Book Review – Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s


Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s
Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein

Lipstick, big hair, floppy shirts and synthesizers. “New wave” was a unique trend that was the conglomeration of many things – punk, post punk, new romanticism, technology and attitude. And in the early 1980s it defined a generation.

While bands were always making albums, the genre was defined mostly by singles – songs with a quality that stood out as a representation of a band (especially a new band) and helped to sell both albums and concert tickets as well as the 7-inch single itself. While some bands exist only as one-hit wonders, others have used their success in those early days to create music – and careers – that spanned decades.

Mad World by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein is a collection of those songs in book format, each with an introduction, some snarky facts, a “where are they now” update, a “mixtape” list of suggestions of similar songs and, most importantly, an interview with the principal artist in each band.

And the list of bands (and artists interviewed) is impressive – Adam Ant, Gary Numan, Howard Jones, Thomas Dolby… and many more. And the interviews are, for the most part, pretty great and a lot of fun. Gary Numan relates the story behind the song Cars, DEVO explain why they allowed their work to be used commercially so very much, Mike Score explains the Flock of Seagulls hairdo, Annabella Lwin still seems confused as to why she was booted from Bow Wow Wow.

The expected amount of sniping occurs as well; the age-old fight between Peter Hook and the other members of New Order makes its way to Mad World, as does the rift between Human League and Heaven 17. But there’s also reconciliation – Tears for Fears have since reformed, many other bands featured are touring.

Readers may not like every band/song featured in Mad World, but that’s okay because Majewski and Bernstein don’t necessarily dig them all either, and some of their best writing is the snark directed at the groups they don’t much care for.

As with any kind of list of songs, or even a DJ set, most complaints will come from what didn’t make the cut. Mad World is the Top 40 of new wave – don’t pick it up expecting obscurities from the genre such as Danielle Dax or Kissing the Pink. Of course, this sets the authors up nicely for a Volume 2 if they are so inclined.

Aside from the pseudo-mainstream choices, I found the format got a bit tired after a while, especially with so many hard feelings still prevalent among many of the featured bands. All that griping gets a little tedious to sit down and read in one go. I’d love this more in smaller doses, such as a weekly online feature.

Overall, though, Mad World is a fun read, as it allows so many bands of the era to look back and share stories of what, in many cases, was their first big hit. Like the entire New Wave genre, it’s fun and (mostly) light-hearted, and allows the artists to share some great anecdotes that never made the press back in the day. If you ever had funny hair, or a collection of 12-inch records on coloured vinyl, you probably need Mad World on your bookshelf.

This article originally appeared on Still Weird Zine.