“It was an unusual time in music when the-powers-that-be were very hands-off. They left the art to the artists.”
Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s, by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein. Abrams Image, 319 pages, $19.95.
By Blake Maddux
It would have been difficult to find more qualified writers to pen a history of new wave music than Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein, so we should be thankful that they accepted their pop culture destiny.
Majewski—a former executive editor of Entertainment Weekly and Us Weekly—was a co-founder of Teen People and once ran her own Duran Duran fanzine. Bernstein—a Glaswegian-turned-Angeleno—is a screenwriter, a regular contributor to the Guardian, and the author of the book Pretty in Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies.
The final product of their efforts is 36 chapters sandwiched between a foreword by Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran and an afterword by Moby.
Majewski describes new wave as a delectable amalgamation of “the glamour of Roxy Music, the avant-garde of David Bowie, the funk of Chic and Nile Rodgers, and the DIY spirit of punk.” (One might add to that the repetitive electronic droning of Kraftwerk.)
Having grown up diurnally watching the videos to most of the songs included in Mad World, I found the book to be delightful and insightful.
Majewski spoke with The Arts Fuse via Skype from her home in Weehawken, New Jersey.
Arts Fuse: What inspired you and Jonathan Bernstein to undertake such an ambitious project?
Lori Majewski: We were inspired to do the book by reading a very short interview with Gary Kemp from Spandau Ballet about “True.” As we read this interview, we realized, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize he was quoting Lolita when he says ‘Take your seaside arms and write the next line’.”
We read this interview and thought, “Wow, what if we could do that for all of our favorite songs?”
Arts Fuse: Of all the songs that you had to choose from for the book title, how did you settle on the song by Tears for Fears?
Majewski: There were a couple that we had thought about previously. One was “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” [by Simple Minds] and we were like, “No, that doesn’t fit because the whole point if the book is we haven’t forgotten about these songs.”
The second one was [Depeche Mode’s] “Just Can’t Get Enough” because we truly just can’t get enough of these songs, but it turned out that there were a million books with that title.
So we sat around and a lot of chin-stroking ensued. Our editor said, “Well what about Mad World?” And we were like, “How did we not think of this?” It really fit because it was such a bizarre time in music.
It was almost like the heads of record labels were sleeping. No one bothered these people. No one went into the studio and said, “Adam Ant, what are you doing with two drums? And you can’t have a stripe on your face! And forget about singing about the plight of the Native American Indian, Adam. You can’t do that!” So it was an unusual time in music when the-powers-that-be were very hands-off. They left the art to the artists.
Arts Fuse: Surely everyone who even flips through this book wonders why certain songs are not in it. Are there any that you wish would have made the final cut?
Majewski: If they would have allowed us to do a 1,000-page book, I would have kept on going. Our editors and our publisher decreed that there was only a certain amount of room for a certain amount of stuff. They added 50 pages, by the way. That never happens in publishing. They were like, “Whoa, you have so much stuff.”
We do hope that maybe there’s going to be a follow-up, because yes, I really would like to see in another book Siouxsie & the Banshees and how that gave way to The Cure. So many songs, so many bands: ‘Til Tuesday and Aimee Mann, Boy George and Culture Club. There’s a lot of stories that we still have yet to tell, but whoever thought that we were going to give 16 pages to Kajagoogoo? [For the record, the chapter on Kajagoogoo is 10 pages long.]
Arts Fuse: Was there anyone whom you were not able to interview whom you would have liked to?
Majewski: I really would have liked to have had Phil Oakey telling the story of Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me.” I think he’s kind of reclusive. That one was like, “Oh, an arrow to the chest!”
But because we don’t, we have Human League’s “Being Boiled” and we have “Warm Leatherette” by The Normal. And those were two formative new wave songs. You can argue that a lot of songs that came afterward – Gary Numan’s “Cars,” Depeche Mode – might not have existed if not for “Warm Leatherette” and “Being Boiled.”
Arts Fuse: Do you believe that the new wave genre has been unfairly maligned?
Majewski: New wave music has been overlooked and it actually belongs up there with classic rock [and] with punk. Punk is so revered, and a lot less thought went into that music than into new wave songs. It’s because of the accompanying videos that people have given new wave short shrift. But the truth is, these songs—Echo &The Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” and Tears for Fears, whether it’s “Mad World” or “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” or Simple Minds’s “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”—these are the new classics. You can’t go a week without hearing these songs. And there’s a reason. It has nothing to do with the videos.
Arts Fuse: Would you dispute Echo & The Bunnymen lead singer Ian McCulloch’s claim that “The Killing Moon” is the greatest song ever written?
Majewski: What “The Killing Moon” has in spades is this insatiable longing. It’s almost unrequited love, it’s this ineffable feeling. Not only does “The Killing Moon” have that, I think so many of the songs from new wave have it. These songs make you work for it. They’re poetry. They’re not just “I’m a Firework.” They’re not just “Be My Baby.”
I wouldn’t argue with Ian McCulloch because I would lose. He is one of the most quick-witted human beings that we’ve ever talked to. Scary and brilliant. He claims, I don’t know if he was joking, that divine intervention is kind of how that song came about.
Arts Fuse: If there is one song that I feel is missing from Mad World, it is “More Than This” by Roxy Music. Why is there nothing in the book by the band that practically invented the ’80s?
Majewski: I’m a huge fan of Roxy Music. The difference is that Roxy is a parent figure to new wave: Roxy, [David] Bowie, Queen, punk. So I don’t consider [Roxy Music lead singer] Bryan Ferry a contemporary of these bands. Like Nile Rodgers [of Chic], he is a parent figure. It’s from his rib that new wave sprung.
A lot of the bands in this book would not exist if not for Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry, certainly Duran Duran [and] Spandau Ballet. What these bands did so well is that they weren’t the same from record to record. Roxy Music in its earliest days, they were weird! They became in their latter years the balladeering [1982 album] Avalon band. Spandau started as a new romantic band, and then on their next record they threw that formula out the window and they became a funk band. And then they threw that out the window. The difference between Duran Duran’s first record and their second record is mind-blowing.
And that’s another hallmark of new wave, and something that they learned from Bowie and Roxy: don’t ever sit on your laurels. They weren’t afraid to fail. They weren’t afraid to do something different.
Arts Fuse: Are you excited about the Retro Futura tour?
Majewski: Is this the one that’s coming with Howard Jones? So excited for this. Dying, dying for that. And Tom Bailey from the Thompson Twins.
That was a very contentious thing for Jonathan and I. Jonathan could not understand why I wanted Howard Jones in this book. From the early feedback that we were getting—from friends, from reviewers—people loved that Howard Jones chapter. He’s the Anthony Robbins of new wave. He is so inspiring. His lyrics are like life lessons. [The Retro Futura tour is coming to Wilbur Theatre in Boston on August 24.]
Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to DigBoston and The Somerville Times. He recently received a master’s degree from Harvard Extension School, which awarded him the Dean’s Thesis Prize in Journalism. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts. He will be teaching a class during the spring term on the First Amendment in American History at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education in Cambridge, MA.