Bow Wow Wow: See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah. City All Over! Go Ape Crazy.
This record cover from 1981 is a homage to Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (“The Lunch on the Grass”).
The large scale oil on canvas painting by Edouard Manet was finished in 1863 and caused instant controversy, due to the scandalous combination of a naked women next to two fully dressed men. Their casual, relaxed demeanor underscores the pervading sense of weirdness the canvas exudes – particularly for its era. While today it looks like a relatively tame juxtaposition, at the time it was a provocation to say the least. Of course, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe can now be found in the venerable Musée d’Orsay in Paris and is an important part of any syllabus discussing the modern art period.
Bow Wow Wow, meanwhile, are now little more than a footnote of the 1980’s New Wave movement. They were founded by Malcolm McLaren, former manager of the Sex Pistols and New York Dolls, to promote the New Romantic fashion lines he released with partner Vivienne Westwood. McLaren must be one of the great post-modern operators of the last fifty years, an artist and promoter that combined aggressive opportunism with a sharp eye for the next big thing. To put together this band he stole most of the lineup from Adam Ant and then auditioned vocalists to join as the lead singer. After many fruitless months he eventually discovered his vocalist in 14 year old Annabella Lwin, who was working behind the counter at a dry-cleaning shop. The band would go on to create an eccentric and noisy combination of 80’s pop and world music and today they are most remembered for their amazing cover version of “I Want Candy”.
Note Lwin’s nudity in the single cover above, because it was McLaren’s enthusiasm for showing his lead singer in the buff that would land the band in trouble. She was only 15 years old when the photography for the cover of See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah. City All Over! Go Ape Crazy. was taken. Her outraged mother cried exploitation and involved Scotland Yard in an attempt to keep her daughter from leaving the country with McLaren. After all, who would let their underage child be sexualised just to sell records?
McLaren’s powers of persuasion resulted in a compromise, with Lwin able to remain in the band on the condition that she was not marketed as a “sex kitten”. An alternate cover was issued in the US and UK (while the offending cover art was still released in many major European markets).
Bow Wow Wow would attract further controversy for “referencing” African music a little too closely – with many suggesting that it came closer to plagiarism. And in more than one case you could accuse them of unoriginiality.
But the cover for See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah. City All Over! Go Ape Crazy. is still considered a classic today. The composition and photography are beautiful and the performances and fashion perfectly update Manet’s iconic image. It also neatly encapsulates McLaren particular genius – in updating a once reviled but now canonised painting, he succeeds in refreshing its controversy. The viewer is again shocked at the woman’s presence in the picture, only this time because of her age.
Is it creepy? Brilliant? Both? Would it even raise eyebrows today?