Adam And The Ants: Kings Of The Wild Frontier box set review

A lavish, extravagant set that matches the music and attitude of this astonishing album.

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It’s gold. So gold. As gold as the golden embroidery on pop’s greatest jacket, a 12x12-inch gilded trinket box housing a grotto of pirate swag: posters, postcards, stickers and ads; a replicated original introduction catalogue; a sturdy, stunningly illustrated Story Of The Album booklet written by Adam himself, its cover a bare-chested portrait of The Sexiest Man Who Ever Lived; and – oh-yee-oh-ee-yoy! – a liquid gold vinyl album. Then, once you’ve stopped swooning, you put the music on and your head explodes…

For teens in the early 80s, contrary to our overly visualised nostalgia industry, the music of Adam And The Ants hit even harder than the look. In a mainstream pop world dominated by Phil Collins and Shakin’ Stevens, they sounded like the revolution itself, pioneers of this unfathomable, foreign, thumping thing. It sounded exactly as it was built to sound (via two Burundi-beat drummers) – like a charging tribe of invincible warriors thundering over the horizon, its tantalisingly scarf-draped chieftain out to kidnap a willing generation into his ‘new royal family, a wild nobility, we are the family!’ (as the Kings Of The Wild Frontier anthem so audaciously declares).

Thirty-five years later, this fairly priced (£70) anniversary box set is the work of art it deserves, a faithfully curated, tantalising time capsule of our lost tactile world and a shimmering reminder of one man’s stated intent to clothe the belligerent punk rock spirit in the showbiz threads of Liberace.

No one saw it coming. By 1980, Adam And The Ants’ starkly avant-garde debut Dirk Wears White Sox (1979) saw the moody post-punk pretenders lost in a marginal cul-de-sac. Three members were then poached by no-longer-Ants-manager Malcolm McLaren for his teen-punk upstarts Bow Wow Wow and their novelty song about cassettes. Adam Ant, buoyed by furious indignation, reinvented not only himself and his band but the actual era, pirate-pinching the Burundi beats his departed drummer premiered on C30, C60, C90 Go in June 1980 for Kings Of The Wild Frontier, a No.1 in January 1981.

An epoch later, it remains a force of nature, a frenetic whip-crack of gleeful one-liners and outrageous, self-aggrandising intent, a sonic V-sign urging a nation to ‘unplug the jukebox, and do us all a favour!’ More surprisingly, from this distance, it’s both menacing, spectral, serious new wave and an unapologetic comedy caper – the most preposterous classic album ever made.

Before he’d even invented the phrase ‘ridicule is nothing to be scared of’ (from the imminent Prince Charming) here’s a high-camp cacophony of canine yelps, yodelling, voodoo incantations, spaghetti western guitar pings, cartoon gunshots, salty sea dog whistling and dastardly panto-rock hollering.

Adam And The Ants were, in fact, a unique musical exclamation mark, followed by at least three question marks, and quite how this brilliant, bewildering, bawdy exercise in conceptual buffoonery made No.1, twice in 1981 (the second time for nine weeks) is evidence of the staggering imagination, raff ish energy and cavalier risk of the times it would define.

In 1995, Adam Ant contemplated his contribution. “Dirk Wears White Sox was my arty independent rip-off album,” declared the then-40 year old. “Then we said, ‘Right! Now we make some three-minute fucking pop classics, like T.Rex. The essence of pop is, one: brilliant fucking songs, and the rest is sex, subversion, style and humour, and that was us.”

They replaced, he added, “looking like a piece of scruffy punk shit” with “the pure pop idea of dressing up, going mad and screaming your head off”.

Kings Of The Wild Frontier was the first album bought by the 12-year-old Damon Albarn. Sixteen months after its release, the Ants split up, the solo Adam’s audience soon predominantly toddlers, and he was culturally eclipsed by both The Smiths’ peerless wit and the enormous shiny hits of Wham!, Duran and Frankie. In 1981, though, Kings Of The Wild Frontier was not only the year’s biggest album but its best.

This anniversary compendium (including three CDs of remastered music, videos, TV appearances and occasionally ropey live footage) is not only an incandescent treasure trove but a testament to the truly ecstatic – and often truly idiotic – power of pop music itself. As Adam whoops so joyfully on the mighty Dog Eat Dog, only idiots ignore the truth.

Classic Rock 224: Reissues