Saturday, April 10, 2010

today : too much of that snow white

A long time ago, I wrote about a mythical episode of Top of The Pops that introduced me to both Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley, which probably never happened. Another musical memory I have is of The Richard Skinner Show - on Radio 1 Saturday afternoon in the early to mid eighties. This one is definitely a mash up of two different editions, as the dates do not match at all - by 4 years. But on this one mythical afternoon Skinner played three records. First was Blood and Roses by the Smithereens (their first album, Especially for You is still great - kind of an American cousin to Lloyd Cole's Rattlesnakes in that it was traditional melodic guitar music with great lyrics and every track is excellent), second was Down to The Bone by Danny and Dusty (again, their one album The Lost Weekend is still great 25 years on). The third was Buffalo Gals by Malcolm McClaren and The World Famous Supreme Team.

It was one of those moments when a piece of music or sound hits you because it is just so original and fresh. In fact even today the sort of echoey scream and the 'waap...waap' voices sound fresh, even if the beatbox is a little outdated and McClaren's dance calls were absurd-sounding. Rap had been around for a while but this was the first time I'd ever heard 'scratching' and the collage-of-found/stolen-sound idea that has dominated pop music ever since. Clearly, it'd been going on for a while, but to a teenager like me who didn't live in the South Bronx or have the cash to buy rare imported vinyl (even if I'd been aware of it) it opened my ears to this new way of making records, as well as somehow putting on the radio something that had been going on in my head.

McClaren tributes in the past day or two have concentrated mainly on his Sex Pistols stunts. Perhaps rightly, but they kind of neglected the records he put out under his own name and his other non-Pistols stuff. Who knows how much real input he had in the actual music? But the quality was always higher than might be expected. Interestingly, for such an apparent cynic, he never really dealt in depression, and in Double Dutch and Something's Jumping in Your Shirt, McClaren gave us two of the most truly joyful singles of the past twenty years.

Did Duck Rock do more for 'World Music' than Graceland or Peter Gabriel's work with Real World? I don't know, but Double Dutch was the first time I'd ever heard high life guitar playing on a pop single.

And then there was Bow Wow Wow. People have forgotten the side of this project that expanded the underage singer concept into floating the idea of a very dodgy nudie mag called Chicken (which these days, even as a controversial suggestion would lead to lynchings in the press). But the music was exciting and packed with energy. I still return to C30C60C90 Go! as an example of the breathless rush that a youthful band can put on vinyl (or in this case especially, cassette). In my record collection it sort of acts as a companion piece to The Plastics brilliant Robot (lyrics: IBM, NSK, CIA, TDK...we are...Robot). Would that we had records today of such insane simplicity and ideas.

And of course Bow Wow Wow gave birth to Adam and The Ants, which shaved off the rough edges but still used the twangy guitar/Burundi drums combination. Then that kinda fused with New Romantic stuff and invaded America. Punk spawned indie, which in turn spawned a million self-starting bands and artists: ripples that arguably spread out and are now the tsunami that is sweeping away the traditional record companies. Which is kind of the point of McClaren. His talent seemed to be the ability to corral ideas, catalyse, make connections and presage trends, even if some of his schemes and enthusiasms were more about throwing enough stuff at the wall that some of it stuck. But when was that bad thing? The above mentioned Peter Gabriel does much the same, and at least half of what John Peel played was tripe.

My main thought about him is that he was a cultural thinker - possibly even, on reflection, more important than anyone realised. Someone well of worthy of an in-depth biography that strips away the self-publicising and gimmicks. A key player of ideas that have lasted longer and spread further than even he imagined. I always thought that McClaren's punk ideal was borne from ideology. Somehow he managed to make Situationist ideas relevant to the UK and slip it into popular culture. No mean feat. With his Waltz Darling concept album he was the first to really start co-opting fashion, vogueing and the sort of gay culture than surrounds haute couture into the mainstream. And look where it is now 20 years on - dominant.

Anyway, for me, in the end it is the records. The split channel mix of Buffalo Gals, the surprisingly beautiful and melancholy Madame Butterfly, the chaotic excitement of early Bow Wow Wow, the soaring voices singing "Hey Ebo - Ebo- Ebonettes."

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