Thursday, 21 July 2011

Sexploitation Music - Part 2

Welcome to Chapter 2 in my grim series exploring the murky, sexist world of pop. Our exploration of how this malady extended even into the comparatively enlightened realm of the punk and post-punk cultures continues with the story of Annabella Lwin (pictured).

Annabella was born to a Burmese father and an English mother in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar) in 1966; the family came to England from Burma when Annabella was 5 years old. Annabella, of course, went on to become famous as the lead singer of Bow Wow Wow, nowadays most famous for their one US hit, the execrable, MTV friendly, 80s cover version of The Strangeloves 'I Want Candy'. Bow Wow Wow's version of this tune peaked in the US Billboard chart in May of 1982. One year later the band was defunct. So what happened?

Here's how our story begins...It's 1979 and Adam and the Ants, at that time still a punk band, have just released their debut album 'Dirk Wears White Sox'. Looking for inspiration for a new band image, they approach ex Sex Pistol's manager Malcolm McLaren and hire him as an image consultant for a fee of £1,000 (a not inconsiderable sum in 1979). So what does Malcolm suggest? Well, after coming up with a combination of American Indian and pirate clothing as the best way forward, he then lures away the guitarist and rhythm section ( Matthew Ashman, Dave Barbarossa and Leroy Gorman) effectively breaking up the band; Malcolm, you see, has his own ideas for a new band. With his musicians in place , he set out to find a singer. Reportedly, he had something very specific in mind. He wanted a girl, preferably someone exotic, with a very clear voice to enunciate the lyric. Basically, a kind of female Frankie Lymon. Reputedly McLaren, along with a few close acquaintances, hung around local schools in an attempt to spot their girl, but all to no avail. Eventually, a friend of his came across the 13 year old Annabella Lwin, working part-time in a dry- cleaner's in Kilburn, London, and singing along to a Stevie Wonder song on the radio. Following a successful audition for the lead singer position in McLaren's new group (the yet-to-be-named band Bow Wow Wow), he had her transferred from a mixed comprehensive school in London to the Sylvia Young Theatre School.

McLaren, by this time working furiously on a (yep, you guessed it) pirate theme for the band, already has a song specifically written. With his personnel in place, McLaren was ready to launch them on an unsuspecting public. Bow Wow Wow’s first release came in the form of the world’s first-ever cassette single. In July 1980, EMI released 'C30, C60, C90, Go' only on cassette in the U.K. with 'Sun, Sea, and Piracy' to accompany it. It reached number 34 in the UK singles charts, not a smash hit by any means, but it caught this writers attention. I must admit that I still love this song despite McLaren's crap production (a musician he's not!). On this song, the band combine ferociously punky guitars with fierce Burundi-style drumming. Annabella, her voice still not properly matured, shrieks and hollers over the top to great effect. Here's the video for the song:

Does, it, even at this early stage, sexually exploit the 14 year old, Annabella? Well, the band were dressed by McLaren who was making great play, at the time, of the singer's young age. Not convinced? OK, here are the Youtube tags (below) for the video you've just watched :

* bow wow wow
* nude
* c30 c60 c90 go
* tits
* bow
* wow
* c30
* c60
* c90
* go
* big boobs
* feet
* see thru
* seethru
* annabelle
* Lwin
* teen
* teen tits
* boobs
* ass
* teen boobs

Some lovely people out there in webland, don't you think?
Anyway, the Bow Wow Wow sound was certainly interesting, a pastiche of African beats, chanting, surf instrumentals and Spaghetti Western soundtrack music. And genuinely, I did, and I still do, like it. But where did it come from? Here's the story as McLaren told it:

"What happened was, I was involved in a French independent record company called Barclay. On the side they used to make porno movies and they wanted to get me to put some music to it. They said, “Don’t fucking give us a hard time with any music that’s copyrighted. Use African music or something.
I went up to the library at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and they had a big music collection. I fancied the girl there so I would go every day and look at her and listen to ethnic music. She played me one of these records, mistakenly, at the wrong speed and it fucking blew my ear off. I thought, “What the fuck is that? It’s a hell of a beat.” So I took the idea back to London and I gave it to these kids who were called Adam and the Ants."

So, basically, the Bow Wow Wow sound, and that of other British bands of their time, was influenced by, if not occasionally outright plagiarised from, the music of native African nations and tribes such as the Royal Drummers of Burundi and the Zulus. Controversial, certainly, but forgivable to some extent as they did add a lot of other musical strands into the sound to produce something quite fresh and exciting.

But there was greater controversy to come. McLaren had decided to use Bow Wow Wow as a medium for his anti-youth and anti-music tirades, and in the vehicle of the teenage Annabella he had the perfect medium; a naive and pretty young girl who simply sang the lyrics that McLaren handed to her, and dressed as he told her to. In 1980, the band went into the studio to begin recording an album and McLaren, ever the opportunist, decided to launch a magazine, with record company EMI's backing. At the same time, the BBC was invited to shoot a documentary about the marketing of Bow Wow Wow. McLaren claims that the magazine, first called "Playkids" and later "Chicken," (from paedophile slang for a child) would be about "pleasure technology for the primitive boy and girl." Here's the story as told in Simon Reynolds' book Rip It Up and Start Again, postpunk 1978-1984:

(Fred) Vermorel (an old friend whom McLaren hired as film editor) believes McLaren's master scheme was "to create a child porn scandal implicating as many people as he could." Not just EMI, who was financing Chicken, but the BBC, too. A documentary crew headed by Alan Yentob had been following McLaren around for a program on the marketing of Bow Wow Wow. Partly impelled by his usual lust for maximum media mayhem, McLaren also wanted to make a serious polemical point, exposing pop music as porn for children...and pop as porn using children to titillate adults.

With typical ruthlessness, McLaren, in his eagerness to embarrass the music and media establishment, showed no concern whatsoever about the youngsters (Annabella and the other teenage models) or old friends (Vermorel) who would have been embroiled in the scandal. When he went to remonstrate with McLaren, says Vermorel, "Malcolm just laughed and said, 'You should be telling all this to the judge! When the shit hits the fan, I'll be in South America.' So I told EMI what was going on. And they told Yentob, and he freaked out, and those tapes have been in the BBC vault ever since."

...Chicken never hatched. According to Vermorel, the only physical evidence of Chicken's existence was the rate card for advertising in the magazine."

Creepy as fuck, right? The footage of photo sessions taken at the time apparently include McLaren asking Anabella to pose nude (she declined) and then badgering a different 13 year old girl into stripping nude, during which she is crying. Thankfully, Vermorel realized he had to put a stop to this whole mess, telling New Music Express that while at the beginning, he thought the project would be an edgy alternative to Smash Hits, it turned out to be "a magazine for adults that features kids as objects." In response, McLaren called his estranged friend a closet puritan. The project disappeared after that and the photos went largely unused, aside from a handful that ended up on later Bow Wow Wow releases.
Meanwhile, behind the furore, Bow Wow Wow's second release, 'Your Cassette Pet',an extended cassette EP featuring eight tracks, was now ready for release, in December 1980. But sadly,it continued to exploit the underage-sex angle. Here's the track listing:

A1 Louis Quatorze
A2 Gold He Said
A3 Uomo Sex Al Apache
A4 I Want My Baby On Mars
B1 Sexy Eiffel Towers
B2 Giant Sized Baby Thing
B3 Fools Rush In
B4 Radio G String

The songs, as is apparent even from the titles, are mainly about sex, and it's hard to believe that Mclaren wasn't getting some kind of kick about putting his words in the mouth of a 14 year old girl.The most controversial of the songs at the time was undoubtedly 'Sexy Eiffel Tower'. Apparently, a song about masturbation, this track is infamous for Annabella's extended and overdone heavy-breathing and orgasmic moans throughout. It has to be heard to be believed:

Hmmmm, not much I can add to that really. The other notable song on Cassette Pet is 'Louis Quatorze', in which Mclaren gets Annabella to sing about being seduced (raped?) by Louis XIV, and includes the lines;

"With his gun in my back
I start to undress
You just don't mess
With Louis Quatorze

He's my partner in this crime
of happiness, 'cos I'm just fourteen"

As, indeed, she was. McLaren did like to constantly remind us of this fact, though. Once again, Mclaren is the producer for this record and even his ham-fistedness can't quite destroy the energy and exuberance of the band, who really do create something musically interesting despite the distractions of the Mclaren hype and mayhem. And it did get worse, at one point, McLaren decided that Anabella wasn't fitting in with her older, male bandmates because she was a virgin, and convinced them that one of them needed to deflower her. Apparently, guitarist Matthew Ashman drew the short straw, but, thankfully, failed to complete the task. And, of couse, next, came the 'Le déjeuner sur l'herbe ' cover art fiasco.

During 1981, the band had been recording their first, proper, full-length LP, to be called 'See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah. City All Over! Go Ape Crazy'. McLaren decided that, for the record cover, the band should pose for a photographic recreation of the 1863 Manet painting, “Le déjeuner sur l'herbe” (The Luncheon on the Grass). For those not familiar with this art-work, it depicts a fully naked woman, casually lunching by a riverside with two fully dressed men.The men are dressed like young dandies and seem to be engaged in conversation, ignoring the woman. In front of them, the woman's clothes, a basket of fruit, and a round loaf of bread are displayed, as in a still life. In the background a lightly-clad woman bathes in a stream.

In McLaren's version, the photo featured Annabella, completely naked, surrounded by her clothed bandmates. Since she was only 15 at the time, her mother alleged exploitation of a minor for immoral purposes, and instigated a Scotland Yard investigation. As a result the band was only allowed to leave the UK for a US tour after McLaren promised not to promote Annabella as a 'sex kitten' and included an agreement not use the nude photograph on any of the band's cover art. However, the cover was used as planned in some European countries, such as the Netherlands, though not in the UK or the US. In fact, as I remember from the time, the picture was printed fairly regularly in the UK in both the music and news press. Later, also, the picture was used as the cover of an RCA EP,'Last of the Mohicans', released in the US in 1982. Without intending to provoke or titillate, here it is (below):

As regards not being promoted as a sex kitten, suffice to say that , once she reached 16 years of age, the average Bow Wow Wow cover looked something like this:

The press in the UK made much of the controversy at the time and Annabella was almost made to quit the band such was the backlash. In the end,the UK and US versions of the album cover presented Annabella only slightly covered in a see-through white dress. The album spawned Bow Wow Wow’s first U.K. top 10 hit, the frankly not awfully good, 'Go Wild in the Country'. Thankfully too, McLaren stepped down from the producer's post for this album and instead hired in a host of other producers, which was better if still not doing the band's sound much justice.

It's this album that features my favourite Bow Wow Wow track; Chihuahua. I sometimes feel that I shouldn't really like this, as the lyric shows McLaren at his most vicious, heartless and manipulative. However, I've long been of the opinion that this song is somehow Annabella's moment of triumph. Despite the words Mclaren puts in her mouth, she seems to transcend and transform them through a combination of (by now) knowing cynicism coupled to a stubborn youthful bravado. I first saw the video for this on a Saturday morning kids' TV show back in 1981 and I remember vividly the profound effect it had on me, particularly those shots where we see a close-up of Annabella's facial expression as she sings those vile lyrics. There's something indefinable going on here, a subtlety to her demeanour that suggests that Annabella is rising above the poisonous crap that Mclaren had fashioned into a lyric for her. The song wasn't a hit, and I never saw the video again until it surfaced over 20 years later on Youtube, but the image of her, by turns serene, then defiant, but always perceptive expression as she performs her ugly, yet somehow beautiful, pop hit stayed with me all that time. Here it is below:

Surprisingly, if you search on Google for the lyrics you can't get them, except for a few crazily mangled interpretations containing numerous, often quite funny, errors. So, in a Streetlamp internet exclusive, here for the first time, is the full lyric of the song, which I'm 95% sure is accurate (get in touch if you know better):

I can't dance, and I can't sing, I can't do anything,
I can't even find my way around town,
And I'm 15 and a fool, can't you see?
So don't fall in love with me.

I'm a rock and roll puppet in a band called Bow Wow Wow,
Better off to be a rabbit, at least they have more fun with a gun,
I just go on and on, and on and on and on,
I wasn't supposed to sing that one,
Pop, pop, pop, pop gun!

And the Greeks had a word for it, it went like this,
Chihuahua, Chihuahua, Chihuahua,
Bow wow, wow, wow, wow, Chihuahua,
Everybody try it now, 'cause this fool's always wrong.

I'm unintelligent, and no one can stop it,
So don't think of this fool, this little girl too,
I'm a horrid little idiot, can't you see?
So don't fall in love with me.

My moronic gestures keep on pestering you,
I'm forced to some energy, don't drink to this fool,
Call a doctor, don't be cruel,
Don't you know nothing can stop me drooling over you?

And the Greeks had a word for it,
Chihuahua, Chihuahua, Chihuahua,
Bow wow, wow, wow wow, Chihuahua
Everybody try it now, cos this fool's always wrong, Chihuahua.

The band never bettered this moment and by 1983 it was all over. Here's how Annabella relates it:

”Yeah, tell me about it. I read it in the press! I was kicked out of the band and they never told me. I read it in the NME. We had just done a really long tour around the world and we were about to go to Australia ... and our lead guitarist fell of stage. The next thing I know we were meant to take a month off, but then the three guys went to do a demo for RCA and I was told by the guy - who was kind of managing us at the time – that RCA wanted to sign me as a solo artist. Which I didn’t understand."

And that was it. Annabella stayed in pop music and, older and wiser, never let herself be exploited by the likes of McLaren again. She still makes music now,dancey-funky-poppy stuff, and her website is 'here'. Amazingly, like Honey Bane, who I wrote about 'here', she seems to possess no rancour for those whom she might be expected to, and like Honey, comes across as a remarkably balanced person. I like to think that she took all the shit that was thrown at her, rose above it and gave it all right back when she recorded Chihuahua. Annabella Lwin, The Streetlamp salutes you!

Below is a link to a free MP3 I've made from my own vinyl copy of the song. This version matches the video and is slightly diffferent from all the CD releases now available. It also has a cleaner production than the badly re-mastered CD versions.





Gordon's Addendum:
Furthermore to the sleazy stupidity of McLaren's gross exploitation of young girls comes this gruesomely unhealthy tale of when Bananarama asked McLaren for some career advice at the outset of there career. What did McLaren propose to the three young women stood before him? Why, a song called 'Don't You Touch Me Down There, Daddy!"....a song which manages to encapsulate both taboos of incest and paedophilia!
Here's an excerpt from an online interview in which the girls discuss it:
"There's a rumour that Malcolm McLaren once wrote you a song called Don’t You Touch Me down There Daddy. Is this true and if so, why on earth did you not record it?"
Ben Harris, Watford
"Sarah: Yes it is. We were looking for a manager at the time and we went to him and it was like going to see the headmaster. We all sat in a row like naughty school girls, giggling and not really knowing what to say.
Keren: And I drifted off at one point and he roared at me you, on the end, what did I just say?" I was petrified.
Sarah: And he was like, "Listen, do you wanna be Bucks Fizz or The Slits?" He told us he had a song called Don’t You Touch Me Down There Daddy and we were like, er, we don't really wanna sing that.
Keren: We weren't really sexual by then, we looked like little boys, still wearing little monkey boots, and we hadn't really grown up. The thought of singing something like that horrified us.
Sarah: Whereas now, it'd be like the most natural thing in the world... [laughs]

And here is Siobhan discussing the same thing on video:

Unhealthiness abounds!!


  1. Please tell, from where you took this information:

    "And it did get worse, at one point, McLaren decided that Anabella wasn't fitting in with her older, male bandmates because she was a virgin, and convinced them that one of them needed to deflower her. Apparently, guitarist Matthew Ashman drew the short straw, but, thankfully, failed to complete the task."

  2. This is something which has been in the public domain for a very long time. I seem to recall first reading it in one of the weekly music inkies (NME, Sounds) back in the early 1980s. It has since been confirmed and published in Simon Reynold's excellent and definitive book on post-punk music 'Rip it Up and Start Again'. Specifically you will find reference to it in Chapter 16, titled 'Sex Gang Children: Malcolm McLaren, the Pied Piper of Pantomime Pop.

    1. Unfortunately, on the Internet this remarkable book is submitted by fragments. And to order from America I yet have no opportunity. In one of such fragments the paragraph comes to an end on – "With Reluctantly, the band drew lots, and guitarist Matthew Ashman was dispatched to perform the task. He failed". Unfortunately further several pages aren't present. There something else is about it written?
      (Excuse me for my broken English. I from Russia)

    2. The paragraph you included above is the end of the author's comments on this particular episode. The chapter does continue but focuses on different topics.

    3. I also often met mentions that Annabella and Matthew were lovers. And when they left – guys expelled Annabella from group.

  3. So why guys expelled Annabella from group?

    1. I genuinely don't know. The band were no longer a commercial entity, so,the likely reason is that the label, management etc decided to shake things up a bit and see if they could make money from Annabella as a solo act while the boys, who were genuinely good musicians, would get the chance to see if they could come up with a new marketable music style. That's the music industry for you.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. But from this too that good didn't leave. Perhaps, only Gorman had the most successful career in quality of the producer. I read one interview of McLaren. He claims that the third album was necessary for group what completely to reveal. But they went the ways.

  4. Probably you know the answer - what relations were inside to group?

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