It was 35 Years Ago Today: Adam Ant is The Human League’s Mirror Man

In my last post, I did a bit of a switchback Sunday rewind and revisited some of the first slabs of vinyl I bought that expressly weren’t by Adam and his army of Ants.

Number four on that list was Mirror Man, by Sheffield’s finest, the mighty Human League. Issued as a stand-alone single in Britain on 8 November 1982, several months after the group’s third album, the genre-defining Dare, had revitalised their career from avant-garde experimentalists beloved of David Bowie (“I’ve seen the future of pop music”, the Dame exclaimed, after catching one of their early shows) to a reformulated commercial powerhouse hardly ever out of the charts in the early 1980s.

But whereas Dare was brimming with the moody synth-pop of breakthrough hits like Love Action (I Believe In Love), Open Your Heart and the perennial Don’t You Want Me (“baby”)*, the shiny Mirror Man is the League’s rapprochement with music history, sounding like a reflective, electric northern soul stomper colliding with a new wave tribute to the great hits of pop’s past.

The marvellous mixolydian keyboard line that precedes the first verse (repeated on the choruses) sounds like an affectionate homage to the prancing piano parts that decorated Holland-Dozier-Holland‘s best work for the Supremes and the Four Tops at Motown, whilst Susanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall‘s close-harmonised wordless backing vocals (quite likely the prettiest singing this famously pitch-challenged duo ever managed), serves up more than a hint of ABBA, of which frontman Phil Oakey was a huge admirer.

I was 13 years old when I first heard Mirror Man on the BBC’s flagship youth radio station, Radio 1. I would set my cassette player up to tape my favourite songs of the moment when they played. Those days and nights of sitting with fingers on the record and pause buttons, the flush of heady anticipation and exciting making my heart beat a little bit faster, they were the glory days of my musical obsessions. Sure, the advent of the internet and downloadable files made all the music accessible with just a click and the knowledge of where to go, but it was never could replace the feeling of sitting there patiently, or often impatiently, waiting for your song to play.

Lyrically, this song is one of Oakey’s most intriguing. Taken on its own terms, the message seems to be a rather desperate plea to an unnamed Other. Is this is Phil talking, promising that he’ll take on whatever persona is demanded of him, as long as it keeps him as an object of desire? The reality is it took until interviews to promote the band’s Greatest Hits album several years later that Oakey finally revealed who the titular Mirror Man actually was. It was that fella that used to be Stuart Goddard.

Beat his guest

As the man who’d fired Eighties pop’s starting pistol, Adam Ant’s very public transformation from doomy, bondage-trousered punk to swashbuckling teen idol pirate seemed crassly calculating to some, but breathtakingly exciting to a young snip of a boy like me. My attention had been well and truly grabbed.

The first single I ever purchased was Stand & Deliver in April 1981. The Ants followed that up in the September with their penultimate seven-incher, the even more memorable-but-royally-bizarre Prince Charming. Anxious not to reveal his new dandy image before the video premiered, Adam’s record sleeve (a deluxe gatefold if you were quick enough) sported a sultry still from the final seconds of the Stand And Deliver video; panstick in-hand, the handsome highwayman transfixed by his own reflection in the mirror.

Put on a little make-up, make-up

In 1981 there was really only one British band capable of giving the Ants a run for their money in the charts, and that was the League, so how utterly astonishing it was to find out years after the event that one of the earliest singles you ever bought was directly inspired by the rival act and musical nemeses responsible for purchases number one and two. The Ants proudly refused to use anything other than “real” instruments), though there’s a a delicious irony in that Mirror Man featured non-synthetic sounds for the first time in the League’s history, with Ian Burden‘s beautifully melodic electric bass. There’s nowt as queer as pop, pickers.

At the time, Oakey was too scared to mention who the man in the mirror was for fear of upsetting the song’s subject. But he’d become concerned that the Ant leader was starting to believe his own publicity (“I’m a fan of people,” the changingman pronounced. “I give them what they want.”), and was in danger of losing touch with reality. Mirror Man is a biting observation on the way someone’s image, persona or alter-ego can be modified to appeal to the people they are looking for approval from. It appears Phil deemed Adam too receptive to other peoples’ ideals and expectations of what he should be (“You know I’ll change/If change is what you require”), calculating to win the love of people by mirroring their every interest. In other words, Adam Ant had sold out.

Make sure to get your right side, right side

“We’ve kept this quiet for years but it’s actually about Adam Ant, he told Tracks in 1989, when the League and the insect warrior shared a manager, Miles Copleand (Sting, The Police). “It’s not anti Adam Ant and we didn’t want to offend him, but he was having to respond to his public more than was good for him.”

Funnily enough, in an interview in the December 1982 issue of The Face, ostensibly to promote Mirror Man, the conversation turned to Oakey’s competitor. Though playfully toying with the idea of letting the Antcat out of the bag, Phil stopped short of linking him explicitly to the song:

“I’m 27…not as old as Adam. But I shouldn’t talk about him because he’s just been very nice to us. He wanted to start a group called The Men (which was our old name) so our solicitor wrote to his to make things clear. Then we got a phone call from Adam himself saying that he was a great fan of the Human League’s and wouldn’t dream of stepping on our toes in any way. That was unnecessary but very nice of him.”

Adam Ant always maintained that he owed his success to the pop columns of newspapers rather than the shoe-gazing music press. In this context, the otherwise inscrutable chorus also puns off of one of the most tabloidal of British rags, the Daily Mirror, as well as the American gossip magazine, People (or indeed the UK’s Sunday People, published by the Mirror group), references that wouldn’t make sense if this were the more conventional love song some have mistaken it to be. “I always rather hoped the Daily Mirror would use it in an ad so I’d get lots of money, Oakey told Tracks, “but it never happened.”

Mirror Man’s release in the US didn’t even happen until 1983, where it was incorporated into the stop gap EP Fascination!. A&M Records had refused to release it as a Stateside single “unless there was to be an album hot on its heels”. The track peaked at 30 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the autumn of that year, just as the 14-year-old me had started to put away childish things and make that year’s Ant album, the sophomore solo effort, Strip (part-produced by Phil Collins at ABBA’s Polar Studios and even featuring a cameo from Frida herself, which must have made Oakey seething with jealousy), the last Adam album I’d shell out my hard-earned pocket money for. Growing up is nothing to be scared of. And yet just a nagging doubt remains.

Steve Pafford

*Don’t You Want Me was the Christmas No.1 of 1981. In the same chart the final Adam & The Ants single, Ant Rap, could achieve only third position. The changing of the guard had begun.