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40 Years On: Malcolm McLaren's Duck Rock Revisited
Jeremy Allen , May 30th, 2023 08:54

Malcolm McLaren’s innovative Duck Rock is often held up as the embodiment of cultural appropriation, though the dues the roguish impresario owes to the French are less often acknowledged or explored, says Jeremy Allen

Pablo Picasso once said that “every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction,” and as modern art’s papier collé co-innovator, he would know. It’s often said that Malcolm McLaren was a visionary – and while that’s true – he primarily was a destroyer. Through his acts of détournement, he managed to create chaos from which emerged something new, a process that was more about the accident than the design.

There was never any doubt McLaren knew how to manoeuvre: being at the forefront of one youth movement might have happened by luck, but to do it again within the space of six years – from the release of the Sex Pistols' ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’ in 1976 to ‘Buffalo Gals’ in 1982 – delineates a clear pattern of orchestration. In each case he’s the Nero-like figure packing the powder keg himself and then fiddling from the wings as the flames lick higher.

It takes huge reserves of energy and a strange sort of genius to stir up such epochal shenanigans. He clearly had an eye for trends, attempting to popularise voguing a good year before Madonna fired it into the mainstream in 1990. It failed to ignite under his watch, perhaps because it wasn’t controversial enough. McLaren communicated best when there was friction, creating tension from composites, where materials shouldn’t necessarily align but somehow do. It’s one of the reasons his 1983 album Duck Rock sounds so compelling 40 years later.

It doesn’t necessarily all work, but when it’s on song, Duck Rock is sublime. The four South African-based songs – ‘Soweto’ and ‘Double Dutch’ in particular – swing ebulliently and groove transcendently, with McLaren’s strange, capricious MCing launching a surprise charm offensive over the top. Like his old associate Johnny Rotten, he exuded an odd sort of charisma with a microphone, despite obvious stylistic limitations.

“Having been responsible for an earlier DIY culture, I couldn’t help feeling that I would be unquestionably a fraud if I didn’t attempt to do it myself,“ wrote McLaren in 2008 for some sleeve notes that were intended for a 25th anniversary edition that never happened. “So I stepped out from behind the curtain, signed with Charisma records, and set off to make this album in 1981.”

In many ways, McLaren was moving fast and breaking things to shape the world in his image long before Silicon Valley got in on the act. He achieved the means with ruthlessness, irrespective of the consequences. He wasn’t harvesting data, but rather he was a harvester of cultural devastation, driven by a similar libertarian impulse as tech bros reconfiguring our lives under the protective veneer of neoliberalism – even if politically he was operating from the other end of the spectrum.

Another similarity between Silicon Valley and McLaren is stealing, but where, say, social media companies steal from each other to essentially offer all of the same services on their respective platforms, McLaren’s larceny was not about homogeneity – he dared to be different, but always facilitated by the ideas of others. As tech companies continue to evade antitrust laws, Malc would be plagued by plagiarism lawsuits for plundering the world like an acquisitive colonial antiquarian. Morally it was dubious at best, but that doesn’t detract from what an important milestone Duck Rock is.

His debut album, which commenced under the working title “Folk Dances of the World” and was made with the expertise of the world’s hottest producer at that time, Trevor Horn, as well as acclaimed arranger Anne Dudley, is not only a forerunner of the montage culture that has taken hold of the 21st century, but also an eccentric clarion call to future UK hip hoppers. It tacitly declared that you don’t necessarily need to be young, Black or from the South Bronx to make this exuberant DIY music – a message that it would take a while to register fully.

Its flirtation with comedy on tracks like ‘Duck For The Oyster’ – a hoedown monstrosity – wouldn’t have helped disseminate the message, though seen in retrospect, Duck Rock> deserves our respect for attempting something that had never really been tried before. The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks has passed into the pantheon but it could be argued that Duck Rock is more important, and that the music it celebrated has proved to be more durable.

“We got to see body popping for the first time, break dancing for the first time, kids putting lino on the pavement, the graffiti writers and the DJs,” Rodney P told Vinyl Factory concerning the video for ‘Buffalo Gals’, a song which lays genuine claim to being Britain’s first hip hop record. “All the elements were there. Malcolm McLaren was a big part of the UK hip hop story, though he’s often written out of it.”

There’s an invisible lineage from Stormzy, Dave and Little Simz that goes back to Duck Rock, an album that was largely inspired by McLaren watching Afrika Bambaataa tear up a block party in New York in the early 1980s. McLaren would help popularise the genre with a refracted authenticity that Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ could only dream of. And yet it feels ironic to talk of the debt UK hip hop owes McLaren when McLaren is so heavily indebted himself.

The list of artists who may have contributed to Duck Rock in some way includes the World Famous Supreme Team – who at least got their name on the record – as well as anonymous violinists, banjo players, Peruvian pipers, a Colombian marching band, some Dominican dance artists and many of the finest musicians the Soweto townships had to offer. It borrowed from or in some way simulated New York hip hop, rap and turntablism, South African mbaqanga and township jive, Dominican merengue, New England and Appalachian square dancing, and many more besides.

In the internet age, that doesn’t seem too audacious, though back in the early 80s, you would have to travel around the world at eye-watering expense to do it – charged back to a disgruntled Chrysalis Records. McLaren’s mistake was neither crediting his musicians nor paying them properly, and he rubbed salt into the wounds by dressing up as a Dickensian street hustler in the ‘Buffalo Gals’ video. It could have been called the Great World Music Swindle if that term had been popularised by then.

South Africa’s Sunday Times branded Duck Rock a “criminal record” in 2021 and unpicked the tracks to reveal aggrieved parties who in many cases had their music ripped off wholesale, with McLaren and Horn simply slapping their names on top to claim ownership. Taking traditional songs and copyrighting them became a regular publishing practice back in the 1960s and 1970s, especially if the author added some new lyrics or did some tinkering with the arrangement: Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Scarborough Fair’ is one example, Pink Floyd’s use of ‘Of All The Pretty Little Horses’ for ‘Julia Dream’ is another.

More germane to Duck Rock is the case of ‘Percussions’ by Serge Gainsbourg from 1964. The French singer borrowed the drums from Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji’s Drums Of Passion album and swiped the odd interpolation from Mariam Makeba for a record that was released 20 years before Paul Simon even set foot in Johannesburg. The Frenchman, too, would be dragged through the courts.

At this stage it’s worth noting that when the impresario wound up in Paris to lick his wounds at the end of the 70s following the expensive dissolution of the Sex Pistols, he and Gainsbourg hung out together. One day the pair went boozing for several hours on the Champs-Élysées. Gainsbourg was an avowed Sid Vicious fan, and kept a photo of him on his Steinway piano alongside a framed picture of Chopin, while McLaren was an even bigger admirer of Gainsbourg.

“The performer Malcolm McLaren really wanted to be was Serge Gainsbourg,” wrote John Lydon when he issued a slightly awkward press release following the death of McLaren in 2010. As for a pair of inveterate provocateurs in cahoots, it’s tempting to imagine Serge mentioning the trouble he’d got himself into making Percussions while they downed Bloody Marys a stone’s throw from the Arc de Triomphe. That’s not something we’re ever likely to know, though it seems that Gainsbourg drank 26 Bloody Marys to McLaren’s five (if McLaren is to be believed).

Whatever was said amongst them, it was around this time that McLaren made a discovery that would change the course of pop music forever, and also plant the seed for Duck Rock. The story goes – again, according to McLaren – that he chanced upon the Master Drummers of Burundi whilst checking out field recordings in the obscurity department of the Beaubourg, known colloquially as the Centre Pompidou, in Paris. Malcolm remembered having his eye on the librarian, who he randomly got to play a track called ‘Tambours Ingoma’. She apparently put it on at the wrong speed, opting for 45 rpm instead of 33 rpm, triggering a lightbulb reaction that would turn British pop on its head.

Meanwhile Stuart Goddard, better known as Adam Ant, was on the lookout for a manager, and he coughed up the princely fee of £1,000 so that McLaren would take him in hand. Although McLaren was only on board briefly, it turned out to be money well spent, even if it must have seemed counterintuitive at the time. McLaren ended up enlisting Simon Jeffes of Penguin Cafe Orchestra, who’d arranged the strings on the Sid Vicious version of ‘My Way’, to instruct Ant in the rhythmic ways of the Bukirasazi. Bow Wow Wow would also latch onto similar polyrhythms at McLaren’s behest, starting a UK pop movement that the New York Times sniffily called “The New Tribalism” in 1981, with an editorial that sneered at a new British invasion with pirates in tricorn hats and mohawks plundering East Africa for profit.

Being struck with inspiration while trying to impress a librarian at the Pompidou is a nice story, though there may be, as is often the case, some McLaren myth-making involved. “Malcolm was recovering from the post-Pistols fallout in Paris,” wrote Jordan in her 2019 Cathi Unsworth-assisted memoir Defying Gravity. “The city was full of his old friends at the time, including his art college comrade Robin Scott, now working with his brother Jullian at Barclay Records. Robin had been producing some African musicians with a heavy drum sound called the Burundi beat, which immediately grabbed Malcolm’s attention.’”

I contacted Robin Scott, aka the mysterious M of ‘Pop Muzik’ fame, and asked him about this when I was writing my Serge Gainsbourg biography Relax Baby Be Cool (2021), and he hinted that he may have been involved in the dissemination of the Burundi beat in Britain, either directly, or indirectly. "‘Adam Ant’s first album was released on my label [Do It] in the UK, and there was some speculation as to who sowed the seeds in Adam’s mind to adopt the Burundi beat. Eclecticism followed the commercial collapse of punk in the record industry, and Malcolm and I advocated the practice. So who knows?”

At Barclay Records, Scott would have had access to the Mike Steïphenson track ‘Burundi Black’, a hit in 1971 based on the Musique Du Burundi ‘Ensemble de Tambours’ which 1981’s ‘Antmusic’ also borrowed from too, taking Adam and the Ants to no.2 in the UK charts. When I tried Robin Scott again via Messenger recently, his admin replied this time, saying: “I’ve asked Robin. He said MM discovered it in his own way in the Barclay archives.”

It wouldn’t be the first time Malcolm borrowed from the French. In 1973, he went to Paris with the New York Dolls and was taken in by the sophisticated ideas floating around via the decadent rock writers hanging out in Les Halles where the old market was about to be demolished. “I wouldn’t be as bold as to say the French invented punk,” Bertrand Burgalat told me, “but when Malcolm McLaren came to Paris with the New York Dolls in 1973, he met this clique of rock aesthetes such as Yves Adrien and Philippe Manœuvre. Britain and America may have had the bands, but Paris had the writers. Adrien and Manœuvre were imagining punk through the Stooges before punk arrived in Europe. Malcolm, who was clever, totally got this bloody thing!”

Later, McLaren would bump into the singer Elli Medeiros from the punk band the Stinky Toys whose entire outfit was deliberately held together with safety pins. “He arrived in Paris dressed like a teddy boy and went back to London dressed like a punk,” added Burgalat. Whatever your feelings about cultural appropriation, ideas themselves are fair game, and McLaren took most of his from the French, who should maybe be added to the list of the aggrieved. Elli Medeiros, Yves Adrien, Philippe Manœuvre, Mike Steïphenson aka Michel Bernholc aka Burundi Black, Eddie Barclay, the Centre Pompidou librarian, Guy Debord, Georges Braques, Pablo Picasso (an honorary Frenchman), and perhaps ironically even Gainsbourg himself. The list goes on. Qui vole un œuf, vole un bœuf, as they say in France.

The 40th Anniversary Edition of Duck Rock with bonus disc is out now via state51