Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists That Defined the 1980s – A Review

Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists That Defined the 1980s
Lori Majewski , Jonathan Bernstein
Abrams Image, pg 320, 2014

I came across the book while listening to my favorite music show, Sound Opinions (link to episode). I have long been a fan of some of the bands covered in the book, The Smiths, Echo and the Bunny Men, Joy Division, New Order. And in many cases if I didn’t know the band’s music, I knew their name. With the exception of The Smiths, I’ve never read much about the lives and times of these bands, who have always seemed so different from what came before that I had the impression they just came out of nowhere. In reading the book I have a new appreciation of many of these artists (and the converse for bands I’ve never liked: Kajagoogoo). While the book, if you are of a certain age, will probably fill you with nostalgia, there is more here.

The book is a series of 36 interviews with New Wave bands, many of them considered one hit wonders. Each interview focuses of a particular song. For most of the bands, it is their big hit. In the case of bands with long careers, such as Duran Duran, it is about their first big hit. Along with the interview, comes a brief analysis of the song that is part of the interview. That approach makes for some surprising conversations. Sure there are the musicians who are too full of themselves, such as the singer from Flock of Seagulls, a completely deluded man if there ever was one. In general, though, the musicians are thoughtful and quite reflective. The Tears for Fears interview is a standout, especially as they talk about their early career before Songs from the Big Chair. After reading the interview I got a copy of The Hurting, the first album, and was quite impressed with its darkness, something called out in the interview. I think it is actually a better album than Songs, in part because it is closer to the experimental nature of New Wave and avoids some of the pomposity of mid eighties post wave.

The Soft Cell interview was another standout, too. I have a new appreciation for their music which is as the title of the first album says, is cabaret music. What comes out, too, in the Soft Cell interview is what late 70s England was like and how that influenced the band (and several others). That period of time was of economic decay and political unrest and many of these bands were living hand to mouth in squats or bedsits (studios) and often stealing to survive. It is partly what makes many of the bands so dark. Obviously, punk demonstrated that, but after that scene died it showed up in many of the bands.

Of course, not all the New Wave bands were dark. We have Duran Duran and ABC as prime examples. I was never a big fan of these bands but to hear them describe their influences. Nile Rodgers and Chic came up over and over. When you listen to the funky base lines in Girls on Film or Poison Arrow it is obvious, but it had never occurred to me. Kraftwerk is a perennial name for the electronic bands. The members of OMD mention that they were almost copying the band and when they mentioned it to Kraftwerk they said they knew. It was fascinating how many had similar influences, and that the influences were more mainstream that you might think.

Yes, Mad World will feel nostalgic, but if you read it with youtube at your side you’ll come to a new appreciation for songs you may have heard hundreds of times. And having the context that comes in the interviews will make many of the songs more powerful than they first seemed. (Although, nothing is going to make Animotion, A-ha, or the Thompson Twins better)

A few of my favorite discoveries (many more are at the book’s website):

Warm Leatherette – The Normal

Sex Dwarf – Soft Cell

Poison Arrow – ABC

Mad World – Tears for Fears

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