Malcolm McLaren has always been seen as something of either an impresario with a delicate sense of the pulse of youth culture or a shameless huckster willing to hitch himself to the ride of (m)any highly instinctive and talented performers. He’d been the latter when he aligned with the New York Dolls just as their short fuse was about to fully combust, just as he was perfectly exhibiting the former as a fashion designer within his Chelsea boutique called SEX sometime in the mid- 1970s. As manager/organizer of the Sex Pistols, McLaren was always spoken of by John Lydon in the harshest of tones, as if McLaren was little more than snake oil salesman meets two-bit crook. He might have been right, but perhaps the argument was always in the semantics of it; for the Sex Pistols were Lydon’s life, to which he saw an old friend used up and dead (Sid Vicious) by the end, while McLaren always saw the medium as a swindle, a glorious one to be sure, one that can change the world forever, but still a lark. I’d argue it’s from each of their different perspectives: McLaren, I think, eventually came to Lydon’s side of the argument when he realized that sitting atop it all as organizer is a bit of a cheat. How can anyone in the fray argue anything when they’ve placed nothing on the table, nothing of themselves on the line?
Malcolm McLaren eventually got around (not after he tried creating another Sex Pistols in the form of Bow Wow Wow) to entering the fray, when he recorded Duck Rock in 1983. Full of cutting edge music of the time (as McLaren saw it), Duck Rock is a smorgasbord of the then burgeoning hip-hop, world music, and dance movements. One track in particular, ‘Double Dutch’, McLaren seemed to be in roundabout discussion with himself about his past and what he perceived as his future place in the discussion.
The music oozed forth genuine wonderment in the uniqueness, beauty, and joy of cultures foreign to McLaren’s own; his imprint was in the matching and mixing together. Showing others where he thought linking occurred. At once there was the art of double dutch (via the New York teenager practitioners), a poetic dance as much as it is an athletic feat in need of power, stamina, and keen sense of rhythm. The patter of jumping feet as much a timekeeper as the drum backing track; then there was the South African musicians speaking from a world away as if their lineage, ripped apart in part by tribal wars and apartheid, but more (in this specific discussion at least) from the slave trade, sit again together at the table McLaren has set. He’s an outsider to it all; not American, nor African, but his role as MC levels the power dynamic by attempting to erase his position in it all (the erase not as to forget, but as to release his role in the hierarchy), he name checks specific teams of double dutch girls as the bass thumps and throbs away. References and connections compare the art to the origins of rock in sock hops and dancehall, the courting of teenagers suddenly removed from the barriers of time and place.
They might break and they might fall
But you know the gals in New York City don’t
They just start again, start again
In Pop it makes me recall Sonny Charles and the Checkmates’ ‘Black Pearl’ from 1969. It’s also a wonderful articulation of black female pride, delivered with joyous energy, itself seeing birth by the involvement of another white male impresario: Phil Spector. In his final years as a full-time producer he felt a song like this needed the extra clout his considerable name could give it. That his production matched the fluidity of the lyric made the point obvious. It’s in the McLaren too; step aside guys, let those that live a life of quiet dignity and beauty have the 3 minutes. The least anyone else can do is set the table and make the opportunities real, they’ll make sure they last. The tracks are great because they’re colored by canvases set forth by McLaren and Spector, but make no mistake, the art isn’t from either.