Arts & Culture » Arts Stories & Interviews

‘Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs’

Gossipy tome brings out the best and worst secrets of a colorful decade




by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein | 320 pages | Harry N. Abrams

If there’s anything that the torn mesh gloves and smeared eyeliner of the early ’80s taught us – other than that perhaps there is such a thing as too much excess – it was to be suspicious, even paranoid, of the intentions that elevated squalid British bedsitters from poverty to teenage bedroom walls via some bizarre Bowie railroad. There were, after all, so many colors, so much brightness, so many blippy hooks tied together with electronic string symphonies that a generation could be forgiven for being driven to distraction. That was the hustle, after all – get out and get big. But there was also so much genius served up in small, easily digested doses – a veritable canon of temporal angst left in its wake that still sounds fresh today – that your suspicions needn’t even bother to be confirmed. The fantastic journey alone was worth the colored-vinyl price of admission.

Which brings us to Mad World, an exhaustive oral history of that timeless era that swings from New Romanticism to no-love-lost – from luxury to heartache, so to speak – with such completist aplomb and attention to emotional detail that you may forget that all we’re talking about here are the middle-eights and synthesizer flourishes of pivotal songs from the era. Authors Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein – both veterans and experts on the subject matter – somehow managed to track down more than 30 artists and bleed them of their backstories, which, in many cases, are the stuff of legend.

Kicking off with Adam and the Ants’ Kings of the Wild Frontier – the fruit of impresario Malcolm McLaren’s planned disruption of the original Ants to form Bow Wow Wow – and winding through a series of music-industry constructions built to crumble, Mad World raises the bar on the nostalgia circuit, wisely allowing the adults who created and survived the era to do most of the talking. (Although it is amusing that each chapter begins with a conversation between typically starry-eyed and forgiving Majewski – who used to run a Duran Duran fanzine – and the more hilariously sour and circumspect Bernstein.)

To cut a long story short (hello, Spandau!), the early-’80s New Wave scene wasn’t about just the bits you remember – like Duran’s “Girls on Film” video getting banned (Nick Rhodes even provides the foreword for Mad World), or Annabella Lwin of Bow Wow Wow being just 13 when she seductively pranced around to the tribal smut of “I Want Candy” – but, at least in retrospect, it was about growing anxieties and acrimonies set against a backdrop of chart positions and Top of the Pops performances. It was the sort of deal with the devil you might have noticed had the music not been so addictive, the videos so aspirational. Who knew that Martin Fry of ABC was saluting punk by going disco for “Poison Arrow”? Or that someday New Order’s Peter Hook would harshly refer to his former comrades as “New Odor”? Well, now we all do. And yet somehow the pointed revelations don’t tarnish the allure of the New Wave era, but only serve to honor – even illuminate – its ongoing legacy. Kind of funny, kind of sad.

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