Berlin & Bow Wow Wow
Terri Nunn and Annabella Lwin once again singing with their hit-making bands
By Paul Andersen
Terri Nunn and Annabella Lwin came from different sides of the world, leading bands that would flame brightly yet briefly through the 1980s, putting their stamps on new wave rock music that, only afterward, were more pioneering than anyone considered at the time. They were sexually charged sirens that basked in the transcendent limelight, causing a flurry of censorship in pre-politically correct times that tested the blood pressures of radio programmers and record store managers alike.
It seems somehow poetic that Nunn and Lwin are appearing together with new editions of their hit-making bands, Berlin and Bow Wow Wow, tonight at Vault 350 in Long Beach. Each is proof that, even with maturity, sexual appeal need not disappear into the night. Instead, it only smolders deeper.
Nunn began her career first, signing on to front the Los Angeles-born electro pop new wavers Berlin in 1979, hitting it big a few years later with the group's first EP, "Pleasure Victim," which featured "Sex (I'm a ...)," a turned-around version of the classic "I'm a Man" riff with Nunn doing her own vocal riffing, with admonitions ranging from "I'm your mother, I'm a one night stand" to "I'm a goddess ... I'm a slut," all set to a taut beat that was just pure primal energy. The edgy "No More Words" followed, and the group's biggest hit, "Take My Breath Away," from the "Top Gun" soundtrack, hit No. 1 around the world while also taking home a Golden Globe award and an Oscar.
Lwin's career began a year after Nunn's, in 1980, when at 14 years old and working part-time behind the counter at a dry cleaners, she was quite literally plucked for stardom.
It all happened when Malcolm McLaren, the mastermind behind the pioneer punk rock band the Sex Pistols, decided to begin a new project. "We were basically hired guns with Adam Ant," says Bow Wow Wow bassist Leigh Gorman, one of the founding members of the group. They were the Ants, the backing band for the new wave rocker.
He talked Gorman and his two bandmates, guitarist Matthew Ashman and drummer Dave Barbarossa, into leaving Ant to form a new band. "He gave us a cassette that had 24 songs on it, all kinds of different styles, and told us to pick the most interesting thing on it," Gorman says. "My favorite was this Burundi black song, sort of an African-style thing that had been a hit in England."
Within a week, the new band began to take shape around the idea of it being both multiethnic and pan-musical.
"But we couldn't find a singer," Gorman says. "We must have tried out 200 people, all types and colors, boys and girls. And then a friend of ours overheard Annabella singing along to the radio at a local dry cleaner, and he talked her into auditioning. We had been pumping this twangy, Duane Eddy-style guitar, and at the moment she began singing, we knew that was it."
Coupled together with a tribal drum rhythm that seemed equal parts calypso and African, Bow Wow Wow was soon forging a sound that predated the world music movement that would eventually take foothold through the explorations made by Paul Simon's "Graceland" album and Peter Gabriel's globe-trotting appetite.
Lwin proved to be quite a focal point, both vocally and visually. With a girl/woman's voice that had a come-hither swagger mixed with innocence, which was well displayed on the group's biggest hit, "I Want Candy," she provided yet another unusual ingredient to the group's musical mix. And when she posed (tastefully) nude on the cover of the band's first album the following year, in a re-creation of the 1863 Monet painting "Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe (Lunch on the Grass)," it caused cries of child pornography and a court action by her mother that unsuccessfully tried to stop it. It is still considered one of the classic album covers in rock history.
But the music industry is a fickle one, and by 1983 Bow Wow Wow had splintered up. Berlin's time in the spotlight was longer, and it too was history by the end of decade.
"Here I was, a 17-year-old woman-child, who did not know what to do," Lwin, who had immigrated to London from her native Burma, now admits. "I had sacrificed school and home, and here I was, starting from scratch. And I was not a trained singer."
She started working on a solo project, which looked as if it would be picked by Sony, but a rancorous contract fight between singer George Michael and the label ended up sabotaging it before it could be released. She had an album's worth of material, and she decided to try and put a band together. "I had always had a band around," she says. But her attempts were not successful.
In 1997, Gorman approached Lwin about the possibility of reuniting the group, minus Ashman, who had died of complications from diabetes in 1995, and Barbarossa, who had prior commitments to another band. By the end of the year, Bow Wow Wow was once again playing live to a new generation that had only heard them through their siblings, or even their parents' record collections.
"There are some things that you don't know when you are just 19," Gorman reflects. "Actually, a lot of things. And what we play now, well, our skills are that much better, and with the technology today, we can do more things."
Meanwhile, even after releasing a solo album, Nunn's life was in disarray.
"I'm a lot better now at juggling different balls," she laughs, "but at the time, I was experiencing my life falling apart while wanting just one thing (a band). I didn't know how to juggle anything, and I ended up losing friends who I had expected to just fall into my schedule of things. It was a real reality check. By 1987, when it came to the point of stagnation, decay and dissolution, everything felt like a desert with nothing in it. My career was finished and so was I."
It took years for Nunn to rebuild her life. "I learned to be a friend and partner, and I even got married," she says. "I learned there were more bridges than just one. That is why it was so much better when we reformed."
After years of turning down offers to start up again, Nunn finally relented, and in 1998 Berlin reconvened. "It was a reigniting of Berlin as a vehicle for my passion, because by the end of the '90s I had gotten really inspired by what artists like Moby, Garbage, Nine Inch Nails and the Sneaker Pimps were doing with electronic music," she says. "They were taking what we had started; only they had all these new toys to work with. We didn't have that technology to do what we could do in the studio onstage, and it never really matched the sound.
"But now, live, you can do anything you want, get any sound you want," Nunn says.
Berlin recorded a live album in 2000, and followed that up with a new studio CD, "Voyeur," and DVD two years later. Now, Nunn says, the group will be looking to the past on its next album. "It will be stripped down, more like our first record," she says. "We'll bring back a starkness. Spare. I love it!"
— Paul Andersen is
a La Canada freelance writer.