Annabella Lwin of the mighty Bow Wow Wow in London. 30 April 2012
Was there ever a band as underrated or misunderstood as Bow Wow Wow? Suspicion about the anarcho-delinquents's “authenticity” (that tiresome preoccupation of rockist killjoys) dates all the way back to their origins as the band “manufactured” by Malcolm McLaren as his new post-Sex Pistols shock tactic. As their own Wikipedia page baldly states: “Bow Wow Wow are an English 1980s New Wave band created by Malcolm McLaren to promote his and business partner Vivienne Westwood's New Romantic fashion lines.” This is like waving a red rag to the kind of people who fret about “style over substance.” I would argue: to model Vivienne Westwood’s cutting-edge pirate and buccaneer range – what better reason to form a band?! But that’s just me.
Anyway, in 1981 the Situationist punk instigator lured the backing musicians away from Adam Ant’s band (Adam’s Ants, if you prefer) and installed as their front woman a nubile but musically inexperienced half-Burmese 14-year old ingénue discovered working at the local drycleaners. (Legend has it Annabella Lwin – real name: Myant Myant Aye - was overheard singing along to a Stevie Wonder song on the radio. In a fun pop footnote, Bow Wow Wow was initially meant to have two lead singers: punk Lolita Annabella plus a pre-Culture Club Boy George, then billed as Lieutenant Lush. He didn’t make the final cut). Eternal agent provocateur McLaren must have been doing something right if he’s still so reviled and divisive even in death (he died aged 64 in 2010). To me, the man was a truly Warholian figure, a conceptualist, and (like former partner Westwood) a genuine English eccentric. As a person, he was seemingly an amoral and disloyal prat, but he was also a twisted pop visionary. Anyone who dismisses his influence needs to read England’s Dreaming (Jon Savage’s definitive account of UK punk history, which gives a great warts-and- all appraisal of McLaren’s accomplishments).
And if McLaren was “guilty” of cynically contriving a band to score hits, Bow Wow Wow’s rowdy but adventurous left-field mixture of influences (thunderous “tribal" African Burundi drums, lacerating guitar that variously evokes surf, rockabilly, Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western soundtracks and African/Latin sounds, all overlaid with an unpolished teenage punkette alternately ranting and cooing) was hardly a safe guaranteed commercial bet!
Another reason Bow Wow Wow might not have been taken as seriously as they merit becomes apparent when you compare them against their post-punk peers circa 1981. The stark likes of Siouxsie and The Banshees, Joy Division and Public Image Ltd were self-evidently serious, art-y and gloomy, and therefore instantly credible. With their riotously funny and sexy songs and Day Glo pop choruses, colourful modern-primitive Vivienne Westwood wardrobes, Mohawk haircuts and dodgy genesis, Bow Wow Wow were clearly an entirely different proposition.
Anyway, what does it matter when 1) Bow Wow Wow’s songs still sound strange, fresh, exotic and intoxicating a good thirty years later and 2) they were (and are) an absolutely ferocious live act onstage? I don’t know how many people under forty even know who Bow Wow Wow are, but for the most part they’re remembered with genuine affection, and Bow Wow Wow’s musical DNA is audible in the disparate likes of MIA, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, No Doubt, the Ting Tings and Vampire Weekend. Even Madonna’s recent (less than rapturously received) single "Give Me All Your Luvin'", with its spelled-out and chanted chorus and minimalist twang-y surf guitar sound, would appear to owe Bow Wow Wow a debt as much as Toni Basil’s “Hey Mickey”.
Bow Wow Wow’s existence was always tumultuous. The original line up formed in 1981 by McLaren split acrimoniously by 1983. Annabella (now residing in Los Angeles) and bassist Leigh Gorman reconciled and revived varying line-ups from 1997 onwards to hit the punk revival circuit, but only performing in the US. I never thought I’d get to see them here in the UK, where they hadn’t toured since their early 1980s heyday. So when this London “comeback” gig was announced, I leapt at the chance to see them – a band that had thrilled my punk heart as a teenager growing up in rural Quebec. For this UK tour, the only original members are Annabella and Gorman: Lanky Mohawked guitar genius Matthew Ashman tragically died of diabetes-related causes aged only 35 in 1995, and drummer David Barbarossa apparently declined to participate.
They opened with the storming “Giant Sized Baby Thing”, which starts with Gorman singing/rapping lead, allowing Annabella a delayed “star entrance” and creating a sense of building anticipation. When she finally shimmies onstage, raving like a female Mark E Smith of The Fall, everyone gasps and starts frantically snapping her picture with their camera phones (me included). To me, she’s always looked like one of the golden-skinned Tahitian girls from a Paul Gauguin painting given a radical punk make-over. At 46, Annabella is still exquisite (and because she started so young is a good decade younger than most of her punk peers). Obviously she grew-out her signature Mohawk long ago (did any woman ever look more beautiful with a Mohawk?). Radiantly smiling, tiny and more voluptuous these days, she’s gone heavy on the silver Cleopatra/Nina Hagen eyeliner winged all the way up her temples. It looked dramatic and punk-y, but her face is so delicately beautiful she could have easily gone without it.
Sorry to keep gushing about one of my teenage crushes, but Annabella is an utterly charismatic front woman and vastly underrated as a singer. Her truly beguiling voice is sometimes bratty, sometimes alluring (within the same song!) and worthy of comparison to Deborah Harry or Poly Styrene. And like Madonna, Annabella’s voice remains girlish and kittenish in middle age. Annabella is also still a whirling dervish onstage, with a different dance for every song (when they lash into “Uomo Sex Al Apache”, for example, she does a sexy Indian squaw rain dance).
The current line-up is killer (special kudos to the drummer for nailing the trademark galvanising Bow Wow Wow drum sound). My friend Lisa and I mosh and pogo by the very front of the stage. (You’d have to be dead not to dance to the likes of “Aphrodisiac” and “Go Wild in the Country”). The music is too vital and frantic for it to feel like a golden oldies nostalgia concert. A true punk gig, Bow Wow Wow plays for a tight hour, no flab, and return for a two song encore. Every song is a catchy bubblegum punk tantrum: Bow Wow Wow may not have scored that many chart hits, but they have more great sly, funny, cheeky and provocative songs than people give them credit for. So many in fact they tore through the old favourites (the only song that felt a bit rote was “I Want Candy”: I bet they secretly hate it but feel obligated to include it!), but still left out “Chihuahua”, for me their most melancholic and haunting moment. Perhaps Annabella is sick of singing the line “I’m a horrid little idiot in a band called Bow Wow Wow ...”
The reviews of Bow Wow Wow's UK tour have been pretty glowing so far: Louder Than War website reviewed their Southampton concert. Couldn't agree more with Simon Price of The Independent's assessment "Lwin delivers one of the most life-affirming, smile-inducing performances I've seen all year." The Guardian's critic was perhaps a bit dismissive, but they also ran a fascinating interview with them.