In 1982, the only scratching I knew about was that caused by Joe Campbell’s hay bales in the field next door. It was fun to climb up the surprisingly heavy yellow bricks and fall between the stacks with the neighbouring kids. Occasionally a big mother of a thistle would scrape our arms or faces but that was the gamble when rolling (innocently) in the hay.
Meanwhile, Malcolm McLaren had been busy appropriating bits of alien sounds from across the globe to launch his next musical assault after being punk’s midwife not long before. Buffalo Gals from Duck Rock brought the emerging hip hop sounds from the Bronx (a scary place where my cousins lived), square dancing from the US south and Afrobeat (this was before ‘World Music’ became a genre) onto the radio in Farmer Campbell’s haybarn in rural Ireland.
‘All that scratching is making me itch’
In 1982, I had purchased my first records (Captain Sensible’s Happy Talk, Musical Youth, The Kids from ‘Fame’ – that sort of thing). I was listening to the charts but much of it scared or bored me (Soft Cell come immediately to mind for some reason). Buffalo Gals was a riot of weirdness and colour, music of the future yet manageable, a primer for cultural adventure and the possibility of pop. At some level I got it, but McLaren would have a few more opportunities to snatch me (and he did look like a bit of a child snatcher, didn’t he?).
“Hey Ebo, Ebonettes…”
This hayrolling Irish child also had a passion for America. I would ask to be taken to the travel agents where I would make off with brochures for the USA. These red and blue things would be studied. Photos of happy people in Florida, Miami and San Francisco would be examined for traces of Big Glamourous Alternatives. (But this is no Frank McCourt situation; I wasn’t lamenting my grey existence in rural Ireland. I was only a kid and having a whale of a time after all.) Buffalo Gals was followed by 1983‘s Double Dutch, a joyful (and kid-friendly) record that I bought on 7”. It was alive with hooks and sonic fun. This was America – fun, futuristic and with black New York girls skipping.
“I will wait for you with unshakable faith”
Kids grow up quickly when they get a bit too involved with devil music. I was a big boy of 11 in 1984 and getting my worldview shaped by the fortnightly injection of popculture and London snark via Smash Hits. McLaren puts out Madam Butterfly (Un Bel di Vedremo) fusing a Puccini aria and (again) American rap in a track over six minutes long. It charts. My headspace now welcomed opera and genre-messing/general expectation-fucking (only one of which I maintain a significant interest in).
“Dum Dum Da Dum Dum Dum Dum Dum”
Not being a musician, McLaren assembled talent around him to realise his fanciful notions. On Duck Rock, he used a group of people (including Trevor Horn and Anne Dudley) who would continue the sampling and sonic manipulation and become the Art of Noise. when Close (to the Edit) was a hit in 1984, its car doors slamming percussion and orchestral stabs made me somewhat giddy with excitement and bored with earnest traditional guitar types such as U2 (who everyone else loved – it was Ireland after all, we had few enough winners back then).
“Hellzapoppin when I’m waltzing in my stockings”
Like any habitual drug user, I was fully committed to chasing my hit after five years of exposure. Classical, electronic pop, acid house – all were inhaled deeply and I forgot to exhale. I read of how McLaren wanted to fuse Viennese waltzes with contemporary rock. Even I knew that 3/4 and 4/4 time don’t work. However, he brought in Bootsy Collins to fake it, and the subsequent Waltz Darling album was a bit of a triumph.
By then, I was an au pair in a little village outside Zurich for a couple of months in the summer. Somehow, I was able to watch the UK chart countdown on TV there, and the poppy weirdness of Something’s Jumpin’ In Your Shirt battling near the bottom of the countdown caught my attention. I then discovered the title track and follow up House of the Blue Danube (the track where you can really see the time signature cracks, but it scarcely matters). Despite being far away from familiarity, I still had an interest in the audacious, playful unfamiliar that McLaren was adept at providing. I bought myself a little sampler and made odd little lo-fi tracks under the name ‘The Opera House’.
McLaren never had the same impact on me (or the charts) again. He made the pastoral (and unlistenably pretentious) Paris album, but I (we) weren’t interested. Dance music had properly resurfaced in the charts and was infiltrating indie with great success. every second act was pushing technology to thrilling, previously unheard of limits. Sampling was not a (commonplace) art. Producers were popstars. Ideas had become globalised. I no longer required a maverick ambassador such as McLaren – they were everywhere.
And now Talcy Malcy’s gone. He wasn’t a musician, but he wasn’t a charlatan either. He was at the helm of some ambitious, ridiculous, genre-busting playful and educational records. I was too young to appreciate his impact in the 70s, but there’s a pretty clear seam in contemporary pop that can be traced back to McLaren’s pot of ideas and grab-bag of sounds. There’s a pretty clear seam in my appreciation for ambitious pop music that I can track all the way back to a hayshed in East Galway.
Perfumed, slightly aloof McLaren alongside thistles and bales of hay- not a pairing that one would ordinarily make, but he was pretty good at crazy juxtapositions.
Malcolm McLaren (1946 – 2010)