Tom Ford’s indelible advice to, “Figure out what you do well and then repeat it so forcefully that it becomes unmistakable,” works in the construction of chord changes and choruses every bit as well as Mr. Ford has proven it works in couture. Writing a hit song, especially one that captures a fleeting moment in time represents a divination experience that a flea’s fraction of the world’s population will ever know firsthand. To have done it even once puts you in supernatural territory. All three bands who fronted up at Atlanta’s Buckhead Theatre on Friday, January 24th, as part of SiriusXM’s Totally 80s Live tour series know a thing or two about this kind of empyrean air and elliptical airwaves. The triple bill opened by When in Rome II, fortified by Bow Wow Wow, and headlined by The Motels, provided a nostrum of nostalgia-soaked nuance to any fan of 80s new wave or punk pop.
Going to a show wherein a heritage expectation has laid the groundwork for a large percentage of the audience’s initial vibe can be filled with equal parts stirring frenzy and sarky froideur, and each part gets served eventually. But first, a word to the altricial naysayers, who will call this tour, and this group of bands, by any number of vituperative adjectives. A quick reminder that we now live amongst a youth culture that dissolutely becomes bored with a song once it is three minutes old or has been driftlessly replaced by bigger-streaming newcomers on Spotify. By this metric, art has been reduced to the station of single-use plastic – careless in the first place and incredibly damaging to the environment in the second place because made with no future in mind. People who make pejorative commentary about supposed ‘one-hit wonder’ bands earn the hardest of smirks from this writer. The first and only question worthy of those slingers of worth-injunctions remains: “And how many hits have you written, again?”
To disparage or devalue a tour carrying this much talent, or any band ever, for ‘only’ writing one song that succeeded in sweeping international radio for months and even years, and continues to own hearts decades after its own empire of first-wave relevance, is equivalent to scoffing at the Wayans brothers for not revisiting the In Living Color sketch format or jeering at Bill Gates for not moving past software architecture. In any other art, business, or sport form, you only need one of anything to win – one Mona Lisa, one forward-thinking design, one home run. The same is true for Oscars, Emmys, and Tonys. It is only music where the number of Grammys or Grammy nominations must be talked of in multiples in order to matter. This unjust paralogism maliciously fritters the inarguable point that songs which have marked whole moments in time cannot be reduced to the economy of aphorisms or caricatures, even and perhaps especially, once the snow globe of the moment they patented is gone. There is something deeply uncomely and den-mothered about suggesting that anybody has to do it more than once to make his or her mark.
Let’s also be crystalline clear on the meaning of bands like When In Rome and The Motels having broken through to commercial and popular success in a time when doing so required quite a bit more of an informed barometer than the satin combination of ProTools and clickbait. Rather symbolically given that they are all from the era of the music video, all three bands on this bill had one of their hardest nudges back to the spotlight come from the inclusion of one of their songs in a current film or television show. The timbre of the films and television shows in question must also be noted because they too tell their own tale of the nascent cool factor associated with this music: two cult status films, one of them directed by none other than Sofia Coppola (an institution of hip unto herself), and one television series that helped make television art again. Depth does typically recognize depth, in all aspects of life and art.
While there are certainly a deluge of highly personal and finely-drawn reasons any song ever becomes a hit—some more within the artist’s sway than others—the only reason a song is ever remembered past one generation of listeners is because it was fundamentally well-designed and good. Like real beauty, good songs are never solicitous. In case the renunciant amorality of the social media age has made you question: no, there isn’t actually an expiration date on inherent virtue. It functions like ballet or Marine training; once it’s in, it’s in for life. Kind of like those ‘80s earworms, huh?
Preservation is an underrated art all on its own and Michael Floreale, founding member and keyboardist of When In Rome, has gone out of his way to make sure this band did not get shelved in the backlog of bands that used to matter, though it has placed him in a few uncomfortable legal pickles. Andrew Mann and Clive Farrington, the other two original members of When In Rome, contest the validity/necessity of Floreale’s trio and tour on their own as When In Rome U.K. After a fallow period between 1990 and 2006, Floreale was instrumental in the rebirth of “The Promise” when he was approached by film representatives while living in Dallas, Texas and was able to broker a deal that not only blew the dust off the enshrined song, but brought it to life again for a new epoch of idolizers. “The Promise” was reclaimed by a contemporary era of listeners via its association with the neon ending sequence of Napoleon Dynamite.
“The Promise” is a Delft-blue song bearing lyrics with a punctured sky quality that became sacramental to many of us in May of 1988 the first time we ever heard it on When in Rome’s self-titled debut. That cohesive record also housed “Heaven Knows” and “Everything”, both of which came to spin their sugar in the set list at the Atlanta show. “The Promise” has that Corey Haim/Corey Feldman effect on listeners of a certain age – it is from a spatiotemporal wink when hearts were unarmed and orchestral chapters of the most formative years of one’s life starred those sounds/faces every day. There is no getting it back, shutting it off, or new geopolitical reality that circumnavigates it, and nor would one wish there to be any of those possibilities. Hearing “The Promise” live, and seeing When In Rome II ratify their innate talent via all of their newer songs, which are consistently debonair and full of celerity, will take you someplace sonic we all need to go.
New vocalist Tony Fennell, of Ultravox and Enuff Z’Nuff fame, sauntering like the best of English baronets, gamely torrefied the crowd like so much molten glass and took them in two songs from a stratified farrago crew to a unified pool of magisterial approval. As Joe Elliott of Def Leppard so perfectly put it once, “If you can’t handle the responsibility of writing a hit, don’t write it.” Most of us love a band that can not only handle the responsibility, but basks in the act of noblesse oblige playing it live every night for adoring crowds to whom it means so many different kinds of everything surely is. When In Rome II is unquestionably that band.
Even the characters that defined the movement disagreed radically about what punk meant or should stand for back when it was written. When the movement began to crossbreed with pop formats in legendary bands like The Police, people got even more conflicted. As a lifetime spirit animal of that genre and if asked to define it for the masses, this writer, who generally thinks she has a word for everything, would humbly plead the famous line from Bartleby the Scrivener: “I would prefer not to.” Bow Wow Wow, however, defined it in their own way from word one. Emerging to prominence during the first crest of English New Wave and cast like a sorcerer’s spell by Malcom McLaren himself in 1980, Bow Wow Wow began with 13-year-old Annabella Lwin as barely-pubescent frontwoman. A diminutive demoiselle of destruction, she spirited the band to great acclaim on both sides of the punk debate. Their 1982 four-track release entitled The Last of the Mohicans contained the danceable remake of “I Want Candy,” a hit founded on the classic Bo Diddley beat and originally done to more chant-and-jangle effect by The Strangeloves in 1965. Most of us ‘80s kids spent the rest of that summer chiming along to its accessible lyrics by every pool and with every boombox, not having the foggiest clue until years later the suggestive underpinnings of our carefree singalong.
Sofia Coppola placed the sparkling Bow Wow Wow version of “I Want Candy” in glorious anachronism next to the glitter of Kirsten Dunst’s starlight turn as the doomed queen in 2006’s Marie Antoinette and the circle was complete. So there you have it. The cocktail of happenstance, borrowing, exploitation, theft, ambition, redundancy, and lissome beauty all go into the blender when it comes to writing songs that will be the stuff of legends and there is no ‘hit-making’ button on the device, only the unfitted lid of luck that may or may not fly off at the critical moment and make a mess of things.
It is never an easy feat keeping things sweet between long-time bandmates when everybody ‘wants candy,’ however the true sour note seems to arrive once arguments begin over who wrote the award-winning recipe. Annabella Lwin, having exited the group (or being forced out, depending on whom you ask) amid growing tensions associated with heavy touring and internal dissension in both 1983 and 2013, tours on her own now and has been highly vocal about her artistic opposition to this incarnation of Bow Wow Wow. That being said, Kristen ‘Dinzy’ Dinsmore, the five alarm fire out front these days, deserves all of the accolades and attention anyone can lavish on her for embodying all that Annabella’s career fought to establish and all that Bow Wow Wow came to mean to their audience. While substituting a Malcolm McLaren protegee for one of Berklee College of Music may seem pre-listen to strip some of the soot from the shanties, Dinsmore disabuses you of that misconception instantly and will make you feel piteously suburban for even having considered it.
No neophyte to the nihilism of the stage, she has the rambunctiously rabid tendency to hare off in one tribal dance maneuver after another, while belting notes north of telescopic range and every inch as sovereign as they are sturdy. Every song felt punched up and snappier for her presentation of it, and it is clear she has a firm grasp of the tenebrous torch she is carrying. Leigh Gorman, the only original member remaining, and still fit as a butcher’s dog, admirably showcases the Luciferian fray of Bow Wow Wow, and his elder-statesman-of-punk roots, in every leer and laugh.
There is connective reassurance that occurs in a pop culture event like Harry Potter and the fact that something becomes that much a part of the entire human conversation. It plays to the inspiring and crucial notion that we still have people individual enough to write something on behalf of all of us, that fits somewhere for all of us. The conundrum is that it takes a person wholly their own, a true one-of-a-kind, to write on behalf of the world – an even more special one to take what someone else has written and make a bludgeon of it. The danger today is we have less and less of those orchidaceous outliers and the narrative cartography of music suffers for that, as do we. This is one reason the efforts and willingness of artists like Gorman and Dinsmore to keep those Harry Potter moments in music alive are so important, like in making sure “I Want Candy” never becomes just a song your young nephew discovers in film school at college.
We all know that the music business, and indeed many of the bands themselves who comprise it, remains overrun with oligarchs and kleptocrats, profiteers sickly siphoning unearned riches off raw talent and public ignorance alike. In light of this fact, it becomes difficult to come up with an example more unimpeachably punk rock than having the sand to step into the shadow of a beloved antiheroine like Lwin and not only honor her presence with your performance, but also make the audience she founded a little piece your own, thereby also making sure that something ready and able to pulverize twee pop still exists in this world. Kirsten Dinsmore accomplishes this with alacrity and without stepping into the gaping pothole danger of becoming merely an impresario. Throughout pogoing renditions of classics like “Go Wild in the Country”, and “Radio G String”, she steered the band, like stevedores, to the unloading of any emotion or sound conjurable – and all at no cost to the integrity of the band’s established legacy. One has to tip the proverbial hat to the middle finger all of this requires, and when Bow Wow Wow left the stage the predominant feeling perfuming behind them is one of bald gratitude that someone has kept this raw energy alive.
Ari Up of The Slits was admirably open about her concerns surrounding the faux-rebellion of pop music today, wherein female beauty tropes are groomed and polished to what factory-minded labels believe looks ‘edgy.’ The result is a cadre of women in music today selling a highly stylized idea of what a woman rocker should or can look like. Ditsy vulgarians and uninspired arrivistes tread witlessly across the artistic graves of astral poets they have simultaneously robbed and failed to replace. Anyone feeling brackish trepidation about a culture that trades Kim Gordon, or even Kim Wilde, for Kesha receives a keen reprieve and hope-rejuvenation at the sight of The Motels’ still-undone-stunning Martha Davis. The rancid grease oiling the wheels of the machinery of the music industry today has never registered as either checkpoint or consideration for any canonical artist or audience, and it was luminously clear that it certainly did not matter to Martha Davis. Some rock women age into lynx-like statuary, suitable for the oracle worship they receive and deserve. Others, like Davis, a raving beauty seasoned to perfection by a life roundly lived both on and off stage, become the august factotums of working class music, engendering all the devotion of the lynxes and loudspeakers both. Davis’ voice still holds all the story. Full of butane and taunting blasphemy, her voice matches her changeling looks. Like a female Robert Smith, she can waft effortlessly between the full Old Hollywood glam, with dark contours of course, she executed to AMA-winning effect in the video for “Only the Lonely” to pure Portlandia in a single syllable or turn of the chin. Very few people, and almost zero performers of any gender today, have the ability to inhabit duality in that natural a manner.
Like When In Rome II and Bow Wow Wow, The Motels too have experienced a mini-renaissance of late on the radar of a new generation compliments of our screen-stoned ways. American Horror Story featured their biggest hit, “Suddenly Last Summer”, and the road came calling again. The Motels arrive with nine studio albums behind them, an international chart history that reads like the passport of a Monacan heiress, and the kind of disconsolate grandeur mixed with rudderless élan characteristic of truly underground bands in the ‘80s. No words could do justice to how unbelievably skintight this band is. The musicianship from everyone in The Motels is miles past exemplary and Davis’ stage presence still blankets in the quiet way of hoarfrost – she’s on you before you know it and while you mistakenly thought things seemed dormant.
Moving like sounds caught in a trawl through a set list of 14 songs that drew heavily from their second and third albums, Careful and All Four One respectively, songs like “So L.A.” and “Mission of Mercy” could have been piped in from the recorded album – they were that perfect. Highlights included “Total Control”, a song that puts something like a captive bolt in the skull to any other song that ever attempted to describe the secret needs of secret loves. “Tipping Point”, off 2018’s The Last Few Beautiful Days, starts like Muse and ends like Steve Winwood, exhibiting yet again this band’s outstanding range and refreshing musical faculty.
The three bands on the Totally ‘80s Live tour are from the age when rock stars were video vagabonds. There is an interesting conundrum to observe in living now within the confines of YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram Stories, and every other screen of moving picture vetch-apparatus. Bands are not known for their videos anymore. Videos are not what make bands now, despite bands having more highways to hyperscreen hysteria than have ever been imagined in generations past. We take more pictures now, most of them filter-softened rewrites of a truth we did not capture properly the first time and borderline erased with all the stop-motion attempts anyway, but we leave with far less true moments. There is something distinctly slovenly in the girth of our options now – the innumerable new angles with which we have to focus have produced a certain lack of intent that used to be incipient to all beautiful things, especially songs that made it to the radio or MTV. In this sense, the so-called ‘one-hit wonders’ of the ‘80s (or any era prior) lend yet another layer of meaning to those songs that came to define them and us: they are faultless reflections of a time there was no other way to capture and the absence of any other way made the first take the best because it was the truest. We paid more attention then. We posed less. The songs sound like it. Thank goodness.
Does a song or a band’s relevance hang on the heat index of initial popularity with increasingly fickle teenagers, the long-lasting impact as cultural phenomenon, or basic staying power? None of the above, answer these acts. As proven by all three in separate ways, the tools turn on passion and humility alone, on service to the music. So, when one stands at the feet of three bands that owned the MTV video age back when videos used to emphasize fantasy, the irony is that these bands in the real seem, by contrast, more like their videos, more alive within the context of what their videos meant (to the music’s success and to the public), and in possession of far more star power simply by virtue of being less hungry for it. If there is any sort of consensus that the whole point of creating any art is to become immortal, transcend time barriers, and snapshot a feeling, event, or emotion for the betterment of all those who can relate to it (or even all those who may have need of its message), then bands like When In Rome II, Bow Wow Wow, and The Motels are doing far more than taking you back to your aural middle school reunion or padding their own wallets, as assailants of the form would have it. They are, quite literally, preserving previous lives well-lived and stewarding new generations back to a place where songs that came out three years ago were never referred to as ‘old,’ but rather as the seeds that ignited the sport, if you will (and thus infinitely valuable). Truly good songs are interstellar bounty hunters. They don’t care how old you are or whether you originated in their galaxy; they are coming for your soul and whatever aspects of humanity bind us all like strands of spider silk in a skylight. Badassery can never be bygone. When In Rome II, Bow Wow Wow, and The Motels have written us some eternally scratch-resistant songs. Going to see them on this tour feels like a betrothal kept. I promise you.