Some great bands are even better second time round.
Cue 1980: Bow Wow Wow bursts onto the UK music scene, with their upbeat version of power-pop-punk shaped by worldbeat influences. They were accused of cultural appropriation for the use of those African drum beats which provided such a distinctive sound, they were accused of child pornography (and subjected to a Scotland Yard investigation) and assorted other forms of vice for the essentially nude cover photos of 15-year-old lead singer Annabella Lwin (the Anglo-Burmese Lwin, born in Burma, was only 13 when she was ‘discovered’ at the dry cleaners and recruited for the band) and for her sexy moans and vocals on tracks like “Sexy Eiffel Tower”.
It was always a precarious formation. Manager Malcolm McLaren convinced Adam and the Ants’ original line-up of Ants (guitarist Matthew Ashman, drummer David Barbarossa, and bassist Leigh Gorman), to leave him and form Bow Wow Wow with Lwin. Boy George started his musical career with the group, before quickly parting ways (to the benefit of musical history). The formation, successful though it was, lasted barely three years (during which time it produced the iconic repertoire for which it is known, and which is collected in this retrospective) before the listless Ants betrayed Lwin as well, abandoning her on the eve of a world tour to form the markedly unsuccessful group Chiefs of Relief.
Nearly 40 years after their initial formation — and having reunited at least three times in the interim, minus Matthew Ashman who died in 1995 at the tragically young age of 35 — Bow Wow Wow sounds even more refreshing to the contemporary listeners of today’s moribund music scene than when they initially emerged in the 1980s. Back then, they had to struggle for distinction amid a dazzling array of creatives that were founding entire new genres in the wake of punk’s still sputtering spirit. Back then, it was all about where is this going? Today’s listeners know the answer, and can instead fondly lose themselves in the appreciative nostalgia of this is what it was really all about.
Absent the intrigues of their early years, free from the scandalized outrage of what was still an overly puritan entertainment industry, and minus the profiteering misogyny of the likes of Malcolm McLaren and his ilk, Bow Wow Wow in retrospect offer an upbeat, inspiring example of the aggressive optimism of early pop music.
Bow Wow Wow bear a similarity to other bands of the period, but they always stood out from the crowd, and it was largely thanks to Lwin’s powerful and frenetic vocals and performance. The music’s energy, guitar riffs, and intensely rhythmic drumming often veer toward punk, but there’s a melodic pop undertone which, coupled with Lwin’s upbeat vocal range, lends a layer of cheery positivity to the tracks.
Lwin is on her own again; in 2012 Gorman put together his own lineup and appropriated the band name without her consent, and she now performs as “Annabella Lwin of Bow Wow Wow” (her website reminds fans that “any shows advertised as Bow Wow Wow WITHOUT Annabella, featuring a hired singer from another band, are done without knowledge, permission or consent. Before you buy a ticket, make sure it’s for THE ORIGINAL VOICE of Bow Wow Wow!”). It’s a perplexing and frustrating historical deja vu to see the sexist and disrespectful treatment of Lwin by her bandmates over the years since they have her to credit for their success; the single most defining creative element and distinctive force behind Bow Wow Wow has always been Lwin, hands down.
Your Box Set Pet: The Complete Recordings 1980-1984 collects the entirety of the three original albums released during that period — Your Cassette Pet (1980), See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah, City All Over! Go Ape Crazy! (1981), and When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going (1983) — along with an extensive collection of extra remixes and extended versions.
It’s all here — the breathless, cheery fury of “C30 C60 C90 Go” (purportedly the world’s first cassette single, of which both English and Spanish versions are included); the controversial yet catchy silliness of “Sexy Eiffel Towers”; the iconic covers (their low-key rendition of Frank Sinatra’s 1940 hit “Where Fools Rush In” and the frenetic singalong version of the Strangeloves’ 1965 hit “I Want Candy”); the power-drumming and chant-like vocals of “W.O.R.K.” and “Radio G String”; the vaguely bluesy punk rock of “El Boss Dicho” and “Baby, Oh No” and so much more (67 tracks in total).
Today’s politically correct may be scandalized by the devil-may-care punk silliness of the band’s oeuvre (“Uomo-Sex-Al-Apache” is likely to appall), but the aggressively sonorous energy of Bow Wow Wow is a refreshing reminder of an era where artistic creativity was judged worthy by its ability to offend rather than its ability to conform. For listeners bored by today’s music or weighed down by the cares of the world, there’s no better medicine than Lwin’s aggressively catchy, upbeat vocals and the delightfully irrepressible post-punk playfulness of Bow Wow Wow.