IF DOO-WOP music explored love, disco shimmied in sex, and punk fixated on rebellion, then 1980s new wave was all about place. Well, setting, really. Don’t believe me? Read the lively collection of interviews in Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s. From start to finish, you’ll hear stories about young creative people trying to transcend their time and place: British kids in postwar cities wondering about the world outside, Americans wistfully imagining a more nuanced Europe, and a few lonely sci-fi nerds dreaming of love in outer space. The band names alone were like a shelf of Fodor’s titles: Berlin, China Crisis, The English Beat, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Japan, Spandau Ballet, When in Rome. Songs, too, had us dancing in Berlin, walking in L.A., and living for the music-go-round with the kids in America.
While Mad World is a must-have for the formerly frosted bangs set, it serves as a useful primer for anyone curious about the oft-maligned new wave era. The dearth of books devoted to 1980s modern pop is shameful (and the scarcity of scholarship even more appalling), especially considering what a revolutionary time it was, not only for music, but also for youth culture — and culture, period. Macho music purists initially put new wave down, and the grunge era all but obliterated it, but the songs have had the last laugh, or haven’t you been to a karaoke bar lately?
The truth is, the new wave ’80s was a vibrant time when art and music collided — literally in the form of MTV. A generation of young people with hair the color of Froot Loops united in an effort to create something fresh, and while they were at it, made the Atlantic Ocean seem much smaller.
In addition to giving us dance-ready music and slick videos, new wave mattered because it created a subculture that allowed space for non-heterosexuals, and featured a roster of performers — Boy George of Culture Club, Marc Almond of Soft Cell, Andy Bell of Erasure, among others — who lived openly queer lives. If you were an LGBT teen in 1984 on either side of the pond, you certainly had asymmetrical hair and wore thrift store cardigans. Like glam rock before it, new wave famously toyed with gender, and this time not only in the form of men wearing makeup. Sure, Boy George’s painted face shocked America, but let’s not forget the Eurythmics’s Annie Lennox dressed up as Elvis at the 1984 Grammy Awards. Androgyny, suddenly, was everywhere.
Granted, authors Jonathan Bernstein and Lori Majewski explore the gender-and-sexuality component of new wave only as far as their interviewees do, which is, unfortunately, not much, though we do hear from Kajagoogoo lead singer Limahl about what it was like to be in the closet during his band’s heyday.
Sociology aside, readers are treated to compelling stories about the influence of these artists’ surroundings, as well as anecdotes about how, via cheap synthesizers and big dreams, a generation united in its love for Old Hollywood movies, sci-fi books, and, most importantly, David Bowie, came together to create a robust musical moment. (Seriously, if this book had an index, Bowie’s entry would be ridiculous.)
Mad World works, in part, because so many of the folks interviewed are natural storytellers with a keen understanding of how setting shapes us. Take, for example, Vince Clarke. As if his new wave pedigree was not enough — Clarke was a founding member of Depeche Mode, Yaz, and Erasure — he takes a page out of a novelist’s notebook when he describes what it was like growing up in depressing Basildon, a town built after World War II to house people who were bombed out of the East End of London. “It was built so quickly that they didn’t bother to build anything kids could do — it was just housing,” Clarke says. “When I moved there, there was no grass, no gardens — there was just mud. You spent a lot of time being bored. There was no TV. So we started a band.” That band was Depeche Mode.
Poverty factored into Depeche Mode’s decision to go the synth route. They simply couldn’t afford guitars and amps. But, he says, synths democratized music even more than punk rock had. “I don't think punk was as liberating as people make it out to be. They still needed to know how to play instruments.” Alison Moyet, Clarke’s partner in Yaz, also grew up in the pre-fab housing of Basildon. Her big dream, she tells the authors, was to make it all the way to the London pub circuit. (No-nonsense Moyet, more of a punk than Clarke, confesses she had doubts when he invited her to collaborate with him, thinking, “I’ll never hear the end of it if I go sing with this pretty boy.”)
If it wasn’t the haunting ghost of World War II, it was the then-current Cold War that frightened many musicians. Modern English’s Robbie Grey remembers England in the early 1980s as a “very bleak place.” Grey lived in poverty-stricken Colchester, in Essex, (about an hour from London). “There was no money,” he says, “There’d be no power — you’d be at home with candles. I used to go watch bands just to steal a microphone if I could get close to one.” Grey says the 1980s threat of Russian-American nuclear war felt pervasive, and his response was writing the band’s signature song, “I Melt With You.” Grey tells the authors, “I don’t think many people realized it was about a couple making love as the bomb dropped.”
Throughout Mad World, artists repeatedly mention being inspired by other places. In many cases, British artists like Duran Duran and Aussies INXS pay respects to American funk bands like Chic. For some, imagining life in the States became song fodder. Kim Wilde scored an international hit with 1980’s “Kids In America,” written for her by her father and brother. “A lot of people would give me shit for ‘Kids In America’: ‘What are you singing about — you’re not from America,’” Wilde tells the authors. “I don’t know if it matters that much. I loved the attitude of the song … I always thought it had something special about it that transcended having it make any sense that a girl from a village in Hertfordshire in the English countryside was singing it.”
Hollywood was another inspiration. ABC’s Martin Fry explains his band’s suave matinee idols suits: “It was an attempt to be like Clark Gable rather than Johnny Rotten.”
Tears for Fears, whose 1982 song “Mad World” inspired the book’s title, got a bit of pragmatic advice from British record label representative Dave Bates who told the gloomy duo to write an “American drive-time single.” Bates remembers, “I explained to them what an American drive-time single was — sun roof off, driving through the desert or driving home during rush hour with a tune coming out the radio and your arm stuck out the window.” The result was the suddenly sunny 1985 hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”
Meanwhile, Berlin, a band actually based in sunny Los Angeles, was fancying themselves dark Germans. “We patterned ourselves after the European bands: Kraftwerk, Ultravox, Roxy Music,” says lead singer Terri Nunn. The band’s 1983 breakout hit “The Metro,” which band member John Crawford wrote, had a distinctively European setting. “He was so incredibly honest about his feelings,” Nunn says. “It was ‘My girlfriend is going to Europe, and I’m probably going to lose her. She’s going to meet some great Italian guy, and she’s going to dump me.’”
Scottish musician Midge Ure of Ultravox was also inspired by a European city when he penned the band’s 1981 hit “Vienna.” Ure tells the authors, “‘Vienna’ is pure fantasy. I’d never been there. I didn’t know an awful lot about it other than the fact that it had, in its day, been a cultural center. It just seemed to me to be a fairly beautiful, fantastic place to write about, steeped in this mid-European mysticism, this ancient, crumbling facade.”
Meanwhile, plenty of new wave artists wanted to transcend space and time altogether. Mike Score of A Flock of Seagulls remembers life on the Liverpool scene as being unbearably dark and his fellow musicians, including the band Joy Division, way too dour. “We called it the Raincoat Brigade because they all wore long coats and hangdog expressions,” Score says. He wrote the band’s 1982 monster hit, “I Ran,” after seeing another band’s poster featuring a flying saucer. The song, to him, is about an alien girl in love with a human. A space aficionado, Score remembers the response to one of the song’s lines, “People used to say to me, ‘What is the aurora borealis?’ and I was like, ‘How could you not know?’”
Others, like Gary Numan, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, were more inspired by the future, as each act’s oeuvre illustrates. Ironically, Numan’s biggest hit, 1979’s “Cars,” was inspired by a real-life traffic altercation in London. Numan seems as shocked as anyone that the song took off like it did, telling the authors he wrote it in 10 minutes. “Piece of piss, innit?” he jokes.
Bernstein and Majewski, both entertainment journalists, pretty much let the performers do the talking in Mad World, but in each chapter’s brief he said/she said-style introductions, their separate personalities shine through. Bernstein, who has written for Rolling Stone and Spin, among other music-centric publications, prides himself on being a cranky Glaswegian. His analysis and biting wit lets readers know we are in the hands of a fellow obsessive. (On the Thompson Twins: “I found Tom Bailey’s voice devoid of emotion. Their image turned my stomach. The hair made me heave.”) Majewski, an American and co-founder of Teen People, serves as his chipper foil. She channels her 1980s teenybopper self to chime in on which bands had crush-worthy members. (But don’t count Majewski out as a lightweight: her remarks in the introductions for chapters on The Normal and Kim Wilde are some of the sharpest in the book.)
What’s nice to read here is all the generous praise these artists heap on one another’s work. Fun fact: Mad World may mark the only time since the band’s bitter breakup that everyone in The Smiths has said something nice about one another. (Of course, the band’s drummer, the litigious Mike Joyce, is wisely left out of the conversation.) What’s more fun to read, naturally, is the gossip and the bitchy remarks. Longstanding feuds between New Order’s Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner, and Kajagoogoo’s Limahl and Nick Beggs dredge up nastiness. But the putdowns aren’t all intra-band. Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet explains why his band quickly moved on from electronica to a more soulful sound: “We could have been like Depeche Mode and just played the same music for 35 years.” Echo & the Bunnymen’s famously crotchety leader Ian McCulloch calls his nemesis Bono a “gibbering, leprechaunish twat.” (Meanwhile, Julian Cope is a “dickhead extraordinaire.”) So many people bash A Flock of Seagulls, one loses track. (The authors themselves compare the act to Vanilla Ice.)
Mad World is a fun read and it does its part to undo the decades of disdain the snobbish music community reserves for the new wave era. Eighties themed dance nights, package reunion tours and occasional karaoke sing-alongs are not enough. We need to reappraise new wave. We need to think about the world of possibilities, both musically and socially, that new wave opened up for us, as well as the lessons we’ve failed to remember. Singer Allison Moyet says wistfully, “Looking back to the eighties, there was so much room for diversity. A freak was more celebrated than it is now.” In this era of American Idol and The Voice, she’s right.
In Mad World’s eloquent afterward, American electronica artist Moby says that new wave, for him, was about “geographic escapism.” The musician admits to playing OMD cassettes as a teen while driving around Connecticut “pretending I was in Berlin or Manchester.” The new wave era gave many of us a chance to escape, whether that was an escape from Thatcherism or the Reagan ’80s, or an escape from a terrifying Cold War and the threat of nuclear catastrophe, or an escape from the oppression of growing up queer in larger cultures that did not nurture us. New wave offered us more than songs to dance to. It gave us asylum.