Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bow Wow Wow: Statutory Afrobeat?

Oh, that Malcolm McLaren, always up to something.  After milking the wasted remains of the Sex Pistols for all they were worth, he briefly considered managing Adam & the Ants, but instead he siphoned off the Ants away from Adam, told them to play African music, and installed a 13-year-old girl as the lead singer. Bow Wow Wow was born.

There is some debate over how much Bow Wow Wow were a real band as opposed to simply a puppet for McLaren's insane fashion ideas and promotional stunts. Either way, singer Annabella Lwin's mother was not amused:
Famously, coinciding with Annabella Lwin's posing for album coverwork, her mother alleged exploitation of a minor for immoral purposes, and instigated a Scotland Yard investigation. As a result the band was only allowed to leave the UK after McLaren promised not to promote Lwin as a "sex kitten". This included an agreement to not use a nude photograph depicting Lwin as the woman in Manet's The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l'herbe), though the picture was used as the cover of the band's 1982 RCA EP The Last of the Mohicans, which became their best-selling album in the U.S.
Oh, those Scotland Yard investigators, what a bunch of squares. Apparently, Bow Wow Wow and the suddenly thwarted Adam Ant "raced" to the stores to see who could capitalize on the Burundi sound first, possibly engaging in the silliest contest in the history of popular music. The winner has yet to be determined. One of Bow Wow Wow's first releases was a cassette single (or "cassingle") called "C-30 C-60 C-90 Go," which their label EMI refused to promote, as it allegedly encouraged home taping. It probably didn't help that McLaren deliberately left the B side blank.

It used to break my heart when I went in your shop
And you said my records were out of stock
So I don't buy records in your shop
Now I tape them all, 'cause I'm Top of the Pops!
Now I got a new way to move
It's shiny and black and don't need a groove
Now I don't need no album rack
I carry my collection over my back

C30 C60 C90 Go
Off the radio I get a constant flow
Hit it, pause it, record it and play
Turn it, rewind, and rub it away

Policeman stopped me in my tracks
Said "Hey you, you can't tape that
You're under arrest 'cause it's illegal"
So I shoved him off and blew his whistle
I'm a pirate and I keep my loot
So I blew him out with my bazooka
Apparently, taping songs off the radio can be a radical act of political rebellion.  Who knew that, all those hours I sat in my room as a teenager with my cassette player, I was actually Che Guevara?

Bow Wow Wow's debut album, the enthusiastically named See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah. City All Over! Go Ape Crazy, featured winning song titles such as "(I'm A) TV Savage," "Elimination Dancing," "Why Are Babies So Wise," and "Hello, Hello Daddy (I'll Sacrifice You)." The band's lyrics tended to sacrifice coherence for amusement, but this was probably for the best. For example, "Do You Wanna Hold Me" juxtaposes verses referencing American cartoons with a mundanely romantic chorus:

Children, I wanna warn ya
'Cos I've been to California
Where Mickey Mouse is such a demon
Where Mickey Mouse is as big as a house!

Life is wasted on illusions
Tom and Jerry's no solution
Evil gangs will cut the demons
Pinocchio's a real boy, look around!

And I cry all night
Do you wanna hold me, hold me tight
Do you wanna hold me, oh yeah
Do you wanna hold me, hold me there
And by the way, how come Ronald Reagan never mentioned what a killer guitar player he was?

Cartoons and cassettes aside, the single that earned Bow Wow Wow a permanent place on nostalgic "Best of the '80s" compilations was not an original. "I Want Candy" had originally been recorded in 1965 by The Strangeloves, a group of professional New York songwriters (including future Go-Go's producer Richard Gottehrer) who essentially goofed around in the studio one night, made up a band name, and claimed to be from Australia. "I Want Candy" is the textbook example of a song that uses the Bo Diddley beat (dunk, dunk-dunk, a-dunk-dunk), which has been featured in everything from the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now" to George Michael's "Faith."

Bow Wow Wow sort of did to "I Want Candy" what the Rolling Stones essentially did to Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," ie. they took a Bo Diddley knock-off and made it sound even more like Bo Diddley than the original did. And what's particularly interesting about Bow Wow Wow's cover of "I Want Candy" is that it uses a beat that had its distant origins in Africa (and was re-shaped by the American South), and gives it a contemporary African spin. Oh, and there's a 15-year-old girl singing it.

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