Most people, if they get the chance, have to settle for one great achievement in the cultural arena. Not for Malcolm McLaren. Besides being an imperialistic cultural plunderer (a non-judgmental designation), he is one of rock’s true visionaries. His role in the formation and promotion of the Sex Pistols has been construed as everything from inspired instigator to Machiavellian manipulator, and his solo career has been as influential as it has been criticized: he tends to bring out the moral indignation in people. A brilliant carpetbagger whose precise talents — beyond aestheticism and the canny ability to peg influential trends in a wide panorama (fashion, retail, politics, music, art, film, literature) early enough to exploit them as a pioneer rather than a bandwagon-jumper — are difficult to pin down, McLaren has made himself the star of his own entrepreneurial undertakings. Despite the odds stacked against him mounting a successful recording career (that he’s not exactly a musician is high on the problems list), McLaren has crafted a bizarrely significant oeuvre of high-concept adventures. It’s hard to say just what McLaren does as an artist. He’s more an assembler than a creator, piecing together artifacts from various musical cultures in such a way that, at the end of the day, his own input seems invisible. And yet his perspective as hip outsider has continued to provide a link between his Anglo-American audience and Third World forms. If McLaren’s a musical tourist, these records are his home movies.
The Londoner’s first vinyl forays were into the field of hip-hop. Duck Rock, produced by Trevor Horn and featuring the rapping World’s [sic] Famous Supreme Team, is a vanguard album in the new music/rap crossover movement. (The Keith Haring artwork is equally au courant.) It offers vignettes of hip-hop, Appalachian music (McLaren shows no real racial preference in his thievery), African music and merengue. Instead of assimilating the forms and reconstructing them, McLaren puts his actual source material on vinyl (and then his name to it). The most striking cut, “Buffalo Gals,” sets a square dance call over a hip-hop scratch track. D’ya Like Scratchin’ plucks three songs from the album and funks with the mix, adding two versions of a new tune as well.
His next venture was exponentially more improbable. Feeding classic opera into a hip-hop blender, McLaren came up with the surprisingly entertaining Fans. McLaren mainly uses opera for its recitative form and story lines (namely Carmen, Madam Butterfly and Turandot) and, damn it, the thing works more often than not.
The aptly named Swamp Thing is a murky and bizarre creature grown during various sessions between ’82 and ’84. The title track perverts “Wild Thing” into a nightmarish but enjoyable mess. “Duck Rock Cheer” is so unlike the original that you’d never connect the two, save for minor overlapping of mix components; “Duck Rockers/Promises” sounds only slightly more familiar. “Buffalo Love” has even less to do with “Buffalo Gals,” offering instead a smooth disco creation breathily sung by an unidentified woman. “B.I. Bikki” combines McLarenize exercise exhortations with opera and all sorts of extraneous rubbish; “Eiffel Tower” turns the old Bow Wow Wow song inside out to interesting effect.
McLaren next foisted another demented but entertaining musical hybrid on the world: Waltz Darling. Hooking muscular rock-funk — starring Bootsy Collins and Jeff Beck — together with a classical orchestral, McLaren comes up with what, at times, resembles an electrified version of Gilbert and Sullivan. He tops this weird blend off with a variety of female vocalists (the artist himself speaks lyrics on a couple of numbers), swanky dance lyrics and up-to-date production techniques. Unfortunately, the record wanders casually around its concept — too many tracks are merely standard dance-club fare with lush flourishes, hardly a novelty — but the instrumental “House of the Blue Danube” and “Algernon’s Simply Awfully Good at Algebra,” co-written by Dave Stewart, are pretty amusing.
Wrapping up the decade with another backwards/forwards sidestep, McLaren reunited with the World Famous Supreme Team — his B-boy compadres on Duck Rock — for the hip-house stew of Round the Outside! Round the Outside!, which samples (intellectually, not electronically) both Shakespeare and opera and includes an updated remix of “Buffalo Gals.”
McLaren then stayed out of the record racks for five years, returning in 1995 with Paris, a high-style travelogue that turns Serge Gainsbourg’s heavy breathing classic (“Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus,” which McLaren has the temerity to cover here — in English, no less) into a full-blown epic of erotic geography. Over diverse and frequently alluring strains of dance, pop, jazz, African and movie soundtrack music, McLaren unwisely sings a bit, but mostly recites theatrical poetry in obvious homage to William Burroughs’ sense of grimy wonder, navigating his namedropping reminiscences and impressions in and around such local landmarks as Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Hardy and Sonia Rykiel — all of whom add their voices to the effort. Absurd on the surface (“Walking With Satie,” “Miles and Miles of Miles Davis,” “Jazz Is Paris”), the album manages a seductive appeal in the monomania of its pretensions; if McLaren is a crappy poet, his devotion to the subject is touching, and even the worst photographer’s snapshots show something. The CD contains a second disc entitled The Largest Movie House in Paris, which reprises much of the album in instrumental remixes.