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10 New Wave Secrets Revealed in Eighties Oral History 'Mad World'

The hidden history of Morrissey's shirts, Mike Score's hair and Devo's Thomas Pynchon references, as revealed in Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein's new book

April 16, 2014 8:30 AM ET
morrissey the smiths performs
Morrissey of the Smiths performs in London.
Phil Dent/Redferns

If you miss the days when the world was made of mesh and lace, you'll want to check out Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s. The hugely entertaining book, by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein, includes interviews with dozens of musicians, from Simon Le Bon to Howard Jones. Mad World not only reveals the stories behind the songs that were MTV staples, but it lets the artists settle old scores. Ten secrets we learned from the book (in some cases, answering questions that have been lingering for decades) about 10 different artists:

100 Best Albums of the Eighties

1. Modern English
The lyrics of "I Melt With You" are about a couple making love when the nuclear bomb drops.

2. The Smiths
Bassist Andy Rourke on Morrissey's fashion sense: "Morrissey used to buy his — I was going to say 'shirts,' but they were actually blouses — he used to buy them from a women's clothing place called Evans Outsizes that was for fat women in Manchester. These women's blouses that nobody wanted became Morrissey's trademark. He used to like tearing them up and throwing them into the crowd."

3. Tears for Fears
Before Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal hit the big time, they had another band called Graduate — successful nowhere except Spain, where they hit Number One with the immortal single "Elvis Should Play Ska."

4. Kim Wilde
"Kids in America" is an immortal single with a lyric that makes no geographic sense: "New York to East California." Why cover 99 percent of the continent and then stop at California's east border? Wilde has made up various excuses for the line (the song was written by her father, British star Ricky Wilde), but the real story is "If you ask him, quite disarmingly, he'll just say ''Cause it sounded better.'"

5. A-ha
Keyboardist Magne "Mags" Furholmen lost his father when he was six: He was a musician traveling to a gig on a plane that crashed just outside of Oslo, Norway, in 1969. When Furholmen met singer Morten Harket a decade later, they discovered that Harket had watched the plane go down that night.

6. A Flock of Seagulls
Mike Score on the genesis of his bizarre double ducktail haircut: "In the 'I Ran' video, I wore my hair curly. After that, I decided to go for a Ziggy Stardust blonde, punk look. We were getting ready to do a show, and I'd spiked my hair up. Frank [Maudsley] put his hand on top of my head, basically to say, 'Let me see in the mirror as well.' He collapsed the whole top of my hairdo by putting his hand on it, with the sides still sticking up — and it stayed like that. Mick Rossi, our manager, was trying to shoo us on stage, so I just went out with it like that. I noticed a few people looking and pointing. When we came offstage, I looked in the mirror, and I remember feeling a bit like, That looks awesome!"

7. Thompson Twins
The Twins played Live Aid with Nile Rodgers because he was producing the album they were working on in 1985 (Here's to Future Days). They didn't party after the mega-concert, says singer Tom Bailey, because Rodgers was newly sober: "Can you believe we went back to the hotel after the show and played Scrabble?"

8. Kajagoogoo
Limahl on his androgynous sex appeal as a young man: "I did date a girl, briefly, in Leighton Buzzard, pretty much because there were no gay guys and I had to get some action somewhere. I hadn't decided if I was 100 percent gay, and it wasn't an issue. When you're that age, you love anybody playing with your cock."

9. Devo
The lyrics to "Whip It" were inspired by novelist Thomas Pynchon, specifically the passages in Gravity's Rainbow that are parodies of up-by-your-bootstraps writer Horatio Alger.

10. Gary Numan
Numan says he wrote "Cars" the first time he picked up a bass guitar, and knocked it out in 10 minutes. He points out that most of the song is instrumental (the vocals end after a minute and a half). "When I play it live, and especially when I do it on TV," he says, "my bit is over pretty quickly, and then I've got to stand there and try to look interested. I used to think, 'What the fuck am I going to do?' I can't dance — I dance like an idiot." He's experimented with standing on the side, having a drink, or even sitting down. "I've always had an uncomfortable relationship with the last two or three minutes of the song."

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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