Tag Archives: annabella lwin

Voices of the ’80s

RF_BackstageThe rock music world changed drastically with the explosive introduction of punk music in 1977. Punk was a raw form of popular rock; one that, for a short time, abandoned studied virtuosity in favor of pure aggressive energy, four chords, sneers and volume. For classic and progressive rock bands of the 1970’s, the punk movement threatened to end their time in the spotlight. More importantly, it was the lightening rod to which a great number of new bands drew close, splintering and absorbing the energy into a multitude of unique genre acts.

Suddenly, it seemed that popular music could take nearly any form, go in any direction. A college degree in music theory was not needed. Alongside the punk upstarts, the Sex Pistols, The Ramones, X, The Clash and The Dead Kennedys, there emerged many acts that were difficult to categorize. In the states, the CBGB club crowd included The Talking Heads and Blondie, joined elsewhere by bands like Devo, Oingo Boingo, and the new southern sound out of Georgia from REM and The B-52’s.  Australia/New Zealand produced a few bands, most notably Split Enz, who along with their states-side CBGB peers, paved the way for the kind of quirky music that came out of this era. In England, a major wave of trendy bands, covering both the lighter and darker side of music emerged at light speed. Suddenly, Ska music, originally from Jamaica, sprang forth from bands like The Specials, Madness, and The English Beat. Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow adapted tribal beats and chants as the basis of their unique sound. Gothic music, driven by Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen and a handful of darker, brooding bands emerged from the darkness. Synth pop and new wave music brought new forms of dance music to the fore, most often draped in layers of synthesizer leads, and the then new sound of drum machines. It seemed all barriers were broken.

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What was so different for those of us who transitioned from classic rock to these new bands, was that many, whether punk, ska, new wave, or gothic were not so much bands you listened to but bands you danced to. Many of these groups became the “new disco” – the groups whose music filled clubs and concert halls. In general these bands called you to the floor, with relentless beats, metronomic precision, deep bass tones, and all manner of vocalists who performed the work and connected to fans. And in each market, somewhere on the radio dial, there emerged stations willing to play this new music, to make it their preferred content, constantly introducing audiences to new bands, a flood of which appeared from 1977 to 1985.

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Since the advent of the pop music form, there has always been “one hit wonders” – singers or bands that had brief success in their own time. The 1980’s had a fair share of these acts, which came and went quickly, whose sound was so unique, fitting into the trend of the year, fading shortly after. For a short time this led to the increasing popularity of singles – the ability to obtain a few songs from an artist on a 45rpm vinyl single, or for some, a single cassette tape. While bands like U2, The Pretenders, Simple Minds and Madonna built lifelong careers, many others faded, some of course undeservedly, others predictable.

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Recently, I’ve noticed a number of travelling 1980’s “showcase” concerts, shows which are somewhat akin to small festivals, that present a number of what are today lesser known 80’s acts alongside one or two who held it all together and who are able to continue today to headline shows, even if in smaller theaters and clubs. One of these traveling circuses is Retro Futura, and this was this show I was drawn to in New York this last July.

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I was there principally to see Annabella Lwin, the lead singer from Bow Wow Wow, a surf-punk-meets-tribal-beats group that lived for a short time in the early 80’s. Bow Wow Wow released two albums before the boys in the band fired Annabella, their lead singer, a disaster of epic proportions for fans of the act. Amazingly, considering the level of talent in the original band, Annabella was at the bottom of the roster at this show. She was only allotted time to do three songs, after which she bolted to catch a plane. Still this was the best part of the lineup for me, made greater after I was able to get backstage to meet Ms. Lwin to express my appreciation to this artist, one of my favorite 80’s personalities. Bow Wow Wow will be prominently featured in my upcoming book, Dancing in Fog City (1977-1989).

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The remaining acts on the roster included Limal (Christopher Hamill) from Kajagoogoo, Tony Lewis, the singer/bassist from The Outfield, four-fifths or the original band Modern English, Belinda Carlisle from the Go-Go’s and headliners ABC. Kajagoogoo was allotted time for four songs, none of which stirred this patron, including the too-coy “Too Shy Shy.” Follow up Outfield singer Tony Lewis strained to hit his notes. Modern English were quite acceptable, and at times a bit fun, as personalities shown through and musicianship was a notch above. This was the one band that featured predominantly original members.

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The best part of the show, long after my favorite Annabella left the stage, was to be sets by Belinda Carlisle and ABC. Belinda was radiant, at 60 years old, still looking fab, and hitting all her marks and high notes with seeming ease. She rolled out a string of her own hits alongside expected highlights from the Go-Go’s first few albums, a small collection that has sustained members of this group, particularly Belinda through to today. ABC was the surprising set for me, as their whole presentation was befitting the headlining spot. Adorned in sharp suits and upbeat attitudes, the band began with “Millionaire,” the first of a number of hits most fans clearly remembered from the day, played with aplomb by the talented hired-hands led by charismatic singer Martin Fry.

Coming into the lineup, it was hard not to tag this tour as a collection of also-rans from the 80s. Indeed, every act other than Modern English was really the lead singer from their bands, each having had one or two albums back in the day, peppered with a few singles, and little follow up solo success. Yet, it was heartwarming to hear their voices again, stepping back in time to witness this singles crowd, harkening back to dancing days now so long ago.

The Bow Wow Wow Crush

I have to admit something here – I had a massive crush on Bow Wow Wow’s lead singer, Annabella Lwin, in 1982. And, I was not alone in this. Way back then when this band came to my attention, I learned of the very young Anglo-Burmese singer and her surf-punk-meets Burundi-beat band. I thought it was her band and I thought she was intoxicating. As I discovered our age difference – she was a youthful teenager and me in my 20’s, my short lived crush turned into a life long appreciation of this unique artist, a fondness for her, the best female 80’s performer I’ve ever seen. Period.

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If you were alive in the day, and of age, you would recall the biggest hit this band had, a cover of the song “I Want Candy,” with it’s accompanying video showing Annabella and band Mathew Ashman (guitars), Leigh Gorman (bass), and David Barbarossa (Barbe) (drums) on the beach dancing, playing and mugging for the cameras. There was a feckless joy about this ragtag group, and some seriously bad-ass musicianship and singing. Ashman was a powerhouse on guitars – one of the best users of the tremolo arm, the Chuck Berry pluck, the Dick Dale surfer slide – his work graced every one of the band’s songs, impossible to ignore. The rhythm section, featuring Gorman on bass was unbelievably adept at using bass for melody, but also for percussion and aggressive energy in support of his drummer. The drummer Dave “Barbe” is simply unmatched in the rock world. He has an uncanny ability to calmly lay down a jungle beat, even on a small kit, one that kept perfect time, but also swung a bit, one that drilled it’s way into your hips and kept you moving.

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Annabella is playing as Bow Wow Wow in Long Island July 13, 2018!

All this stellar musicianship, the swing, the tribal beats, kept Annabella moving, as she became the hands-down best dancer in the business, one possessing the sweetest voice, an instrument that could go hard and high if she wanted, but was best in her light and airy range. Just another moment on Annabella’s dancing and it’s supremacy – she could swivel her hips, pogo up into the air, and most importantly, she perfected a sort of tribal dance, or native dance that was almost like watching an American Indian woman around our collective fire. I believe it was simply her own invention, and it was how she moved, but it was spectacular to have such a dancer front the type of music Bow Wow Wow played, a music that could whip a crowd into a frenzy of raw, “off the rails” celebration.

My own appreciation aside, Bow Wow Wow did not achieve the level of widespread success I would have expected in their short time together, though before the plug was pulled by the boys in the band, they were building an impressive following, and the music was quickly maturing after cutting ties with manager Malcolm McLaren. The story has been told many times but let’s recap- Malcolm McLaren is either a genius or a louse AdamAnt2017_KOTWF_72dpidepending on your perspective. While running a sex shop filled with fetish clothing, Malcolm became a society guy and tastemaker. His level of involvement in each band differed but he is credited with being an influencer, supporter or manager of Adam and the Ants, Bow Wow Wow, and the Sex Pistols to name a few.  Malcolm was told that a 13 year old girl, singing her heart out in a local dry cleaners, was worth meeting, so he did, and he ended up recruiting her to front his 3 piece band of guys who he had influenced to separate from Adam Ant prior to his own breakthrough recording, Kings of the Wild Frontier.

Annabella joined the band and became the lead singer of Bow Wow Wow. Malcolm stirred the pot, and after many singles and an initial album, the exhaustingly titled, See Jungle, See Jungle, Go Join Your Gang Yeah, City All Over Go Ape Crazy, the band left his management, released a second, superior album When the Going Gets Tough… The Tough Get Going, after which they gigged, mugged for the television cameras, and then disbanded.

When the Going…was a revelation. Having established their sound, one that was alternately raw “Chihuahua” and refined, “Fools Rush In” during the first year or so, and releasing many singles and a debut album, the band did something amazing. They sat down, wrote, and recorded what for this patron is one of the greatest albums of all time. Cracking opener Aphrodisiac” mines the same turf as the prior year’s somewhat naughty and breathless “Sexy Eiffel Towers,” but now it seems Annabella’s in charge of the narrative, “Take an Aphrodisiac, don’t do nothing just relax have a heart heart heart heart heart attack, take an aph-ro—-disiac.” A trifle yes, but listen to Annabella with Dave, Matt, Leigh make it something so much more.

AnnabellaLwin_BWW_WhenCoverEarly in the album, the song that should have been promoted better and a hit, ‘Do You Wanna Hold Me?’ (answer is of course ‘yes’ said thousands of fans) is one of their best pop bits. But the example of things to come, or that should have come, are “Man Mountain” and “Love Me.” This pair of slower songs showed the band could calm down, could actually nail a ballad, and could stir the soul after a few dances and a break. “Man Mountain” written by Ashman, is a personal favorite, and became a number 1 hit in the former Yugoslavia!:

He’s my man, he’s my man mountain, he’s my lover and hero to me
He’s my man, he’s my man mountain, Lord, delivers his soul unto me, Lord
Delivers his soul onto me, Lord, delivers his soul unto me
He don’t eat, he don’t sleep, he don’t even wash his feet
He don’t eat, he don’t sleep, he don’t even wash his feet

He’s my man, he’s my man mountain, he’s my lover and hero to me
Oh I love him, my man mountain, Lord, delivers his soul unto me, Lord
Delivers his soul onto me, Lord, delivers his soul unto me

He don’t lie, and I don’t know why
He told me he loved me and that made me cry
He don’t lie, and I don’t know why
He told me he loved me and that made me cry

He’s my man, he’s my man mountain, he’s my lover and hero to me
Oh I love him, my man mountain, Lord, delivers his soul unto me, Lord
Delivers his soul onto me, Lord, delivers his soul unto me

Delivers his soul onto me, Lord, delivers his soul unto me

Note the uses of repetition, as parts of Annabella’s soft lead vocals are almost breathy chants, gently plaintive pearls of love – it’s a beautiful bit of writing and performance. Leigh makes perfect use of a fretless bass here, while Ashman pulls at the acoustic guitar strings beautifully. “Love Me” follows and somehow matches the last though it’s one that challenges Annabella’s upper range, and is adorned by echo-washed lead guitar that would show anyone in one track why Ashman is missed. Dave Barbe just inhabits these pieces – he is as talented on soft numbers as he is on louder more aggressive tracks. This exploration of the more feminine side of the band makes clear where Bow Wow Wow could have travelled, and how they could have snared a much larger audience.

Alas, that was not to be. The boys in the band were restless, and thought they could be a there piece band, without the pesky Lwin on the payroll. It was a disastrous choice, as they went on to obscurity with a band called Chiefs of Relief. Bow Wow Wow reunited many times with various members coming and going, and guitarist Ashman sadly died before the nineties came to a close.

A drummers break: Just to ensure respect for the incredible sound Barbe captured on drums, here is a bit on Burundi: The story of “Burundi Black” and the origin of the “Burundi Beat” and the associated controversy is told in the following excerpt from a 1981 New York Times article by Robert Palmer:

The original source of this tribal rhythm is a recording of 25 drummers, made in a village in the east African nation of Burundi by a team of French anthropologists. The recording was included in an album, Musique du Burundi, issued by the French Ocora label in 1968. It is impressively kinetic, but the rhythm patterns are not as complex as most African drumming; they are a relatively easy mark for pop pirates in search of plunder. During the early 1970s, a British pop musician named Mike Steiphenson grafted an arrangement for guitars and keyboards onto the original recording from Burundi, and the result was Burundi Black, an album that sold more than 125,000 copies and made the British best-seller charts… Adam and the Ants, Bow Wow Wow, and several other bands have notched up an impressive string of British hits using the Burundi beat as a rhythmic foundation.

Lest anyone come to the conclusion that the band were “pop pirates” of any sort, all music has references and this is just one that Barbe used to incredible, exhausting effect on Bow Wow Wow records – his influences were diverse, and he molded them into something all his own, playing it all while occasionally, calmly chewing gum. There never has been and never will be again a drummer like Dave Barbe in my estimation.

I talked to Annabella Lwin and Dave Barbe about their short-lived band, the legacy and their thoughts now, so many years after the event. In the day they were confident, full of “piss and vinegar” as we say, ready to take on the world. Today they are, and probably were before, gentle, kind, humble people who are seemingly thankful for being remembered so fondly.  I asked them both similar questions in preparation for their next book Dancin’ In Fog City (1977-1989) in which Bow Wow Wow will feature, particularly their 1983 coda, “When The Going Gets Tough….”

These interviews will be part of next week’s post…stay tuned!