Bow Wow Wow’s history may be short, but it’s complex. Over their four-album life span, Bow Wow Wow’s music ranged from simple, goofy, non-sensical tunes to complex, crisp pop masterpieces. Bow Wow Wow’s music has been described as a pastiche of Latin and African beats, 50s rock ‘n’ roll and spaghetti western soundtracks. The band packaged all of this together with an incredible sense of humor and vigor.
Despite the numerous people who shaped their sound from 1980-1983, a strong Bow Wow Wow identity remained intact. That unique style created a wonderful antithesis to the gloom of the London and U.S. music scene in the early ’80s. Unemployment and inflation were at record highs in both countries.
The band was formed in 1980 by Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, who recruited disgruntled Adam and the Ants backup musicians Matthew Ashman (guitar), Leigh Gorman (bass), and David Barbarossa (drums). Legend has it that McLaren discovered the 14-year-old Myant Myant Aye (Burmese for “cool, cool, high”) singing in a north London dry cleaners. McLaren changed her name to Annabella Lwin for English-speaking palates. Lwin was born in Rangoon, Burma and had migrated to England.
With Annabella’s voice, smarts and charm, she fit McLaren’s vision of a musical experience that would be part high camp and high concept, with a huge dose of adolescent sex and innocence. The group christened themselves Bow Wow Wow. According to most accounts the name means nothing; when asked about the group’s name bassist Gorman said, “a dog came up and said it to me one day.”
In 1980 and ’81, Bow Wow Wow released a series of cassette singles and EPs on EMI, which were available only in the U.K. The band began to build a following by playing small gigs around London. One camp follower, then known as Lieutenant Lush, was invited to co-front the group with Lwin, but after he was booed off the stage at a 1981 gig he was dropped from the lineup. Lieutenant Lush later changed his name to Boy George and hit it huge with the band Culture Club.
That same year McLaren, unhappy with the band’s limited success on EMI, took the gang (now sporting Mohawks) over to RCA. Their first full-length album had possibly one of the most bizarre titles ever to grace an album cover, See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah! City All Over, Go Ape Crazy. The controversial U.K. album cover featured a tastefully posed nude 15-year-old Lwin. See Jungle!… spawned the band’s first U.K. Top 10 hit, “Go Wild in the Country,” however, in the United States, the group remained relatively unknown.
In 1982 Bow Wow Wow’s breakthrough album, The Last of the Mohicans produced their signature hit “I Want Candy.” The single made the charts in both the U.K. and the U.S. thanks to its sexually suggestive “beach party” video, which was played incessantly on the then pioneer music station MTV. Today, the single has become a new wave icon, appearing on numerous ’80s compilations.
In 1983, after releasing two more albums — trying a variety of different sounds and producers — the band decided to call it quits.
In 1998, 15 years after their breakup, the band re-formed with Lwin, original bassist Gorman and new members Eshan Khadaroo (drums) and Dave Calhoun (guitars) for a 13-date reunion tour.