Bow Wow Wow, The Brook, Southampton / Daniel Johnston, St Bartholemew's Church, Brighton
Bow Wow Wow's return after 30 years is unexpectedly life-affirming, while Daniel Johnston's honesty has 'em snivelling in the aisles
Sunday 22 April 2012
A bit of side-boob, that's all it was. But in 1981, it was enough to cause a scandal. When Malcolm McLaren persuaded 14-year-old Annabella Lwin to pose nude with her Bow Wow Wow bandmates to recreate Edouard Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe for an album cover, he knew which buttons he was pushing. When Lwin's mother got Scotland Yard involved, causing the sleeve to be banned in Britain and America, the master manipulator must have rubbed his hands with glee.
It wasn't long, however, before Bow Wow Wow transcended this early mis-start, went renegade and took on a life of their own, becoming a genuinely thrilling post-punk pop group. At McLaren's instigation, Bow Wow Wow had incorporated Burundi drumming into their sound. In this, they were not unusual, but nobody took it to quite the extreme that Bow Wow Wow did on their thunderous debut single “C30, C60, C90 Go!”, a gleefully subversive hymn to the joys of home taping.
Part of the reason for their absence from the critical radar is that Lwin herself has spent most of the intervening decades living in California. On the opening night of Bow Wow Wow's first UK tour in 30 years, an initially nervous Lwin, ever the modern primitive in her Native American squaw boots, is full of humbled gratitude that anyone still cares.
It isn't long before she gets into her stride. It helps that Lwin is a good 10 years younger than most of her post-punk peers. By “Louis Quatorze”, a song about underage sex that had McLaren's fingers all over it (“I'm just 14!”), she has whipped off her Foreign Legion desert hat off her ribbon-plaited hair so we can see those gold-painted Cleopatra eyes, and is leaping around, getting us all to go “Woo!” (you can tell she's been living in America), acting out songs with mock-shock face and plenty of hand-mimes.
With the help of original bassist Leigh Gorman, Everclear drummer Sean Winchester and, heroically playing the role of the late Matthew Ashman, Rachel Stamp guitarist Will Crewdson, Lwin delivers one of the most life-affirming, smile-inducing performances I've seen all year.
Top 10 singles “Go Wild in the Country” and “I Want Candy” are inevitably saved till last, but there's life beyond the hits: particularly outstanding tonight are the whoop-along “Uomo Sex Al Apache”, and “Aphrodisiac”, from their flop third (and final) album When the Going Gets Tough the Tough Get Going. But “C30 C60 C90 Go!” is simply astounding, and newly relevant in the age of internet piracy. Lwin knows it, changing the lyrics “I tape them all” to “I download them all”. And a line so improbable that it's missing from most internet lyric transcriptions – “I got the affirmative magnolia, man!” – really is how it goes. I lip-read. And I asked.
Daniel Johnston is perhaps the most sacred of Outsider Musician cows. His cult status was assured as soon as Kurt Cobain took to wearing a T-shirt of his Hi, How Are You? album, but there's real substance behind the claims made for his greatness.
There's a lot of romantic and sentimental hogwash talked about artists with mental illness, and Johnston gets more of it than most – he suffers from schizophrenia and depression. But his condition does seem directly connected to what is engaging about his art: what people love about his lo-fi indie-folk songs is the apparent lack of guile, an honesty which isn't brutal but, seemingly, natural and, in the best possible way, ingenuous.
Taking to the stage of Brighton's St Bartholomew's church, alone for the first three songs, the pick of them being “There Is a Sense of Humour Way Beyond Friendship”, he's a rotund, shabby figure in a grey sweater and jogging bottoms, reluctant to meet the audience's gaze, until he is joined by his ad-hoc backing band Texan Sea Power, aka local residents British Sea Power minus guitarist Noble. BSP – sorry, TSP – accompany the American legend unobtrusively but effectively, all seated except for Woods, standing behind a bass drum bearing the insignia of the Boys' Brigade.
Johnston is an often intense presence as he delivers his heartbreaking “Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances” and his cover of The Beatles' “You've Got to Hide Your Love Away”. After a finale of “True Love Will Find You in the End”, moist-eyed friends are talking about “the greatest gig I've seen in my life”. It's almost as if they've been to church.
Tricky, right, assisted by originalco-vocalist Martina Topley-Bird, revisits his trip-hop classic Maxinquaye in his own backyard at the Academy, Bristol (Thu), then as part of the Sundance Festival at London's Indigo2, (Fri) and Manchester University (Sat). Meanwhile, the veteranalt-rockers, Placebo, pitch up at Edinburgh's Picture House (Wed); Olympia, Liverpool (Thu); and they make their own Sundance appearance at the Indigo2, London (Sat).
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