The following was posted to goodreads.com by Jeremy Helligar. (Full disclosure from Lori Majewski: “I used to work with Jeremy at Us Weekly and Teen People. We bonded over a mutual love of music, which is why I wanted him to be among the first to read our book.)
Some kids have a favorite doll, a teddy bear, a toy or a lucky blanket. I had a book: Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 Yearbook. I can’t remember where I got it, but for most of the early ’80s, it was my one constant companion, a not-so-imaginary best friend. I carried it everywhere. The book, which came out in 1979, profiled every single artist who scored a Top 40 hit during Billboard magazine’s 1978 chart year. In the back, there were Billboard year-end charts for all of the various genres covered in the magazine (my other required reading in the ’80s) as well as essays on such varied topics as what makes a hit single.
I still have that book today, more than 30 years later. (Amazon currently has it on sale, from $124.82 USED, which should give you an idea what a collector’s item it now is.) The cover might be no longer attached to the spine, but it lives on, safely stored away in a friend’s house in Melbourne, where, sadly, I can’t get to it at the moment. (I’m living in Cape Town.) Recently, though, I’ve been missing it a little less than usual, thanks to the musical history documented on the pages of Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s.
If I were a child of the 2010s, Mad World might serve the same purpose that the 1978 book fulfilled for me 30 years ago. I’d be dragging it around, thumbing through the pages until they’re wrinkled and dog-eared. It might even pull me away from the Internet, becoming required reading during solo lunches and road trips as well as a source of constant trivia. Facebook status update: “Lost in Mad World – again.”
Mad World isn’t just a book about songs of the ’80s, though. It’s a snapshot of an entire movement, a cultural phenomenon and the artists who bought it to life. The are many of the usual suspects (Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, The Human League…), a few unusual ones (The Normal, The Waitresses, Animotion), and one-hit wonders who actually weren’t (A-ha, Dexys Midnight Runners, Spandau Ballet).
Many of their stories often sprout from the same sources (Roxy Music performing “Virginia Plain” on “Top of the Pops” in 1972, David Bowie, Kraftwerk), flourish and intertwine, before diverging, and intertwining again (in the Band-Aid finale chapter). They love each other (Duran Duran’s John Taylor was a huge fan of ABC’s debut album, The Lexicon of Love, while his band and Spandau Ballet were early cohorts!) and sometimes loathe each other: Echo and the Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch’s anti-Bono rant is one of the book’s most entertaining passages, and A Flock of Seagulls gets the derisive treatment from several of its peers – and formerly wild-haired frontman Mike Score fights back!
Reading it is like watching a series of VH1 “Behind the Music” episodes – 36 of them. But instead of having a bunch of talking heads interrupting the true stories, saying pretty much the same old same old (“That song took them to the next level” – Duh!), you get the full story about the men and women (alas, mostly men) behind the hits and the non-hits, straight from the sources’ mouths. (Co-authors Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein have their say at the beginning of each chapter then get out of the way.)
In much the same obsessive way that I was attached to that 1978 yearbook for so many of my formative years, as an adult, I’m similarly obsessed with History Channel documentaries, downloading them and watching them over and over, sometimes falling asleep while re-listening to a story for the umpteenth time. “Mad World” is like the literary version of those documentaries, if the History Channel were dedicated to retro pop instead of dead Presidents and the political past.
“Mad World” gives me something new to take to bed with me, only instead of falling asleep with Greek myths and Civil War, Mexican War and Spanish-American War stories swirling in my head, I’ll be mentally replaying the greatest hits (and non-hits) from the biggest stars of the new-wave era, some of which I hadn’t listened to in years until “Mad World” sent me running to my music collection and to YouTube.
I’d forgotten how ground-breaking and wonderful The Human League’s “Being Boiled” was, how unlike anything else driving radio Gary Numan’s “Cars” was at the time (circa 1980), and damn, if Ultravox’s “Vienna” doesn’t still send a chill down my spine. Now I know the full stories behind all of those unforgettable fires and the ups and downs and sometimes ups again of the artists responsible for lighting them. And thanks to Roland Orzabal’s comments on the origin of the Tears for Fears moniker and the evolution of his personal philosophy, I’m now armed with new ammunition for those nature vs. nurture debates that I always seem to be having these days. “Mad World” isn’t just about music. It’s about life, and the breadth of life that its title (which is taken from the TFF classic featured within) describes and encompasses.
If I have one gripe about “Mad World,” it’s that even at 320 pages, it’s too small a world, after all. There’s no full chapter on U2, Culture Club, Eurythmics, and several other ‘80s staples, though they do pop up in the book’s pages. But to quote Thompson Twins (who ARE here), here’s to future days – and books. I generally hate sequels, but for possibly the first time ever, “Mad World” has me saving a prayer for one.