Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Sex Gang Children: the rise and fall of Bow Wow Wow

Bow Wow Wow's second release, Your Cassette Pet, continued to exploit the underage-sex angle. In "Sexy Eiffel Tower, singer Annabella Lwin plays a suicidal girl about to leap from the top of Paris's most famous landmark. She gets implausibly horny in the proximity of death: 'Feel my treasure chest/Let's have sex before I die/Be my special guest'. Plunging through the air ('Falling legs around your spire') she enjoys a petit mort or two before the grand mort of hitting the ground. Annabella claimed, with apparent sincerity, that the panting sounds she expertly imitated weren't meant to be orgasm but the sound of panic.

Bow Wow Wow - Sexy Eiffel Tower 1980

"Louis Quatorze" concerns a pervy bandit-of-love who surprises Annabella with unannounced visits and ravishment at gunpoint. The music, though, almost vanquished any moral reservations: Bow Wow Wow had developed an exhilarating and unique sound, all frolicking polyrhythms, twangabilly guitar and frantic-but-funky bass. Add Annabella's girlish, euphoric vocals - especially charming on a cover of the Johnny Mercer standard "Fools Rush In" - and the results were irresistible.

Bow Wow Wow - Louis Quatorze 1980

Bow Wow Wow - Fools Rush In 1980

More striking than its contents, though, was Your Cassette Pet's radical format: a cassette-only release midway in length between an EP and an album, it retailed at only £1.99 (half the price of a traditional vinyl album) and came in a 'flip-pack' carton similar to a cigarette packet.

McLaren's contrived controversies kept backfiring. Desperate to stir up some buzz for Bow Wow Wow's debut album proper, he designed its cover as a simulation of Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, Manet's 1863 painting denounced as 'indecent' by Napoleon III for its image of a naked woman surrounded by fully clothed men. Annabella posed nude (under duress, she later revealed) but because she was still just under sixteen, her mother managed to stop the cover from being used. 

Another blow for McLaren came with the commercial failure of "Chihuahua" - simultaneously Bow Wow Wow's most seductive single to date and their manager's most blatantly cynical gambit. Mouthing McLaren's words to a wistful, Blondie-like melody, Annabella sang about being 'a rock 'n' roll puppet', confessing, 'I can't dance and I can't sing/I can't do anything' and warning, 'I'm a horrible idiot/So don't fall in love with me'. You could mount a defence of "Chihuahua" as a sly deconstruction of the pop industry's machinery of star-lust and fantasy. But if you consider McLaren's genuine anti-feminism, his real-world treatment of Annabella as meat, and the way he ventriloquized those humiliating words through Annabella's own lips, "Chihuahua" leaves a bad taste.

Bow Wow Wow - Chihuahua 1981

Finally, Bow Wow Wow scored their UK pop breakthrough in early 1982 with "Go Wild in the Country", an anti-urban fantasy featuring risqué lines about swinging naked from the trees and romping in fields 'where snakes in the grass are absolutely free'. "Go Wild" exhorted youth to spurn KFC and McDonalds and go 'hunting and fishing'.

Bow Wow Wow - Go Wild in the Country 1982

On the sultry, bossa nova-inflected "Hello Hello Daddy, I'll Sacrifice You", Annabella played the role of devouring earth-mother goddess as a coquette with a knife behind her back. The sweetly crooned lines about woman being 'more body than soul and more soul than mind' were vintage McLaren misoginy cobbled together from Lévi-Strauss, Jung and The Golden Bough.

Bow Wow Wow - Hello Hello Daddy, I'll Sacrifice You 1982

By the time Bow Wow Wow scored their second UK Top 10 hit and American breakthrough with "I Want Candy" - an exciting but vacuous remake of a sixties bubblegum tune - McLaren had pretty much ceased managing the band.

Bow Wow Wow - I Want Candy 1982

Friday, March 9, 2012

Malcolm McLaren, Bow Wow Wow and Adam & The Ants

In the summer of 1979 Virgin released Some Product: Carri On, a hastily assembled album of Pistols radio interviews, complete with a cover depicting imaginary Sex Pistols spin-off merchandise - 'Fatty Jones' chocolate bars, a 'Vicious Burger', a Sid action doll complete with coffin.

The Pistols' manager Malcolm McLaren ended up half-heartedly managing a London band called Adam & The Antz. Adam was an ex-art-school punk who'd built up a devoted cult following with mildly kinky songs like "Whip in my Valise" and "Beat My Guest".

Adam & The Antz - Whip in my Valise 1979

Adam & The Antz - Beat My Guest 1979

But the singer also had a mind of his own, and McLaren flinched from the prospect of dealing with another Johnny Rotten. Sensing that the band would be far more malleable, he connived with the Antz to sack their leader, and at the end of 1979 he gave Adam the bad news at a rehearsal.
McLaren proposed the new band, now called Bow Wow Wow, as a victory over Thatcherism. Rather than take the obvious post-punk path and bemoan mass unemployment, though, he mischievously framed the absence of work as liberation rather than affliction. Bow Wow Wow's "W.O.R.K. (N.O. Nah NO! NO! My Daddy Don't)" declared, 'Demolition of the work ethic takes us to the age of the primitive'. Going to school was pointless because its function (socializing youth for a life of labour) had been outmoded. 'T.E.K. technology is DEMOLITION of DADDY/Is A.U.T. Autonomy', goes the chorus chant, taking the Situationist fantasy of automation enabling a utopian future of perpetual play and updating it for the microchip era.

Bow Wow Wow - W.O.R.K. (N.O. Nah NO! NO! My Daddy Don't) 1981

Again, this attitude put McLaren ahead of the curve: Wham! rode exactly this carefree/careless attitude to fame a few years later, with the pro-dole "Wham Rap!" (a rewrite of "W.O.R.K.", essentially) and the sunshine anthem "Club Tropicana".

Wham! - Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do) 1983

Wham! - Club Tropicana 1983

McLaren penned lyrics praising cassette piracy and got the ex-Antz to write Burundi-rumbling backing music. But in July 1980, despite getting acres of press and hours of radio play, the debut single "C-30, C-60, C-90 Go!" stalled just outside the Top 30.

Bow Wow Wow - C-30, C-60, C-90 Go! 1980

In the meantime, in the winter of 1980, Adam Ant's singles "Dog Eat Dog", "Ant Music" and "Kings of the Wild Frontier" smashed their way one by one into the UK Top 10. Adam's sheer self-belief lent a weird sort of conviction to ludicrous lines like 'Don't tread on an ant/He's done nothing to you/Might come a time/When he's treading on you'.

Adam & the Ants - Dog Eat Dog 1980

Adam & the Ants - Ant Music 1980

Adam & the Ants - Kings of the Wild Frontier 1980

Adam's zenith came with "Prince Charming", his September 1981 UK chart topper, and one of the strangest hit singles ever. Its keening coyote-yowl melody resembled a Native American battle cry; the beat lurched disconcertingly, a waltz turning into an aboriginal courthship dance. For the video, Adam glides between a series of arrested poses, frozen tableaux of defiance and hauteur that weirdly anticipate 'vogueing', the New York gay underground's form of competitive dancing inspired by photo spreads in fashion mags. At the end of the video, Adam impersonates a gallery of icons - Rudolph Valentino, Alice Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Marlon Brando. Song and video both expose a certain empty circularity to Adam's neo-glam idea of reinventing yourself: imitate me as I've imitated my heroes. The chorus is oddly brittle and defensive ('Ridicule is nothing to be scared of') while the ultimate message - dressing up in fancy finery as a way of flaunting self-respect - feels distinctly trite.

Adam & the Ants - Prince Charming 1981

"Prince Charming" ultimately suggested that Adam's destiny was to run through history's wardrobe until he ran out of heroic archetypes. He'd already done highwaymen with the previous number 1 single, "Stand and Deliver".

Adam & the Ants - Stand and Deliver 1981

In the video for "Ant Rap", the next big hit from the Prince Charming album, he dressed up as a knight in shining armour.

Adam & the Ants - Ant Rap 1981