Malcolm McLaren's been dead for two weeks now: his funeral's today, in fact. Thousands of words have been written and spoken about his life, but there's one thing very few people have been able to agree on: what did McLaren do, exactly? Given all the areas he dabbled in, what occupation could he possibly have put on his passport if they still did that sort of thing?
I think I've got the answer: 'collage artist'. McLaren freely admitted that he didn't have much artistic talent of his own. What he was great at doing was identifying interesting things that were happening in the culture, and bashing them together in unexpected combinations to see what would happen. From the mixed and (mis)matched clothes he and Vivienne Westwood were selling in their shop SEX in the seventies, to the 'musical paintings' he was displaying in Newcastle as recently as last Christmas, collage was what he did best. (Yeah, I know I've gone two paragraphs without mentioning the Sex Pistols. Well, some of his collages were made out of people.)
It was inevitable that he'd be one of the first Brits to embrace hip-hop culture, given its overlap with his own artistic concerns. So in 1983, McLaren released a groundbreaking album that combined hip-hop with African pop to devastating effect: it was a huge popular success, and was the record that most radio stations reached for when the time came to broadcast his obituary. It was called Duck Rock, and for some reason it's no longer in print.
Last Sunday, I dragged out my copy of Duck Rock to see how it sounded now. Unfortunately, back in 1983 I bought the vast majority of my music on cassette, and 27 years have been unkind to the format - fifteen minutes in, the tape was stretching and wowing to the point where it was almost impossible to listen to. But from what I'd heard up until then, it seemed to still hold up as a piece of music, so I popped online to find out how much it'd cost to get a replacement copy on CD.
Fifty quid, apparently, if you believe the Amazon link below. At least, that's what it costs at the time of writing. Maybe McLaren's death will spark off an opportunistic re-release, and the price will drop: but for now, Duck Rock is only available second-hand at extortionate prices, unless you compromise and go for a digital download. (A measly £2.99 from Play, surprisingly.)
It's ironic that you can only buy it as twelve individual MP3 files, because one of the things that Duck Rock reminds you of is how an album used to be conceived as a single coherent piece of work. Despite all the disparate musical elements involved, it all hangs together thanks to the simple device of structuring it as a radio show hosted by The World's Famous Supreme Team, New York DJs See Divine The Mastermind and Just Allah The Superstar. They chat to phone callers, introduce us to the fantastic sound of scratched records, throw in a couple of raps, and ensure that everything flows - just like they were doing on their regular WHBI radio programme. But back in the eighties, to someone like me who'd only ever heard mainstream UK wireless, it sounded like your stereo being taken on holiday.
Obviously, the same applies to the music in between the links, a mishmash of black music styles from America and Africa that McLaren had encountered on his travels. It wasn't the first time that he'd plundered from African music: a couple of years earlier, he'd heard the sound of Burundi drumming, and used its propulsive rhythm to launch not one but two pop careers. Meanwhile, hip-hop hadn't really broken out of the US underground, beyond the odd record from someone like Grandmaster Flash hinting at the magic you could achieve with a couple of turntables and a crossfader. McLaren's genius was in realising that he could grab hip-hop's magpie aesthetic and use that as an excuse to put anything he damn well liked on a record.
After a decade or two of not listening to it, it's astonishing to rediscover the huge range of styles crammed into Duck Rock's tight 44 minutes. Breezy Afropop guitars and vocals bash up hard against New York urban beats, while McLaren occasionally tries to confuse matters still further by throwing some country into the mix. (It's easy to forget that the album's breakout hit Buffalo Gals is technically a barn dance.) There is no way on earth that all of this should work as a coherent whole, but it does, and ultimately that has to come down to McLaren's role as curator and ringmaster. His main audible contribution is a series of take-them-or-leave-them lead vocals: but his sheer enthusiasm for music is there all the way through, the sound of a man running through his collection yelling "hey, listen to this one" and then changing records every five seconds.
Of course, some people had to buckle down to the pesky business of actually writing and playing this music once McLaren had come up with the basic ideas. And McLaren found the perfect collaborator in producer Trevor Horn, hot from his hitmaking partnership with ABC. Duck Rock was the album where Horn's team of backroom boffins - a pianist/arranger, a programmer and an engineer - came to the fore as they turned McLaren's concepts into sound. Within a year, those boffins would have become a band in their own right, The Art Of Noise. The roots of their subsequent work are clearly audible in their collaborations with McLaren, particularly on b-sides like D'ya Like Scratchin' where they could cut loose a bit more. I spent a significant portion of the mid-eighties pretentiously insisting that The Art Of Noise's Beatbox (Diversion One) was a pinnacle of recorded sound that would never be surpassed, but I suspect that they never had as much fun as they did on Duck Rock.
On one level, it's cultural tourism run riot. And it's very iffy that McLaren takes the lion's share of the credit, with Horn's team in much smaller type, and the African and American guest musicians relegated to a single derisory thank-you paragraph on the sleeve. But when it all comes together - say, in the ecstatic rush of Double Dutch, or the hyperspeed Latin hustle of Merengue - you can forgive him all of that, and just revel in a record that still sounds fresh nearly thirty years after it was made. It's a fine epitaph for one of those dodgy geezers that we English seem to enjoy so much, even as they're ripping us off.