In the eyes of countless punk rock enthusiasts, Malcolm McLaren has always been seen as a villain, with injecting the urban glam of the New York Dolls with a red patent leather and clumsy politics sheen and being portrayed as an artless svengali by the Sex Pistols in their documentary, The Filth and the Fury, chief among his crimes.
But McLaren, who reportedly died of mesothelioma in New York City this week, was more than just the guy behind the guys. Through a string of genre-hopping musical explorations, he was at best a visionary, at worst a journalist in thrall to the sights and sounds of the streets, whether those found in the Bronx or Johannesburg or Vienna.
Though he continued releasing music well into the beginning of the 21st century, McLaren’s greatest artistic and commercial successes as a recording artist came near the beginning, in the ’80s. Like Mick Jones of the Clash, McLaren was completely captivated by the sudden explosion of hip-hop, though the former impresario took it to even more authentic extremes on his first album, Duck Rock.
Released in 1983, Duck Rock was less an album than a collective anthem, a heady combination of the new New York urban aesthetic, Soweto jive, ambient European flourishes, Central and South American flavors and elements of other world music he might have heard walking along city streets.
The album was produced by Trevor Horn, who in the same period helmed lush higher profile releases by the likes of ABC and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Inspired by the cut & paste hip-hop blueprint, the co-conspirators — who also included longtime Horn associate Anne Dudley and Thomas Dolby — blended styles and sounds in an often perfect union.
Breaks between songs on Duck Rock were flush with radio clips featuring the World’s Famous Supreme Team, which even today lend the album a special thrill to those who were old enough when hip-hop first emerged through busted transistor radios like a beacon from the future.
McLaren, though portrayed by his former charges as an overbearing boss, steps back in the music, serving almost as more of an emcee than a frontman, a practice Damon Albarn would employ more than two decades later with Gorillaz and his Mali Music collaboration album.
McLaren’s voice — sometimes nothing more than a whisper, sometimes a giddy English schoolboy’s yelp — might on the surface seem incongruous, but it’s as vital to the work as a whole as anything else. Whatever role McLaren played in the production of the album, his imprint is undeniable, and his enthusiasm absolutely addictive.
The track most often associated with the album is “Buffalo Gals”, which may have first introduced countless suburban ’80s teens to record scratching. But the album’s pleasures only begin there. The African guitars and vocals of Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens on tracks like “Double Dutch”, “Punk It Up” and “Jive My Baby” are far more celebratory and glorious as anything put forth by the countless contemporary indie bands who’ve dipped their own toes in the African music water.
Though the sub-“Buffalo Gals” square dance of “Duck for the Oyster” ends the proceedings on something of a silly note, prior track “World’s Famous” feels like the true closer, in part because it signals the way forward for Horn and Dudley, who’d used downtime during Duck Rock‘s recording to lay the groundwork for the similar-sounding Art of Noise.
Duck Rock wasn’t the last album McLaren released, but it might still remain his best. Given where contemporary music is with mining the past, it manages to sound both fresh and timeless today, and as much as for his association with the New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols, McLaren deserves to be remembered for this moment in 1983, when he picked up on what was happening in the present and helped push it into the future.