Thinking with your hips
“It’s exciting because you can take other people’s records and make something else out of them,” says Malcolm McLaren, and he doesn’t mean ashtrays. He’s talking about scratching, the technique behind “Buffalo Gals”, phase one of his masterplan to put some magic back in the music.
A man in his thirties with a shrill voice and a big, daft hat is telling me how pop music can regain its lost purpose. He uses embarrassing terms like “rock ‘n’ roll” and “magic”; his conversation skips from the villages of Zululand to the streets of Tooting. His name is Malcolm McLaren.
In the late 1970s McLaren masterminded The Sex Pistols, briefly throwing the music industry into disarray. After they split up, he reappeared as the creator of Bow Wow Wow, putting subversive lyrics into the mouth of the teenage Annabelle and introducing African rhythms into British pop. He left them to their own devices when he realised the group wouldn’t work out until Annabelle had enough experience of life to understand what she was singing about.
In the middle of 1982 he teamed up with ABC’s producer Trevor Horn (“He was somebody who could manipulate whatever machinery was necessary to get the satisfactory sound”), to embark upon an ambitious project. He would bring back the original magic and excitement of rock ‘n’ roll music by tracking it down to its source in Africa and through the music of other cultures, from Red Indians to the black teenagers of New York.
What he discovered in New York was “scratching”: the manipulation of records and record players to produce new music out of old. This excited him more than any rock ‘n’ roll music he’d heard since The Sex Pistols. It had “adventure”.
From what I’d heard about him, I expected to meet a bit of a loony but found instead a man with the manner of an inspired teacher talking a great deal of sense. See what you think.
What’s wrong with pop music?
People tend to forget that rock ‘n’ roll could be the most sophisticated music of all time. I say that because its roots lie in deepest Africa. It has the same primitive magic as you might listen to in a pygmy tribe. “Rock’n’roll” is a term people are scared to use because they think it’s a cliché but it’s really the best way to me of summing up an intention to change things, a wishing to step outside of the norm.
English people think with their heads, in America they think with their hips, because they’re black, they’re from Africa originally and they have the whole magical source of what music should do, to conjure up the soul within you, utilise your body to turn yourself maybe into a trance and let yourself step out from the normal world. That was the origins end the magic of rock ‘n’ roll when it first happened in 1956 in the form of a white man called Elvis Presley. Groups like ABC and Haircut One Hundred have forgotten what the real truth and source of that magic was. They’re too far away from it. They’re just something to be purchased like wallpaper or a piece of clothing. They’ve got nothing to do with creating magic in your life which was the fundamental intention behind rock ‘n’ roll, as I know it. I think it was behind the Sex Pistols when they started.
The music industry now is a spent force because people can’t reach out and become part of that magic. There’s no real spirit in it. They’re packaging and marketing little ideas to make them look as big as possible. But you didn’t have to sell The Beatles or The Rolling Stones like that in the early 60s—
What’s all this got to do with “Buffalo Gals”?
I want to dig up that excitement, to bring into Britain that magic that people are losing. “Buffalo Gals” is part of a whole project that I’ve been working on since June and I put it out first because I thought it was the most radical, it would make people think about the way they listen to music and use music. The interesting thing about that record is that it’s an adventure story, it doesn’t keep to a verse-chorus-verse-chorus format which most Western records or songs are made up of.
A Buffalo Gal was a pioneer, an adventurer, someone cowboys in the Wild West sang about at barn dances when they were trying to get a girl: that’s what the square dance is on the B-side of the record. Square dancing in the last century was their rock ‘n’ roll, long before rock ‘n’ roll existed. I wanted to show that, exposed properly, it has as much vehemence. There’s a caller, just like a rapper, who’s shouting out the instructions—
There we saw all these kids on a derelict site spinning records and mixing them and, as they spun the records, turning them backwards and forward, slow or fast, scratching them. You heard a word cut in two and then repeated twenty times and cut in with a guitar instrumental from a completely different era, all blended together. Then they got a microphone and another guy started hollering over the top.
That attitude was, to me, not much different from Buffalo Gals in Tennessee, they were both very folk-orientated, serving the people’s needs and they both had a practical purpose. There was also all the dance that evolved from the South Bronx area of New York where all this was going on; very gymnastic, to do with your body. Thinking with your hips. It was this parallel between the two that I wanted to show. Neither had anything to do with what we presume to be a modern pop record. And yet I wanted to demonstrate that this had more excitement, more content, because it hadn’t been tampered with or been packaged. It had the essence of what I think is magical in music. It was the starting point for going on further in the world.
Where else did you go?
We went all over. To Peru, Zululand, Swaziland, the Dominican Republic, Tennessee, Miami, New York, Rome. Continue »
I felt great because I would never otherwise have known the absolute sophistication, excitement, power of these people and I would never have been able to believe sincerely that rock ‘n’ roll is an inspiration that comes from Africa and is the music of probably the oldest civilisation in the world. Little Richard was really an exponent of African music that goes back a thousand years. And those guys in the South Bronx in New York, cooking with their hands on those record players are not doing anything much different. It’s the same spirit. The technique of those guys mixing records directly relates to a witch doctor mixing a potion in Africa, or the Red Indian who starts talking to the trees or a child in E.T. communicating with the stars.
It directly relates to E.T., the way they communicated through an incredible load of old machinery to a planet out in the middle of nowhere. To me it has the same optimism, the same anti-adultness and a certain subversion. Suddenly there’s a use for all those old records which haven’t been played for years. It’s a use in the sence that it suddenly gives people a method of beginning to adopt, manipulate, understand and choose what’s good in their culture.
Is all this really going to have any impact on people?
I played a tape of this music to some children in Tooting. They were buzzing about the street trying to do what here they call “Robot” and in New York they call “Electric Boogie”. I jumped out of a car and played them a cassette and they said: “That’s tough!” I asked them what they meant and they said “That’s tough music. We like tough music. That’s good.” One kid was a punk rocker and the other kid was black and a little more funky.
These are the people I can very easily see getting hold of their brother’s or their mother’s record players and fitting them up and piling up a load of old records and figuring out what’s a good groove and a good beat. Suddenly a whole different attitude will take place. Live discotheques where deejays will be grooving along to their favourite records with their friends coming in to give them a hand, scratching one record into another.
The more that music becomes like the movies the better. I think that E.T. is one of the finest rock ‘n’ roll movies ever made—
I think it can happen here. Suddenly discotheques will be more vigorous and exciting than any concert on the stage of the Hammersmith Odeon. Live discotheques. I really think that’ll happen.