Annabella Lwin Interview: ‘Being in Bow Wow Wow was like jumping on a trampoline…’
Forget The Sex Pistols, Bow Wow Wow might be the most daring band Malcolm McLaren ever created. In an industry rife with exploitation, schoolgirl Annabella Lwin’s ability to keep singing and keep sane was an even bigger accomplishment. Annabella recalls the bullying, lack of respect and her ultimate triumph as she explains how she’s managed to thrive despite a lack of support…
Malcolm McLaren shared his words of wisdom when I joined the band. He said to me: ‘You have to learn to sink or swim.’ And I’m still swimming.” Annabella Lwin may have needed to grab onto the sides of the pool occasionally, but she’s right – nearly 40 years after Bow Wow Wow’s debut single C30 C60 C90 Go!, Annabella is swimming more gracefully than ever. Her story of being exploited and screwed over is eye-watering, even by the standards of the music industry. But she’s got an idyllic life in Los Angeles, about to release new music and is still performing – she seems content.
Skyping Classic Pop from her home after feeding her two cats, Annabella looks great at 53, despite claiming “I’m a weird, piratical lady” of a bandana tied around her short dark hair. “I haven’t had any cosmetic work done yet,” she volunteers. “Since I turned 50, I think, ‘Goodness me, everyone else is having all these operations!’, but I don’t believe in having needles in my face and blowing it up for five seconds, just so I can go all smooth. What do you think? Am I bearing up OK?” Annabella Lwin is doing brilliantly, especially considering everything she’s been through.
A vegan and vocal supporter of animal rights, Annabella’s other public cause is anti-bullying campaign Be Kind. She was just 13 when Bow Wow Wow exploded in a whirlwind of controversy. Malcolm McLaren was a genius in some respects, but he perhaps wasn’t the most organised person to ensure the well-being of a schoolgirl in the spotlight, especially when mental health was less of a priority. “I definitely experienced bullying, both personally and professionally,” says Annabella. “It was in undercurrents, really, a lack of respect from how people treated me, as a teenager and as a female. Put it this way, it was obvious there was a difference between how men and women were treated in the music business. I never want to go through bullying again – and I never want anyone else to, either.”
Annabella was born in Burma; she prefers the country’s old name to Myanmar, which she associates with its military regime. Her family soon moved to Dartmoor, before Annabella went with her mother and three brothers to London when her parents split. She got a Saturday job at a dry cleaners, where she was spotted at 13 by Malcolm’s talent scout Dave Fishel singing along to ABBA on the radio. “My mother was a nurse and couldn’t afford to give us pocket money,” Annabella recalls. “I wanted to work so that I could afford make-up and scarves.”
Casually admitting “I assumed he wanted to pick us up” of Dave’s invitation to try out for Bow Wow Wow, there was thankfully no suggestion of sexual advances from him or Malcolm, though Annabella admits: “My first impressions of Malcolm were his orange hairdo, his pinstripe suit, his very posh voice and the way he used to stare at you. As a young girl, I never knew why that stare made me think, ‘Is there something wrong with me?’, but Malcolm stared that intensely at everyone. He was a very unusual character, very dysfunctional in how he worked, but brilliant. He was a genius.”
Successfully auditioning with I Will Survive (“Malcolm told me, ‘Isn’t that a bit old for you to sing?’ and I just said, ‘But I really like it!’”), Annabella soon saw just how dysfunctional Bow Wow Wow were. “I had a lot of tests and challenges and it was all a bit weird,” says Annabella, with some understatement. “I was still at school, going in and out of the studio for what seemed like the longest time. They tried to get rid of me three or four times before we even released anything. No one talked to me, so I didn’t know what the hell was going on. Bow Wow Wow was like always jumping on a trampoline, never knowing if I’d land on my arse or my face.”
Bow Wow Wow’s eventual first gig was typical chaos, at a roller disco, with a petite Annabella standing on a box so the crowd could see her. Annabella’s abiding memory? “A load of punk rockers spitting at me. The spit was just flying at me and all the time, because I love to dance, I was jumping on and off the box.”
However, the experience didn’t put Annabella off performing. Throughout our hour, Lwin refers to how much she loves playing live, meeting fans and letting them relive the memories of hits such as I Want Candy and Go Wild In The Country. “From the start, being on stage just felt right,” she explains. “There’s never been any question that playing live isn’t enjoyable. As soon as I’m up there and seeing those beautiful faces, it’s special.”
Not even a disastrous support tour with Queen dissuaded Annabella, as she recalls: “We were a little punk rock band, and trying to sing 21 songs in 55 seconds wasn’t Queen fans’ idea of a good show before Queen went on with their incredible £20,000 lightshow. After 12 gigs of having cabbages, rotten eggs and bottles hurled at us, it was too much to handle.” Other support tours with The Police and The Pretenders fared better, with Chrissie Hynde a hero to the teenage Annabella. “Chrissie was so lovely to me,” smiles Annabella. “Because of my age, people didn’t always think they had to be respectful. Other people were brilliant, too, like lovely Joe Strummer and Alannah Currie from the Thompson Twins.”
SHOW ME THE MANET
Released in 1980, Annabella admits she didn’t have much creative input on debut mini-album Your Cassette Pet. She remembers its songs Uomo Sex Al Apache and Sexy Eiffel Tower were dumped on the band after Malcolm’s plans for a French film were abandoned. Annabella isn’t listed in the writing credits for full debut See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah, City All Over! Go Ape Crazy!, for which she blames her bandmates, noting: “There’s a lot of songs they never gave me credit for. I can’t do anything about it now, as we’re way, way down the road from it all. But thanks a lot, guys.”
Of course, the album was instantly overshadowed by its artwork, of a 14-year-old Annabella topless with her bandmates at a picnic, recreating Manet’s painting Le Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe. An otherwise smiling interviewee, Annabella’s eyes roll right out of her head as soon as the cover art is mentioned. “Oh God!” she exclaims. “I think we’ve gone past that artwork, especially in this day and age. Look at Miley Cyrus – she’s punk rock now like I was at the time. That art wasn’t trying to copy or emulate anyone, and it’s why we’re called artists, darling! I remember that album fondly, that’s all I can say. Check out Hello, Hello Daddy (I’ll Sacrifice You) – I’ve always been about rhythm, and that song has a lovely Latin feel.”
Follow-up album When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going saw Annabella and Matthew Ashman co-write in earnest. Lwin speaks warmly of the late guitarist, saying: “I was asking Matthew, ‘What should I do?’ and all he said was, ‘What do you want to say?’ That’s always stuck.”
Dedicated to Bow Wow Wow fan John Belushi, the album was the band’s finale. Annabella was fired in a break between tours, her bandmates lacking the courage to say themselves they were forming electro band Chiefs Of Relief instead. “I was told we were having a break for a month before an Australian tour,” she explains. “I thought, ‘Yay! I can rest my vocals!’ No one talked to me about it, no one explained it. It was all a shock.”
Annabella had been forced to cancel a couple of shows, but that was understandable: she was living off burgers in her pre-vegan youth and her mohawk haircut with no hair on the sides of her head meant she was prone to colds. Bow Wow Wow’s record label RCA weren’t exactly sympathetic. “I was told by the band’s accountant, ‘As of next week, you have no money coming in’ and RCA said, ‘You owe us an album’. I was sat there thinking, ‘Listen, I’m 17 and I’ve just been kicked out of my band. Can you let me deal with this?’”
After 1986’s solo album Fever, Annabella left music for a decade, having told RCA: “I need some time to think. If I was you, I’d drop me.”
At a tribute concert in 2010 to mark the 15th anniversary of Matthew Ashman’s death from diabetes, Annabella and Leigh Gorman reformed Bow Wow Wow. After a year of shows, Leigh fired Annabella again and has since kept the band’s name. “I guess history can repeat itself,” she says wryly. “We had an agreement, but what’s the saying? Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
At least Annabella had had chance to ask the bassist why she’d been fired first time round. “Leigh kept saying he was ill at the time and it had been Matthew’s fault,” says Annabella, eyes rolling again.
“I thought that was pretty bad. At some point in your life, you have to grow up. I was a teenager, everyone else was a grown man.”
Annabella has been playing live solo ever since, and she intends releasing her first album since 2012’s Super Boom next year. “I have to face forwards, because I can’t just be the chick from the 80s band,” she laughs. That doesn’t deserve to be Annabella Lwin’s epitaph. “Champion swimmer” would be much more suitable.