It doesn’t seem possible that it was around 30 years ago that A Flock of Seagulls ran so far away or Modern English melted with us, but it was. The story behind those acts, their biggest hits, and dozens of other New Wave acts are captured in all their ‘80s bad hairdo-ed, brightly colored-glory in “Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists And Songs That Defined The 1980s.”
Written by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein, with a forward by Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes and an afterward by Moby, the book examines the New Wave era through the filter of 36 songs associated with the time, such as Gary Numan’s “Cars,” Duran Duran’s “Girls On Film” and The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now.”
Each chapter deals with one act and, while not limited to the group’s biggest hit, explores the story behind that tune and the band’s history in the members’ own words. Majewski and Bernstein open each chapter with their recollection of the song and artist, even if they weren’t fans. For example, Bernstein’s commentary on Howard Jones is “zzzzzzz.”
In addition to the oral histories, there are “That Was Then, But This Is Now” updates on the band’s current statuses, footnotes from affiliated acts, for example Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas talks about what it was like to fill in for Michael Hutchence in INXS or A Flock of Seagulls’ Mike Score weighs in on the jealousy he felt of Tears for Fears’ success, and a Mixtape box that suggests five likeminded acts and or songs, very often done with tongue planted firmly in cheek. It’s the perfect book to carry around and digest one chapter at a time.
Even the bands whose songs you don’t like have fun stories. A small caveat: the authors decided to focus on tunes that provided an entry point for the band in some cases, not necessarily the group’s biggest hit: For example, with Depeche Mode, the attention is on the Vince Clarke-era Depeche Mode and “New Life,” in part because that’s the only member they have an interview with. The Human League members most associated with that group’s biggest hit, “Don’t You Want Me,” also didn’t cooperate, so the chapter on Human League highlights “Being Boiled,” a 1978 tune from when Martyn Ware was still in the group before being ousted.
Majewski and Bernstein keep the tone light, admitting that there’s not even a standard definition for new wave, but they come up with one in their intro that fits the time perfectly: “It was a Tower of Babel populated by American bands who wanted to be British, British bands that wanted to be German, and German bands who wanted to be robots.” They don’t aim to be completists (hence, the exclusion of such acts at The Cure) or scholarly, their aim to provide an entertaining, informative look back at a time when music was as much about image as sound (New Wave’s success does tie in with the birth of MTV, after all, and the perfect companion to this book is Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks' "I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution") and the weirder the hair, the higher the chart position.
Here are 10 fun facts from the book:
It, understandably, went right over people’s heads that Devo’s “Whip It” was a Thomas Pynchon-esque parody: “Some people assumed it was an S&M song, so we wanted to fulfill their expectations with the video,” says the groups Gerald Casale. “Others thought it was about jacking off. Every time we’d do a radio interview, typically the DJs would be these leftover seventies hippies. They’d have the satin baseball jackets form the record company and the big pile of coke, and they’d go, ‘Whip it, dude. Heh, heh, heh!’ and they’d make jerk-off moves. We’d start by telling them what it’s actually about thad that would bum them out, so then we realized we should just go along with it.”
Kajagoogoo almost had a very different name, inspired by, wait for it, Agatha Christie: “I’d go out to nightclubs in London with a spaceman’s outfit on and weird oil paint over my face, which was a bit punk/Toyah/Adam and the Ants,” says lead singer, Limahl. “I’d spend two hours getting ready. Choosing the name was an extension of that. I remember I’d been to see an Agatha Christie movie called ‘The Mirror Crack’d’ and I said we should call ourselves the Mirror Crack’d. But when Nick [Rhodes] walked in one day _ and Nick’s outfit really left of center, very bright, really out there —he said, ‘What do you think of Kajagoogoo?’ I immediately loved it. The other three looked puzzled, but they came round over a few days.
A Flock of Seagull’s Mike Score’s wild, wacky hairdo really did possess magical powers: “I didn’t wash if for a couple weeks at a time because it was just so locked int place — a can of Aquanet every night… Once it was up and we had gigs, it never came down. One show, a girl jumped onstage, ran over to me, touched my fair, and fainted. I came offstage that night, and my manager said, “‘I think you’re got something there!’”
Vince Clarke has no regrets about leaving Depeche Mode, despite its monstrous success: “When I decided to leave, it wasn’t for another music band or to form Yaz — I just decided to leave. We were just young and things happened quite quickly for us, and there were a lot of egos flying around. I was just fed up. In retrospect, i’m really glad [I left]. No regrets at all, because i’ve worked with some really brilliant artists.”
OMD wrote “If You Leave” at the last minute for John Hughes: Orchestral Manoeuvers In The Dark originally submitted another song for “Pretty In Pink,” but when director Hughes changed the ending, the song no longer fit and he asked them to write a new one. “We worked till four in the morning and we banged onto a cassette the rough demo, then called a motorcycle to take it to Paramount,” recalls Andy McCluskey (clearly in the days before email and MP3s). “We got a phone call at half-past eight the next morning from our manager saying, ‘John’s already in the office—he’s heard the cassette and he loves it. Can you finish it off?’…That’s how ‘If You Leave’ was created—completely off the top of our heads in one day in Hollywood.”
Tears For Fears’ Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal didn’t say a single word to each for a decade: After the band broke up, after living side by side from 13 to 27, “we didn’t talk to each other for 10 years,” says Smith. “I moved to L.A. Eventually, his manager called me out of the blue to ask if i’d be interested in doing another record with Roland. My initial reaction was ‘No way!’…but then I thought, ‘That’s kind of unfair. It’s been 10 years. I don’t even know what he’s like anymore…We met up in Bath. It wasn’t weird at all. I mean, it was weird for the first 10 minutes, but after that, it was fine.” And yeah, fame can be confusing. “We were 20 when [‘The Hurting’] came out…half the audience wouldn’t make eye contact; the other half were trying to rip our shirts off.”
Don’t put Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch in the same room with U2’s Bono: “[Our music] might not be right for the 100,000 people with cowboy hats singing, ‘Where The Streets Have No Name.’ I suggest they get their f**king sheriff on the case if their streets have no name. Bono — Nobo, that’s his f**king name. What a gibbering, leprechaunish twat. He’s up to no good. He’s more out of his mind than I’ve ever seen anybody and that includes Mel Gibson on the David Letterman show when his head spun around 360 times. He’s the most banal, buffooneried-up, fucking leprechaun. He’s kissed more Blarney Stones than I’ve had hot dinners. I wish they’d been toxic so he’d f**k off.”
Don’t put Paul Young in the same room as Joy Division’s Peter Hook: “Paul Young’s was the most famous [cover of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’] and at the time, I hated it,” Hook recalls. “But then, we made more money off of that rendition than we ever did as Joy Division. It’s quite painful, isn’t it? It was snooty, and it was everything we don’t want to be— cabaret.”
A-ha’s “Take On Me” success was a blessing and a curse: “I’m totally at peace with ‘Take On Me,” says the band’s Magne “Mags” Furuholmen, “but I know there are other people in our group who would rather not talk about that song…You feel for the other songs that you bled for, and the ones that didn’t get attention. It’s like you have two kids, and someone always talks about how great one kid is.”
Modern English’s “I Melt With You” is apocalyptic: “[When ‘I Melt With You’ was first released as a single in 1982] I don’t think many people realized it was about a couple making love as the bomb dropped. As they made love, they become one and melt together,” says Modern English’s Robbie Grey. And yet, Hershey still decided to use it to sell chocolate…
Duran Duran's Simon LeBon likes dark-haired lovelies and he doesn't like sumo wrestlers: "What do I remember most [about shooting the video for 'Girls on Film?'] The one with the dark hair. Some guys like blondes, some guys like dark haired girls, and I realized absolutely which one I liked and was going for. It was very sexy, and then, watching it back, there was some turn off as well as turn-on. Like the sumo wrestler guy-- I think that is universally the great turn-off in that video."