Unwitting Pop Music Pioneer
Quick: name five Asian female singers who became internationally famous with modern Anglo pop music, hold on, back in the `80s. There have been a few to enjoy some degree of fame in the `90s and beyond like Norah Jones (of course), Miho Hatori (Cibo Matto), Amerie, Coco Lee, or Miki Berenyi (Lush). None, however, had the notoriety that followed Annabella Lwin of Bow Wow Wow, the band best known for their Stangeloves cover, "I Want Candy" (and their mohawks, among other things).
Born in Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar) to a British mother and a Burmese father, Lwin settled with her mom in London after her parents split up. Still looking great, and now sans mohawk, the singer took some time out from working on new solo material for a chat with ChopBlock. She speaks enthusiastically, coating her words in a devastating British accent.
It is Lwin who starts the interview. "Do you know anything about me?" she asks. After confessing my semi-encyclopedic knowledge of early `80s Brit pop, especially Adam And The Ants, she laughs. Straight away, Lwin insists on clarifying the much-debated story about Bow Wow Wow and the original incarnation of Adam Ant`s former band. According to her, legendary style guru (and infamous Sex Pistols manager) Malcolm McLaren snatched away two of the Ants (drummer Dave Barbarossa and the late guitarist Matthew Ashman), recruited bassist Leigh Gorman, and assembled Bow Wow Wow, who needed a singer.
Lwin was scouted by a friend of McLaren, Dave Fishel, at the dry cleaning shop she worked at. "I thought the guy was trying to pick me up, actually...because he had been coming in for a couple weeks on and off. I thought he was just in there to buy dope off the presser, a Jamaican guy called George, he was a really lovely guy. He used to drink lots and lots of Newcastle brown ale. [Fishel] heard me singing to a Stevie Wonder song." She went to the audition with a friend, got the job, but the rest isn`t history just yet. Lwin was actually fired from the band twice during the first few months.
"[The band] told me they were trying to test my commitment. In all honesty, I think it was a lot of psychological games [on McLaren`s part]. I was too young and too stupid to know what was happening. All I kept thinking was, `I really love singing.`" After the second firing, "I told them `I don`t want anything more to do with your band! You`re not nice people!`" She gave in after the band payed a visit to her and her mom, desperate for her talent for an imminent tour. Around that time, "Go Wild In The Country," became their first top ten hit in England. Lwin was suddenly a bona fide pop star, at the ripe old age of fifteen.
The band did their first gig at a roller disco. "I had to stand on a box to be seen," Lwin recalls. "[Because of McLaren], people thought we were the Sex Pistols, Mk II. People were [spitting at me]. It was absolutely disgusting. I knew nothing about [McLaren] except for the fact that he looked kind of weird because he had this orange hairdo. And a very big nose. [But], people realized that we were a really good live band." Even Boy George, pre-Culture Club, was briefly part of the group, but just for one show--he got booed off the stage.
Another much-debated topic is that of Lwin`s name. At one point, McLaren had given her the stage name Beth Mann. "I didn`t like that name," she recalls. "I said, `What`s wrong with my name, Annabella?` He [had] actually decided to use my Burmese name, Myant Myant Aye, but unfortunately, no one could really pronounce that."
Not surprisingly, at the time, Lwin`s mom was not exactly impressed with what her daughter got into, especially not with seeing her teenager pose nude on her band`s first album cover. Lwin partly blames McLaren`s "cash from chaos" work ethic for the pain her mom had to endure in the early days. "`Stay complete,` `style, style, style,`" she remembers. "Malcolm had always said to me, from day one, `You have to learn how to sink or swim!` He`s like a little boy, very demanding." As for the typically strict Asian father? "He`s very, very proud of me," she beams. "I`ve had blessings from my father now, recently."
After four albums, the band split up in 1983. Lwin worked on solo material, and spent time in England and Myanmar, but never recaptured the fame she had with Bow Wow Wow. Although Lwin was thrown into the world of "sex, drugs, and rock `n` roll" as a teen, "because of my Buddhist roots," she explains, "I believe something`s always protected me."
Now based in Los Angeles, she and Gorman are set for a few American shows this July, with No Doubt drummer Adrian Young ("I think [Gorman] met him at a strip club," she jokes) and Common Sense guitarist Phil Gough. The reformed band had recently played at L.A.-based radio station KROQ`s Inland Invasion with fellow `80s icons Duran Duran and The Cure. "It`s a joy to see all the new faces," she says. "It`s wonderful for me to say `thank you` to the fans."
Lwin is also currently at work on new solo material. "My new songs are a complete contrast to Bow Wow Wow," she offers. "I`m praying that the right record label realizes that what I have is something different to offer--in every which way, honey! (Laughs) I`m certainly not going to do something that`s been done before, because I am so bored with that. Most of the songs are very close to my heart as a Buddhist." Expect to be enlightened musically with the new material. "If people come to see me at a [solo] show expecting me to jump up and down on stage for an hour," she warns, "they will be disappointed."
When I point out that Lwin was one of the first internationally famous Asian singers, she`s genuinely shocked. "Really? (Pauses) I remember a singer...it was in the `90s..." See? "`Ever So Lonely!` That was such a great song (sings) `Ever so lo-lo-lo...`" I remind her it`s Shiela Chandra (who isn`t nearly as famous), but by then she gets my point. Lwin, the pioneer? Some people just don`t realize the mark they leave on history. And that`s part of Lwin`s charm.