Annabella Lwin and the History of Bow Wow Wow

Annabella Lwin and the History of Bow Wow Wow

Puppet master Malcolm McLaren plucked teenage ingénue Annabella Lwin from obscurity to be the face and voice of his post-Sex Pistols sound. Never mind that he nicked it from someone else

Puppet master Malcolm McLaren plucked teenage ingénue Annabella Lwin from obscurity to be the face and voice of his post-Sex Pistols sound. Never mind that he nicked it from someone else

Text: Joshua Lyon

Few music or fashion fans would question the genius of the late, great producer and manager Malcolm McLaren. As if giving us the Sex Pistols wasn’t enough, he also helped promote the New York Dolls, Adam and the Ants, and Vivienne Westwood in their punk infancies. “He had a gift of seeing something in someone they didn’t even know they were capable of,” says Annabella Lwin, the singer from Bow Wow Wow, a band of his creation. Like any proper Svengali, though, McLaren was also an expert at spinning a story to build on his own legend.

Take his popularization of Burundi beat—a controversial cultural appropriation used by a few of his bands during the early ’80s, characterized by East African-inspired drumming. He once boasted to the Washington Post that he invented the genre after the Sex Pistols broke up and he’d decamped to France to create scores for soft-core porn. The tale he wove involved accidentally playing a record of some tribal drums on high speed and becoming transfixed by the potential. “It was so powerful,” he told the reporter.

The truth, a little less so. Yes, he split for Paris in the late ’70s to create soundtracks for blue films, but according to biographer Ian Macleay, McLaren was combing through stacks of records in search of classical music with expired copyrights to use when he stumbled across a track from 1971 called “Burundi Black.” A composer operating under the alias Mike Steïphenson layered guitars and keyboards over a sample of 25 drums played by citizens of Burundi, originally recorded by French anthropologists exploring the country during the late ’60s. McLaren may very well have played the record on high speed, but combining modern instruments with these drums predated him by almost a decade.

Not long after that first listen, McLaren moved back to London when an up-and-comer named Adam Ant hired him to be his manager. McLaren promptly stole Ant’s band out from under him, dubbed them Bow Wow Wow, and began searching for a female singer to lead them in a project based on the Steïphenson record. (He still left his mark on Ant, though: he gifted the singer a copy of “Burundi Black” for inspiration and told him, “Be a pirate...plunder the world’s music.” Ant at least took the pirate advice sartorially.)

McLaren’s vision for his post-Pistols band was twofold—in addition to a distinct female voice that would usher in his newfound sound, he wanted a dancing mannequin to model then girlfriend Vivienne Westwood’s clothing line. In a move straight out of the Lana Turner playbook, one of his associates overheard a beautiful young girl behind the counter of a dry cleaners in West Hampstead singing along to Stevie Wonder on the radio. When asked by the grown man if she wanted to audition for a band, 13-year-old Annabella Lwin was appropriately wary. She declined, but curiosity got the better of her. After arriving at the band’s rehearsal space with a friend in tow in case things got weird, McLaren immediately knew that Lwin was the one he’d been looking for. Her racial ambiguity helped (she’s half Burmese), but it was her extreme youth that sealed the deal. As he told NME, “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 have the ability not to give a

damn. They believe themselves to be intelligent and they have a confidence about themselves.”

As sinister as that quote becomes when applied to thrusting a child into the limelight, McLaren was definitely right about Lwin’s confidence levels being of major benefit. It got her through trials that would break most young teens. After he convinced Lwin’s mother to let her join the band, they played their first show at the Starlight Roller Disco in Hammersmith, and the crowd of hardcore Sex Pistols fans didn’t take kindly to the new music. “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.”

Phlegmy receptions weren’t the band’s only growing pains. “I wasn’t a professional singer,” she says. “I just loved singing. I didn’t know what was right and what was wrong. Nobody told me, so I had to think on my feet.” The band kicked her out several times during their first six months together, she says, but McLaren kept bringing her back, telling them, “This is the girl you need to stick with.”

After signing with EMI, the label yanked the band’s first single, “C•30 C•60 C•90 Go!,” from airwaves and refused to promote it when they realized the joyful, foot-stomping track was an ode to illegally recorded music. (Fun fact: the song came out on the world’s first cassingle.) A full album, released only on tape, drew lackluster results before they switched to RCA in 1981. A second record with the tongue-mangling title See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah, City All Over! Go Ape Crazy! gained immediate notoriety thanks to its cover, a photographic take on Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, featuring a nude 14-year-old Lwin. “It was always a bit scary [after that],” she says. “When they’d say, ‘Photo shoot,’ I’d say, ‘Oh no.’ I never knew what to expect.” Furious about the image, Lwin’s mother convinced Scotland Yard to investigate the picture as child pornography, but the case went nowhere and only garnered more free publicity for the band. Despite the creepy undertones, the music was legitimately great. While McLaren wrote all of the lyrics and pushed his Burundi beat angle, Bow Wow Wow had incorporated the frenetic drumming into their own pastiche of post-punk rock and Brazilian pop, earning them their first UK top 10 hit, “Go Wild in the Country.”

A follow-up album of remixes included the single “I Want Candy,” which became a minor sensation in the U.S. and pumped up an already grueling tour schedule that forced Lwin to drop out of school. “It seemed we never stopped,” she recalls. On top of that, Lwin was the only girl, surrounded by men. “It started to get a little out of control. A lot of people were very condescending towards me. I wasn’t an adult and I didn’t have a chaperone or security.”

Lwin’s situation could have gone horribly wrong in so many different ways, but thankfully it never did, which she attributes to being born into Buddhism. “I was protected all along, but I wasn’t aware of it. It wasn’t until I started practicing that I actually realized that.” Her latent spirituality did nothing for her continued feelings of alienation, though. “I was a teenager without friends, without people I trusted. Even though I was in the band, I was not treated like a band member.” Proof can be found on YouTube, in a video of a 1982 live performance in Liverpool’s Sefton Park. They sound tight and Lwin is full of energy, hopping up and down like, well, a teenager. But keep watching and an unnerving distinction emerges—there is no interaction between her and the guys. The longer the show goes on, the eerier the vacuum becomes. Even most solo acts have at least some onstage rapport with their tour band.

McLaren eventually grew bored with his pet project and deserted them to work on his own material. “Malcolm would create something, build it up, then knock it down,” Lwin says. “He was like a little boy in a lot of ways.” Bow Wow Wow released one more album, aptly titled When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going, with lyrics written by Lwin herself. Despite positive reviews, it didn’t gel with fans and the band fired her before forming a new group. The experiment had lasted only three years, but even with the negative aspects, Lwin has no regrets. “I was a country girl at heart,” she says. “I didn’t know I would end up with a mohawk and go through what I can only [now] categorize as crazy adventures.” She and bassist Leigh Gorman reunited for a tour in 1997 and continued to perform at various one-off concerts until 2012, when Gorman split, took the Bow Wow Wow name with him, and hired a new singer. Lwin was rightly upset, but refused to let the betrayal get her down. She countered his stab in the back by continuing to perform as Annabella “The Original” Bow Wow Wow. “Early on in my career, Malcolm told me, ‘You’ve got to jump in the deep end and sink or swim,’” she says. “And I’m still here.”

This story appears in V103, on stands now. Click here to order the issue. 

UP NEXT

The Weekend In Instagrams With Taylor Hill, Rihanna, and More