The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Friday, September 13, 2002

Worthiness is not the same thing as worth. To seize a music, take it to pieces, expose it to its aesthetic polar opposite and thereby (hopefully) refresh it is not a task to which the adjective "worthy" should be applied. There are places for reverence and respect as long as you don't let them block your future. I could spend the rest of my life revering Spencer's Resurrection at Cookham but simultaneously realise and adore the pelvis-driven imaginings which give that masterpiece its multiple puncta.

As with World Music. If music is truly to be of the world then it must by definition be exposed to "impure" things, it must be acknowledged that the music itself is probably "impure" to begin with. It cannot be adopted or handled with dainty fingers, nervously examining their adrenalin reserves to ensure that they contain adequate nullifying agents of respect. Thus are Luaka Bop or World Circuit (whatever their considerable merits) not much else than houses of studium, picking the right musicians, the right post-Cooder/Lanoir ambience, picking the right ambience but never picking punctum. It is all middle-distance, respectful, designed never to derange. Mr Byrne really should have taken the lead from Malcolm McLaren and Trevor Horn.

Ironic that, with the Duck Rock project, McLaren set out to combat and nullify what he viewed to be the sterile blandness (though you and I know better, being closer to it at the time) of New Pop. And how better to attack than to employ its chief architect, Trevor Horn, to arrange and produce? McLaren said he wanted Horn to obtain some "bollocks" in his work, get "a bit of the rough, the spontaneous" into his meticulous productions. Doubly ironic, therefore, that Duck Rock is one of the most seamlessly, microscopically put-together things which Horn ever did.

How did they approach this? It was McLaren's ceaseless strivings for a new punk, and his moderately keen ear for developments. He was in America while hip-hop and electro went overground with Flash and Bambaataa, witnessed with amazement kids breakdancing to a modified "Trans-Europe Express," scratching up records like John Cage with a good drummer (a disciple of Karel Appel's COBRA group/philosophy as well as of Debord, McLaren instinctively knew how to insert the art into this sort of thing). His ears wandered vaguely in the direction of Africa, specifically in view of Bambaataa's Zulu Nation and any connections which McLaren could discern (Nigeria's King Sunny Ade and Senegal's Youssou N'Dour had yet to break overground, though the former's Synchro System was, usefully, a minor UK hit at around the time of Duck Rock's release, while the fatally less mischievous Laswell got to N'Dour first). His wits further led him to discern a vague (probably imagined) link between the square dances of the white South and the hip hop culture of the black North - apart from their both being ritual occasions to allow participants to somehow become more "themselves" - the same idea which, of course, prompted Punk into existence. How to marry all of this up?

McLaren and Horn did some field trips to NYC, Tennessee and the South African townships, made some recordings and then returned to London to knock them into shape with what was eventually to become the Art of Noise (indeed, the latter's epoch-beginning Into Battle EP largely originated from Duck Rock outtakes) with some help from Thomas Dolby. Significantly, from NYC, they employed the DJ duo The World's Famous Supreme Team to act as a kind of Greek chorus for the album, turning it into one of their then legendary late night/early morning radio shows.

It's hard to visualise just how radical the first single from the album "Buffalo Gals" seemed when it came right at the death of 1982, right when the careerist ambulance chasers (Wham!, Tears For Fears etc.) seemed determined to strip New Pop of all its mischief and sensuality. And how appropriate that both McLaren and Horn should signify a way out. Radio One played it; the likes of DLT and Steve Wright sounded completely baffled but, to their credit (unlike DLT with punk five years previously), knew that this was something new and correctly predicted that it would be a gigantic hit. True, to those long familiar with things like Grandmaster Flash's "Adventures on the Wheels of Steel" (a minor UK hit about a year previously), this was not exactly something unprecedented, although one could argue that what McLaren and Horn did with it was unprecedented. Certainly square dance cut-ups were not yet on the Zululand template, although downtown Double D & Steinski were simultaneously busy preparing their likewise groundbreaking "Lessons." For the other big hit off the album, "Double Dutch," McLaren reversed the template, getting Zulu singers to exalt the praises of NYC skipping contests.

The album itself remains eminently playable. Though the Supreme Team's patter is now a stock template for Radio 1/Kiss DJs, it sounded fresh and spontaneous at the time, sounded like an injection of (s)punk into the barrenness in which post-New Pop pop had marooned itself. And McLaren let no stones lie in his "world tour." From the near-holy murmurings of the introduction "Obatala" effortlessly into the welcoming Supreme Team ("leave your guns at home! Tell me Shirl, how do you manage to stay up until four o'clock in the morning to listen to our show??!?") and the killer opening sequence of "Buffalo Gals," "Double Dutch" and "Merengue," this is a grin-inducing record. On the latter, six clear years before the Lambada came to public prominence, McLaren gleefully romps through the salsa-meets-kwela-meets-Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra like a postmodern Bruce Forsyth, excitedly intoning lines like "nice little cemetarios will be waiting for you!" Even the fact that McLaren's delivery (especially on "Double Dutch") recalls no one so much as the late Harry Corbett of Sooty the Bear fame somehow lends even more humanity and mischief to this record.

And what about "Punk It Up"? In his sleevenotes, McLaren recalls the glee and enthusiasm with which the Zulus entertained his stories about the Sex Pistols, and how much more enlivening than Paul Simon's worthy and perhaps necessary but ultimately dull deployments of mischief in the service of his sub-Woody Allen neuroses is the joy of hearing the Zulus singing, "I'm a Sex Pistol man" to top-notch Afrobeat. This seeming disrespect for "other musics" (sics) actually betrays a greater and deeper respect for them than mere Xeroxing and blanding out. The whole thing continues in similar (if slightly more contemplative and ritualistic) mood on side two before bowing out with "Duck For The Oyster," a straightfaced square dance for fiddles and scratch DJs where McLaren manfully fuses both mutually hating though ultimately alike extremes together. Note the parting cry of "Promenade you know where/AND I DON'T CARE" where he performs the final bonding ceremony with Punk and thereby regenerates it.

A shame that no room could be found on the CD for perhaps McLaren and the Supreme Team's greatest moment, "D'Ya Like Scratchin'?" (the B-side of the 12-inch of "Soweto") where the Team's especially demented scratching interacts with proto-Art of Noise beats to almost hysterical levels until McLaren strides in with a straight hoedown version of "Red River Valley" (cf. Scooter's "Fuck the Millenium" to see how this spirit remains propagated to this day).

But this is a joyous record which superficially doesn't give a fuck but deep down its fuck is much more sincerely given than any "worthy" or "respectful" Social Clubs could really offer.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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