This is a story about how an opportunist stole a band and an already stolen beat from a man he didn’t believe in.
It starts with Malcolm McLaren, co-owner of SEX, a trendy clothing boutique in London. Malcolm begins managing a customer’s band, renaming them to the Sex Pistols, recasting their singer, and cobbles together an edgy, attention-grabbing marketing strategy for the group.
In 1975, The Sex Pistols played their first show opening up for a pub rock band called Bazooka Joe. Stuart Goddard, the bassist of Bazooka Joe, was floored. He immediately left Bazooka Joe after this show to form his own punk group. The group he formed was Adam and the Ants, and from then on, Stuart was known as Adam Ant.
The Ants gained a cult following in the underground clubs of London, but struggled to make a fair wage out of it. Much of their material was shock value, visceral S&M-tinged lyrics and dressings. By 1979, the Sex Pistols had imploded, leaving McLaren to his own devices. Adam began speaking to Malcolm, impressed by his work with the Sex Pistols and eventually brought him on to manage Adam and the Ants.
“[Malcolm] said to me — do you want to do underground records, or do you want to be on everybody’s corn flakes packet? And I said, of course I want to be as accessible as possible, I want to be everywhere. I want to live in a fish bowl. So he said [I’m] going the wrong way about it.”
Malcolm McLaren had a penchant for reinvention and a tendency to meddle. As part of his proposed strategy for the Ants, he made Adam a 17 track mix tape — songs from which he hoped the band would draw inspiration.
“[Malcolm] gave me an education. He told me about the construction of pop music, and he gave me a tape, which I’ve still got. I used to make notes with him — he’d throw five thousand ideas at you, and you’d catch three of them; but those three could change history. I took them.”
The final track was a tune called “Burundi Black” — a remixed track by British pop musician Mike Steiphenson, who had grafted an unremarkable arrangement of keyboards and guitars onto an east African field recording.
Beneath these layers was the original recording known as the “Burundi Beat” — a performance by 25 drummers in a commune called Bukirasazi, recorded in 1967 by French anthropologists and released on a compilation of Burundi music the following year.
The slippery slope of appropriation makes this moment in music history dubious in nature. Particularly when Mike Steiphenson, the British remixer of ’71, holds all copyright to the aforementioned track, and the original performers of Bukirasazi never saw any of the royalties from Mike’s 125,000 copies sold, nor any profits shared from the stylistic descendants of the remixed track.
That’s not to say that Bukirasazi drummers were some sort of remote, isolated tribal group, removed from the music industry. The group toured the world as the Royal Drummers of Burundi, and made a living doing so.
Their connection with the New Wave drumming trend brought on a surge of festival invitations worldwide. Peter Gabriel and Thomas Brooman have credited the group as the key inspiration for organizing the WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) festival, which has provided tremendous exposure to artists around the world.
At the end of the eighties, the Royal Drummers of Burundi were one of the most popular traditional African groups in the world. They even performed with various punk and new wave bands, such as Echo and the Bunnymen:
Adam and the Ants were instantly transfixed by the Burundi Beat, and crafted their new sound around the heavy rolling low-tom adaptation led by two drummers, standing upright with full kits. Leigh Gorman, bassist of the Ants, recalls:
“We were given a tape of about fifteen different songs — from Gary Glitter to Hare Krishna, Turkish music, Hank Williams, Burundi drums, everything — and we had to do our own versions of them.
“Well, we did it, and we did it really badly. We just did it like punk rock and it turned out shit. He wanted to sack us. He said, ‘You’re shit, get out of my sight.’ He was terrible. And we just said, sorry, let’s have another go at it. So we had another go with the Burundi Black song and we figured out something. He said, ‘Hmmmm, you do that one best,’ so we concentrated on that and built up on it.”
On McLaren’s recommendation, the Ants swapped their black-and-white, punk-meets-S&M leatherbound look for a makeup-clad swashbuckler aesthetic, sprinkled with touches of controversial Native American imagery. The pop packaging of the band was starting to solidify; right then, a wrench was thrown into the plan.
McLaren loved the band, but didn’t see Adam as the right face for the project. He convinced the rest of the band to leave Adam and form a new project without him.
“He organized a mutiny, basically. He said the right things to them and they went for it. And you know, they were my mates.”
In the next six months, McLaren searched for the singer of his new band. Adam had two options: either reform the band with all new members, or quit. So began the race to the radio, both bands determined to debut the new Burundi-based sound to the public first.
McLaren found Annabella Lwin, a thirteen-year-old Anglo-Burmese schoolgirl working weekends in a laundromat. Malcolm convinced her to leave school and become the singer of his new band, Bow Wow Wow.
“Any kid of 18 I met was so self-conscious they could not relax and be themselves. That was what was so great about Annabella, she had the confidence to be herself. I think that age group had the ability not to give a damn.”
It’s worth noting that one of Malcolm’s initial reasons for forming this new band was to dress them up in his then-girlfriend Vivienne Westwood’s latest clothing line, effectively operating as a singing, dancing, touring group of promotional mannequins.
Bow Wow Wow began testing the waters with small gigs at bars and roller rinks. The reaction was less than positive.
“I was like, ‘Why are they spitting at me?’” Lwin recalls. “It wasn’t like one or two specks. It was a ton of gob coming at me on stage.”
In fact, the band attempted to kick Annabella out several times during the first six months. Malcolm wouldn’t allow it.
Meanwhile, Adam had paired up with Marco Pirroni, veteran guitarist of Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the two rushed to complete the new lineup of the Ants. Luckily, Adam had found a natural collaborative partner in Marco — the missing piece to the puzzle of the Ants.
The two wrote their new single, ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’ and hurried off to the studio to record the song for a 7" release on CBS Records. Adam was determined to win.
“I had my eye on them. We had to blow them out of the water, and I think we did.”
Bow Wow Wow‘s Burundi Beat debut reached stores first; “C·30 C·60 C·90 Go!” featured McLaren-penned lyrics, predictably prodding and provocative, encouraging the youth of the world to record songs off the radio onto cassette — one of the first major methods of music piracy. “C·30 C·60 C·90 Go!” was the world’s first cassette single, or cassingle — and Malcolm managed to leave side B blank as a coy invitation to the wonderful world of piracy. As you could have guessed, EMI was not a fan of this gimmick, and refused to promote the cassingle.
“C·30 C·60 C·90 Go!” had beaten “Kings of the Wild Frontier” to the shelves, and sold more copies in its initial run. Several months later, the Ants’ second single, Dog Eat Dog, effectively exploded — it earned them a performance on Top of the Pops, which skyrocketed the song into their first top ten hit. Leigh Gorman, Bow Wow Wow bassist, remembers the aftermath:
“We went over to EMI and trashed the place. I think we threw Cliff Richard [gold] records out the window. Malcolm was trying to create a stunt like the Pistols. It completely backfired: They didn’t promote the single. And Adam comes along with his image, his better sounding production, and his more innocuous lyrical subject, goes on Top of the Pops, and everyone goes nuts.”
The Ants released their full album the following month, which reached number one on the UK album charts in January of 1981. The pairing of Adam and Marco turned out to be the fuel for the group’s most successful and prolific years. Adam crafted the visuals and the personality of the band, but he needed musical depth as the backbone of the project. Marco was happy to take a backseat to focus on melody and structure.
“I didn’t see them as rivals as much as Adam did, because he obviously had personal issues. It did turn into a bit of a race. Until we actually heard them. Once our album was number one, Adam wasn’t feeling any need for revenge.”
Bow Wow Wow began to experiment with genre fusion, inserting elements of Brazilian pop, Nigerian high life guitar, and Latin rhythms. However, McLaren was still at the helm of the project and the members were subject to his short-term, attention-grabbing impulses. To him, the band was nothing more than a cheeky marketing project.
“I decided to use people, just the way a sculptor uses clay.”
Fourteen-year-old Annabella was often at the crux of his schemes, having to sing Malcolm’s lyrics in songs such as “Aphrodisiac” and “Sexy Eiffel Tower.” Even their biggest hit, a cover of The Strangelove’s 1965 bubblegum hit “I Want Candy,” was selected for its obvious sexual connotations. The music video features Annabella getting soaked at the beach and licking an ice cream cone in slow motion.
McLaren’s objectification of Lwin peaked with the cover image for their EP “The Last of the Mohicans,” depicting a recreation of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe with fifteen-year-old nude Annabella surrounded by her fully clothed bandmates. Lwin’s mother instigated a Scotland Yard investigation of McLaren for exploitation of a minor. McLaren was forced to promise to stop promoting Annabella as a “sex kitten” and the band was limited to traveling within the UK for the foreseeable future.
“The rest of the group were all in their 20s. I didn’t really have any chemistry with them. I didn’t spend a lot of time with them. I got on stage, and whatever happened, happened. In those days, I didn’t speak very much because I was told not to. I didn’t really enjoy the experience with the guys in the band, let’s put it that way.”
Adam Ant went solo in 1982, and a year later Bow Wow Wow kicked Annabella Lwin out at 17, attempting to continue onward without her. This didn’t last, and the group broke up shortly after. Adam started his solo career strong with the release of “Goody Two Shoes,” continuing his songwriting partnership with Marco Pirroni. The song was a hit, and kicked off the solo effort on a strong foot.
The disbanding of Bow Wow Wow would be McLaren’s final moment in band management, and he went on to pursue a solo music career himself.
Everyone went their separate ways, and Malcolm continued his ongoing reach for relevance and shock. The entire incident shines a light on the prevailing themes of the America 1980s: culture is up for grabs, theft is subjective, people are clay and commerce is king.