I've said this before, but it'll hold true 'til I die: No matter how much great music continues to be made, my favorite songs will always be the ones I grew up with.
Since many of those came out of the New Wave era, I was thrilled to see a new book devoted to them. Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s (Abrams Image) honors 35 of the era's hits, from Devo's Whip It to Duran Duran's Girls on Film to A-ha's Take on Me.
Co-authors Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein interviewed all of the bands and uncovered many tidbits that blew my mind. I called Lori to reminisce about the '80s — and dang, I'd love to have 12 more conversations with her, because we didn't even touch upon INXS or Depeche Mode:
Hi, Lori! I thought because I'd heard these songs a million times, I knew all about them. But I learned so much from your book.
Exactly, and that's how the book came about. We'd read an (article) about True, the Spandau Ballet song. I'm kind of a crazy person when it comes to this era; I'm an obsessive. But when I read this interview with (singer) Gary Kemp, he was talking about the Lolita references he uses, and I had no idea.
It got us thinking, how many other stories do we not know? Now we say everything: "I want you to stand under my umbrella." "You're a firework." But back then, they really made us work for it.
And you talk to everyone! How did you get so many musicians to participate?
Well, I've been an obsessive fan of Duran Duran going back to the beginning of MTV. When I saw Duran Duran, the world stopped spinning. Young girls are so emotional as it is, so Duran Duran — handsome guys, great music and visuals — put that all together, and it was super-potent.
So basically, in the mid-'80s I decided I wanted to become a journalist so I could meet them. (Laughs) By the time I was in college, I had met them a bunch of times and I was interviewing them. I got to know them over the years.
So how did we get to all these people? Duran really opened the door, I would say. I think once we interviewed them, people really started coming onboard. You have to remember this is a very underrated era, so I think these artists wanted to get their due, finally. The New Wave era, because it was largely led by men in makeup, (was) dismissed as a video era. But why do we still love the '80s? It's because of the songs.
And before reading this I had no idea Bow Wow Wow had such a crazy, creepy story behind it. What are some things you learned while writing the book?
One of the things I was really shocked about was the fractured relationship in New Order between Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner. Peter said that they were never really friends. They were in two seminal bands over the course of 35 years, and he said they've shared one phone call. That really shocked me.
With Morrissey, I was really shocked that he felt the other Smiths were embarrassed by his lyrics. It really speaks to Morrissey's insecurity, because Andy Rourke was like, "No way, we always looked forward to getting those lyrics" — which they didn't hear for the first time until Morrissey stepped into the booth and sang them. It really shows you how insular Morrissey was.
With the exception of The Smiths, so many of these bands are playing together again. Do you think it's mostly for financial reasons? Do they want to relive their glory days?
I think it's definitely both. In the book, Peter Hook definitely accuses the surviving New Order members — which he cheekily calls "New Odor" — of doing it pretty much purely for financial reasons. But if you look at Spandau Ballet, which just reunited at South by Southwest ... When I saw them, I was suspicious, but I was shocked at the chemistry. It was so palpable, and when they played True, the entire place went crazy.
Duran Duran has plenty of money, but they're driven by the music. I think some of these bands could use a couple extra bucks, but I think really it's driven by (the desire) to play and to be appreciated.
It's crazy how so many of these huge hit songs were written in no time at all. I couldn't believe that OMD's If You Leave was created in an afternoon!
And that was before sampling. The '80s get a lot of criticism for being a fluffy time, but it was DIY time. It was a time of autonomy — you didn't have producers puppeteering, you didn't even have a wardrobe stylist saying, "This is what you're going to wear." When Adam Ant put that white stripe across his face, he did it to say, "This is what I want to do." It was his own idea.
And you may do a sequel, right?
Oh my gosh, we had to cut 15,000 words and a ton of chapters (from this one). At first, we were going to do literal stories behind the songs: "Tell us about writing Girls on Film." "What is Cars about?" But once we started getting these artists talking, it was clear that it wasn't just about that moment in time, it was about the journey and how the song changed their careers and, ultimately, changed their lives.
We realized we had a cultural story as well as a musical one. We ended up giving a band like Kajagoogoo 12 pages, which we never expected, but it's such a dramatic story!
We sort of touched on this, but what do you think today's musicians could learn from the New Wave era?
I would love for musicians today to realize they don't need to wait for a judge on a TV talent show to nod and give them their seal of approval. Many of the people in (the early '80s) didn't know how to play an instrument. Gary Numan had never even seen a synthesizer before, he decided to experiment, and that's how Cars happened.
We're trained now to think you have to be on American Idol or The Voice, or you need an A&R guy to champion you. What we learned from the artists in the early '80s is you have to have that DIY spirit, you have to love music, you have to want to do it.
Note: Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs that Defined the 1980s has a foreword written by Nick Rhodes and an afterword by Moby. It's on sale now.
Courtesy USA TODAY