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Every Band Has Its Day

[whitespace] Bow Wow Wow Go Join Your Gang, Yeah!: All grown up, Annabella is back on the road with Bow Wow Wow.

Kate Garner

Bow Wow Wow is back with bite

By Gina Arnold

WHY DON'T rock bands ever break up? It must be something pretty powerful that keeps them all active, because to date, practically no band has managed to stay permanently nonfunctional. Mere hatred of one another won't stop band members from reuniting: the Eagles once swore they'd tour when hell froze over--which apparently happened in 1995. Even death won't bust up a band. Led Zeppelin's Page and Plant have been touring without Bonham or Jones, and the Sex Pistols ventured forth with Glen Matlock "playing" Sid Vicious.

But the truth is, there are good reunions, and there are bad reunions. A bad reunion is like that of the Sex Pistols, whose aptly named Filthy Lucre tour of 1996 was an obvious spectacle of boredom and greed. A good reunion is one like that of Bow Wow Wow, which broke up 14 years ago and is now taking the long road around America, stopping at tiny roadhouses and sleazy bars in towns like San Ramon and Tallahassee with its witty New Wave act. (The group hits the Edge in Palo Alto on March 20.)

Some people would call it a letdown from the days when Bow Wow Wow was hailed as the second coming on the cover of NME, but the band members insist they're having a great time. They even spent Christmas in Fresno and didn't have a bad word to say about it.

BOW WOW WOW'S bassist, Leigh Gorman, has spent the last decade or so making Mazda and Coke commercials and producing and mixing records--mostly, he says, house and techno. He was partly responsible for the "Hippiechick" single by a group called Soho and produced the band Voice of the Beehive. Singer Annabella Lwin has had an unremarkable solo career.

Original guitarist Matthew Ashman died a year ago of complications from diabetes, while drummer Dave Barbarossa joined Republica. Their places have been taken by guitarist Dave Calhoun and drummer Eshan Khadroo.

This particular reunion tour came about when Bow Wow Wow was approached about joining a New Wave revival tour with Human League, Spandau Ballet and others. Gorman says that when the tour fell apart in its planning stages, he and Lwin were "crestfallen."

So the two of them did a feasibility study--"on," he laughs, "the back of a matchbook." They figured out how much it would cost to hire a bus and a manager and decided to go for it anyway. "We're not exactly making money, but we're breaking even," Gorman says happily.

That's not a sentiment one would expect from a band that had any association with the Sex Pistols, whose motto was "The only notes that matter come in wads." But Bow Wow Wow does have something in common with the Pistols: it followed them in the management rolls of Malcolm McLaren.

In 1980, the Pistols' Svengali created Bow Wow Wow out of the shards of Adam and the Ants by firing Adam and replacing him with a gorgeous 14-year-old girl of Burmese descent whom legend says he discovered in a laundromat. McLaren then elicited songs that required the Mowhawked, lightly clad child to sing suggestive choruses like "I'm so sexy" and "I'm coming, I'm coming!" Much notoriety was also achieved for the band when the child--one Annabella Lwin--posed naked on an EP cover.

Lwin's mother sued McLaren for exploitation of a minor for immoral purposes, and so on and so forth. In short, like the Sex Pistols, Bow Wow Wow was briefly a cause célèbre, known more for its shock tactics than for its music.

The band's first album was monumentally titled See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah! City All Over, Go Ape Crazy (1981). However, given Annabella's nubile precocity (and the inevitable popularity of such things), Bow Wow Wow achieved a certain prominence in England. In America, however, only the song "I Want Candy" charted.

Bow Wow Wow toured America twice--with a tutor in attendance for Lwin--but broke up in 1983 at the start of its second U.S. tour, when Ashman, by then a junkie, fell off the stage and broke his arm. The accident resulted in the cancellation of the tour, which basically wiped out Bow Wow Wow's entire bank account.

The crash came hard for Bow Wow Wow, which had been groomed for a stardom that it may well have even deserved. Its sound was a juxtaposition of furious Burundi-derived rhythms and deconstructed lyrics about the evils of capitalistism--"demolition of the work ethic" went one sentiment, and "C30, C60, C90, Go!" was a call to home tapers to destroy the record industry.

That distinctive sound first surfaced in Adam and the Ants, when McLaren, hired by Adam to boost his career, told the Ants to throw away their angry three-chord punk-rock material. "He gave us a tape and said, 'Listen to these songs and analyze them,' " Gorman recalls. "It had on it all kinds of stuff--belly-dance music, Gary Glitter, African music, rock & roll. I sort of picked up on a track called 'Burundi Black' and wrote a punk-rock version of it, and it was the only song we wrote that Malcolm liked."

Adam, however, was not so sure, and McLaren (with the Ants' help) fired Adam and hired Lwin. He then set about making the new band--its name changed to Bow Wow Wow--write tons of songs. "We were absolutely terrified of him," Gorman says. "He'd stand about four feet away from me smoking a cigarette and going 'more notes. Put in more notes!'

"But the fear and terror sort of inspired me," he continues. "He was like a demigod to us. I mean, he fired Adam. Of Adam and the Ants. So we knew he made good on his threats."

McLaren has often been accused of being a puppet master who used bands to his own advantage, adding little of his own and profiting at their expense. But even if that's true, it's also true that Bow Wow Wow's distinctive look and rhythms are a cut above today's ephemeral pop bands. That Matchbox 20 guy is sure to age poorly, and his music probably won't be well remembered.

Lwin, however, is now all of 30, and even better-looking than she was when the band broke up. That's one thing that separates her from Johnny "fat and 40" Rotten; another is her enthusiasm. Lwin is now a performer with a lot of personal charisma, and her band rocks hard.

AT THE SHOW I saw, in an uninspiring Italian restaurant in San Ramon, Bow Wow Wow played nonstop for two straight hours, zipping through songs like "Wild in the Country" and "I Am a TV Savage." At first, the audience--big-necked men in Big Dog T-shirts and their fluffy-headed girlfriends--merely stared, mesmerized, at the spectacle of two men in dresses and Annabella doing the Apache dance, but by the end of the evening, it was on its collective feet, bow wow wowing along.

The sight made me wonder why Bow Wow Wow is so good when so many other reunited bands suck. Perhaps it was because its music was way ahead of its time, preceding David Byrne's return to African rhythms by years. Or perhaps it's because the band was having so much fun.

"Annabella and I both love playing live, and we don't get the chance much," Gorman says. "And, you know, we've grown up. Last time we toured America, the band didn't really get on. To be honest, we didn't even speak. Now we get on great. Musically, we're not a lot different than we were, but the attitude is another matter entirely."

In short, Bow Wow Wow is indicative of some of the good things about growing older: gaining perspective, learning to enjoy the present and playing for pleasure rather than profit. Perhaps, after all these years, the Marxist sentiments have at last sunk in, or maybe Bow Wow Wow is just one more example in a long line of rock bands whose addiction to their craft is too great for even the most hardened 12-step program to fix.

Bow Wow Wow plays Friday (March 20) at 9pm at the Edge, 324 California St., Palo Alto. Tickets are $8. (650/324-EDGE). Also playing Tuesday (March 24) at 9pm at Palookaville, 1133 Pacific Ave., SC. Tickets are $10/$8. (408/454-6000)

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From the March 19-25, 1998 issue of Metro.

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