WHEN THE Ants come marching two by two on their way to their show at the Bayou, they create a decidedly loud clash -- a bright flash of rainbow in a gray world of military men and staid tourists standing around the lobby of the Quality Inn. The four-member Antcrew is scurvy enough, with bright pantaloons and shirts, slaps of paint across their faces, but all eyes are on the Captain, Adam Ant. He is magnificAnt.
By the time the images register in the lobby, Adam and The Ants are in their cars, all dressed up with someplace to go. In England, that someplace has been the top of the record charts, which they have captured for seven weeks of the new year, knocking off John Lennon's "Double Fantasy" and keeping The Who's "Face Dances" in second place. Even the Queen of England has been charmed by their brash mix of Indian and pirate lore and the group's tribal chant Anthems celebrating themselves and the pleasure principle.
But it's America that's always been Treasure Island for rock and roll, and what's an Ant without a colony or two under his belt, anyhow. Their American debut, "Kings of the Wild Frontier" (Epic NJE37033), has nestled near the top hundred, so this first tour is limited to medium-sized ventures like the Bayou in Georgetown and the Ritz in New York. Nevertheless, the five-pirate band is treating it all with proper . . . Anticipation. As they sing in "Jolly Roger," "It's your money that we want and your money we shall have."
The fully dressed Adam Ant is a designer's fantasy, starting with the Blackbeard bows and gold braids in his hair, a loose white shirt opened on a hairless chest encased by the 11th Hussar military jacket that David Hemmings wore in "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (rented), a pirate's crossbelt without the sword, the tricolore of the French revolution hanging from one side, a double gold braid hanging from the other, a bright scarf tied Cromwell-style around one arm, black leather trousers whose seams are held together by tiny skulls, fringed boots with found feathers dangling perilously close to the ground.
And in the midst of these flash clothes is the long, curly lock of hair attached near the ear, the eight silver skull-and-crossbone rings, the Apache war stripe meticulously drawn across the bridge of his nose. "Bands are coming up with a look and a sound and a name and it's fun. They celebrate it. I want to enjoy it."
"I personally have no new ideas," says 26-year-old Adam Ant of both his music and his Antics. "Through imitation you eventually arrive at something that is distinctly yours. Everything I have is laid on me; the originality lies in the way it manifests itself, the clashing of the ideas." And clash they do. The concept is highly visual, sort of a "Paul Revere on the road to Swinging London" starring a new wave Village People and with a compulsive soundtrack that mixes post-punk energies with psychedelic wit.
Adam Ant has a bright, expressive face, piercing eyes, an affable sense of humor. Twenty years ago, his teen idol looks would have been natural for Dick Clark, but except for Kiss, Devo and the B52s, America has never been overly inclined to rock as fashion; witness the short-lived careers of Alice Cooper and the New York Dolls, two major influences in Ant's attitude. Oddly enough, he will appear on "American Bandstand" late this month.
On the other hand, England has traditionally been receptive to bands that establish A Look as well as A Sound, starting with the innocence of the Beatles, moving through the programmed Glitter-Glamrock era and resolving in the "anti" look and sound of the punk movement. In 1980, though, there was a mild rebellion to what Mr. Ant calls "a one-directional, gray, spartan sound." Such groups as Madness, Dexy's Midnight Runners, the American expatriate Stray Cats and, of course, Adam and the Ants worked hard to overcome the dispirited and demoralized condition of much English youth. Sex Pistol anarchy was ripe for an attack of Antmusic.
"We were going for a grand music that was escapist straight down the line," the singer admits. "I was raised on cowboy and Indian movies, war films, Hi Ho Silver and Errol Flynn. And then came 'Roots.' It shook me, and I'm 3,000 miles away." Affected by that, the art school dropout plunged into serious study of African music and American Indian culture. The band used to come on stage to a recording of the Congolese "Missa Lubba," and ethnic influences are apparent in Antmusic and their exist-Antialist philosophy.
The other Antmen -- guitarist Marco Pirroni, drummers Terry Lee Miall and Merrick, and bassist Gary Tibbs -- create a rhythm-heavy sound. The twin drum setup allows for African-influenced cross rhythms, and there's a lot of Indian-like yowls and yodels in Adam Ant's singing. The band shouts Antiphonally and the ultimate effect is along the lines of a camp cookout at a summer school run by Roxy Music, Duane Eddy and the early Beatles.
In the Museum of Natural History, the unmade-up Adam Ant is the object of secret glances from school kids on tour. They whisper to each other as he passes, and though chances are they don't know who he is, they obviously suspect the man in black has something to do with rock and roll. Adam is the innocAnt abroad, though, studiously absorbing the American Indian exhibit, filing away new ideas from the painted faces in the cases, avoiding eye contact.
When he first got to New York, Adam Ant was confronted by several members of Indian tribes who resented his use of native American costumes and traditions in a rock format. The singer offered to drop the war line from his face, but after convincing his visitors of his appreciation and knowledge of Indian lore, they accepted his use of it. Ant says, "It was a spiritual influence for me personally. Indian tradition offered me strength. I was very moved by the fact that they felt they had to earn the right to be called human beings. We take it for granted." One of the songs on "Wild Frontier," "Human Beings," consists solely of the names of seven Plains tribes, accenting the chant aspect that pervades much of the group's sound.
Africa offered new ideas in rhythm patterns, makeup and costume as well as a respected, if not copied, esthetic. "Our attraction to tribal music was because it was unpolluted by commercialism."
If America's a picnic, the British Ants have not yet invaded it. Fans on their first stateside tour have been conservative, a colorful line across the face, perhaps a feather in the hair. In England, it's much different. Antpeople have bought 750,000 copies of the group's "Kings of the Wild Frontier" in a country where 250,000 sales earns platinum status. They dress up for concerts, for parts of everyday life, and this may be why The Ants connect.
"Fashion is to be celebrated. It's also a sexual thing, the peacock, attraction thing. We have a great responsibility to our audience. One of the first things kids do is look in the mirror and it becomes question of self-respect," the singer says AdamAntly. He's outspoken against the use of drugs and alcohol, feeling England's youth are better served spending money on clothes, "which last." One doesn't have to be a commoner, either. One newly converted fan is the Queen of England, before whom Adam and The Ants performed a Royal Variety Show benefit in December. "The woman's got a lot of charisma. I had to stand at attention like Lord Nelson, leaning over to talk to her. She asked some really on-the-ball questions about the drummers [he uses two] and the makeup, and then she asked for an autograph for one of the royal kids."
The rock star who loves his Queen and country even likes his parAnts. "They're a calming influence. When I go home they tell me to keep my feet off the chairs and don't eat your soup with a fork.' They're me best friends, and it's great."
Ant went to art school near London. In 1976, Ant had to decide whether to go into music or stay with a career in graphic design. "Both seemed to me enjoyable and successful ways of getting ideas across and they both made me really want to get out of bed in the morning and work hard. I chose music because it was more of a challenge, it seemed more spontaneous." The singer has incorporated his design experience into the Ant concept by designing all the group's posters, buttons, T-shirts, album covers and promotions. "It's a way of capturing people's imaginations at least one time, to get them through the door to see the show."
It's 7:30 at night and The Transformation has begun. The mild-mannered Mr. Ant is starting to evolve into Adam Ant. After 90 minutes of layering, as the different pieces fill out the puzzle, what emerges is an intelligent, electric optimist who looks like a cross between a pirate and an Indian and who doesn't take himself too seriously and manages to have fun and instigate a little joy and playfulness.
The home-made heroic look is finalized with an Apache war line across the nose ("it's a declaration of war upon certain record companies"), and while it's not exactly fierce, it is appropriate for a group that wants to up the . . . Ante.
At the Bayou, the group huddles backstage in a final powwow, what they call "the circle of fate," a combination of Indian mythology and rugby circle, right feet touching in the middle, hands clasped before a shout breaks the huddle. "It gets our spirits up," says Ant. Two minutes later, after an introductory tape of heroic soundtrack themes, Adam and the Ants burst forth:
"So unplug the jukebox/And do us all a favour.
"That music's lost its taste/so try another flavor.
"Antimusic . . ."