Bow Wow Wow is very much a part of post-punk pop culture at a time when ideas didn’t have to be polished into glossy turds to become pop hits. The formation of the group is well recorded, so I won’t go into it here and bore you senseless, but McLaren’s involvement would always mean a litany of stunts and manipulations, some inspired and others utterly ill advised.
I came to Bow Wow Wow in March 1982 when the group made their first TOTP appearance performing GO WILD IN THE COUNTRY. As with many other hits of the time, it was lively, unorthodox and stylish… The group benefited greatly from a strong image under the guidance of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, and their records always looked great. Of course, the visual pièce de résistance was undoubtedly the recreation of Manet’s “Le Déjeuner Sur L’herbe” for the cover of their debut album. Whatever the creepiness surrounding it, the stunt worked, and the image remains one of the truly iconic sleeves of the era. In later years, when histories of this era’s bands were written for the first time, the seedier side of Malcolm McLaren’s manipulations became a matter of uncomfortable record… all of this invisible to an impressionable 10 year old discovering yet another musical frenzy on TOTP.
Cherry Red’s YOUR BOX SET PET, THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS 1980 – 84 isn’t exactly coming as a rediscovery to these ears. Apart from a few obscurities, I know the Bow Wow Wow material pretty well and have always been aware of its strengths and weaknesses. It’s not a band that I return to with any great urgency, but there are elements of the catalogue I genuinely like and the second record probably still gets a spin a couple of times a year.
DISC ONE of three covers the curiously titled SEE JUNGLE! SEE JUNGLE! GO JOIN YOUR GANG YEAH, CITY ALL OVER! GO APE CRAZY! (1981), a debut album of great spirit and promise. It stomps through the highlights of its 13 tracks with almost enough gusto to excuse the utterly forgettable moments, especially with the glorious opening triple punch of JUNGLE BOY, CHIHUAHUA and SINNER SINNER SINNER. However, what was the original vinyl A-side falls flat on its face twice with the atrocious MICKEY PUT IT DOWN and pointless ELIMINATION DANCING. A pattern emerges whereby a single prominent feature often extends a track some manner of listenability, rescuing material rightfully destined for the dung heap – This is fairly typical of Bow Wow Wow and best demonstrated by the first two tracks on the B-side, GOLLY! GOLLY! GO BUDDY! and KING KONG… Remove Leigh Gorman’s incredible basslines and very little of worth remains. In fact, the B-side as a whole is forgettable, with only GO WILD IN THE COUNTRY and the rockabilly/Morricone inspired ORANG-OUTANG shining bright amongst the comparative mediocrity. It’s basically half a dozen genuinely great tracks but not a great album. After getting through it, there’s little appetite to pick through ten 7” and 12” remixes that fill up disc one.
I’ve always thought that Bow Wow Wow really gave it their best shot with 1983’s WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, THE TOUGH GET GOING. Paired with the ubiquitous Mike Chapman, it’s a slick and polished offering, grown beyond the juvenile affections of previous material and free from the seedy clutches of McLaren. DISC TWO covers this in era in detail including a handful of USA 12” versions and all the usual peripheral frag. The album itself is my go-to Bow Wow Wow record – I’ve always liked that they managed at least one fully formed release, even if it was a commercial disaster. Tracks like APHRODISIAC, ROUSTABOUT and WHAT’S THE TIME (Hey Buddy) are driven by a rhythm section on fire… Dave Barbarossa is relentless and Leigh Gorman’s rubbery and spine-twisting bass runs detail what might otherwise be quite normal and anemic pop. Notably, Annabella Lwin’s vocal performances are, at least in the studio, hugely improved from the often-grating teen caterwaul of early Bow Wow Wow.
Elsewhere, the creative high points include LONESOME TONIGHT with its gunshots, yelps and guitar twangs, the swampy and Southern folkish balladry of MAN MOUNTAIN and the tribal/spaghetti western clatter of the finale, LOVE, PEACE AND HARMONY. With Americana roots generously scattered throughout the album – mostly Ashman’s greatly improved guitar work – it’s no surprise that the Bow Wow Wow legacy Stateside would be one of influence (Chili Peppers, No Doubt etc.) rather than fortune. At this point, I don’t think anyone cared about them in their home country.
This is apparently all remastered, but honestly, doesn’t sound any different from the original release.
Of the bonus material from this era, the driving instrumental BIOLOGICAL PHENOMENON is probably most interesting and a 12” USA remix of LOVE, PEACE AND HARMONY is a notable oddity. The rest is various trainspotter remixes of the singles and a track called WHERE’S MY SNAKE, which is detritus.
DISC THREE is ostensibly the C·30 C·60 C·90 GO, YOUR CASSETTE PET era of the band. Previously, it was comprehensively gathered on the BOW WOW WOW – ORIGINAL RECORDINGS compilation from 1982. Kicking things off, C·30 C·60 C·90 GO is an undoubted post-punk classic. It has an unorthodox structure for something designed as a pop single and encapsulates the potential and charm of early Bow Wow Wow in just over 3 minutes. The problem is arises with the patchy slew of material that follows. No amount of vibrant Burundi drumming or bass prowess can save the nutrition-free songwriting of LOUIS QUATORZE, GOLD HE SAID or UOMO-SEX-AL APACHE… tracks like SUN SEA AND PIRACY and RADIO G-STRING are basically reheats of C·30 C·60 C·90 GO… and SEXY EIFFEL TOWERS is just fucking irritating. Things improve with GIANT SIZED BABY THING but the full 24 tracks are more often than not a chore to get through with insipid lyrics and untrained vocals set to a promising but ultimately directionless musical backdrop. Later down the track listing, the instrumental JOY OF EATING RAW FLESH (from the Japanese TEENAGE QUEEN EP) serves as breathing space and some tangible evidence that Annabella’s shrill delivery on a lot of these early tracks make them a draining experience. COWBOY from the LAST OF THE MOHICANS EP released between the two studio albums is a very audible leap in professionalism. Everything else here is completist-only loose ends and filler.
Bow Wow Wow is all kinds of stupid now with Leigh Gorman touring as the band with a bunch of gimps, and Annabella Lwin billing herself live as “of the original Bow Wow Wow”… And of course, the underlying question – is there good reason for either to exist when both entities are pretty much on the 80’s cabaret dross conveyor belt, making shite of whatever legacy the band might otherwise have had. At one point in the not too distant past, both Lwin and Gorman were working together as Bow Wow Wow. They played Rebellion festival as recent as 2012 to a crowd that would know their albums and appreciate them as a subculture entity, not some frivolous nostalgic footnote to be paraded alongside dubious line-ups of Bucks Fizz and Tight Fit.
BOW WOW WOW: YOUR BOX SET PET, THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS 1980 – 84 is a curious one – It’s beautifully presented, as you would expect from Cherry Red, and although the band was ultimately of modest historical significance, there is enough of value in their catalogue to justify an inquisitive revisit.
Some genuine moments of musical clarity are here, along with a hell of a lot of fodder that is as ephemeral as the band’s cassette format diatribes. Being a fan of the second album, I want to like more of the band’s output than I actually do, but so much of it has always looked better on paper than it sounds in reality.