“do you wanna hold me?” – bow wow wow (1983)

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I’m an avid reader.  And I seek out a lot of different kinds of material to read.  Reading mostly non-fiction, I look for resources that can offer great recommendations or other motivating factors to pick up a book.  These include listening to author interviews on National Public Radio, chats with friends, or even book clubs.  I’ve been a member of several book clubs.  However, the latest one I’m in is facilitated by my community radio station and we read highly engaging critiques on cool music.

For the music book club, I’ve been reading Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 by Simon Reynolds.  Published in 2006, Reynolds’ book is a thorough exploration of the music created after punk came and went.  A progressive form of rock music that distanced itself from nostalgia-driven punk musicality, postpunk drew from avant-garde ideas, world music, and a DIY aesthetic.  Only lasting a few years, postpunk would diverge and develop into other forms such as New Pop, New Wave, and New Romanticism.

Throughout the book, Reynolds spends entire chapters focusing on a particular band, region, and musical style.  Whether it is breaking down the Midwestern industrial motif of Pere Ubu, the bleak gothic stylings of Joy Division, or John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols anti-music of Public Image Ltd., Reynolds’ book is thorough and thoughtful.  He frames bands and their geographical upbringing from a historical perspective while also breaking down signature tracks in the poetic fashion only rock journalists know how to write.

While his analysis of songs and their compositional qualities are interesting, a lot of it is flowery descriptors that can be hard to decipher even if you know the song well.  Basically, semantics and objective at that.  While I enjoy critiques like that, I can only take so much before it becomes boring.  Fortunately, the book does provide a historical narrative when explaining musical context.

History provides a great framework for storytelling and I like a splash of narrative in non-fiction reads.  I enjoy postpunk and New Wave a lot.  They are among my favorite genres of music.  And this books has helped further my appreciation.  As I’m reading, naturally I enjoy the chapters covering bands that I am very fond of.  However, I’m enjoying the exploration of bands I either don’t know well beyond a single (or two) and those I had never heard before.  It motivates me to check out those bands or look deeper into their catalogue.

One chapter I found incredibly fascinating was the one about Bow Wow Wow.  Of course, I had grown up hearing their cover of “I Want Candy” throughout my entire life.  I had heard another song or two in recent years, but not much beyond that.  Before Reynolds’ book, I had regarded Bow Wow Wow as a one-hit wonder band and assumed that their history was bland and uninteresting as a result.  Oh, how wrong I was.

Malcolm McLaren is the impresario that managed the Sex Pistols.  Not only did he have a heavy hand in crafting their delinquent image, he sought ways to make them even more polarizing and repulsive to people.  I had been listening to the Sex Pistols since high school and I had always known Malcolm McLaren to be a provocateur which is a classier way of saying that he was a big wanker.  Until I read this book, I had no idea of far McLaren would go to be absolutely appalling.

I was amazed to learn that Bow Wow Wow was a McLaren creation much like the Sex Pistols.  The band was formed after McLaren encourage Adam and the Ants to ditch their front man and pursue his new music project.  Needing a charismatic and captivating lead singer, McLaren recruited the 14-year-old Annabella Lwin.

Initially, the band was put together to carry out McLaren’s vision that music was destined to be disposable background noise.  With the arrival of cassette technology, McLaren prophesized that role of music in the future would be removed of its purpose.  Before, people would gather in their homes or clubs to listen to music.  Now, with the introduction of the caseate and the rise of portable music, McLaren believed music would lose its importance and meaning.  To further this, Bow Wow Wow’s first album was initially a cassette only release that nearly tanked the band for having poor audio quality.

In addition to managing a band that would promote McLaren’s vision of music’s decline, he also sought a means to exploit rock’s baser instinct of tribalism and sex.  To achieve that, McLaren would coerce Lwin to be photographed nude or be subjected to sexual situations even going so far as encouraging one of the bandmates to deflower Lwin which McLaren believed was the reason why she was so resistant to his deranged and hypersexualized ideas.

McLaren’s fascination with exploiting child sexuality was exclusive to Lwin.  He had a whole grand vision to carry out his belief that pop music was pornography for children.  So, he set out to use pop music as a medium to use child pornography to titillate adults.  TO achieve this, the early Bow Wow Wow songs featured overtly sexual lyrics and Lwin was photographed nude for the band’s promo materials even appearing nude on their second album.

His provocative mindset extended beyond music and into other media.  McLaren wanted to create a children’s version of Playboy called Chicken which would be a publication featuring underage boys and girls engaging in pleasure technology.  While McLaren persisted that his Chicken publication was designed to be consumed by children interested in becoming adults that were different than their own parents, it is especially troubling considering “chicken” is a pedophile term for children.  Some even believed that Bow Wow Wow and Chicken were grand schemes by McLaren to implicate BBC and EMI as child smut peddlers.  While much of this material of Bow Wow Wow and the young Lwin were published, Chicken remains in the vaults.

You can imagine how surprised I was to learn about the history of Bow Wow Wow.  I had heard “I Want Candy” all my life.  It is a fun, catchy pop song.  However, knowing their background and especially McLaren’s manipulation of Lwin, the song carries a whole new subversive meaning that makes me a little ill.

Since reading that chapter, I’ve been exploring more of Bow Wow Wow’s short catalog.  Though they only released three studio albums, there is a lot of great material. For the last few years, I’ve really enjoyed “Do You Wanna Hold Me?”  The song is chaotic and absurd with allusions to California and a demonic Mickey Mouse being as big as a house.  It didn’t chart as well as “I Want Candy,” but it is one of their stronger tracks.  And given that it was recorded and released on their third and final studio album before breaking up, I would like to think that it was conceived on the tail end of whatever McLaren had planned for them.  I would like to be optimistic that, by this time, he was losing interest in the band and not interested in exploiting them as he had before.

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“down in the park” – tubeway army (1979)

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Dystopias in art are really interesting to me. Especially when they are set in the near future with familiar elements that exist in the here and now. From video games set in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland to 1970s sci-fi films with teenage gangs wreaking havoc within a British police state, these stories dance on the line between frightening and alluring. They are cautionary tales that exaggerate the worst aspects of humanity to make a point about modern day society. Yet, they are strangely attractive almost as to suggest such a drastic change to our current way of life would be exciting. Though, I hardly believe if any of these scenarios became reality that they would be as romantic as our entertainment media can sometimes make them out to be.

Tubeway Army, led by Gary Numan, was a post-punk and new wave band formed during the 1970s. Originally rooted in punk music on their first studio release, the band would take a sharp turn towards electronica with the 1979 release of Replicants, their second and final studio album. A loose concept album, Replicants is about a world cohabited by men and machines; a transhumanist dystopian anti-reality seething with raw sexuality and perversion. The androids appear as androgynous beings that force their will on humans for entertainment.

I was aware of Numan at an early age. Around the turn of the millennium, VH1 featured a lot of nostalgia programming; various countdowns and decade retrospectives. One particular program counted down the best one-hit wonders of all time. Numan’s single “Cars” appeared on that list. I really like that song, but that was it. Knowing that Numan was a one-hit wonder, I didn’t think that he could have any other good songs. Being that I was 12 or 13 at the time and without blazing fast internet speeds combined with an elementary knowledge of pop music, I didn’t really have the motivation or interest to explore Numan’s synthetic world of electric nightmares.

I spent my high school years in a small rural farming community. There weren’t any convenient record shops nearby and commercial radio during the mid-2000s was excruciatingly dull. I consumed all of the TV shows and magazines that glorified artists of the past. Some of which I would never hear on commercial radio. That all would change when I got to college. Technology had progressed to bring people where they needed to go much faster and streaming media was in it’s infant stage. I was in college radio at the time and I wanted more music. My hunger was insatiable. Spending time with other music lovers, I tried to absorb as much as possible. And with the rise of social media, share as much as possible as well.

During my junior year of college, I purchased a boxset by the Police called Message in a Box during a Black Friday sale online. It was a 4-disc collection claiming it contained every commercially released recording (though I would find out later it is missing a few tracks), including studio albums and rarities. A couple of the rarities were live cuts from the concert film Urgh! A Music War. I did my research online and learned it was considered one of the best concert films of all time (always hard to take such claims seriously) and featured a wide array of post-punk and new wave music. I was really into soul music and spent a lot of time in that world for my college radio show, but I like the Police. And if the Police were good enough for this film, then the other artists had to be great.

I learned Urgh! A Music War was not an easy film to find. I had to acquire a bootleg copy online if I was going to watch it. When it finally finished downloading, I watched performance after performance featuring the likes of the Cramps, XTC, and the Go-Gos. While the film featured three dozen brilliant performances, a few stuck out in my head. One in particular was Numan performing “Down in the Park,” a single off of Tubeway Army’s Replicants album

The music was dark and brooding, but featured a lilting synth-pop rhythm that added a sardonic tone. During the performance, Numan was driving around the stage in a black motorized cart while he sang. It look liked something a paraplegic would drive in battle against a robot army. I was stunned by Numan’s presence as a live artist. He was a storyteller with a showman flair for the darkest fringe of society.

Released in 1979, “Down in the Park” is set during a futuristic dystopia where the interactions between humans and androids can be violent and deadly. In this world, machines attack and rape bystanders for entertainment. They state that they are not lovers and not romantics, but they are they are there to serve the will of their robotic friends and masters. Adding life to this story, the synth-pop backing track creates a dark and hypnotic presence that makes the listener engulfed in a deep feeling of paranoia as if they could be attacked next. The harmony is broken up by interludes of Moog synthesizers that heighten the sensation that any calm being felt is only temporary.

I cannot say that I am a big fan of Numan, but I do enjoy aspects of his work. A few years ago, I did see him perform live on JBTV in Chicago. Standing only a few feet away, he performed a five song set from his latest album to promote a show he was doing at the Metro. He had an incredible stage presence and moved very chaotically at his age. This was a far departure from the stoic and androgynous robotic figure I had seen in Urgh! A Music War. Numan is an underrated artist who can present a particular image and idea. And he is incredibly exciting for that. I just hope I’m never down in the park he sings about.

“total eclipse” – klaus nomi (1981)

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When I started this blog a few months ago, my main focus was to shine a light on songs I felt did not get enough attention. These could be songs that were once popular and have since fell from the public consciousness, or were never commercially successful al all. With each song, my posts tend to gravitate between an analysis of the track itself to feelings from listening to it. Lately, it seems my selections have been lesser known tracks from relatively well-known artists. I don’t think I’ve spent much time discussing obscure artists that have had significant impacts on modern music.

Klaus Nomi, a German born countertenor, was an early discover for me in college. I remember the first time I saw his likeness. He was parodied as one of David Bowie’s bodyguards in the [adult swim] cartoon show The Venture Brothers. I felt the show was extremely layered with offbeat references and I am the type of person who will investigate when I am unfamiliar with a reference. From there, I was an instant fan.

The brief cameo in The Venture Brothers was a tongue-in-cheek reference to one of Bowie’s performances on Saturday Night Live. Bowie performed “The Man Who Sold the World” and “TVC 15” with Nomi serving as one of his backup singers. Standing behind this monolith of popular music was a strange-looking man with striking white makeup and pointy black hair. During that performance, Bowie was sporting an oversized, broad-shouldered vinyl tuxedo that would become part of Nomi’s iconic image. Unfortunately, that performance on Saturday Night Live would be Nomi’s only exposure to a widespread American audience.

For me, Nomi’s signature track is “Total Eclipse.” After witnessing an electric performance on the 1981 post-punk concert film Urgh! A Music War, Nomi was a significant standout performance among an already impressive roster of performers including the Police, the Cramps, Gary Numan, and the Go-Gos. With what sounds like deep synthesized thunder, “Total Eclipse” immediately starts with a fiery intensity. The tracks features a deeply dark melodic synthesizer with a punky rhythm guitar that evokes an impending moody darkness. The pulsating rhythms and driving energy of the musical arrangement evokes a sense of danger as we feel the world turn cold as the sun is being eclipsed.

Though the music is interesting and very danceable, it sounds generic and tame compared to the operatic bravado behind Nomi’s vocals. Nomi’s voice is an instrument in itself and immediately elevates any song from mediocrity to a stunning example of the breadth of post-punk and genre blending. Nomi expresses considerable range in the track. With each verse, his German heritage becomes quite obvious as he casually sings with pep. It sounds quite similar to the vocal phrasing on much of Kraftwerk’s discography. However, it is during the chorus that Nomi perfectly shows off his vocal talent. His voice projects several octaves higher as he belts out that it is a total eclipse that you can’t come to grips with. Even pushing his range further, he closes each chorus with oscillating pitch changes that prove the seemingly easy command he has over his voice. Blending his operatic training with the underground alternative music of the era, Nomi beautifully crafts his own niche in contemporary music. His is a style that is not easily imitated.

Nomi’s career didn’t last long. Only releasing two albums during his lifetime, Nomi was one of the first musicians to die from complications related to AIDs. “Total Eclipse” from his first album was only released two years before his death. Since then, Nomi has become an icon for both his physical and musical styles. Popular musicians such as Morrissey have cited him as inspirations for their careers.

Despite his popularity among post-punk fans and musicians, I feel Nomi will never get his due beyond being known as the odd-looking gentleman standing behind David Bowie. I feel a lot of musicians are afraid to take risks these days, so they don’t bring themselves to the sound. They let the sound define them. Klaus perfectly applied his own unique talents to his music and I respect him for that. He did exactly what he wanted before there was a total eclipse on his life.

“damn dog” – robin johnson (1980)

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One of the finest pleasures anyone can experience are those few, rare moments where it feels like you’re the center of the universe; when everything has aligned perfectly and you can live free and uninhibited. I love these moments because I can forget everything else such as the mundane aspects of life like bills and work. It is within these wild moments of individual self-expression that we truly feel free, alive, and completely ourselves.

Two years ago, I picked up a double-LP soundtrack for a movie called “Times Square.” Two punk girls dominated the cover with a small image of Tim Curry appearing from the corner. I looked at the track listing and I was blown away. Talking Heads, Gary Numan, Roxy Music, Suzi Quatro, Joe Jackson, The Ramones, XTC, and more! It looked like a solid compilation of post-punk exuberance. And it was only $1.99.

I love this record and I listen to it frequently. Though there was an abundance of amazing tracks by recognizable artists, a few were unfamiliar to me. There were a few tracks by someone named Robin Johnson. Just who was this Robin Johnson”? Were they a he or a she? Was this someone from a band? What else has this person done? Upon listening, it turns out Robin Johnson was a gruff punk rock girl with a sexy. rough and tumble voice. As I researched “Times Square,” it turns out her tracks “You’re Daughter Is One” and “Damn Dog” were original songs for the film. Alright, I have to see this movie now!

Roughly a year later, I found a copy of the movie. It is fairly obscure and only one rental store in Chicago had a copy, an art-house theater that also boasted the largest rental library in the country. Tim Curry was the only star of the film, but he maintained his role supporting two young female leads, Trini Alvarado & Robin Johnson. The story follows Alvarado’s character, a daughter of a local New York politician. She’s been going through teenage anxieties on top of the scrutiny of being a politician’s daughter. Like all teenagers, she needs an escape. She runs away and ends up meeting Johnson, who plays a kickass punk street urchin. Johnson’s character lives in an abandoned warehouse, steals food and clothes, and suffers from depression. Despite coming from two different worlds, they become inseparable. Alvarado learns to let her insecurities go and becomes more wild, and Johnson finds the love and support that has been missing from her life. Alvarado supports Johnson’s dream of becoming a singer for a rock band and, with the help of Tim Curry playing a local rock DJ, the story of these two punk rock runaways takes New York.

Despite my unfamiliarity with the film, it apparently is a regular addition in many LGBT film festivals. The film has strong allusions to the girls being romantically linked. Apparently, there was more footage shot that emphasized the lesbian relationship, but that was left out of the final cut. However, it is still every apparent that “Times Square” is a teenage rock ‘n’ roll lesbian love story with awesome music to boot.

“Damn Dog” is one of a few original songs that appears on the soundtrack. In the movie, this is Johnson’s swan song; the one that validates her talent and serves as her ultimate form of self-expression and the inner peace that comes as a result. The track is fiery and the passion of Johnson’s gruff voice accentuates the anti-authority power of the song. I believe this song is a way for Johnson’s character to express affection and her insatiable lust and desires. For me, it serves as the romantic bond between Alvarado and herself. She see what she wants and it looks delicious. Beware because this bitch bites!

The movie is ok, but worth checking out. Unfortunately, it is one of those instances where the soundtrack overshadows the films. Though, I’m glad I experienced both. “Times Square” has a great story that teaches you to find what you want and to fight all the way for it. For those moments of pure oneness, they come so few if even at all.

Check out both versions!

Soundtrack version:

Movie version: