, coming up with many of the grandiose ideas himself – as well as the medium of glossy, aspirational self-love. Both of which were of course abhorred by ‘proper’ punks and the ‘serious’ music press.
The devil take your stereo and your record collection (oh-oh) The way you look you'll qualify for next year's old age pension
Which is why, in addition to being enormous fun, ‘Stand and Deliver’ went to No.1 in May 1981 and refused to budge from its pole position in the hit highway for five weeks, relieving a million teenagers of their pocket money. But then, unlike most pop singles, it did contain useful fashion advice:
It's kind of tough to tell a scruff the big mistake he's making
During the ‘hanging’ sequence (which was banned by the BBC) accompanied by the divine Georgian gibberish chorus of ‘Qua qua da diddley qua qua da diddley‘, we are regaled with knee-clasping stylised shots of stylised Blitz Kids. There’s more than a nod in this video to The Dame’s seminal “Ashes to Ashes” promo of the previous year, at the time the most expensive ever made, which also featured eminent denizens of London’s hyper-cool Blitz nightclub, paying homage to their prophet.
“Stand and Deliver” ends as it began, just you, me, Adam and his reflection sharing an intimate moment: a close-up on mirrored glossy lips again, as if (re)discovering their own irresistibility.
And frankly, has anyone worn lip gloss and full foundation better? Blondie’s soft-focus kisser looked crusty in comparison. Even Tim Curry’s iconic smackers as pouty Frank ‘n’ Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show seem drier than a Weetabix discovered behind a radiator after Mr Ant’s spangly lusciousness.
If ‘Stand and Deliver’ was Adam Ant’s glamorous gospel, “Prince Charming” was his shining apotheosis. It is quite the most perfect promo ever made – delivering him straight into pop cultural heaven.
The track has a repetitive, terrace/school playground chant-like quality to it, like some of the best glam rock singles. But unlike glam rock it doesn’t really exist separate from the panto pop promo. In fact, ‘Prince Charming’ is more pop promo than song. This is not a criticism. It is part of its historic achievement.
It starts with Adam as Cinders, his bandmates singing to him:
Don't you ever, don't you ever Stop being dandy, showing me you're handsome
It’s a touching image of male camaraderie in the British youth cult tradition and reminds me somewhat of Bowie’s ‘When you’re a boy/Other boys check you out‘ line from “Boys Keep Swinging”.
His fairy godmother turns up, played by camp icon Diana Dors – on a cloud, surrounded by toned oiled-up topless young black male dancers. With a wave of her wand, he is transformed into a sexy Beau Brummell – something I suspect Mr Brummell never actually achieved himself. (Check out those tight breeches and the way they reflect the light – gadzooks!).
Ridicule is nothing to be scared of
Quite so. Male vanity only really works if it is unashamed and fearless. Ridicule is a form of attention. And frequently a form of envy.
At the ball that Cinders/Adam attends, the chanting and the arm-crossed synchronised dancing is wonderful, but also slightly Satanic, in a thrilling Dance of the Vampires sense, despite or perhaps because of the childish panto theme. As Adam mounts the cloudy staircase towards a landing mirror, the revellers freeze and fade away to nothingness and our hero is left alone, with his Orphée-esque reflection – and our gaze.
He smashes the mirror with a handy candelabra, fragmenting himself, and we see Adam as a series of male pop cultural icons: the Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood), Alice Cooper, Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino) and Adam in his dandy highwayman garb from “Stand and Deliver”. It’s the drag sequence in Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging” promo, but this time cross-dressing in the clothes of the same gender. Metrosexuality is about accessorising attractiveness.
With admirable arrogance, this slightly odd-looking, very tiny man from the humblest of backgrounds imaginable has, via the powerful transformative magick of pop, inserted himself into the immortal iconography of male celluloid stars. His desire to be desired made famous flesh.
Cinders has found his Prince Charming – in himself. At his coming out ball.
Mind, he is only really convincing in his dandy highwayman role and as Valentino. His Valentino is quite devastating – a revelation, both in terms of Valentino and Ant. Besides, the fact that he knew and understood the long-dead silent screen star’s importance as one of the first male sex objects, let alone coveted it, is an indication of his close study of the subject.
But there is a ghost in attendance at this ball. The ghost of Johnny Depp Future, who was only eighteen when this video was made. Depp credited Keith Richards with inspiring his criminally successful Pirates of the Caribbean ‘Jack Sparrow’ character – but curiously didn’t mention Adam Ant’s dandy highwayman. Which, visually at least, it clearly references. Perhaps he didn’t because Ant did it even prettier.
Some of Adam’s (much) later looks also put one in mind of Depp. Maybe it’s because facially they do share some genes. Or because they are both, for that reason, stealing styling tips off each other – seeing each other as their respective reflections.
Call me a biased Limey, but I think it’s pretty clear that in all essentials, Adam is the original and Depp is the copy.
I posted a brief piece about Adam Ant and “Prince Charming” on this blog many years ago – but it seems to have mysteriously vanished. Much like the revellers at Adam’s ball...