Rock 'n' roll beats working in a laundry.

Three years ago, 14-year-old Annabella Lwin was working in a London launderette. Then rock svengali Malcolm McLaren had an idea (his last one had been the Sex Pistols), and he unleashed Bow Wow Wow, a band paced by African tribal rhythms and fronted by baby-faced Lwin.

An adolescent lack of detail comes through in Lwin's retelling of the story. "A friend of Malcolm's came in to where I worked regularly and asked me if I wanted to audition for a band; I thought he was joking or trying to pick me up or something. The following week I took a friend with me and we met him someplace and he took us somewhere in London, a rehearsal studio, and there was a band downstairs and that was the band. I done a couple of numbers with them, they wrote down the lyrics and I went through it with them, and that was how I sort of had my audition." Lwin had never sung before.

Lwin, who is half-Burmese, dropped out of school soon afterward, and there was a big controversy when, at age 15, she posed seminude for an album cover's photographic reproduction of Manet's "Dejeuner sur L'Herbe" (the punch line of the controversy -- probably intentional, of course -- was, "We're only in it for the Manet.") Education authorities kept the cover under wraps until Lwin turned 16, which gives her a little laugh. "When it was first brought out in 1883, the fuss over it was incredible. We done it again, and the fuss in 1982 was still just as incredible. Times really haven't changed."

But she's changed since she turned to rock, says drummer Dave Barbarosa after Lwin steps out of the room for a quick photo session. "She's got very hard. It's a strange thing: She joined when she was 14, so all that important childhood period between 14 and 17 has been spent in groups and going on the road with big roadies and doing all sorts of terrible things. To hang about with us, it must have really done her in, which is why she's what she is."

"S'all right," Lwin insists, coming in on the tail end of his statement. She does seem semitough, though she still tends to mischievous misinformation in interviews (one had Lwin taking up body building so she could arm-wrestle with her roadies; another had her as the niece former U.N. secretary general U Thant).

She made the news again recently, walking off a live and very popular BBC talk show after she felt the host had insulted her and the band. The expletive was not deleted in time. "It was a trendy, new wavy, socialist worker's party-cum-armchair anarchist program for young adults who are unemployed," Barbarosa says, while Lwin adds with a Mae West pout, "He was really insulting me, trying to make me look stupid, making the audience laugh at me. I just lost my temper. You should have seen his face after on television." A unspoken "ha-ha" hangs in the air.

Bow Wow Wow quickly established itself as a semipolitical, semisexual outfit, with the alluring Lwin shout-singing provocative lyrics, kind of a raw, punkish Tanya Tucker. Like many British bands, Bow Wow Wow had a half-baked philosophy running through its music, combining "W.O.R.K.," and its somewhat patrician view that unemployment could be fun in an age of leisure technology, with a more plebian "sun, sea and piracy" ethic, which Barbarosa capsulizes as "trying to get away with as much as you can, and being a good example to the world."

Although the band's relationship with Malcolm McLaren was recently severed, he looms large in its psyche. McLaren is something of a pop subversive, an appealing cross between Marshall McLuhan, Andy Warhol and P.T. Barnum. His eye for detail is acute, to the point that he has managed to affect Britain's music and youth cultures, particularly with the seminal Sex Pistols, who stylized the entire punk stance.

"He hasn't really been our manager for eight or 10 months," says Barbarosa. "Malcolm was all right in the beginning when he found us an amusing toy; then he got bored with it and we got bored with him."

The band's first offering was "C30-C60-C90-GO," a tape that was an open invitation to and champion of home-taping. Lwin spouted a line guaranteed to endear her to the music industry: "I don't buy records in your shop/ I tape them all on Top of the Pops." The follow-up was a tape compilation, "Your Cassette Pet." EMI Records, the first to sign and the first to fire the notorious Sex Pistols, was dumb enough to sign McLaren's subsequent project but must have been still smarting enough not to push it very hard.

Bow Wow Wow is about to embark on its most ambitious American tour; the group also just finished a new album produced by Mike Chapman, who came up with five No. 1 hits for Blondie. Titled "When The Tough Gets Going the Going Gets Tough," it will certainly be an easier title to say than the last album, "See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah! City All Over, Go Ape Crazy."

Having cut the McLaren strings, Bow Wow Wow is now waiting to see how life is for self-manipulating puppets. The "puppet" image has pursued the group from the start, when critics railed at McLaren's exploitation of Lwin's precocious sexuality, what some dubbed pube-rock.

"But it's a good life. You have a laugh, you see the world, you make good music if you're lucky," Lwin says, sounding like a Marine recruiter. "As for being a puppet, you get what you can get. You just try and get on and have a go. I don't mind being manipulated--it's all right. Actually it's quite exciting."