Celebrating the sounds and styles some would rather forget

‘Mad World’ is a giddy romp through ’80s New Wave

April 17, 2014

Long before rock-critic geeks engaged in tiresome debates about “popism vs. rockism,” an argument recently reprised as the avocation of a more “poptimistic” point of view, the ’80s presented a troubling dilemma for serious young music fans and aspiring scribes.

On the one hand was the blatantly commercialized co-optation of the sounds and energy of punk rock as the endlessly more marketable New Wave, first by the major labels, and then by the nascent MTV. On the flip side was a noble, communal, and anti-commercial indie underground that forwarded the explosion of punk into a true alternative lifestyle. (Popist or rockist? Choose a side and fight to the death!)

The latter sounds got their epic celebration in print back in 2001 via Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991. In terms of sonic and visual aesthetics, lyrical obsessions, and chart success, the 13 groups Azerrad championed—Big Black, Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, and Mission of Burma among them—could not have been in a more radically different universe than bands such as the Human League, Berlin, Dexys Midnight Runners, Bow Wow Wow, and Soft Cell.

But you know what? Many of us who were there were scoffing up and enjoying records from both camps at the same time. And now, without ever resorting to the words “guilty pleasures,” we have the worthy tome making the case for the other side: Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs that Defined the 1980s (Abrams Image).

A long-percolating labor of love from the Weehawken, N.J. native Lori Majewski, the founding editor of Teen People and a veteran of Entertainment Weekly, and the British-born, now-L.A.-based Jonathan Bernstein, whose previous credits include Pretty in Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies, Mad World makes a case for three dozen once wildly popular, now often-mocked bands from the New Wave/New Romantic era, presenting 36 songs that stand the test of time, along with their own thoughts on these tunes and acts; brief oral histories from the key players themselves, and assorted quick-hit sidebars and lists, all unfurling in a giddy, sugar-fueled rush like rapid-fire channel surfing while downing a bottle of Jolt.

You’d expect a certain amount of sublime silliness, given the times, and the book obliges. Here’s Mike Score, vocalist for A Flock of Seagulls, on achieving his absurd bird-wings coiffe: “A can of Aquanet every night. Once it was up and we had gigs, it never came down.” But the book also includes a lot of honest and poignant commentary—almost every one of these bands was chewed up and ruthlessly spit out by a corporate music machine that now is nearing extinction—and even some timeless insights.

“Looking back to the ’80s, there was so much more room for diversity,” says Alison Moyet of Yaz. “A freak was more celebrated than it is now. [And] there was less sexism, bizarrely, in the creative arena.” (To say nothing of less homophobia and much more eyeliner, hairspray, and truly distinctive sounding synthesizers.)

One could quibble with a few of the acts included—neither Devo nor Joy Division ever really fit the mold of most of the other bands in these pages—and there is one unforgiveable omission. (How could they have left out Culture Club and “Karma Chameleon!?”) But the authors declare their intentions right up front, after the foreword from Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes but long before the afterword by Moby.

 “Here’s what this book isn’t: a definitive oral history of the new wave era deserving of its own floor in the Smithsonian,” Majewski and Bernstein write. “Here’s what it is: a random sampling of the decade, a bunch of snapshots summing up songs and artists embedded in our hearts.”

As such, it also is a great success and a whole helluva lot of fun.

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