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BOOK REVIEW: "Mad World" by Jonathan Bernstein and Lori Majewski

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BOOK REVIEW: Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980’s by Jonathan Bernstein and Lori Majewski (Abrams Image) 2014

With a surprisingly thoughtful foreword from Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes and an afterword by Moby, the interesting, challenging and sometimes frustrating new book from 80’s New Wave music fans/writers Jonathan Bernstein and Lori Majewski  - Mad World – is a Cliffs Notes version of a Reagan/Thatcher-era music bible dedicated to aging fans of a style of music that “covered synth pop, ska, goth, alternative rock, bubblegum, Eurodance, industrial, new romantic, blue-eyed UK soul and electronic dance music.”

And the gloomy Bernstein and excitable Majewski (their personalities tend to get in the way) get it mostly right (but where is The Church? Squeeze? Midnight Oil? etc.) in their highly personal overview featuring chapters devoted to key artists and songs that defined 80’s New Wave. This includes John Hughes-linked anthems like Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “If You Leave” (from The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, respectively) to overt crossover pop gems like A-ha’s “Take on Me,” “Dexys Midnight Runners’ “Come On Eileen” and Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now.”

But the authors, who interview singers and band members throughout Mad World, make sure that readers (many pining for the days when a song like The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” might get a spin or two, alongside Devo’s “Whip It” or Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science”) know more about the circumstances under which the particular song was written and/or recorded and its lasting, cultural impact. Also, each chapter updates the reader on what that particular artist is now up to.

Again, I don’t agree with some of the choices here. Songs by Howard Jones, Adam & The Ants, The Normal, Heaven 17 and Ultravox just don’t have the oomph that songs (as annoying as they might be) like “I Ran” by A Flock of Seagulls has or even the electro-bounce of “Girls On Film” by Duran Duran.

Anyway, some of the chapters I found most intriguing involved Bow Wow Wow talking about their remake of The Strangeloves’1965 hit “I Want Candy” and all the crazy things that were going on within the Malcolm McLaren-manufactured group that featured old members of Adam & The Ants and the effervescent half-Burmese, half-English singer Annabella Lwin.

Lwin recalls not clicking with her three male bandmates and later the shock of finding out in the paper that she had been kicked out. It’s those types of dramatic stories that fill Mad World.

Who knew that Kajagoogoo – purveyors of the bass-a-riffic “Too Shy” from 1983 – had a feckless lead singer who left (or was kicked out) because he was unbearably annoying to his less-image conscious bandmates?

And what of Spandau Ballet, the smooth-sounding group in sensible suits and constantly smiling? Their New Romantic mega-hit “True” (yes, featured in John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles) is a ballad that no one in the band thought would be a hit – and make the English group one-hit wonders in America.

Recalls songwriter and guitarist Gary Kemp: “It was me trying to write an Al Green song. What made the difference was the backing vocals. I went and started tracking up the backing vocals and they became the unique selling point on that record. I put on this Motown-influenced guitar, we laid down the keyboard, and the drums were all done, and then we made this strange decision not to include my brother, Martin, on the song.”

Why? They wanted a bass synth, Kemp explains. He admits that had they known “True” was going to be so big, Martin Kemp’s bass playing would have likely been featured instead.

And an interesting aside, Spandau Ballet’s Gary and Martin Kemp portray English gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray in The Krays from 1990. Not only are the Kemps good musicians,  they’re pretty good actors if The Krays is any measure.

And regarding the Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” (which was re-recorded, to haunting effect by Gary Jules for 2001’s cinematic masterpiece Donnie Darko), Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal talk about the song, which Orzabal recorded on an acoustic guitar but had trouble singing.

Recalls Orzabal about the time when he wrote “Mad World” for the album The Hurting: “Although we were trying to look like pop stars, our lyrics were far more melancholic and, some might say, depressing. The line ‘The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had,’ that comes from Janov and his primal scream theory. I remember reading once that yoru mosts powerful dreams – in essence, the ones that are life-threatening dreams – are the ones that release the most tension.”

Bernard Sumner (now with New Order, whose “Blue Monday” is featured here) recalls being in Joy Division and how Ian Curtis (who later committed suicide) “almost died” recording “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (again, featured in Donnie Darko – wow!)

“It was the story of his demise. ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ was kind of Romeo and Juliet for real, put down in lyrics,” Sumner said.

Or there are simple narratives where Gary Numan explains he wrote 1980’s synthy “Cars” after getting into a vehicular altercation in London.

Of the 36 songs featured here, the one I was most fascinated with is “The Killing Moon” by Echo & The Bunnymen. I’ve written about this song in recent months and to see Majewski note that Echo lead singer Ian McCulloch noted in a concert that the spooky “The Killing Moon” (also used to great effect in Donnie Darko) “is the best song ever written” and adding, “I happen to agree.”

That sounds about right. When McCulloch tells the authors about the chilling line “Fate / Up against your will / Through the thick and thin / He will wait until / You give yourself to Him,” he says with utter honesty that his 1984 song is up there with the words of Shakespeare.

 “That is up there with ‘To be or not to be.’ Whoever Him is, is up to you. For a long time the Him in the chorus was me, and then I realized, it isn’t me at all – it’s Him, the fucking higher power. It’s basically a hymn or prayer. It’s probably my ‘How Great Thou Art,’” McCulloch tells the Mad World authors.  “It sounds like a love song, it sounds adult, it sounds European … it’s the greatest song ever written, and the reason it is, is that it’s more than a song. It’s way beyond being a song. It’s about everything. It’s not about football or fucking celery. but it’s about most other things.”

Wow! It’s hard to argue with McCulloch on those counts. “The Killing Moon” haunts me on practically a daily basis. No, seriously. Ask anyone.

Anyway, pompous statements by characters like Ian McCulloch are common throughout those Mad World. The 80’s honesty and flair and style we got in that crazy decade is ample supply and in a weird way, it’s refreshing and missed.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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