Malcolm McLaren, 1946-2010

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The New York Times reports the death of svengali, impressario, and iconoclast Malcolm McLaren, above, today, at the age of 64.

His companion of many years, Young Kim, confirmed that Mr. McLaren died on Thursday, and said that he died of mesothelioma at a hospital in Switzerland.

never_mind_the_bollocksMcLaren is best known, and will be most remembered, for assembling and managing the sneering punk prototypes, the Sex Pistols. Fearsome and outrageous, especially in an era that had just come through yacht rock and disco, the quartet’s sole, 1977 studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, right, remains one of the most influential rock albums ever. (This fact later led McLaren, with typical, consumate bombast, to declare himself “the inventor of punk.”)

I didn’t know about any of that, however, until much, much later. I didn’t know who McLaren even was until one afternoon in 1982, when driving down Commercial Ave. in Freeport, listening to my ’75 Impala’s radio, I heard the opening wails of his agglomeration with New York’s World’s Famous Supreme Team, “Buffalo Gals.”

buffalo_scratchThe unholy bastard offspring of Appalachian square dance chants being fornicated by hip-hop beats and scratching, “Buffalo Gals,” right, seemed to rip through the spacetime continuum—and my ears—with the wild ferocity of a long overdue supernova.

I well knew what turntables did. Yet for the 3 1/2 minutes the song played, I was utterly dumbfounded. I literally could not comprehend what was coming out of my car’s speakers. I felt like my sense of reality was being pushed and challenged, as though to a duel. It is possibly the closest I’ve ever come to wetting myself over a piece of music.

trevor_horn_3Some portion of the song’s startling and abrupt displacement, no doubt, should be credited to its producer, the astounding Trevor Horn, right, one of pop’s greatest.

On “Buffalo Gals,” every element in the track is meatily recorded and arranged: A corpulent bass line lumbers with the force of a bull; Fairlight synths shimmer like breaking sunbeams through storm clouds; and the turntables saw at the vinyl like desperate escapees. It all culminates in a roiling, imploding, 20-second breakdown at the end that never fails to gives me chills.

screen3The World’s Famous Supreme Team—here, right, from their own later masterpiece, “Hey, D.J.”—impart vocals, dee-jaying, and radio show sound snippets that give the track its gritty and authentic surface texture. This is a hip-hop record. and they are the content; the hip-hop artists that make “Buffalo Gals” what it claims to be. (Ironically, however, neither d.j. is listed as a songwriter on the credits, denying them publishing income, certainly a sore point for them and probably key to their break with the Englishman.

McLaren, though, is the recording’s glue. He’s certainly the person who brought the aforementioned team together. He was no doubt the one who heard rap and said, “This reminds me of hillbilly music.” Indeed, it’s his loopy voice, shouting square dance calls as though they were cargo manifests, that sends the disc wickedly off-balance.

(Later that year, a gifted artist and I would fashion a 90-second animated short—titled “Break!”, yet!—to McLaren’s “Buffalo Gals” dub, “She’s Looking Like A Hobo.” It was the first project on which Chuck D and I ever collaborated, and the hit of Adelphi University’s communications department’s mini-film festival, representing a small, personal victory, and the beginning of a vital, defining friendship.)

Looking back at “Buffalo Gals,” though, what is most amazing is that the record really shouldn’t have worked. The elements that McLaren was attempting to jam together could have so easily collapsed into something extremely corny.

So, why doesn’t it? I think what gives it its power is that everyone plays their position with utter conviction. There’s no “wink wink” moment on “Buffalo Gals.” There’s no joke, no punchline. “Buffalo Gals” takes itself completely seriously. Nearly thirty years later, when you hear it, you can’t help but do the same.

Rest in peace, Malcolm McLaren…Malcolm…Malcolm McLaren….

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3 comments ↓

#1 Flex on 05.20.10 at 6:56 pm

RIP, Love the do you like scratchin ep when it first dropped. I always wondered how much input he actually had no disrespect to the man but…

Anyways if I’m correct I remember seeing you either on tv on reading in an interview that you were a big Chubb Rock fan. I came across this song called “Ol Skool Flava” and it’s a grown folks type a jam. Maybe you’d like to check it. And of all places the first time I heard it was on Michael Baisden show(did I spell that right?). It’s on itunes here.. Respect Harry…

http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/bridging-the-gap/id315850341

#2 Trelly on 06.19.10 at 8:42 am

Ahh I, too remember WBAU being the first station I’d ever heard rock ‘Buffalo Gals’ back in the days. I always turned my radio up a little louder because the quirkiness of the song was infectious, as was the beat. Years later when I actually saw a picture of McLaren, I was in uttr denial that he was the man behind that funky song of my youth. RIP — and thanks for the memories, Harry (even a ’75 Impala (smile).

#3 uglyblackjohn on 08.09.10 at 7:14 am

Damn…
Really?
Malcolm was a bad MF.
He did Vogue before Madonna, Hip-Hopera before Beyonce and B-Gals was the ish.
The video for B-Gals features Rock Steady dancing and Donde White putting up a weak (for him) piece.
THE Classic Hip-Hop video.

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