Interview › Dave Barbe › 2004
In 2004, we bumped into former Adam & the Ants drummer Dave Barbe (aka David Barbarossa), and after an incident involving some thumb screws and a vertical beam, Dave invited Madam Stan over to his home in North London for dinner with his family and a catch-up for Warriors III. Here, for the first time, is the original transcript of the full interview...
Let's start with some nice easy questions: Tell us where you were born and generally about your early life and background…
They’re far harder than anything to do with the Ants! I was born in London. From a large family, in Hackney, son of immigrant parents, and just a regular English peasant.
When did you get into drumming?
Cor blimey! Winston Churchill and me, we had a band together erm, a long time ago. I think I started playing when I was about 16.
And who was your inspiration?
I bloke called Laurence Geller who was at a school I went to in Enfield, and he had a drum kit, and it was a fascinating bit of kit, and I had a go.
Did you have any particular drumming heroes?
Just the regular guys at that age, initial heroes were people like Jon Bonham, Ian Pace, Ginger Baker… I was never in love with the technical side of drumming, as you can hear by my playing!
Can you tell us how you got involved with Adam & the Ants?
I was living in a flat with my first wife, Amanda, and I played around a bit, I'd never been in a band, I didn't really think I'd be a professional musician, it was just something I enjoyed doing. The Kid - Mark Ryan, who was in the band - knew that I played the drums, Adam's drummer went missing and he had to have a drummer for the night, and I went to play. He said "Can you play?", and I said, "Yes of course, played loads of gigs", you know, much (!) and so I turned up. And Jordan and Adam turned up at my door like spacemen, like you'd never seen anyone like that in those days, and loaded my pathetic drum kit into their van and off we went to Chelmsford, where we opened for the Slits, and that was the beginning of the end for me, mate.
The story goes that they had to have you after seeing a Desolation Angels gig…
Nonsense! Nonsense… I was just a lucky bloke, right place right time.. No talent, just enthusiasm you know, a bit of devil in me. And that was it.
Did Adam actually give you any sort of mission statement or aims for the band?
No. Initially he was a very frightening guy, a very beautiful man, imposing and very scary guy. He just turned around to me - he didn't even talk to me - he just turned around to me and said "When I count 4, you play and you keep up, and when I do that [shows hand movement] you stop". So I don’t know how many numbers it was that first night, but all I heard was "1-2-3-4" and you played. It went dang-cha-dang dang-cha-dang, you know in the punk rock style and then he did that [hand movement] and we stopped. And I looked around and everyone was gobbing and heaving and it was absolutely brilliant. Unbelievable.
Was Adam convinced at that time that he was going to be a household name?
Absolutely. He didn't have to turn around, the man was special. For the first six-eight months, I never heard a lyric or a song. I just heard a racket and I just tried to keep up with him, because you could do that in those days. But I would have followed him anywhere, because he was a terrific leader and a brilliant man.
Did you have much contact with Jordan?
Yeah, in the early days. She was Adam's mate, part of that Chelsea elite punk set. A really nice woman, I haven’t seen her for years. A lot of guts, a lot of charisma. It was an interesting time.
How did you get involved with Jubilee? You joined about half way through the filming, didn’t you?
I’ve no idea. All I know is that Adam, you know, took me under his wing, treated me real good, gave me loads of confidence, and said "Now you're going to be in a film". And I said, "Yeah, go on then!". And I went up and just kept up.
Did that feel strange to you at all that you were going straight into some movie?
Absolutely. You know, it's one for the teenagers here. In those days no one knew what being in a film was - a film was something made in Hollywood. I mean now everybody knows how you do it, how to be in a pop group, how to plumb your washing machine in, you know, everybody knows. There's no secrets, no magic any more, but in those days to be in a film was just a complete laugh a complete trip so um... I forgot the question again, I’m enjoying talking to you so much!
I think you answered it in there somewhere!
Did you ever question Adam at all? Did you ever say "I’m not going to play it like that." Did you take on some authority?
No, no, no. I respected him. I respected his opinion on music. As the band went on I got to hear the songs, we slowed down a bit, played with a bit more feeling and Adam's lyrics came through. He's very into his lyrics being heard for obvious reasons, he's a terrific lyricist, and I got to hear the songs and the nuances and the technicalities and it made me play in a different way. It was just a fantastic time with a fantastic teacher.
In some of the interviews that you gave with Bow Wow Wow you put down the Ants by saying you were starting to go through the motions…
Well, that's true. When you’re a drummer in a band like the Ants you are a servant to the songs, the songs are written by whoever, in this case it was Adam and so you play with all your heart and soul as a servant for those songs. But Bow Wow Wow is a very individual case, it was my band, the drummer's band, never happens, very rare and so I could lead from the front. To say I was going through the motions with Adam was probably me being a bit leery and young, but there's an element of veracity in the respect that with Adam I was a classic sideman and with Bow Wow Wow I was kind of a frontman in me own sort of way.
Adam used to put on the top of set lists that you were 'The brilli-ant one'...
We were very good mates for a while, we were really good mates.
And you were possibly seen as the equivalent of Marco in the early days…
Yeah, but not as useful. I mean Marco’s a writer and with far more panache than I have.
What are your memories of Johnny Bivouac?
Yeah, Bivouac. He hangs about with my mate Shovel because they're all Arsenal people. He’s an actor on Operation Good Guys and he's done well for himself as a sort of comedy actor.
So you were friends before joining Adam & the Ants, too?
I was friends before with John yeah, and I got him in after Adam got rid of Mark, the Kid.
It's said that when auditioning for a new guitarist, Adam left the final decision to you and Andy, is that true?
Yeah, it is true in the same way as that question about the Bow Wow Wow... it's lost in the mists of time. We fucking saw about thirty guys over two days, and Adam was at his wits end you know. Geezer comes in with a guitar, plays a couple of chords, another bloke comes in, another bloke, and in the end Maff [Matthew Ashman] was the last one. And the thing with Adam and Maff, they are like Platoon, the hero in those films you know, two sides of the same coin... very similar guys. And I knew that Adam and Maff saw things very similar and I think Adam just wanted Matthew but he didn’t have the guts to hire him so he said "go on, you two decide". Two beautiful blokes, very confident, head strong, and they fought like cat and dog all the way through the whole time.
So what did you think of Matthew's guitar playing when he was in the Ants, when he started out?
He was poor, compared to the standard Adam was looking for. Because Adam was a proper musician.
But he had quite a cool image...
Well yeah, he was a terrific personality. He was my best mate.
When you found out Matthew had died did that affect you quite a lot?
Well yeah, of course. Matthew was my best mate and it's a very sad demise of a young talented man, but what can you do? He was on his journey.
What was touring Europe like with the Ants?
Well it was very different to now. Like I said, everybody that's in a band now or starting out is aware of what happens in a band, but in those days it was very much a magic world where you didn't know what happened next when you got out of a plane or a bus or whatever in another country. You didn't know what the rules were, what the score was, and you just had to play and that was a job. I'm an old pro now so I know exactly... like everyone else as there's 18,000 documentaries about it on telly. But Europe was a little wilder, as was England, and people weren't used to punk rockers and the sound.
It is said that in Italy you kick started the punk movement for them...
Who, me personally?!
Well.. you and your Ant comrades!
Oh I don’t know about that mate, that’s a long time ago.
The reason why I mention Italy is that there's a myth that you and...
Hark at these myths! It’s like JR Tolkien in the building here! Ha ha ha ha...
…That for a Milan TV programme you did your first ever TV appearance, playing drums with some rolled up newspapers…
That's absolutely right. What happened was, I think because Matthew was too young, or something to do with work permits… Something to do with Matthew couldn't do the TV for whatever number it was we were doing. And so they had a tall boy, we put Matthew’s clothes on it and his guitar... and I had a cup of coffee on the snare drum and a couple of rolled up newspapers because it was miming... and punks didn't mime.
People often consider Zerox as one of the first new wave singles. Did you feel that it was slightly different from punk? A little bit more intricate?
Well you know, I don't know. There's that thrash sound which is punk rock, with the fast thing. I think the best punk rock bands were never thrash bands you see, I think they were very song-oriented. Even the Sex Pistols didn't play at 900mph, and neither did The Clash. The Damned were quick and Siouxsie and the Banshees had their own old sort of Velvet underground sounding thing. And The Ants were, as you can hear on the first album, a very traditional British song-based band in the mould of the Kinks and people like that, you know. A very London sounding thing - David Bowie, The Kinks, very London sounding. Then the Ants and on to Blur and Suede, you know, very typical London sounding band. So as for the new wave punk rock thing, they are just labels. When you're in the band and you don't really take any notice, you try to do the best you can on the songs you've got.
How involved were you in the production process?
Not a sausage!
You turned up... played the drums…
I did as I was told, I was happy to be there it was absolutely brilliant making an album.
What did you think of the final cut of Dirk?
Absolutely brilliant. Is it brilliant now? I don't know what the standards are...
The band had been around for three years before really breaking through, with the Ants most of that time. Was there a sense of frustration from still not breaking through at that point?
Ah yeah, there was because everybody else was getting on, and we weren't. I know Adam was ever so frustrated and rightly so, I mean he's so much better than anybody else, all the other useless groups that appeared on top of the pops with their three minutes of nonsense. The guy was writing monumental songs. I mean, they’ve all come out now though haven't they? All those early things have come out. That's really great. Yeah, he was frustrated, and I suppose we were - because if Adam's frustrated we were frustrated. If Adam's happy, we’re happy - it was very much like that!
Did the dynamics of the band change after Andy left and Leigh came in?
Leigh was only in it for a little while though weren't he? Of course yeah... Andy was the Ants. He personified the Ants.
Did you help select Leigh?
No, that was Adam's decision. Because Adam really wanted musicians, he gradually weeded out the punk rockers, until I was the only one standing. God knows how lnog I would have lasted! And Leigh obviously was an absolutely brilliant musician, he's a top player. So, Andy was greatly missed, yeah, but Adam was moving on and he's moved on all through his career. You can't stand still for people.
Adam made some promotional videos to show Malcolm McLaren, why weren't the Ants involved in those?
I don’t know... was there any videos?! It's news to me... half a century later!
What were your first impressions of Malcolm?
Now that's very interesting... very similar to the impression that Adam made on me. Which is, "wow here’s the guy that invented our lifestyles." Good God you know, it's like having Glenn Hoddle walk in the room... "Alright Glenn?!" It was amazing to have Adam and Malcolm in the same room, it's like two dads you know.
To what extent were you working with Malcolm, personally and as a musician?
You want to know how that all split up?
If you want to do the story… he basically gave him money to manage the Ants and sort out the image, the sound, everything else...
Allegedly, according to the myth...
Oh I don't think we had any money mate, to be honest.
Played you loads of Burundi drumming and then some weeks later you were all stood in a room, Adam comes in and Malcolm says to Adam, "Dave's got something to say to you..."
Let me talk you through this, because I was there. As far as I know Adam wanted Malcolm to be involved. So that was great for us, blimey we had Adam Ant as a singer and Malcolm McLaren as a manager, you know... we’ll be rolling in it or whatever in success. But Malcolm, because of his personality, took a liking to the underdogs, which was us three. I've explained earlier that we were very much staff. Even though Adam was my good mate, I was very much staff in the set up of the band. He said to me "Here's a song, put the drums on it," which was better than the other two guys, because he actually played what the other two guys had to do. So I had a bit more freedom in that respect. So that was all cool: Malcolm McLaren, Adam Ant.
But Malcolm took a liking to me, Maff and Leigh. And because Adam wasn't much of a drinker or like going out and hanging out with the lads - he was very much an iconic sort of guy - stayed away, you know. He saw loads of gorgeous birds that he had all over London while we were drinking half lagers with Malcolm McLaren. He didn't poison us, but he said "you lot are good". Which was true, we were a good band, we were good musicians, up to a point. We weren't the top boys, but we were better than most at the level we were at. He said "I'm going to change the sound of the band", and he said this to Adam as well. "I want the three musicians to go off and play and create a sound. And I want you [Adam] to come in and put the lyrics and the melodies on the top", which was a big thing for Adam to take, because he was an auteur. He ran the whole show. But Adam, because it was Malcolm McLaren, said "Yeah, alright, I'll stand for that". But obviously, Malcolm imbued us with confidence, and said "look what you can do", we suddenly thought, "Fuck me, I can do this, and Adam isn't telling me what to do." I was young and strong, I thought, "Yeah, I can fucking handle this." And Adam would come in and, of course, the two things wouldn't gel because that's not how you do it, you have to have a closer working.
You can't send one geezer to one part of London, and another to the other. I don’t know how much Malcolm was controlling this or it just evolved naturally...
He was planting a seed...
Yeah... but there was nothing evil about that. It's not a maligned thing to do, because you know, we were young and we weren't under contract to Adam or anyone, or Malcolm. We were all free artists in a way. So, anyway, he did introduce us to lots of different styles of music. Not Burundi drums, that's nonsense. He introduced us to music all over the world, from Indian noseflutes and Lithuanian basket weaving, all sorts. It just happened that we liked that Latin, African sound. It came naturally. Especially from punk rock, which had a tribal feel anyway, without the drums. And I could play a bit, and I did this weird style of drumming and Leigh played, he could play anything. He could play the drums better than me by playing the bass. And then Maff chimed in... he was a bit behind the 8 ball with it, but bless him, he carried on. So eventually, we'd give our rehearsal cassettes to Adam, and Adam would go and write the lyrics and the music, and it'd come together, but it wasn't happening, and Malcolm was. He set us free. We were unleashed - as blokes as well musicians - because Adam liked to control, he liked to run his band on military rules. He'd tell you that today. But, you know, when you've been a soldier for so long and then you're given the keys to the city, you like to fuck about, and Malcolm gave us the keys. And that's how the schism was created, you can see that. There's nothing evil going on, it was just that I'd done my time with Adam, and it was a brilliant time.
You were with Adam a long time compared to others...
I was loyal, but I was given the chance to be my own man, and I haven't regretted it from the day I did it.
Another myth generated by Malcolm is that Adam went off and he cried his eyes out, locking himself away. What was the atmosphere like amongst you three once you eventually had got rid of him?
Well I suffered hideous guilt, and I got a terrible ticking off from Malcolm for it because it was very much a Sex Pistols ethic where you just steam in and fuck everybody else up. I had a real conscience, I felt terrible about it, because Adam had given me my career. He's the first guy that trusted me. I had terrible bits and pieces in childhood, police, family, all that. He was the first person that treated me like an adult and respected me. So I felt terrible, but at the same time it was fantastic being with Malcolm and being my own man.
The reason why Bow Wow Wow and Adam and the Ants sound the same - now you don't have to be Miss Marple do you? - he had our rehearsal tapes. So he had all the drumming beats. And so him and Marco got together and wrote these really great pop songs over it and became fabulously successful. Where as Bow Wow Wow, we couldn’t write a fucking song to save our lives, but we could play. We couldn't write. Adam was a terrific songwriter, and Marco probably is as well. Us three, we just had this mad sound and went round the world shagging loads of birds and falling over and that's the two careers – ha ha!
So when did you reunite with Adam?
Many years later. I was in Italy once again, playing for Beats International and Norman Cook. For my sins, I've been a session man ever since. Not a great one. And Adam was playing there with his band, or it might have been one of these awards things. It was one of these big TV do's you turn up at. And actually I have to say it was Norman Cook who brought Adam into our dressing room, and I saw Adam and he saw me and we embraced, and it was very very emotional.
And then I think I met him again at a Christmas party, an industry do. He gave me his number, call him, and I met him and it was so weird because I was with my oldest son James, who was almost a teenager then, and we stood on Primrose Hill, and he gave me the same old earache as he did ten years ago: "Oh the industry, they're all cunts, they're fucking trying to fuck me up", and it was just brilliant. Seamless. And then he said look, I'm doing a thing - the Ants - do you want to come? And I said "Yeah, I'd love to do it" because, one: I was potless. I think I'd finished with Beats International and I didn't have any work. And secondly: you know, hey, it kind of squared the circle. And then I did that, I did a kind of tour with them and we played in London, then we did the States, until Adam and Marco became ill. Which I think is the beginning of his decline at the moment.
Did you speak to Andy Warren after you split with Adam?
I saw Andy a bit in New York, because Bow Wow Wow used to play in New York and the Monochrome Set did, so I hung about with Andy a little bit.
Was he surprised that you had split from Adam?
Not at all. Because I’m not going to go into it because it's nobody's business but mine, but Adam's a very hard guy to work for, like all these big auteurs, these big bosses. They wouldn't be the great men they are if they weren't a right fucking pain in the arse to work for. If they were nice guys like me, they wouldn't fucking get any where, what can I say.
The new Adam & the Ants reworked some of the early songs did you hear any of those?
I have heard them, yeah.
What did you think of them?
Well, I know this is going to sound really like I'm a really oily git, but they're Adam's songs. And he does what he wants with them. They're his property. I was a young kid when I joined his band in 1977, and what amazing times for a young bloke from Hackney who had no idea of art and culture and you know, you can't believe what it did to my life, right. I was just happy to have been there and to make that album Dirk Wears White Sox, which everybody says to me is a great album. I loved playing on it, I loved doing the shows. Adam Ant: what a geezer. I'm so sorry he's got his troubles nowadays, but life goes on.
Back to Bow Wow Wow...
Do you feel that the media exasperated the obvious rivalry between you guys? Were you always asked about the Ants when you were giving interviews?
Yeah, of course. We sounded very similar - I wonder why!!! But hey, you know, that's alright, it doesn't matter.
Did you still hold any grudges...
As a kid yeah. There was bitterness I suppose because we were jealous because he did so well and we did so poorly. But then we finally came through after a while. We had our few hits over here and we did really well in the States as well.
Kevin Mooney told us there was a point when C30 C60 C90 Go! came out, that it looked like Bow Wow Wow had won, because they got their single out first. Was there that sort of feeling there, like "We've beaten the Ants!"?
No, we had a terrible time because it was anti-industry and we had it pulled out of the charts. It was like #5 or something in the charts and was probably going to be number one, then suddenly it was pulled out of the charts. Malcolm went fucking apoplectic and we had to go down to EMI and cause all sorts of trouble, which I don't want to tell you about...
And then you went over to RCA. Why do you think they didn't mind the anti-industry stuff... are they run by socialists or something?!
God knows! Big business runs the world as we all know and they can handle prats like me and Maff any day of the week, mate, don't worry about it!
What were your impressions of Boy George?
Scary, scary! Like I say, I revert back to the fact that we're all familiar with the gay world nowadays and everybody's funky and liberal about it, but for someone like me and Leigh, who was also from Hackney, it was like "Who is this scary scary geezer?" and it was oil and water. It was never gonna happen! Beautiful singer though, and a terrific personality and all the rest of it, yeah.
He didn’t have much input on the band did he?
No. No, he was in and out...
Adam was writing lots of songs that he didn’t use, but he’s got a song where he sings “sinner, sinner, sinner” and then he did “Mile High Club”. Did you guys notice at the time?
To be absolutely honest with you, and I've done a tour with the pirate thing that Adam did, and I've learnt all those songs, I've had to as a job. But in a funny way, the Ants I was in, the black leather Ants, the punk-rock Ants, is so far removed from the Ants that carried on when I'd left them, it's just like two different worlds.
When it came to the Prince Charming image, were you kind of glad you were out of the Ants?
I was very glad. I'm not besmirching the fact that he looked the way he did. That's what he wanted to do and I would never argue with Adam on image, because he always did pretty good on that level. But, as much as Antpeople and Antfans love their band and all the culture around it, when you're in a band like Bow Wow Wow it is also all consuming. You live for your music and your shows and your recording sessions and you interviews, and what other bands do is not important. I know it's a cliché to quote football analogies, but you do take care of your own team. Your eleven guys against their eleven guys and it doesn't matter about their reputation.
So you were confident not to be looking over your shoulder?
Never within a second. We were in Atlanta, and he was in Tokyo. And when we were in Tokyo he was in Newcastle. It's a big world, a professional game... Adam won hands down, surely he was one of the biggest selling singles bands of the 80s.
Did that frustrate you at all?
No, because money can't buy the years I had in Bow Wow Wow. No money, no sultan can pay billions for those experiences and being your own man and playing those beats and being the originator of that sound. Money can not buy some things in life.
You musicians were in charge of the music but it was Malcolm, wasn't it, who kind of plonked Annabella there?
Very much so. I'm a very poor businessman, on that level. And as far as I was concerned, as long as I could play the drums the way I wanted to, could have a drink, and I could chase the birds, I didn't care who was fronting the fucking thing, to be honest with you. And that is why Adam was so much better than us. Because he was a craftsman, he cared, he's an artist.
What was she like to work with? Did she go down the pub with you guys..?
As far as I know, because I keep in touch with Leigh, who lives in Los Angeles now, Bow Wow Wow are a going concern and they do well out in the States and I think it would be wrong for me to say anything about them. Apart from the fact that the years I spent in the band were absolutely wonderful.
Then may we ask you why you've turned down the opportunity to tour with Bow Wow Wow in recent years?
Because, you know, it's mainly financial. I've got a family here, I live in London, I love London… There isn't the money in it, and any work I do, with your Chicanes or your Republicas or whatever, I'm being paid and I can feed my kids and pay the mortgage.
How did Bow Wow Wow become Chiefs of Relief?
Well, where as Adam was a terrific writer and leader, and you could take stick from him, Annabella wasn't. Matthew got ill on the road, we were touring and touring the States until we were very ill. Maff was ill, Leigh was ill, we became disillusioned with the whole thing. So it fell to pieces. And Maff always wanted to be Adam, and he went off and formed his own band called the Chiefs of Relief, which me and Leigh obviously went to do, because it was supposed to be us, but it really weren't happening...
You left Chiefs of Relief quite soon…
Oh yeah, it was not really our cup of tea at all.
And Paul Cook came in...
Cookie came in… Paul Cook is a hero of mine, he's a terrific player. He's a terrific musician, Chelsea supporter as well. And a really nice guy and there was no usurping really because I was out of the seat pretty quick.
What did you do after that then?
I watched my son play cricket for Middlesex for five years as a schoolboy cricketer. And I fell in love with Alison Wells.
So there's no chance of you getting back with Annabella and Leigh then?
No, not in a thousand years, no. But those tribal drums might sound again, Antfans! Let me tell ya!
Moving onto your session work - how did you get involved with Republica and Beats International?
Basically, when you've been in two bands like Adam & the Ants and Bow Wow Wow, then you look pretty good to say you've been in two legendary bands like that. And then you join another band like Beats International, and you say you’ve been in them as well. Norman Cook is a talented guy and all the rest of it, and he just needed a drummer and he's a big Ants fan, yeah.
And Ian Tregoning was looking after Republica...
That’s right! He got me the job in Republica, Ian Tregoning… Cor blimey, well done! The mists of time..! Where was we? Beats International... I was playing for a girl called Delphi, a soul singer, sort of pubby soul singer, and she won a competition in Smash Hits to get produced by someone. And the producer she got was Norman Cook. So I went to do the session playing the drums for her, and Norman saw me, and he said "You're the bloke in the Ants, I used to love them, come and play for my band!" They had just released Dub Be Good to Me, and so I did that for a few years. Terrific, went all over Africa and Europe, really nice guys, DJ and other British London rappers, you know. That finished, you know, things finish. And then other people... I worked with Adamski a lot, and Mark Moore [S'Expess], Lindy Layton...
Mark Moore’s another big Antfan, apparently…
Well Mark, I know Mark, he managed the band I was in called Ping Pong...
You were at Shepherds Bush Empire with Ping Pong...
Oh because we.. Jesus! You're a fucking stalker! Jesus Christ… Yeah, I supported my own band [Adam Ant, Wonderful tour 1995]!
And you were sat on this…
...little drum kit! And then a big old oil rig up behind me, yeah I know! Funny, yeah!
Can you do a quick message for the Ant convention…
Hi Antfans, have a terrific convention, and all the rest of it. And drink lots of water in the morning!
Admin's note: Dave is back on the live circuit again with his latest band Guilty Fawn. You can read our blog report of our night with Dave (and Adam!) here and find out more at www.myspace.com/guiltyfawn.