The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Thursday, November 21, 2002
WHY BOW WOW WOW NEEDED TO BE PUPPETS

For Adorno, autonomy in music can only be attained when all traces of the human imprint upon form have been completely dissolved: "The purer the forms and the greater the autonomy of works, the more horrible they are. Appeals calling for a more humane attitude by works of art, for a greater degree of adjustment toward human beings as their virtual public regularly tend to dilute quality and weaken integrity of form." If, however, the work (as "categorical imperative" of art) is obsolete, so then is the concept of autonomy - a concept with which the Church of Me has never felt comfortable. Something is either autonomous or it is not. Gradual autonomy is conceptually a contradiction. There exist, at best, forms of dependence which can approach autonomy (Timberlake without the Neptunes or Timbaland = the guy who serves you in Starbucks).

So Annabella Lwin NEEDED to be "a 16-year-old puppet in a band called Bow Wow Wow." McLaren NEEDED to invent that launderette in which he could locate her as his point of re-connection with pop. Without the manipulation none of it would have made sense. Never mind that Neneh Cherry was, at the exact same time, doing a very similar but far more autonomous thing in Rip Rig & Panic (go and play the latter's 1981 God album back to back with See Jungle!, substitute free jazz gestures for Soweto beats and you'll see what I mean) and of course found a much more generous McLaren in Cameron McVey.

(you know, I really do wonder about what post-war music, jazz or pop, would have been without the influence of the Cherry family - it's far more widespread than you'd imagine)

And McLaren also felt obliged to nick a band - from Adam Ant. But Adam Ant nicked the sales and idolatry back - at least for a little while. Because of course steel cube idolatry was not an issue in 1981. Kings Of The Wild Frontier spoke to the kids, to the girls - Bow Wow Wow spoke to the students. You didn't necessarily need to know your Nietzsche to dig "Dog Eat Dog" or "Antmusic" (even though that whole album was lyrically peppered with his adapted aphorisms), but "Your Cassette Pet" without prior awareness of your Debord, your Foucault, your COBRA Group? Probably not. When someone shows you the joins, the consumer will usually go to music which doesn't, unless there is enough in the artist for them to extract anyway. Amongst other things, that explains why Robbie Williams prospers and Jarvis Cocker doesn't (sadly) and also why the Human League of Dare did so much better than Heaven 17 (no 21st anniversary deluxe remastering of Penthouse And Pavement). So Lwin was a puppet and McLaren wasn't ready to let you forget it. So you understood anyway, or were put off.

See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah City All Over! Go Ape Crazy! was the title of their first and better album. Should they even have made an album (the same question could easily be asked of the Pistols)? Weren't they selling out? In our era, where the cassette has looped into redundancy, it's easy to forget that Bow Wow Wow were perhaps the most cassette-orientated pop band ever. Indeed the cassette version of See Jungle! was more luxuriously packaged than the vinyl one - and it's the one cassette you never see in the bargain basement of Music and Video Exchange. And there were EMI staff producers - Colin Thurston (who was also at the time producing Duran Duran) and Alan Tarney. The latter, though, is an unsung genius of pop, the producer behind Cliff Richard's astonishing run of classic singles between 1976-81, and was recognised as such when Saint Etienne hired him to put some Joe Meek touches to the single version of "You're In A Bad Way."

And it's a wonderful pop record, both because of and despite McLaren. Much of it sounds like a pre-electronic/pre-Trevor Horn dry run for Duck Rock; the Soweto influence is more pronounced than the Burundi. As with Haircut One Hundred, we are forcibly reminded of just how damn good these musicians were; Dave Barbarossa's continents of drums, the late Matthew Ashman's endlessly inventive and inverted basslines, Leigh Gorman's guitar almost pre-Beatles (almost Hank Marvin!) in its plaintive twang. Unthinkable, of course, without knowing of the hyperactivity which in 1981 was still spilling over from No Wave (see Lydia Lunch & 8 Eyed Spy's Live In New York ROIR cassette, if you can find it, for some interesting political and musical overlaps).

And so sad. The lament which subverts or justifies the orgasmic onrush of "Chihuahua" (a number one in a more pluralistic world) - "Don't fall in love with me." Like TLC "getting lonely too," they pretend to approach, but woe betide you if you take them literally and try to touch them. Yet again we hear the "on and on and on" leitmotif we know from PiL's "Theme" three years previously. The knowledge that the party may, even in the autumn of 1981, already be drawing to a close. It is detectable right through "Elimination Dancing" and the superficial extroversion of "King Kong," even through the Soweto-so-hyperactive-that-it-almost-presages-Acieed flow of "TV Savage" (you have to RIDE with the bassline on the latter!). "Why Are Babies So Wise?" (the unspoken counter-question "why wasn't I?") The storming instrumental of "Prince of Darkness" where Lwin's voice realises its own imminent redundancy and leaves us with an avant-Glam floorshaker worthy of RAK Records at its peak (Cozy Powell's "Dance With The Devil"). The underlying fragility which comes to the surface in "I'm Not A Know It All" - the only song on the album without McLaren input; the only place where they can finally be themselves. The rhythmical crescendi after each chorus as though they're trying to hide their dread. Note especially the end samba (yes, samba!) "Hello, Hello Daddy (I'll Sacrifice You)" where sex as a reality finally exceeds sex as a construct.

And, of course, out of nowhere, the one thing that wasn't supposed to happen/happened too late to be of any use - they fluked a hit. "Go Wild In The Country" is a deconstruction of capitalism which postdates Debord but predates Naomi Klein by a generation ("I don't need no hamburgers/No takeaways") and even the coldness of post-Aaliyah R&B under its exuberance ("I don't WANNA want you...I'll shop around" - which would of course be impossible without the existence of capitalism). So there you have it - Michael Moore and Destiny's Child, both foreseen and pre-scripted. As grey 1981 became shiny yellow 1982 - that extraordinary period when ANYTHING could just WALK into the top 40 out of NOWHERE - the door opened a little, and "Go Wild" soared into the top ten. Another top ten hit followed with a cover of "I Want Candy" which significantly ISN'T on the album; they had by then exhausted McLaren's point, and sadly couldn't think of a better one of their own. Thus was autonomy unworkable for Bow Wow Wow, but thankfully autonomy on the part of the listener is a cornerstone of why we love music, and you should deploy yours to love their 39 great minutes.


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