The story of what may be the most groundbreaking and prescient album of its era begins with a mystery: what on earth did a major record label think they were doing giving Malcolm McLaren £100,000 to make a solo album in the early 80s? Having opened the Sex boutique with Vivian Westwood in the mid-70s and managed the Sex Pistols and New York Dolls, he had both a reputation as a nonpareil troublemaker and no actual experience of making music himself, unless you counted the version of the old Max Bygraves song You Need Hands that he sang in The Great Rock’n’ Roll Swindle, his preposterous cinematic rewriting of the Pistols’ story; and the handful of lyrics he’d written for Bow Wow Wow, the band he was currently supposed to be managing, but in whom he’d completely lost interest.
In 1981, he had pitched Steve Weltman of RCA some intriguing, if confused, ideas: Appalachian square dances, the South American and Caribbean music he’d discovered on a scholarly 1958 album called The Dances of the World’s Peoples (Vol 3), while browsing the record library at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, plus something about a club he had visited in New York where people span on their heads while listening to “DJs who use record players like instruments … moving the needle manually backwards and forwards”, which he kept insisting was the new punk rock. When Weltman went to Charisma Records in 1982 – best known for being home to Genesis – he signed McLaren without the latter having done a note of music. But ideas are one thing, and discernible musical talent is another entirely. And McLaren was completely deficient in the latter.
“He told me he could sing,” sighed producer Trevor Horn when I interviewed him last year. Horn was drafted in to oversee the project, presumably as some kind of vague insurance policy for the label’s money. “Gary Langan, who engineered the album, still has the tape of the first time Malcolm sang in the studio. I say: ‘Oh my God, he sounds like Jimmy Clitheroe on acid.’ Then I say to Gary, ‘You can forget your bonus this year.’ There were some South African musicians in the studio with us, and one of them, a lady who did the Zulu war cry at the start of the track Buffalo Gals, came up to me and whispered in my ear: ‘Malcolm can’t sing.’ I was trying to explain to him when he should come in but he didn’t know what a bar was. I told him it was four beats. He said: ‘I don’t know anything about that.’”
The sessions for what became McLaren’s debut album, 1983’s Duck Rock, were pandemonium. McLaren had Horn and his team recording Peruvian pipe players, Colombian marching bands, Dominican wedding musicians playing merengue, country session musicians whom Horn recalled “doing huge lines of coke” in the studio and a family band from a remote location in rural Tennessee who, as McLaren’s biographer Paul Gorman put it, “appeared under-nourished and had pronounced strabismuses” (types of squint). Johannesburg’s legendary vocal trio the Mahotella Queens recorded with a group of west African priests devoted to Lucumi beliefs, who stripped to their waists and played drums unceasingly for several hours. In the process, McLaren dragged them from London to the Appalachian mountains, Soweto and New York.
Horn was hugely impressed with what McLaren showed him in NYC. It turned out the stuff about people spinning on their heads and manually moving turntable needles wasn’t a flight of fancy: McLaren had stumbled across the nascent hip-hop scene, befriending Afrika Bambaataa, breakdancers the Rock Steady Crew and the World’s Famous Supreme Team, a duo who ran a find-the-lady card scam on the streets and used the proceeds to fund a hip-hop radio show. In apartheid South Africa, they attempted to cope with the curfew that meant Black musicians either had to sleep in the studio or sneak into Horn and co’s hotel rooms.
The whole thing seemed like a huge adventure: McLaren frequently funded his ideas with the aid of a suitcase filled with cash. Nevertheless, Horn still tried to quit on the grounds that he didn’t think McLaren had a clue what he was doing. “I thought: how are we going to make this work? But he talked me out of it. Malcolm could be very persuasive.”
So Horn and his team persevered, coaxing McLaren through endless vocal takes and comping the best bits together, vetoing some of his more outlandish ideas. (At one point, he wanted to make a hip-hop track about ET, a sensation at US cinemas.) They used nascent sampling technology to weave this disparate music into something coherent: a kaleidoscopic musical collage in which hip-hop collided with square dances, off-air recordings of the World’s Famous Supreme Team were accompanied by Venezuelan joropo music, McLaren bellowed about the Sex Pistols over infectious South African jive and the Mahotella Queens hymned the New York skipping game double dutch, another current McLaren obsession.
As the album turns 40 – an event commemorated with a lavish reissue, complete with a second album of outtakes – Duck Rock feels incredibly ahead of its time. Its sleeve is decorated with designs by Keith Haring, whose work is an immediately recognisable pop cultural fixture today, but was almost unknown in 1982 unless you were keeping a very close eye on the New York street art scene. McLaren’s vocals are definitely an acquired taste – either weirdly energising or just plain annoying – but Duck Rock undeniably seemed to predict the way people consume pop music in the 21st century. Leaping wildly between genres, it sounds like the unboundaried mish-mash of musical styles from different continents and cultures that can constitute a pop fan’s diet in the era of streaming, when rappers, South American pop stars, Korean boybands and Nigerian Afrobeats performers all co-exist in the singles chart.
Certainly, it was too ahead of its time for McLaren’s record label, who responded to its proposed, chaotic lead single Buffalo Gals – effectively Duck Rock in miniature – by announcing it was “not music”, refusing to release it and preparing legal proceedings against McLaren, claiming he was in breach of his contractual obligation “to deliver music of acceptable commercial value”. He responded by sneaking a tape of the track on to London’s Capital Radio, where its sheer novelty value ensured that the station was inundated with inquiries: it really didn’t sound like anything else, including the handful of rap tracks that had already been hits in the UK. It was released and became a hit, which meant its video, recorded on the hoof on the streets of New York, was shown on Top of the Pops: an event that deserves to be ranked alongside David Bowie’s 1972 appearance performing Starman for cultural impact.
Buffalo Gals certainly wasn’t the first rap record to feature on the show but the video was the first glimpse Britain got of hip-hop culture: breakdancing, DJing, graffiti artists at work. The Sugarhill Gang and Kurtis Blow had previously appeared on TOTP dressed smart – Blow wore a suit, one of the Sugarhill Gang wore a cardigan – so the video also represented Britain’s first sighting of hip-hop style. McLaren studded the video with models wearing clothes from his and Vivienne Westwood’s autumn/winter 1982-83 collection, available at his latest boutique, Nostalgia of Mud, but to teenage eyes at least, they didn’t look remotely as striking as the Rock Steady Crew in their Kangol hats, tracksuits and Adidas Superstars. The “Buffalo” look McLaren and Westwood were pushing at the time proved hugely impactful in fashion world, but the clothes that Britain’s streets copied were those worn by the breakdancers.
I remember the mayhem in the school playground the day after the video was shown – it turned out that spinning on your head and doing the worm was nowhere near as easy as the Rock Steady Crew made it look – but that was just a daft short-term effect. More telling is the story related by XL Recordings’ boss Richard Russell in his autobiography Liberation Through Hearing: after encountering Buffalo Gals, he started buying hip-hop records in earnest. In the US, the record was an underground phenomenon rather than a hit. MTV declined to show the video: in a pre-Thriller world, it featured too many Black faces for the channel to countenance. But it still made an impact on musicians ranging from jazz legend Herbie Hancock – who recorded his 1983 hit Rockit in response – to the Beastie Boys, who abandoned hardcore punk and recorded their first rap single Cookie Puss, a kind of smart-ass New York parody of Buffalo Gals.
Moreover, the influence of Duck Rock seems an eternal presence in pop. A rough estimate suggests the album has been sampled on around 400 tracks, by Eminem, Drake, Dr Dre, J Cole, Missy Elliott, De La Soul, Pharrell Williams, A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, J Dilla and Madlib among umpteen others. And that’s just hip-hop: elsewhere, borrowing from Duck Rock is the thread that links Lana Del Rey to Linkin Park, the KLF to Alicia Keyes and Erykah Badu to – dear God – B*witched. For all the grief its recording caused him, Trevor Horn suggested it was the most important record he ever made: “I got more from that one album with Malcolm than from working with any other artist.” Most of his Duck Rock team would reassemble themselves as groundbreaking dance act Art of Noise, signed to Horn’s legendary 80s avant-pop label ZTT. “Did Duck Rock feed into ZTT? Are you kidding me?” he told me last year. “Enormously. It exposed me to a different world.”
And yet, Duck Rock seldom gets a mention when greatest albums lists are compiled, rarely warrants a feature in the heritage rock magazines: until the release of the new 40th anniversary edition, it had languished out of print for most of the last 30 years. Perhaps it’s overshadowed by McLaren’s earlier culture-altering achievement as manager of the Sex Pistols. Or perhaps it’s got something to do with a shadow that follows Duck Rock around. Several of the album’s tracks borrowed heavily from music already written by African artists. Double Dutch basically is Puleng, a 1977 single by South African mbaqanga band the Boyoyo Boys; Jive My Baby is audibly based on the Mahotella Queens track Jive Mabone. Not that you’d know that from the album’s songwriting credits, which say it was written by McLaren and Horn. And while Horn’s team of producers and musicians – and the World’s Famous Supreme Team – are credited for their musical contributions, no African musicians were named on the sleeve.
It didn’t pass without notice in 1983. A review by the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau questioned the morality of doing this. McLaren’s label mate Peter Gabriel buttonholed him at a party and attempted to convince him to do the decent thing, which, if nothing else, shows a charming faith in McLaren’s ability to listen to reason about anything: McLaren brushed him off. A subsequent legal case by the music publishers of Puleng was settled out of court: the credits remained unaltered. In his defence, Horn suggested that some musicians on the album were paid over the odds for their contributions – “they screwed us” – and the album had a ripple effect, raising awareness of the music it used: Duck Food, a 1986 compilation of mbaqanga released by Earthworks International, even came in a sleeve featuring McLaren on the cover, despite him not being involved. Nevertheless, you can argue for hours about the exact definition of what constitutes cultural appropriation, but when a European artist steals from African and South American musicians and claims it as their own, without crediting them, that’s definitely cultural appropriation of the most glaring and inarguable kind.
It was Keith Haring who suggested that “perhaps it wouldn’t be a Malcolm McLaren project if it didn’t have a distinctly queasy underside” – if it wasn’t, to use a modern term, problematic. This is, after all, a man who claimed he had tampered with evidence relating to Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious’s murder charge. A man who said of the incident in which Vicious threw a glass at the Damned, blinding a girl in one eye, “there are far worse things that happen for far worse causes”; who attempted to promote Bow Wow Wow by selling their music attached to a magazine called Chicken, which featured underage teenagers in various states of undress. Being problematic – as in doing things that were genuinely difficult to square with any standard sense of right or wrong – was par for the course.
There is a quote in Paul Gorman’s excellent biography The Life and Times of Malcolm McLaren where McLaren talks about using people as a painter uses oils. Another McLaren aphorism runs “Let me tell you, great art, or any real idea, has never worried about running a few people over. You never worry about it, because the idea is more important.” Whether that’s a reasonable way to conduct yourself is a very moot point. What’s inarguable is that the idea of Duck Rock was a very good one that continues to ring through pop half a century later.